As part of the courting period that began Saturday, the Wild reached out to a number of players set to hit the open market when NHL free agency begins at 11 a.m. Friday.
But with only $12 million in cap space and a handful of forward holes to fill, there’s a chance two of the top free agents — Minnesotans Kyle Okposo and David Backes — could be too costly.
That’s what General Manager Chuck Fletcher will have to weigh when he gets to make his first official contract proposals Friday.
There was a sense the 28-year-old Okposo, who has topped 20 goals three times, could have teams offering a long-term contract in excess of $7 million annually. It’s hard to imagine the Wild would be willing to pay that much.
Similarly, Backes, the St. Louis Blues captain, could fetch a big contract in a climate where there are few top centers available. He is believed to have been in contact with the Wild, but in a text said he didn’t want “to taint the process in any way” and he’d be “glad to comment after this is over.”
The Wild, which has gotten into trouble giving long-term deals to veterans, has to determine how many years it would be comfortable offering the 32-year-old Backes. And it still could be priced out.
The Wild bought out the final year of Thomas Vanek’s contract last week. The year before, it did the same with Matt Cooke. So it needs to be careful.
“When we made the decision to sign Cooke and Vanek, the cap was on a different trajectory,” Fletcher said last weekend after the draft. “There’s obviously some fit issues, issues of trying to find the right chemistry with those players, but economics were a big part of it as well.
“Two years ago a lot of us felt the cap would be in the high 70s [millions of dollars] in short order, and now we’re at 73. That’s the reality of our system, so it’s looking now like the cap may not rise quite as quickly as we maybe hoped a few years ago.
“You do have to be careful in term, you have to be careful in dollars, but we also want to make sure we’re competitive. We like our team, and we have a lot of good players, but if we can add to our group than obviously that would be better.”
Fletcher tried last season to acquire center Ryan Johansen, and recently had trade talks with Edmonton regarding Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — although Edmonton’s trade of Taylor Hall to New Jersey might have ended things between the Wild and Oilers.
If no trade can be made and Backes goes elsewhere, the Wild could conceivably try to sign a center and wing in the $3-4 million range each.
Veteran center Eric Staal, 31, is looking to resurrect his career after 13 goals last season between Carolina and the Rangers. His agent says Staal feels there’s a fit with the Wild, and it appears the feeling is mutual on a short-term deal.
Frans Nielsen could be too expensive for the Wild. Sam Gagner would be a cheap option. Speedy Darren Helm might not be a top-two center.
One intriguing forward who could get to 11 a.m. unsigned is Calgary’s Joe Colborne. At 26, Colborne is coming off a career-best 19 goals and 44 points in 73 games. He was set to be a restricted free agent, but the Flames didn’t tender him a qualifying offer because he could have received triple his $1.275 million salary if he opted for arbitration.
The Flames have not yet been able to sign him to a long-term extension. In addition to being 6-foot-5, Colborne is considered a natural center despite playing the majority of his Calgary career at right wing.
Other potential wingers include expensive and high-scoring Loui Eriksson, 26-year-old Mikkel Boedker and veterans Shane Doan and Troy Brouwer.
Asked if he thinks the Wild could look significantly different after Friday, coach Bruce Boudreau said: “I don’t really know. It’s exciting to me. I go to bed thinking every night, ‘OK, what if we get this guy? What if we get that guy?’ But I’ve told Chuck all along, ‘I really like our team.’ I think the end of the year was an anomaly, and the 87 points was an anomaly. I always thought they were a very tough team to play against, and I think we’ll be good whether we pick up one player or five players or no players.”
In the meantime, Vanek got interest during the courting period from teams including Chicago, Los Angeles, Arizona and Vancouver.
The Wild potentially has spots on the fourth line. As of Thursday night, the Wild had not re-signed wingers Ryan Carter or Chris Porter. Justin Fontaine was getting interest from other teams.
The Wild also plans to sign a goalie with NHL experience for Iowa to act as the team’s third goalie. Alex Stalock, a 28-year-old South St. Paul native, fits that profile and is willing to sign a two-way deal to re-establish himself after a tough season in the San Jose and Toronto organizations.
“I hope I get a shot, and it’s up to me to come out of the gates ready to go,” Stalock said. “It was a tough year last year. It’s tough to play once a month. But I know the way things went last year, I may need to start in the minors … and I’m ready to do that.”
• The Wild re-signed forwards Tyler Graovac and Zac Dalpe. Graovac signed a two-year, $1.25 million deal and has an inside track to make next season’s team as fourth-line center because he requires waivers to get to AHL Iowa. Dalpe signed a one-year, $600,000 two-way contract.