Well, it's no secret. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher currently has a rather delicate situation. The Wild are currently pushing the salary cap and don't have enough NHL ready players to fill out its roster. With new rules, regulations and salary figures in place the Wild will be looking to do some nasty trimming. It's going to be a rough couple weeks for a few Wild players which will include mindless rocking in their seats, long talks with agents and lonely plane rides out of the State of Hockey. Here, we take an in depth look at the Wild's salary conundrum and potential options to fix it. More after the jump.
The Minnesota Wild currently have 20 "rostered" players (meaning they have 1-Way contracts are expected to play at the NHL level next season based on a 2-Way contract). These 20 players' salaries make up a total of just short of $61.6 million. A full NHL roster consists of 23 contracted players. The NHL's salary cap for the 2013-2014 season is $64.3 million. The Wild currently have a bonus overage cushion of $3.75 million. This leaves a grand total cap space of roughly $6.45 million to sign two NHL "rosterable" players.
(For a good explanation of salary cap science, read this: http://www.capgeek.com/new-cba/ )
(For a good explanation of bonus cushions, read this: http://flyersfaithful.com/2012/09/03/cba-101-bonus-cushion-and-bonus-overages/ )
While $6.45 million may seem like a pretty nice lump of cash to sign two Unrestricted Free Agents, it is necessary to understand what the Wild's depth chart looks like. While this may not be the opening day roster, it is a slight idea of what it would look like if the puck dropped today:
Zach Parise - Mikko Koivu - Dany Heatley
Jason Pominville - Mikael Granlund - Charlie Coyle
Torrey Mitchell - Kyle Brodziak - Devin Setoguchi
Jake Dowell - Zenon Konopka - Nino Niederreiter
21 of 23 players (assuming Jared Spurgeon is re-signed or accepts his qualifying offer). As you can see, the Wild are currently missing a scratch forward and a #7 defenseman, if they follow a typical roster. But wait, are there some big names missing? Of course:
Missing in Action
Matt Cullen: Cullen is currently a UFA and rumor has gone on record he wants to come back. Cullen's next contract is likely of his last. At age 36, Cullen will be lucky to attain a 2-year contract. At this point, Cullen will likely both take a discount to stay in Minnesota as well as reduced responsibilities with age and young players climbing up the ranks. A two-year deal worth about $4-5 million seems feasible at this point.
Tom Gilbert: Gilbert was waived today, allowing all other NHL teams the chance to claim him and his $4 million cap hit. Many teams are in a similar situation to the Wild, attempting furiously to trim up cap space in order to re-sign RFAs and UFAs and Gilbert's recent performance may deter some shoppers with his high salary cap hit. If Gilbert is not claimed, the Wild may use a compliance buyout to drop his contract from their salary books. Each NHL team is authorized two compliance buyouts in order to be in accordance with the new CBA.
Brett Clark: Little has been said regarding Clark returning. It seems unlikely at this point.
The Chopping Block
So here comes the question, who is secure, who isn't? Who should be furiously calling their agent looking for work? Here's a breakdown:
Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter - All three are obvious cornerstones of the operation. Koivu is signed through 2018. Parise and Suter signed through 2025.
Niklas Backstrom: Backstrom re-signed with the Wild on a pleasantly surprising discount contract through 2017. Backstrom's cap hit will be roughly $3.4 million, nearly half of his last contract. It should be noted Backstrom's contract will be subject to the "35+ rule." This means even if Backstrom retires tomorrow, the Wild must honor his contract until the duration is met.
Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter: All four are young, "prospect" label eligible players that the Wild have or plan to invest time, money and resources into. However, all four have bonus-laden contracts that expand their cap hit. The likeliness of any being traded is highly, highly, highly unlikely unless an absolute emergency situation arose.
Jason Pominville: Pomiville was acquired last season in a trade with Buffalo that also sent a first and second round pick as well as Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett to the Sabres. Considering the assets moved to acquire Pominville, whose contract runs through 2014, the Wild would only buy out or move Pominville under two conditions: insanity or pure desperation.
Josh Harding: Let's face it, the Wild are a pretty classy organization and will almost definitely keep Harding. Harding is signed through 2015 at a mere $1.9 million cap hit. The reigning Masterton Trophy winner may be battling Multiple Sclerosis but that is really of no concern to the Wild's pocket book. The price to sign a backup who can start 20+ games would likely cost more than what Harding's contract demands and frankly, for the sweat and work that Harding has given the Wild Organization, it wouldn't shock me to hear Fletcher flat out say they owe Harding this contract, money troubles or not.
Jared Spurgeon: Spurgeon is the lone "rosterable" RFA on the Wild this off-season, which is a source of serious relief for the front office. Spurgeon has been extended a qualifying offer from the organization. Since Spurgeon made less than $660,000 last season, the offer is a contract for 110% of his last season's salary. Spurgeon's contract would pay him $577,500 for one or two years, the choice being Spurgeon's. Spurgeon could, however, decline the offer and request a solid one-way contract negotiation. Spurgeon does have some bidding power here as he's been leaned on quite heavily for a player of his age and has definitely made an impact and has statistics to back it up. However, these situations are rare with the exception of young superstar players and Spurgeon will likely not find much better deals elsewhere.
