Unless the Wild makes a money-dumping trade Wednesday, don’t waste time staring at the online free-agent trackers when the NHL market opens at 11 a.m.
The Wild finds this free-agent class underwhelming, which is probably good because it also doesn’t have salary-cap room to splash around big bucks.
Instead, the Wild will make a couple of depth signings and perhaps wait to see if it can find some bargain once others spend their money in the next few days. There undoubtedly will be some players, initially, left without a job.
The Wild might very well return with largely the same team (save for players such as Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke) that got swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the playoffs in May.
“We have some players that have some things to prove, and we have 12 guys 25 and younger that we ended the season with,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “None of those 12 have hit their peak, in our opinion. There’s still considerable upside within our group.
“It’ll be a motivated, more experienced group that comes to camp next season.”
After re-signing goalie Devan Dubnyk to a six-year, $26 million contract, the Wild has a little more than $8 million of cap space left with restricted free agents Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula and Christian Folin still unsigned and other spots needing to be filled. Teams are permitted, however, to surpass the $71.4 million cap by 10 percent until opening night.
The big restricted free agent is Granlund, who could cost more than $3 million. The sides are close, but there’s little doubt Granlund’s agent, Todd Diamond, was stung by Fletcher’s public potshot at him Saturday. Fletcher said if Diamond got more “reasonable, we’ll get it done.”
Starting Wednesday, Granlund has the ability to sign an offer sheet with another team, although in the past 15 years, only Dustin Penner in 2007 had an offer sheet (Edmonton) not matched by his team (Anaheim).
Last offseason, restricted free agents Nino Niederreiter and Darcy Kuemper stayed unsigned until just before camp, so Fletcher doesn’t seem worried.
The Wild still could use some production at center. Granlund, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Haula and the soon-to-be-departed Brodziak were among the least productive center group, points wise, in the NHL last season.
The only way to address this is internal improvement or finding bargains the way Chicago did with Brad Richards last season and Nashville did with Mike Ribeiro. Both are free agents. Some other centers available include Antoine Vermette (too expensive), Cody Hodgson (bought out after a bad year in Buffalo), former Wild veteran Matt Cullen (the Wild doesn’t seem interested), Shawn Matthias, Mike Santorelli, former Wild first-round pick James Sheppard and vets Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards, two centers dumped by Los Angeles for off-ice indiscretions.
Brodziak’s agent said he has talked to five teams, so the door will be open for Haula, who was on the ice for seven power-play goals all season, to improve on a tough season at even strength. Winger Chris Stewart also will test free agency, although the door isn’t closed yet on the Wild if he doesn’t hear what he wants in free agency.
The Wild could be after a depth winger such as Chris Porter of the Blues or Gregory Campbell of the Bruins. Or it could re-sign Ryan Carter. The Wild could be after depth defensemen such as St. Louis’ Chris Butler, or re-sign Jordan Leopold or Nate Prosser.
Leopold, who turns 35 in August, is possible because the Twin Cities resident is likely not signing elsewhere, he played well, would be cheap and could be a positive influence on youngsters Matt Dumba and Mike Reilly, who will sign a two-year deal with the Wild on Wednesday.
The Wild also plans to sign veterans for its AHL team in Iowa that could be options to be recalled. It also plans to sign another goalie to play in Iowa.
Goalie Niklas Backstrom’s situation remains status quo. He cannot be bought out because of offseason elbow surgery. His agent, Jay Grossman, indicated he won’t be cleared until at least training camp, so a second buyout window this month if restricted free agents Haula or Jon Blum filed for arbitration by Sunday’s deadline is likely moot.
Asked if Backstrom would be OK with being the No. 3 and not dressing behind Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper, Grossman said, “I don’t think it’s anybody’s ideal preference. Once he’s healthy, we’ll see what opportunities may become available.”
In the meantime, coach Mike Yeo is excited about the team.
“We’re confident with our core,” Yeo said.
“We know we have to get better. Part of that growth is the growth of the young players and part of it is us continuing to find ways to get better as a team.
“With how difficult this league is, with how tight things are on a night-to-night basis and the competition we have in the West, I think the more consistency you have the better. I think it gives us a little bit more of a leg up come training camp, a little more familiarity with our systems, more consistency with lines and chemistry.”