In Minnesota being a sports fan and supporting the local franchise requires a healthy dose of skepticism. Each year no matter the sport, there exists grandiose offseason expectations of the personnel decision makers tasked with adding players to existing rosters. On July 4th, 2012 in what has been described as the most important free agent signings in Wild history, both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter agree to return to Minnesota to play for the Wild. The butterfly effect of signing Parise and Suter to mega contracts with $7.5Mil+ cap hits has made the theme this offseason thrifty signings and savvy trading by General manager Chuck Fletcher. In any offseason media and fans seek out and participate in the compartmentalized winners and loser column and formulation of opinion from media members and the fans.
The Wild seemingly had the dreaded incomplete grade for this offseason as many of their additions and subtractions have the, to be continued type of feel to them. The fan base and casual observer was provided a flash point this offseason with the departures of fan favorites and signing of familiar foe from the past. Lost in the shuffle since the Wild\\\'s season ended in a playoff series loss to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, is that when faced with very real salary cap adversity GM Fletcher and his staff were able to address needs they have for the upcoming season will sacrificing very little towards their future.
Resigning Niklas Backstrom to 3yr $3.5Mil deal
The Wild entered the offseason needing to address their goaltender situation with #1 netminder Niklas Backstrom an unrestricted free agent able to dictate his destination for next season. Backstrom led the NHL in victories last season and was having a strong season on a less than stellar defense team. Backstrom was likely capable of signing elsewhere for more money than the Wild would offer but made a mutual commitment with the Wild. His new contract will almost certainly allow Backstrom to start and finish his career as a member of the franchise. Backstrom was not expected to be retained by the Wild because of the financial situation the Wild was facing, but now the Wild has a safety net for Josh Harding's health and Darcy Kuempfer development.
Make no mistake Backstrom wanted to be here as much as the Wild needed him to return and the proof is in his new deal. Both sides did well to complete this new pact. As much praise as Backstrom deserves for his moments of brilliance he also has been known to be the king of the soft goal. For the Wild to make it to the playoffs next year and out of the first round Backstrom will have to return healthy and supported by better defensive play be a reshuffled defensive corps.
Traded Cal Clutterbuck and 2013 3rd round pick to New York Islanders for Nino Nederrieter
The immediate push back from Wild fans especially the ladies will come from Clutterbuck's dynamic personality and energy in a Wild sweater making him a fan favorite. At times the past couple seasons Clutterbuck's energy and hitting specifically was a lone bright spot during some very mediocre hockey. Clutterbuck was a restricted free agent entering the offseason almost assured of a raise in pay from his $1.8Mil cap hit last year had he filed for salary arbitration. Clutterbuck after scoring 20 goals the previous season, had his scoring production tail off during the 2012-13 shortened season. Clutterbuck's major ability on the ice is his energy expended every shift in each game. Clutterbuck is a unique talent very capable of making an impact for his team both positive and negative each game. For the Wild I argued even headed into last season that Clutterbuck is more valuable to the team as an asset in trade than a player in their lineup.
The Wild in signing Torey Mitchell last season to a very reasonable 3yr $1.8Mil cap hit deal insulated itself from losing Clutterbuck's versatility on special teams. Although I believed a physical defensemen to pair up with the Wild's tiny finesse defender was in the cards, GM Fletcher instead took a major leap of faith trading for a very high ceiling winger in Nino Nederrieter. In adding an assumed goal scorer top6 type with as much potential as “El Nino”, Fletcher has once again given Wild fans another trade to scrutinize. If it proves to be the case that Nederrieter is not capable of applying coaching and direction required to be successful in the NHL, than jettisoning a fan favorite like Clutterbuck for him in trade could seriously harm GM Fletcher's legacy. All eyes will be on Nederrieter as he looks to build on the momentum he created at the World Juniors. I think as the Wild fans and coaches get an in depth look at Nederreiter they will see a kid who is very skilled and aggressive with the puck while also being a player capable of holding his own physically in both zones. Clutterbuck may also prove me wrong with regard to what I believe are limitations in his game(puck handling, causing turnovers with hits, size and strength, negative attention from the officials, and shooting and passing abilities) and he could see top line time for the Islanders with former Canadian Juniors linemate John Tavares.
