For the past few off-seasons Wild fans have become very accustomed to hearing the phrase "quiet off-season". That's not to say that the Wild haven't made moves, last year General Manager Chuck Fletcher aggressively pursued top-tier free agents Jarome Iginla and Paul Stastny eventually agreeing to terms with Thomas Vanek on a three-year deal, but more so that the Wild weren't in a position where moves needed to be made. This off-season, however, is going to be different. The Wild do need to make moves because of its cap situation. Currently, Minnesota is right up against the cap ceiling with nine forwards, five defensemen, and two goaltenders under contract on its NHL roster. While the salary cap is expected to rise from roughly $61 million to $71 million for the 2015-2016 season, that still only gives the Wild about 10 million in cap space to fill out the roster and it's known that Fletcher likes stay a couple million under the cap ceiling to give himself wiggle room at the trade deadline or if injuries occur.
Minnesota was aggressive in working out contract extensions with Marco Scandella, Charlie Coyle, and Jonas Brodin in-season, all of which were fairly team friendly deals, but that still leaves restricted free agents Mikael Granlund, Christian Folin and Erik Haula to sign as well as the man who saved the season, Devan Dubnyk, who is an unrestricted free agent. Then there are additional unrestricted free agents like Sean Bergenheim, Chris Stewart, Ryan Carter, Kyle Brodziak, Keith Ballard, Nate Prosser, and Jordan Leopold. Keep in mind those are just the more recognizable names who played mostly on the NHL roster. There is also a handful of AHL players to make decisions on as well like Brett Bulmer and Jonathon Blum to name a few.The bottom line is that the Wild are going to have to create some cap space and that is going to mean moving some contracts and letting some familiar faces walk in free agency. Kyle Brodziak comes to mind on that front. The purpose of this article isn't to speculate on who the Wild will or won't resign but rather to take a stab at the players on the roster that could be moved to help ease the cap situation and address roster needs moving forward to next season.
Who Could be Made Available?
Contract: 4 years left at 22 million
2015/16 cap hit: 5.750 million
2014/15 stats: 18G-36A-54P +9 in 82GP
Why he might available?:
The obvious answer is moving Pominville's contract would clear some much needed cap-space. Beyond that, Pominville is still a productive top-6 winger who is a year removed from a 30 goal season. He has trade value and other teams, especially potential playoff contenders, would be interested in adding his veteran goal scoring presence to their lineup. Another bonus for Pominville is that he's durable. He has played all 82 games the past two seasons and seven times total in his career. Additionally, he has playoff experience, is a versatile weapon on the power play with the ability to play the point and the wing, and offers a big right-handed shot. The Wild would be inclined to move him because of his contract and trade value, but also because the top-6 is looking pretty crowded next season with the emergence of Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter and the signing of Vanek last season. Basically, the Wild would rather move a veteran like Pommer than one of their young players. Pominville could net a good return and generate some real interest on the trade block.
2015/16 Cap hit: Currently unsigned
2014/15 stats: 8G-31A-39P +17 in 68GP
Why he might be available?:
Granlund is an interesting situation. When the Wild used the 9th overall pick in 2010 to select Granlund the thought was the team had finally found a No. 1 center to develop. Unfortunately, Granlund's NHL career to date has been a bit of a roller coaster ride. In his rookie season Granlund struggled to adjust to the North American game. He looked slow, weak on the puck, and very hesitant to shoot. His second season in the NHL was much better but still left plenty to be desired. He managed 41 points in 63 games but struggled with injuries and consistency in production. He would be dominating at times and then invisible for stretches. This past season was really a make or break year for Granlund. The Wild desperately needed him to establish himself as a top-line center and fill the team's biggest need, but once again Granlund was unable to do so because of injuries and inconsistency offensively and in the face-off circle. At this point Granlund is young enough that his NHL projection isn't set in stone, he very well could find his game and become a legit top-line center, but the Wild aren't in a position where they can wait to find out. As a first round pick just a few seasons ago, Granlund still has the kind of potential that would entice a team to take a gamble on him and he could be used as a big piece in a package to acquire the proven top-line center this team badly needs. His status as a RFA makes the decision difficult for the Wild because depending on his contract demands they simply may not be able to afford him with the other players the team needs to sign. Positive trade value for Granlund is that he's young, has shown flashes of the potential to be a top-line center, and probably most important is that he has always preformed in the playoffs. Trading a young player like Granlund is always a tricky situation. There is the potential that he moves to another team and suddenly blossoms into the player the Wild envisioned him becoming. Then again, if the Wild hold onto him too long and he doesn't elevate his play his trade value will decrease significantly.
