The last few years this has been the time for Wild fans to expect a major move. In fact, I should say Wild fans have been spoiled by some tremendously bold moves by General Manager Chuck Fletcher who if he's done anything, proven he isn't afraid to pull the trigger (right or wrong) on a big deal in an effort to improve this team. In fact, the events revolving around certain UFA's seemed to occur BEFORE the July 5th opening of NHL free agency. The Philadelphia Flyers got things going by signing bought out (of his 11-year deal with Tampa Bay) center Vincent Lecavalier to a 5 year deal that was still going to pay him $4.5 million per season. The Wild took their chance to buyout one of their players buying out the remaining season on Tom Gilbert's $4 million pact. The move freed up some space to give the Wild at least a small chance of finding some bargains in today's free agent frenzy but they made their move early by signing Baudette, Minnesota-native Keith Ballard to a 2-year, $3 million deal. The defenseman was bought out of his 6-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks who were paying him a hefty $4.2 million per season to be a healthy scratch every so often. Ballard had struggled with consistency with the Canucks and never seemed to find te comfort level he had when he was with the Florida Panthers. The Wild and Ballard are hoping this is an opportunity for him to re-establish himself as a quality NHL defenseman to provide good minutes for a blueline that is rather weak beyond Norris Trophy candidate Ryan Suter and young stud Jonas Brodin. Ballard told the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Michael Russo, he's not looking to just bask in the fact he's returning to his home state as he said, "This isn't a big homecoming celebration, there's a lot of work to be done to re-establish my career, its an important year for me and I'm focusing all of my efforts on having a good year and helping the team." Good to hear and I hope the Wild PR department doesn't fall over itself reminding us all that he's from Minnesota.
Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard will be members of new teams for the 2013-14 season
But as much as free agency is about who you add, its also about who you lose. The Wild's cap situation, meaning the fact they're very close to the cap ceiling alreaddy meant they had very little money to sign free agents, let alone re-sign its own restricted free agents. That meant the team had to unfortunately part ways with center Matt Cullen. Cullen, had somewhat of a rebound year in this abbreviated season as he anchored a fast-paced 2nd line that seemed to have terrific chemistry between himself and Devin Setoguchi and Jason Zucker or another player we're losing in Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Bouchard has been a reasonable success in his 9 seasons with the Wild piling up 106 goals and 347 points in 565 NHL games. Unfortunately, concussions cost him to miss considerable portions of the last four seasons and he struggled to get his game back on track. He was able to stay healthy all of this Lockout-shortened season but it still wasn't enough to justify his $4.08 million cap hit. Bouchard never was able to establish the production he had when Brian Rolston was a member of the Wild and with the team adding other top 6 forwards he seemed to be the odd-man out. So what other moves did the Wild make on the opening of free agency?
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None. The team is sitting back and staying calm after two change-filled summers. Although most of that is due to the fact the team simply doesn't have the cap space to be active. Chuck Fletcher told the Minneapolis Star Tribune he feels the team will likely look to Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund to replace Cullen in the 2nd line center role. You can read the rest of Fletcher's comments here. I know what you're thinking. Coyle was 'ok' playing on the top line with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, but its a whole other thing to be the 'anchor' of the line as he'll likely be between Devin Setoguchi and Jason Zucker. Granlund really had a tough time adjusting to the speed and the lack of time and space he was accustomed to while lighting up the Sm-Liiga. It is hard to imagine that he'll show up to the team's training camp and just 'get it' while Coyle demonstrated he could be decent on the wing he wasn't having to win a lot of draws and if the Wild lost one thing is one of their better faceoff men with Cullen's departure. Fletcher said he'll see who is ready but didn't totally shut off any possibility of bringing someone else.
The Wild also signed its main restricted free agent today with a 3-year pact to Jared Spurgeon worth $2.66 million per season. The generously listed 5'9", 185lbs defenseman has been a favorite of the Wild coaching staff for years. Along with the signing of Keith Ballard you have to consider Minnesota's blueline is more or less sewn up unless Mathew Dumba can surprise by winning a roster spot. So this is what the Wild's 'lineup' looks like as of this moment.
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville
Jason Zucker-Charlie Coyle-Devin Setoguchi
Nino Niederreiter-Kyle Brodziak-Dany Heatley
Mike Rupp-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell
Additional Forwards: Jake Dowell, Zack Phillips, Carson McMillan, Stephane Veilleux, Mikael Granlund
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella-Keith Ballard
Clayton Stoner-Jared Spurgeon
Additional Defenseman: Nate Prosser, Steven Kampfer, Brian Connelly, Mathew Dumba
Niklas Backstrom-Josh Harding
I will admit, I kind of like the lineup. Although I would've felt better if it had Andrew Ference in its 3rd pairing along with Spurgeon. Ference signed with Edmonton so we won't have to see him that often but in my opinion he really was the ideal free agent to target if I'm the Wild but I doubt we could've matched the money the Oilers were able to push in his direction. Ballard's deal at $1.5 million per season for two years is very sensible on two levels. It keeps the pressure on Ballard low to deliver in a huge way, but also if he does still struggle we're not tied down by another ugly contract. Ballard's just 30 years old and any of us who watched him play with the University of Minnesota know he has a little snarl to his game and he still has a pretty vicious hip check.
The Wild really have done just about all that they could do. Over the next few weeks we'll hear of them signing various minor league journeyman to round out their roster in Iowa but the rest of the summer should be fairly uneventful. I have to admit I'm hoping the team brings back unselfish farmhands like David McIntyre and Drew Bagnall for their professionalism and leadership but I will understand if they want the 'kids' to take on those roles. It would be a mild surprise if the Wild sign a roster player for that 2nd line spot. The Wild will wait a bit for some NHL vets who are still unsigned to feel the fear of perhaps staying without a contract and then look to add a player and that's a big maybe. Especially with the team's prospect camp set to open soon I imagine some players will get some long looks there too.
The Other Guys
So far the Nashville Predators have been very active this summer, acquiring Cullen as well as former Blaine Bengals star Matt Hendricks, former Wild forward Eric Nystrom and Chicago's Viktor Stalberg. The Wild have always had sort of an eerie kinship with the Predators from the very beginning as both clubs have bounced players off one another for years. Hendricks 'return' is a little ironic since it was the Predators who originally drafted him (131st Overall) back in 2000. Pierre-Marc Bouchard will join Cal Clutterbuck (in theory until the RFA signs) with the New York Islanders as he signed a 1-year deal worth $2 million.
Former Wild goaltender and Houston Aeros farmhand Anton Khudobin was signed to a 1-year deal by the Carolina Hurricanes. I am sure Boston is hoping to work Malcolm Subban closer to that backup spot to Tuukka Rask. Khudobin was a great team player and I would say he's one of the few goaltenders who I felt was actually entertaining to watch. His unconventional style and great sense of humor really made it impossible not to root for him. Khudobin, the former Wild 7th round pick (206th Overall) had a 9-4-1 record last year for the Bruins with a solid 2.32 goals against average and a .920% save percentage.