Traded Devin Setogucci toWinnipeg Jets for 2014 2nd round pick
I have long believed that GM Fletcher and Coach Mike Yeo had misdiagnosed what Devin Setogucci is capable of being as an NHL winger. Coach Yeo seemed to luck upon how to effectively implement Setogucci last season. When top tier rookie Mikael Granlund flunked out as the Wild's second line center, Matt Cullen was assigned the role and he flourished as the primary distributor as Setogucci caught fire towards the end of the season. Setogucci just is not a strong enough stick handler to generate premium scoring opportunities and his build doesn't allow for him to out-muscle or leverage opponents to prime real estate on the ice where top tier scoring wingers make their money.
With Cullen to carry the puck and guide Setogucci with his vision and passing it resulted in a resurrection of sorts for both and provide the Wild with the secondary scoring they had been desperately seeking. In his first full season with the Wild after arriving in the Brent Burns trade, Setogucci had mixed results and drew the ire of first year Coach Yeo for coasting at times. Coach Yeo placed an importance on Setogucci playing a more engaged physical brand of hockey this past season. It was well received as Setogucci although he went through valleys with his scoring, was a menace hitting opponents and making his presence felt on a nightly basis. Setogucci endured trade talk last season early on as it was clear the Wild needed to improve on the blue line. Setogucci survived the trade deadline but ultimately became a cap casualty this offseason as his friend and fellow former Shark Dany Heatley was injured and not eligible for an amnesty buyout. The writing was on the wall for Setogucci to be moved as the Wild added Jason Pominville at the trade deadline and has multiple forwards that had eclipsed Setogucci in Top6 potential this season and into the future. Setogucci will move on with the Jets and could be very effective if assigned the correct role playing with complimentary players.
Traded Justin Falk to New York Rangers for Benn Feirro and 2014 6th round pick
Thus ends the Wild's optimism and ultimate disappointment in the former 2010 4th round pick Justin Falk. In trying to figure out why Falk was essentially dealt to free up a roster spot, first and foremost it has to be addressed how little physicality he has in his game. Falk is capable of playing physical hockey he just needs to be reminded and motivated to do so to his detriment. Falk flashed potential while with the Wild organization and he has the ability in to be effect in both ends of the rink but he found himself on the outside of the lineup of long stretches. Coach Yeo seemed to give Falk every opportunity to play his way into the bottom pairing but very public lapses were met with healthy scratches. Falk clearly had played his way out of the Wild's future plans and a fresh start with the Rangers could be exactly what will help to get his career on track. Falk is still in his middle 20's and has a build that could lead to him eventually adding to his lanky frame and becoming a more physical defender.
[b]Free Agent Signings and Departures
When the Canucks exercised their amnesty buyout on Keith Ballard it seemed way too convenient a fit for him to sign on with the Wild. Admittedly I hate the Canucks and invest no interest in them besides to post the Sedin's famous 2 Girls No Cups picture. Now for Ballard to have agreed to a very reasonable 2yr deal at $1.5Mil cap hit, I think it is easy to get on board with the signing. The thing I like most about the signing is it allows Ballard to play at home and it gives the Wild a true example of a hometown discount taken by a player looking to resurrect his career. Minnesota may finally be a premier destination for free agents and veterans especially homegrown talent. Ballard needs to add a physical presence for the Wild. I hope he brings some nasty with him as he will be surely paired with one of the finesse defense men on the roster.