Clayton Stoner, Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser: The Wild already shipped Justin Falk off to New York. Intentions are likely due to the Wild simply desiring a more mature and experienced defender in his stead. Stoner, Scandella and Prosser have cheap contracts (all under $1.1 million) and moving them would simply be a waste of time. Buyouts, however could save pennies, but that is also highly unlikely.
Jake Dowell: Dowell's contract is worth a mere $700,000 cap hit. Another waste of time to move or buy out. He is "rosterable" but may not even make the team out of camp.
Kyle Brodziak: Brodziak may have been a disappointment last season in terms of offense and overall production, but he is signed through 2015 at roughly a $2.8 million cap hit. While a trade is possible to find someone cheaper with more definite bottom-six skills, the Wild would likely rather not give him up until the 2015 deadline (if at all) and $2.8 million just isn't worth a compliance buyout or waiving considering the price to sign someone else of near value. If Johan Larsson was still in the organization, this may be a different story. The only other reason Brodziak would be dismissed, was if the Wild found it in their best interests to outright replace his assignment with Matt Cullen.
Torrey Mitchell, Mike Rupp: Mitchell's cap hit rests at $1.9 million and Rupp's at $1.5 million. Mitchell is signed through 2015 and Rupp through 2014. While the money may be moved it is unlikely due to Mitchell and Rupp being fairly tough to replace assets as pretty darn good bottom-six forwards and the Wild would likely just spend more on the UFA market. Trades are a different story though as the Wild could very well look to pinch pennies and find cheaper forwards. While there are younger players like Brett Bulmer waiting in the wings, the Wild cannot afford to lose their veterans with as few as they already have.
Zenon Konopka: Konopka is an interesting case. Not quite a goon but not quite a regular bottom-six guy, he's one of the more expensive fourth liners in the NHL with a cap hit at $925,000 through 2014. Konopka is replaceable but it would be penny pinching to downgrade or release for a pick. The Wild have been actively looking to trade Konopka but his pricetag for what he's worth may end up causing them to just chew the fat. At this point a trade would most likely be in order to upgrade their assets, not trim salary.
Devin Setoguchi - While Setoguchi performed relatively decent last season, being on pace for 20 goals and displaying some serious hot streaks, he might just be the odd-man out. With guys like Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker in the wings, Seto is somewhat in the hot seat for a potential compliance buyout or a good trade (likely for a seasoned defender). Simply put, $3 million is a nice chunk to sign a UFA defenseman for a team with a very top-heavy blue line.
Dany Heatley - Simply put, if Heatley was not injured he would most likely be subject to a compliance buyout by now. Heatley has a $7.5 million cap hit that, when combined with Parise, Suter and Koivu, eat nearly half the salary cap. Combine that with two straight years of mediocre production and an obvious need for a change in invested money for a top-six forward, Heatley is the #1 prime option for reducing salary. Problem: Under the rules of the CBA, an injured player cannot be subject to a compliance buyout, which must happen prior to 05 July. This leaves a trade as the only possible way to rid of Heatley's cap hit unless he magically get's better. Problem: Dumping $7.5 million in today's NHL economy is near impossible unless near equal money is exchanged, considering Heatley's production. If there is a such thing as a potential calamity in the Wild's front office right now, Dany Heatley is it.
Option 1: Dump, dump, dump! Fletcher could very well just start dumping cap left and right and re-organize into a 2-3 year mini-rebuild phase by dealing for prospects and picks. The Wild have the cornerstones, young players and contracts to do so. However, this is dangerous as it is extremely risky. The Wild began to show some serious identity as a team last season and this would start everything back at square one. The worst case scenario? Today's Buffalo Sabres. Ick.
Option 2: Chew the fat. Cal Clutterbuck shipping off to Long Island relieved some definite cap space to lock up a couple players as well as waiving Tom Gilbert via Compliance Buyout. Fletcher could exercise some patience and just write next season off as a "compliance year" and dump Heatley and Setoguchi off at the UFA market. There are plenty of juicy names on the 2014 UFA list as of right now. However, Fletcher has been given quite a few years to build this team and writing off 2013-2014 will come with some serious criticism for a GM who has been known to make bold moves and will be pressured that he had better be 100% sure this is the correct answer.
Option 3: Go for broke. This is likely to be Fletcher's current course of action as it exemplifies his style and follows the current course of action to make a competitive team. Meticulous moves and a fair amount of risk to attempt to have the numbers work perfectly in the end. Likely meaning Setoguchi would be subject to a compliance buyout and actively shopping Heatley in the off-season once healthy and passing a physical. This includes the entire front office praying a team like the Sabres is willing to part with someone like Thomas Vanek (who is willing to go) and willing to chew Heatley's contract with either picks or some young stud prospects as reparation (this is purely an example, though I love the idea of Vanek on the Wild). In addition, the Wild add some bottom-six or depth forwards, re-sign Cullen and sign a good 2nd pairing veteran defenseman while trusting Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding between the pipes.
It may seem like an eternity ago we were all jumping, hopping and skipping because the Wild just locked up Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Needless to say, the Wild have some very serious issues with cap and players that could mean another downward trend, a fired GM and disappointing seasons if all goes wrong. The front office is definitely walking on thin ice with its current situation and will be busy as ever as we enter the summer. It's definitely Live or Die time!
Credentials: Salaries and figures found on Capgeek.