Minnesota Hockey Magazine

Wild Have Busy Summer Ahead

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Decisions on the future contracts of players such as Jonas Brodin (No. 25) and Mikael Granlund (No. 64) could be made as early as this summer. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

Dan Myers takes us through the Wild’s offseason to-do list.

After advancing past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in over a decade, the Minnesota Wild could have an exciting offseason as they attempt to advance to the Western Conference Finals and perhaps beyond next season.

Here are some things the Wild have on the checklist moving into the summer:

1. Re-signing coaching, front-office staffs

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One of Wild GM Chuck Fletcher’s top priorities is to sign coach Mike Yeo and his staff to new contracts. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher allowed Mike Yeo and his staff, as well as many in the front office to work into the last years of their contracts. That includes a training staff, equipment staff, and others — as many as 25 or 30 people in all. Their contracts expire June 30, which means Fletcher only has six weeks or so to wrap up new deals with them.

Negotiations on new contract for Yeo, the youngest coach in the League at 40 years old, and his coaching staff of Rick Wilson, Darryl Sydor, Darby Hendrickson and Bob Mason are a priority. Fletcher said he and Yeo have a strong working relationship, which dates back to when each were with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and a new contract should be done soon.

“There hasn’t been a conversation where [Fletcher] has said [Yeo will be back], but there’s sort of been every indication,” Yeo said. “We’ve talked about plans going forward. We’re all just trying to wrap our heads around the season and we have different priorities right now as far as making sure that we take care of the players. There’s plenty of time to sort that out.”

“He’s a very good coach, somebody I’ve worked with a very long time, and I look forward to continuing that relationship going forward,” Fletcher said.

2. Figuring out what to do in goal

The Wild have veterans Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom back on one-way contracts next season. The problem for the Wild is, neither have proven to be healthy this season.

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Josh Harding’s ability to manage his MS symptoms creates a huge question mark in goal for the WIld heading into 2014/15. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

Harding’s story has been fantastic, and was made even better early in the season when he was putting up incredible numbers. He finished the season with the best goals against average and save percentage in the NHL, but didn’t play a game in the New Year because of continued issues related to his multiple sclerosis.

Fletcher said he is under the impression that Harding will be 100 percent ready for training camp and that a full, normal season is possible. But with M.S., issues could flare up at any time.

“I can’t predict the future,” Fletcher said. “I wish I could sit here and tell you we had the answer right now. That’ll be part of the process we go through right now and in June at our organizational meetings.”

With Backstrom, abdominal surgery in March and a hip procedure in April have raised questions about him going forward. Signed to a new three-year contract by the Wild last summer, Backstrom’s $3.4 million cap charge is fully guaranteed, even if he retires, because he signed his deal after turning 35.

Darcy Kuemper, a rookie who posted excellent numbers in relief of Harding and Backstrom over the middle portion of the season, is a restricted free agent expected to be back on a one-way contract himself.

“The doctors will play a part in this, the salary cap will play a part in this, and we’ll sit down and try to make the best decisions we can, but certainly, there’s a realistic chance that we need to have three goaltenders next year,” Fletcher said. “That is something we’ll look at and see how things play out this summer.”

Barring an unexpected trade or buyout, Ilya Bryzgalov will likely not be back with the team. He was 7-1-3 in helping to lead the Wild into the playoffs down the stretch, but struggled and was eventually pulled against the Colorado Avalanche in the first round. He re-gained his starting role against the Chicago Blackhawks in round two and likely made himself some money this summer — somewhere else, of course.

3. To sign Vanek, or not to sign Vanek

2014-05-01 21_39_27-Thomas Vanek Montreal Canadiens - 2013-2014 Stats - Montréal Canadiens - TeamFormer University of Minnesota star Thomas Vanek is an unrestricted free agent this summer after scoring a combined 27 goals and 41 assists with the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens this season. He has five goals and eight points through 13 playoff games entering the day Wednesday.

The question really isn’t whether Vanek wants to return to Minnesota, it’s more whether the Wild and Vanek’s representation can agree on terms that are suitable for both parties. Vanek has likely lost some money with his performance this season and the Wild have gained a great deal of leverage with the performance of guys like Nino Niederreiter in the playoffs.

Vanek lives in Stillwater during the summer, and his wife Ashley is a Minnesota native who is apparently very interested in returning home full-time. How much of a hometown discount the Vaneks are willing to provide the Wild will likely determine whether he is playing with Minnesota in the fall.

4. Acquire a defenseman?

Virginia, Minn.'s Matt Niskanen s a free agent option on D for Chuck Fletcher. (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Penguins)

Virginia, Minn.’s Matt Niskanen s a free agent option on D for Chuck Fletcher. (Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Penguins)

The Wild have plenty of talent on the blue line coming through the pipe line the next few years. Matt Dumba and Gustav Olofsson have very bright futures with the organization and will likely play with the Iowa Wild next season. Beyond Ryan Suter, the Wild have Jonas Brodin (21 years old at the start of next season), Marco Scandella (24), Jared Spurgeon (24) and Christian Folin (23) in the mix on defense. Veteran Keith Ballard also has one year left on his contract. Jonathon Blum is a restricted free agent who will likely be tendered. He will likely earn a two-way contract and start the year in Des Moines.

Minnesota has decisions to make on Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner, both unrestricted free agents. Prosser is likely gone, as there are guys on the team that fill his role. Stoner could return if the price is right. He was solid this season and played well in the playoffs. He also provides the Wild with a physical presence on the back-end.

Even if Stoner is back, the Wild could be in the market for a bridge defenseman to get through the next year or two while Dumba and Olofsson get extra seasoning in Des Moines. If they choose to bring back Stoner, think less about Virginia, Minn. native Matt Niskanen and more like former San Jose Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle, who could be had on a one- or two year deal.

If the team moves on without Stoner, a guy like Niskanen could be in the fold for more money and more term. But do the Wild want to sacrifice that with the number of kids coming up and the number of kids who will need to be paid soon? That’s the mine field Fletcher must navigate this offseason.

5. Start securing the kids

The Wild have a staggering number of their young core coming to the end of their entry-level contracts the next two summers. This year, it’s Niederreiter, Kuemper, Blum, Jason Zucker and Justin Fontaine. Next summer, it’s Brodin, Scandella, Folin, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula.

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Restricted free agent Nino Niederreiter is likely to see his long-term future with the Wild secured this summer. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

One of Fletcher’s stated goals is to begin staggering these contracts so the Wild don’t have a bunch of high-priced young talent all hitting the market at the same time three or four years from now as unrestricted free agents.

That means the Wild will need to get busy this summer, and it would be prudent to sign a couple of their young players to long-term contracts while their prices are still reasonable. Look for the organization to approach Brodin, Coyle and Granlund about signing deals in the five- to seven-year range, at salaries around $3.5 million per year. While it would be overpaying in the first couple years of these contracts, these are the types of deals where the Wild are getting great value over the final three years of the deals. That’s why teams do them.

Minnesota will tender all three of their restricted forwards this summer. Niederreiter is a big part of the future and the Wild were pleased with the bottom-six offense provided by Fontaine, who provides flexibility by being able to play on virtually any line. Zucker could be a trade candidate this summer, especially if the Wild decides it wants to acquire a veteran at or near the NHL Draft.

Blum is a righty-shot defenseman who played well in limited time with the big club. He’s probably not in the long-term plans, but for another year at reasonable dollars and a two-way contract, there’s no reason why the Wild wouldn’t tender him. He could always be a trade candidate for a mid-round pick next season if another team were starving for a defenseman.