The Wild one of the least physical notoriously soft teams in the NHL, have failed in previous seasons to add toughness and size to their lineup. The list of alleged physical presence gritty tough guys added in the past five years in rather unimpressive and uninspiring. Last season GM Fletcher swung a trade to bring to town Mike Rupp while giving in return Darroll Powe. In Rupp's first season with the Wild he showed he is capable of playing a physical brand of hockey but his skating and overall skill level makes him mostly a liability when on the ice. The Wild also added Zenon Konopka who was billed to bring a physical presence and protect teammates while also being very skilled in the faceoff. Konopka was said to also be capable of playing on the penalty kill and adapt at throwing down the gloves. After a season Konopka provided mixed results and was at times a healthy scratch for attracting negative attention. Enter Matt Cooke the reformed enemy of the state of hockey. When GM Fletcher inked Cooke to a 3yr $2.5Mil Cap hit per deal it set the INTERWEB on fire with hostility and trolling from Wild fans. Cooke was brought into town and introduced as not the same Cooke fans remember from his days with rival Vancouver. He was touted as reformed from the Pittsburgh version of Cooke who took a nasty shot on St.Paul's own Ryan McDonaugh. He billed as a player that has truly come to understand how to be physical in the NHL without violating the rules or code of conduct. To me being honest Cooke is the type of hockey player that you love to have on your team and hate to play against. The Wild are a team that has used and abused by the larger, more physical teams in the Western Conference season after season. Last season specifically the Wild found itself in no call games take vicious cheap shots like the ones that ended the seasons of Jason Pominville and Dany Heatley. If Matt Cooke can be a physical presence and a functional 3rd line winger, than his signing is a very good one by GM Fletcher. Don't look for Cooke to be a cheap shot artist or strictly a tough guy without a role because if that is the case Coach Yeo and GM Fletcher are in trouble.
When Nashville entered the offseason they prepared for a game of chicken with Jon Blum and his contract status. Had they taken Blum to arbitration there was a very good possibility he could have been awarded a one way contract which would put Predators in a bind. Nashville's blue line is crowded and as such they gambled and lost Blum to the Wild. Blum once considered a top prospect for the Predators signed a two way deal for one year with the Wild. Blum's contract also provides roster flexibility for the Wild while giving him a fresh look with a new organization. I don't think anyone disputes that Blum gifts in the offensive zone make him a young player that could have a long fruitful NHL career. What remains to be seen is if he can be depended on in the defensive zone and if he can play strong enough to knock opponents of the puck and away from prime real estate. Wild fans seem to crave any defender not named Clayton Stoner but hopefully this season in a reduced role he can win back the Wild faithful. Also there is no guarantee the Wild's young defenders will not have a setback in their development so adding Blum to the mix provides added depth.
It seemed very evident once the Wild's season ended that the only way Matt Cullen would be wearing a Wild jersey next season is if he took a home town discount to stay. Cullen as it turned out was in demand and signed a 2 yr $3.5Mil cap hit deal with the Nashville Predators. Cullen was arguably the most important player during last season's run to the playoffs. Once Cullen was assigned as the 2nd line center after being miscast initially as a winger, he excelled playing with Setogucci and Zucker. Cullen's playmaking and puck possession in the offensive zone truly shined and he was the spark that provided the Wild with the secondary scoring it was missing. Cullen's place on the roster and more specifically his role as 2nd line center is a very important issue that will need to be addressed by Coach Yeo before the season starts. In my mind the leading candidates to replace Cullen are Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Erik Haula. Each young has proven to be capable of centering scoring lines at every level except the NHL. Now one of these young guns must fill the large shoes of Cullen supplying the second line wingers with scoring opportunities. Wild fans should really be rooting for Granlund to be Cullen's successor. The Wild's former 1st round pick had a very disappointing season in the NHL and will need to prove he is capable of addressing and adjusting to the physical nature of the league and smaller ice surface.
I believe Tom Gilbert's most important contribution as a member of the Wild will have been the recruiting of Dany Heatley, Parise, and Suter to come to MN. On the ice for the Wild, Gilbert played top pairing minutes in a brutal collapse season that saw them go from 1st in the NHL in December 2011 to the draft lottery by season's finish. Gilbert showed he could contribute offensively shooting the puck in heavy doses but he struggled mightily in the defensive zone. Gilbert found himself being a healthy scratch towards the end of last season and it was apparent once Heatley wasn't able to be amnestied, that Gilbert and his $4Mil cap hit were gone. Gilbert is said to have battled pneumonia and his play suffered with regards to his energy and strength. Gilbert came to the Wild in trade for Nick Schultz a holdover from the Lemaire/Reisbrough era. Gilbert may find opportunity elsewhere but I doubt he is afforded the top4 pairing role he failed to take advantage of with the Wild.
