For those who have followed the Wild’s turbulent goaltending situation the past several years, it should come as no shock that a problem has emerged.
For months, it has been presumed that the Wild would buy out the final year of veteran Niklas Backstrom’s contract this month. Hampered by injuries the past five years, the 37-year-old struggled this past season, particularly after Darcy Kuemper was injured in January. It was Backstrom’s final start of the season Jan. 13 at Pittsburgh — a 7-2 loss — that precipitated the Jan. 14 trade for Devan Dubnyk.
Well, as it turns out, the Wild might not be permitted to buy out Backstrom. General Manager Chuck Fletcher confirmed Sunday that Backstrom underwent elbow surgery after the season.
“He had a procedure done at the end of the season to clean up a problem that happened earlier in the year,” Fletcher said. “I honestly don’t know the full prognosis at this point, but it’s not a long-term thing and we’re hoping that he’ll be good to go in short order and healthy.”
Injured players cannot be bought out unless cleared by team physicians. Last June, the Wild couldn’t use its last of two compliance buyouts on Backstrom because he wasn’t cleared from season-ending abdominal and hip surgeries.
The NHL buyout period begins June 15 or 48 hours after the Stanley Cup Final (whichever is later) until June 30. It’s believed that Backstrom, who has returned to Finland, has yet to be cleared and might not be by June 30.
Asked if that’s true, Fletcher said, “I don’t know the answer and I don’t want to speculate.”
Fletcher never has confirmed that he planned to buy out Backstrom, but it seems logical considering the Wild hopes to re-sign Dubnyk before he can become a free agent July 1 (Fletcher and agent Mike Liut had a preliminary meeting last week, but Fletcher wouldn’t categorize how it went). Backstrom’s decline, along with the fact that Kuemper can’t be sent to the minors without clearing waivers, are two more reasons why Backstrom would be a buyout candidate.
Since signing a three-year, $10.25 million contract in June 2013, Backstrom, the Wild’s all-time winningest goalie, has played 40 games, going 10-18-5 with a 3.03 goals-against average and .894 save percentage. He allowed three or more goals in 13 of 16 starts last season, 36 goals his final 10 starts and saw no action after Jan. 13.
The Wild has roughly $10 million of salary-cap space this offseason, and that’s before potentially re-signing Dubnyk, restricted free agents Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula and Christian Folin and filling out the rest of its roster.
Whether the Wild is allowed to buy out Backstrom or not, nothing changes with his cap charge. The Wild can’t get out from any of Backstrom’s $3.417 million salary-cap hit next season because the Wild signed him after he turned 35.
So the purpose of buying him out would be to save $1.33 million of his $4 million salary and to create roster flexibility by no longer having to devote three of 23 roster spots to goaltenders.
Fletcher wouldn’t detail Backstrom’s injury, but it didn’t preclude the goalie from serving as backup every other game for most the second half of the season and one game in the playoffs. He routinely was the first player on the ice for each practice.
Asked if he regrets not shutting Backstrom down during the season so he could have surgery earlier, Fletcher said, “I don’t want to get into all that stuff.”
Backstrom, who did not grant interviews during the playoffs or after the season, and agent Jeff Kowall did not respond to interview requests last week. It is believed, though, that Backstrom has told Fletcher he would waive his no-trade clause. If the Wild could find a taker for Backstrom, Minnesota likely would have to retain salary and cap space.
“We’ve got lots of time to figure things out,” Fletcher said. “We have four months until Game 1, so it’ll sort out.”
Fletcher will begin three days of organizational meetings Monday with the rest of management and the coaching staff. They’ll dissect where things went wrong in the Chicago series and decide which players could be expendable heading into the June 26-27 draft when leaguewide trades are typically plentiful.
“We’ll get a consensus of what we want to do and then we’ll try to go about making things happen,” Fletcher said.
Surgery for Vanek
Left winger Thomas Vanek, who had no goals in the playoffs, underwent surgery in Philadelphia for a sports hernia last week, Fletcher confirmed. Typical recovery is six weeks.
“It bothered him for a lot of the second half,” Fletcher said. “We gave it some rest, but it didn’t seem to be getting better, so we opted for the surgical route. We expect him to be 100 percent by training camp.”