2015/2016 Cap Hit: N/A
2014/15 Stats: 7G-7A-14P -7 in 72GP
Why he might be available?:
Haula was just flat out disappointing in his sophomore season following a very impressive rookie campaign. Haula has an intriguing skill set that makes him quite versatile and appealing to coaches. He can play center or wing, he's an incredibly fast skater, a great penalty killer, plays well on a shutdown line, and he brings offensive upside to the table as well. The problem is that Haula didn't show those qualities this past season and it landed him in coach Mike Yeo's doghouse repeatedly. It isn't unusual for young players to struggle but Haula's troubles seemed to becoming from a lack of work ethic, his conditioning was openly criticized a few times, and compounded mental mistakes. That just isn't acceptable for a player given the amount of defensive responsibility that Haula was handed. Heading into his third NHL season I see a few different scenarios for what happens with Haula;
- A. he's moved in a package deal, possibly with Granlund and others pieces, for a top line center
- B. he's moved in a change of scenery deal straight up for another young player struggling in his current organization or
- C. the Wild hold onto him and hope he has a strong bounce back season and if not he's moved at the deadline. In his rookie season Haula looked like he could potentially be a solid to good third line player but last season he looked like a rotational fourth line guy in need of some time in the AHL. Haula's future with this organization really depends on how much trust he has lost or is able to regain with the coaching staff and front office.
Contract: 1 year left at 2.6 mil
2015/16 Cap Hit: 2.6 mil
2014/15 Stats: 9G-16A-25P +3 in 66GP
Why he might be available?:
Spurgeon, as talented as he is and popular as he is among Wild fans, may just be the odd man out on the Wild's blue line going forward. Minnesota has already locked up Ryan Suter, Jonas, Brodin, and Marco Scandella to long-term deals. Matt Dumba took a huge step forward this season and looks ready to be an NHL regular, Christian Folin really grew his game as the season went on, and the Wild have a strong defensive prospect in Gustav Olofsson who may be ready for the NHL sooner rather than later. At the very least with Suter, Brodin, Scandella, Dumba, and Folin that's five NHL defensemen on the roster with Spurgeon set to be a restricted free agent following next season. Spurgeon also has good trade value. He's a proven top-4 defensemen capable of playing in all situations, great puck-mover and possession player, and a really smart player all-around. Spurgeon could be moved because of his trade value and the Wild likely won't be able to resign him after next season. He will be looking at a pretty substantial raise and a long term investment. The Wild's current cap situation just makes it unlikely that they can find a way to keep him around long term with their other salary commitments, unless they can unload some their bigger contracts like a Pominville, so it would be wise to get good value for him while they can. With Scandella and Brodin both being extended at $4.00 mil and $4.166 respectively, you can bet that Spurgeon will be commanding at least that much per year and likely more given his role on the team. The other obstacles at this point are not knowing what Dubnyk's contract will look like, if he is resigned, and what Granlund's new deal will be. The thought of trading Spurgeon isn't going to be popular among Wild fans but the Wild also have to keep a longterm perspective. Jason Zucker and Dumba are set to be RFA's following the upcoming season, both will be getting an increased salary, and Nino the season after that. A lot of Wild fans really loved Cal Clutterbuck, not that he's anywhere near the impactful player Jared is, but i'm sure that was forgiven pretty quickly with how Nino has turned out. I think as fans we have to trust that if Fletcher is going to move a player as valuable as Spurgeon is, then he will be getting significant value in return. He's not going to make a deal just for the sake of making a deal.
