The Minnesota Wild were the big winners last year in the unrestricted free agent chase signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The massive 13-year 98-million dollar contracts handed out by Wild owner Craig Leopold and GM Fletcher Chuck Fletcher are likely a thing of the past under the rules of the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA). I don’t expect any similar fireworks for the Wild this year but there is a nice crop of free agents available. The issue this year is a lower salary cap, down 5.9 million to $64,300,000. This coupled with a plethora of good free agents makes it a buyers market for NHL general managers. I expect to see many players not getting the high dollar long term contracts they had anticipated and settling for shorter term deals. There will also be some players taking two way contracts just to make a team and others who may be seeing the end of their careers not due to a decline in ability or statistics but due to the $$ available and the crop of young guns who command far less money on entry level deals or second contracts.
Currently the Wild have 20 roster players totaling $57,848,868 in cap dollars. That leaves approximately 6 million dollars left to sign restricted free agents (RFA) and unrestricted free agents (UFA). Minnesota has already tendered offers to 5 RFA’s, only 1 of whom was a roster player, Jared Spurgeon. The other four; Tyler Cuma, Justin Fontaine, Carson McMillan, and Kyle Medvec are non roster players on two way deals. The remaining UFA’s are Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Tom Gilbert, Brett Clark, and Matt Cullen. Bouchard and Clark have already been told they won’t be getting offers and as of Wednesday morning Gilbert had been place on unconditional waivers. If Gilbert clears waivers as expected, the Wild will most likely but out the remaining two years of his contract. The Bloomington Minnesota native will receive 1 million dollars a year for the next two years which is the buyout value of his contract. The move will free up some 4 million in cap space Minnesota badly needs to sign free agents. Reportedly another buy out target would have been Dany Heatley and his 7.5 million dollar cap hit. Heatley is still recovering from shoulder surgery that ended his season back in April. Heatley was injued when he was body slammed to the ice by San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic during a scrum that broke out at the end of the game on April 3rd. Since Heatley is still on the disabled list he cannot be bought out. He better have one heck of a season or he’ll get his walking papers next summer and/or be traded this coming season.
One thing the Wild are looking to do is sign a top four defenseman or two. Some potential targets are; (last year’s salary in parenthesis) Andrew Ference from the Boston Bruins ($2,250,000), Rob Scuderi of the LA Kings ($3,400,000), Keith Ballard from the Vancouver Canucks ($4,200,000), Ron Hainsey of the Winipeg Jets ($3,000,0000), Douglas Murray from the Pittsburgh Penguins ($2,500,000), and Ryan Whitney by way of the Edmonton Oilers ($5,500,000). Out of this group Whitney (4 g, 9 a) and Ference (4 g, 9 a) had the best overall numbers, followed by Hainsey with (0 g, 13 a). Wild GM Fletcher is not just looking for a scoring D-man, but one who can make a solid, clean pass out of the defensive zone and play a tight, physically punishing game on the opposition’s forwards. Ballard had quite the cap hit last season but the current market could make him affordable for the Wild. He has Minnesota ties,as a Baudette native and spending his college career at the University of Minnesota . Ballard is a veteran of 545 NHL games scoring 165 points (36 g,129 a) he had his worst season offensively last year with 0 goals and just 2 assists over 36 games. He does play aggressive, hard nosed defense and can move the puck well. I think he would do well in Head Coach Mike Yeo’s system. Murray of the Penguins is another good option, a veteran of 465 NHL games, with solid skills. He brings size to the party, standing 6′ 3″ and weighing in at 245 lbs. He also has playoff experience with 74 games (4 g, 9 a) including 15 with Pittsburgh this past Stanley Cup Playoff. He is a tough customer always willing to stand up for team mates, he’s totaled 448 penalty minutes in his career. Murray’s cap hit last season puts him in the affordable category as well.
Those are some of my thoughts on free agent defensemen who would be able to step into a top four role with the Wild. It’s going to be interesting for sure to see how the youth movement across the NHL affects the contract length and dollar value for the veterans testing the free agent market. Next time I’ll look at some of the forwards and goal tenders available to the Minnesota Wild. Until then this is Scott Drain shouting, “Let’s Go Wild!”