Signing Parise and Suter were no brainers for Fletcher; however, he was going up against the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers and others, which could not have been easy. Fletcher has added serious organizational depth over the last couple years with dozen of prospects.
The Wild’s biggest holes are finding a goaltender and a second line center. Niklas Backstrom and Matt Cullen are both unrestricted free agents this summer, and played key roles in the Wild’s first playoff berth in five years.
The salary cap is dropping this summer, but surprisingly enough the Wild is in a healthy situation. Many believed the Wild would be buying out Dany Heatley this summer with a free compliance buyout granted by the lockout; however, his season-ending shoulder surgery is preventing that from happening. Keeping Heatley in a contract year might not be the worst thing to happen to the Wild after all.
The Wild have other decisions to make surrounding their restricted free agents Jared Spurgeon, Cal Clutterbuck and Justin Falk. They also will be listening to offers on Tom Gilbert, Devin Setoguchi and Zenon Konopka.
Gilbert becomes an unrestricted free agent after next season and at $4 million this season, the compliance buyout for Gilbert is definitely in play.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard is as good as gone. A guy with all the tools to be a play making top six forward in the NHL could find great success if he finds the right role and another healthy season, most likely in the Eastern Conference.
The Cullen decision is likely a major concern for Fletcher because of the Mikael Granlund struggles. Granlund was locked in as the number two center before last season, but he ended the season in the AHL. Cullen found chemistry with Setoguchi and when the Wild were at the top of their game, it was because they had two lines clicking.
The Wild had Marco Scandella in the AHL for much of the regular season, but called him up for the playoffs. Scandella in Houston might have been a numbers game between with some young Wild defensemen on one-way contracts. Scandella has been signed for two years at $1.025 million a year. Scandella was impressive with his partner Spurgeon in the quarterfinals against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Speaking of Spurgeon, the Wild has to sign him. They’ve made him such an integral part in the franchise’s future, giving him top defensive minutes until rookie sensation Jonas Brodin took off, and gave Spurgeon top power play minutes. Spurgeon will likely sign for slightly less than Slava Voynov just received with the Los Angeles Kings. Maybe four years, $10 million?
Falk could be out of luck as a restricted free agent. Prosser and Stoner have one year left on their deals and with the emerging young stars, Brodin and Matt Dumba, spots are limited. The Wild have to be tempted into giving Dumba a shot at making the team, his right-handed blast could solve a lot of problems on their power play.
If the Wild are counting on Scandella, Spurgeon, Brodin and Dumba, that’s a very young defensive unit, but with a lot of skill... and now some experience.
If the Wild uses a compliance buyout on Gilbert, that would leave the Wild in decent shape with their seven defensemen and they trade Konopka -- reports say he’s very available -- that leaves the Wild with just over $8 million to find a goalie and a center. Granlund would use just over two million dollars if he were to make the team.
Jake Dowell will have a one-way contract next season and will likely fill the fourth line center role with Mike Rupp and Torrey Mitchell on his wings. That would also leave Clutterbuck out, looking for a new home.
Do the Wild look to go after free agents other than Cullen and Backstrom? There are reports, according to Renaud Lavoie of RDS and Michael Russo of the Star Tribune, that three-to-four teams (Philadelphia, Toronto, Minnesota and the New York Islanders) are interested in backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier of the Los Angeles Kings.
For a backup with little experience, he will not come cheap. The Wild already shipped off their first round pick, Johan Larsson and Matthew Hackett for Jason Pominville at the trade deadline last season, so Fletcher will likely have to dish his other goalie prospect, Darcy Kuemper to get Bernier.
A trade that is likely only an option because the Wild have one more goalie prospect in their 21-year-old Johan Gustafsson; they have to hang on to this kid.
If the Wild are not going to re-sign Clutterbuck, they have to get something for him like the Kings are doing with Bernier. Match made in hockey heaven? Kuemper and Clutterbuck for Bernier is a possibility. The Kings will likely want another prospect for Bernier and Fletcher still has a ton of them.
Wild also are reportedly interested in Marc-Andre Fleury, and likely will be interested in any other goal with any NHL experience to their name. It’s a big hole on the Wild roster right now and will likely be their biggest story heading into their next season(s).
If the Wild acquire a guy like Bernier and can sign him for around $3 million to $3.5 million and use Stephane Veilleux’s cheap re-signing as their extra forward, that would give the Wild over $4.2 million to sign a center. Maybe a one-year rental center this season, and then they could possibly sign Thomas Vanek next summer; that would also buy Granlund one more year of progression. Not to mention Heatley’s $7.5 million is coming off the books after this season to help buy Vanek and bring back Pominville.
Some possibilities for a rental center could be Cullen, Danny Briere, Derek Roy, Stephen Weiss, Tim Connolly, Mike Ribeiro or Patrik Elias. Former Buffalo Sabres are everywhere.
Other options would be to sign Clutterbuck and try Coyle out at center, a position he has played much of his career. Gilbert’s $4 million paycheck will be huge though if the Wild don’t buy him out or trade him. Gilbert is a good hockey player, but he had some rough stretches last season, including being scratched as recently as April 7 last season.
Fletcher made a big splash last summer, but this summer will be his biggest test yet and will likely decide the Wild’s future, as well as his own.
David Brown is the Minnesota Correspondent for The Fourth Period.