Contract: 1 year left at 1.250 mil
2015/16 Cap Hit: 1.250 mil
2014/15 Stats: 14-12-2 .905 SV% 2.60 GAA
Why he might be available?:
Kuemper really struggled last season and because of the Wild's hectic goaltending situation was given a one-way contract meaning he can't be sent to Iowa without going through waivers. If the Wild can resign Dubnyk, he'll be the No. 1 option in net. Kuemper backing up isn't the worst situation but it isn't ideal for a young goaltender that needs to be developing. Goalies usually take longer to reach their prime and a young team with a goaltending need might be willing to take a chance on Kuemper who was very impressive in 2013-14 and has put up strong numbers in juniors and the AHL. Kuemper, like any young goalie, is going to have some growing pains to work through but the Wild aren't in a position to let him figure out his game because he can't play in Iowa without risking him being lost on waivers. Minnesota is in a win a now mode and can't afford another disastrous start to the season like last year. Kuemper is another player that's future is very dependent on what happens with Dubnyk this off-season.
What should the Wild be targeting in potential trades?
The biggest and most obvious answer is a top line center. This team just badly needs a big time center and there's no way around it. The Wild's depth on the wings is about as good as it gets with guys like Parise, Zucker, Nino, Pommer, Vanek, Coyle (have to include him because he switches between center and wing constantly), and even Justin Fontaine. The problem is down the middle. The Wild just don't have an answer right now for a Jonathan Toews or Ryan Getzlaf. The best way to address this problem is through the draft but in order to do that you have to be picking in the top-5 or more likely top-3. The Wild, even in their bad seasons, just haven't had those top picks to take a player of that caliber and haven't been able to hit on one with a later first round pick. Right now Minnesota's best bet is to package together some combination of Granlund, Spurge, Pommer, Haula, and maybe some picks/prospects and hope to land a center via trade. The cost for a piece of this caliber is going to be high, especially because the Wild aren't likely to be interested in an aging veteran, but you have to give value to get value.
Another possible target is a starting goaltender, which is obviously dependent on what happens with Dubnyk, but if they can't work out a deal with Duby then goaltending becomes a huge need. Darcy Kuemper had a really disappointing 2014-2015 season and it's pretty impossible to predict how much he'll be able to contribute next season, Niklas Backstrom just doesn't seem to have it anymore, and there aren't any promising options in Iowa right now either. Free agency could be option but that's risky from a few standpoints. One, the Wild aren't going to have much cap to work with in signing somebody. Second issue is that the free agent market can lead to some horrendous contracts when a team is desperate or gets involved in a bidding war. Look at what guys like Willie Mitchell and Clayton Stoner scored in free agency. You don't want to get caught overpaying and committing longterm to a player that is a quick fix and will handicap you later. The cost to acquire a No. 1 goalie via trade is going to be steep but as we saw last year the Wild's defense and system really does a lot to help protect goalies and limit chances. This will really come down to how willing Dubnyk is to negotiate to stay in Minnesota and what sort of confidence level the Wild brass has in Kuemper moving forward.
A third potential target is some grit and physicality in the bottom-6. With the chance of losing Ryan Carter and Brodziak to free agency as well as Matt Cooke possibly being a buy-out candidate, the third and fourth lines could use some help. Charlie Coyle should be the No. 3 center heading into next season (barring Yeo deciding to move him back to wing) and Fontaine, Haula, Cooke, Jordan Schroeder, and maybe Tyler Graovac will be in the mix for the other third and fourth line roles. With the exception of Graovac and Cooke, the other options are all pretty undersized and the Western Conference plays a big, physical style. Adding some capable wingers in the bottom-6 who can hit and engage other teams physically would be a welcome addition. Adding goons and pure fighters doesn't help, however, a guy in the mold of a Matt Beleskey or Patrick Maroon in Anaheim or Matt Hendricks in Edmonton would be a nice addition.
When it's all said and done I would expect a handful of changes to the main roster going into next season. They may not be big changes, like moving a Pominville or Spurgeon, but big moves will be strongly considered and are far more likely to come with trades than free agency because of the tight cap situation. Another thing that has to be kept in mind is that Fletcher really isn't in a position to trade away any more draft picks because of how many have been moved in recent acquisitions. Also, the prospect pool isn't one of the best in the league anymore now that guys like Coyle, Brodin, Zucker, Granlund, and Dumba have all graduated to NHL players. Nobody is hitting the panic button here but to think this team is just fine as is, if the goal truly is to build a perennial Stanley Cup contender and hopefully win a few too, is a dangerous mindset in my opinion. The Wild certainly have a good team but there is work to be done if we want to become a great team.