With the Wild so close to the Salary Cap limit, you shouldn't expect to see the Wild sign Mike Green, Antoine Vermette, or Paul Martin in the coming weeks. Since the Wild don't have the ability to court Free Agency's biggest names, we'll take a look at some unheralded, cheaper options that might out-perform their next contract.
The 2015-16 Minnesota Wild are on track to have the deepest blueline in franchise history. It all starts with their veteran Top-4 in Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Marco Scandella. But it doesn't end there, as there are plenty of young NHLers in competition for the final spots on the roster. The Wild signing Mike Reilly in Free Agency means that the talented young Gopher joins Matt Dumba, Christian Folin, and Gustav Olofsson in what should be quite the competition in training camp.
So, with this talented mix of veterans and young players, why would the Wild even look at the Free Agent market for defensemen? Why not just fill from within?
There are a few reasons. The first is that it's never, ever, ever a bad idea to have too many defensemen. A mumps outbreak hitting the Wild's Top-4 meant that the Wild had to play struggling rookies and below-average options (like Keith Ballard and Nate Prosser) far more often than ideal.
You also never know what's going to happen with a young defenseman. The Wild went bare-bones last season, not bringing in any free agents of note, relying on their younger players to fill the void. This backfired when Dumba and Folin both earned demotions to the AHL, and Olofsson sustained a shoulder injury that knocked him for most of the season. Any or all of Dumba, Reilly, Folin, or Olofsson could impress with NHL minutes next season. And any of them could take a step back or get injured. You just can't know, and getting reliable veteran depth is good insurance against that.
And lastly, as most teams carry 7 defensemen, and play only 6, someone has to sit in the press box. Do you want it to be a guy like Folin, who would benefit from getting top minutes in Iowa? Or do you want that guy to be someone who doesn't need seasoning?
I don't think the Wild would need much from a free agent defenseman. Someone who can reliably play a 3rd-pairing role, and even step up into an elevated role for a short period of time given injuries would be great. I'm not 100% sure that Jordan Leopold is that guy, either. Leopold was brought in as an upgrade to Nate Prosser, but the advanced metrics suggest that the difference was negligible. However, Leopold is glad to be in Minnesota, and the Wild are talking up his mentorship of Mathew Dumba. Combine that with the former Gopher/daughter-related PR, and it's a safe bet that Leopold returns to the Wild.
But if the Wild are interested in upgrading from Leopold, there are a few interesting options out there. We'll be looking primarily at left-shot defensemen, as the Wild are deep on the right side with Spurgeon, Brodin, Dumba, and Folin.
Age on Oct. 1: 27
Former Team: Boston
14-15 Cap Hit: $1.25 M
Bartkowski isn't going to wow you with offense, as he's still looking for his first career NHL goal. But the former Bruin defenseman is a fine puck mover who can play a fair amount of minutes and help his teammates in his own zone. Plus, he played at Ohio State, meaning he has the college pedigree the Wild are rather fond of.
Age on Oct. 1: 27
Former Team: San Jose
14-15 Cap Hit: $1.0 M
Irwin- another NCAA product (U-Mass Amherst)- quietly had a good season with San Jose. He had 19 points (including 8 goals) in 51 games while logging 17:01 per night. In both Points/60 and Shots/60, Irwin finished 2nd on the team among defensemen behind Brent Burns. He's not very good defensively, so the Wild may pass on him for that reason. But if Jared Spurgeon were to be traded, Irwin could be a candidate to cheaply help fill the void.
Age on Oct. 1: 27
Former Team: Calgary
14-15 Cap Hit: $1.19 M
Schlemko is a fancy-stat diamond in the rough. Wherever he's gone, he's seemed to have a positive affect on both sides of the ice, but this has never seemed to translate into points or approval from his coaches. As a result, Schlemko's gotten pretty sheltered minutes, throughout his career, which makes it hard to tell just how good he is. That said, he can only play the minutes his coaches give him, and he does well enough so that the Wild should give him a look in a third-pairing role. It should be noted that Chuck Fletcher did put a waiver claim in on Schlemko earlier this season.
Age on Oct. 1: 33
Former Team: Nashville
14-15 Cap Hit: $1.0 M
Volchenkov actually fits well for what the Wild need. He can bring some physicality, toughness, and shot-blocking to the Wild's blueline, doesn't kill you when you put him on the ice, and isn't so good that it's a waste to put him in the press box for a younger kid. He won't be a factor on the scoresheet, but has driven offense significantly better than either Prosser or Leopold. Believe it or not, Volchenkov is a Playoff-Experience/Grit defenseman who can help a team.
Age on Oct. 1: 25
Former Team: New York Islanders
14-15 Cap Hit: $827 K
You'll recognize Ness from being Mr. Hockey in Minnesota in 2008, and from 3 years of playing with the Gophers. He was drafted by the Islanders in the 2nd-round of the 2008 draft, but has yet to get more than a cup of coffee on Long Island. While only 25, Ness is a veteran of 280 AHL games, and had a bit of a breakout season last year, notching 45 points in 74 games. It should be noted that the skilled, small Ness isn't flaming out with the Islanders, so much as the victim of a numbers game, as there's a glut of defenseman prospects on Long Island.
One of Fletcher's specialties is bringing in former top prospects that didn't work out with their previous organizations (See: Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Schroeder). I'd love to see the Wild bring Ness' speed and passing into the organization as well. Even if Ness never contributes in the NHL, he's at worse good organizational depth, which the Iowa Wild are in desperate need of. Again, it's never a bad idea to have too many defensemen.