When Doug Reisbrough former Wild general manager signed Pierre-Marc Bouchard to a 5yr $4Mil cap hit after the 2007-08 season, it was widely assumed that they it was a very reasonable deal for both sides with the team avoiding a bidding war retaining a future superstar. In hindsight concussions and his style of play truly tarnished Bouchard's reputation and legacy as one of the most talented hockey player to wear a Wild jersey. Bouchard never scored more the 50 points during the 5 years of his new contract and played in 211 of 410 regular season games during the past 5 seasons. Bouchard is a very gifted player with the puck on his stick may find redemption in the latter part of career setting the table for goal scorers. Bouchard signed with the New York Islanders as an unrestricted free agent. Bouchard received a 1yr $2Mil cap hit deal from the Islanders which is an interesting gamble by the club. Bouchard was able to prove last season that he was capable of taking NHL hits and playing at NHL speed after missing extensive time in the previous 3 seasons with concussions. Bouchard unfortunately was not able to match his previous scoring outputs or stay in the lineup last season for performance reasons. Bouchard just simply put lacks killer instinct with the puck and because of his slight build is easily neutralized by marginal talent players employing physical play. Bouchard was a player GM Fletcher and Coach Yeo inherited from the previous regime that they were unable to move because of very real health concerns and a brutal contract. Bouchard is a player that on the right line or in the right situation, could still flash very dynamic playmaking and an extremely soft touch with the puck. Bouchard while in the twilight of his Wild career almost exclusively deferred with the puck which enraged fans and warranted healthy scratches from Coach Yeo. Bouchard is just not big or strong enough to carry and possess the puck when challenged by defenders. Bouchard was at best a liability in the defensive end besides the occassional poke check. I realize I have been very negative on Bouchard and I will admit I hoped he would have jettisoned far sooner by the Wild but Bouchard did score some pretty exciting goals in a Wild jersey and he created excitement with the puck on his stick. Bouchard will be looking to resurrect his career with Islanders and I think Wild fans wish him the best.
The Elephant in the Room for the Wild
Because of the season ending injury Dany Heatley sustained at the hands of his former team in San Jose, the Wild's entire offseason was affected. There is ZERO chance that if eligible for an amnesty buyout Heatley and his $7.5Mil cap hit would be on the Wild's roster or be counting against the cap. That being said I think GM Fletcher and his front office staff, never intended on spending major money this offseason and their ability to piece together very low cost deals as I have written about above, prove they are a very skilled NHL front office. With Backstrom returning on a hometown discount while the present and the future of the goaltender position in flux is a major victory for the Wild. Stealing Cooke away from the Penguins while they were busy dealing with the major contract issues of other players is a very savvy move by GM Fletcher and should rejuvenate the Wild's penalty kill and aggressiveness on bottom two lines. To gamble that the young Top6 potential forwards (Granlund, Coyle, Zucker, and Nedderieter) are capable of contributing from game one of the season is a clear statement of confidence in their abilities at the NHL level. With many fans and some media types taking issue with the application of a system and in game coaching ability of Mike Yeo, GM Fletcher and Owner Craig Leopold decided to allow him another season to prove he is the right man for the job.
The Wild also had its AHL affiliate relocate from Houston to Des Moines which keeps the future of the Wild closer to home. Anything less than a return to the playoffs this season could mean disaster for GM Fletcher and Coach Yeo. The general assumption is they will be better than last year's team with an eye towards making another major splash in free agency in next summer when former Gopher Thomas Vanek will be an unrestricted free agent. All eyes will be on the Wild this year as they may have never had a more important training camp in franchise history.
Just My Thoughts