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Minnesota Wild - Off-Season Preview

Yesterday, I began my series looking at each team in the Northwest Division with the division-winning Vancouver Canucks.  Today I'll be looking at the team I actually picked to win the division before last season began, the Minnesota Wild.  In the end, my prediction was way off as the Wild not only missed winning the division, they also missed the playoffs altogether and wound up finishing fourth in what was a very weak division in 2009-10

So what went wrong?  Well, one thing was injuries.  The Wild had the second highest "CHIP" in the NHL for 2009-10.  If you're unfamiliar with CHIP, here's the definition from Springing Malik:

The concept again - multiply each game missed by a player by his 2009/10 cap charge, then take the aggregate of these figures for each team and divide by 82. This indicator of value lost to a team by injury/illness is called CHIP (Cap Hit of Injured Players).

So which players caused the most damage?  Brent Burns and Pierre-Marc Bouchard.  Burns is one of Minnesota's top defenders and was out for about a quarter of the year with concussion symptoms while Bouchard, a top-line winger, was out for the entire season with similar concussion problems.  Both players were allowed to play through their concussion symptoms at some point last season so I think it's fair to say that the Wild exacerbated their injury losses through their own negligence.  I'm not too sure if they fired anyone for it, but they probably should.  At any rate, Burns seems to have recovered well but Bouchard's status is still up in the air.  For the purposes of planning for free agency, the Wild will need to have a good idea about his status... uh... stat.

Injuries aside, the Wild also dealt with some rather serious underperformance from a couple of their key players.  The Wild signed Niklas Backstrom to a big contract near the end of last season after Backstrom posted three consecutive seasons with an overall save percentage of .920 or better.  In 2009-10 Backstrom put up a .903.  Had he managed a .920 save percentage over the 1,632 shots he faced last season, it would have resulted in 26 fewer goals against.  That's a pretty massive difference!  The other player to have a very disappointing season was last off-season's big free agent acquisition, Martin Havlat, who was both outshot and outscored at even strength.  The Wild were certainly expecting better.  After the jump, we'll take a look at what the Wild have done since the trade deadline and then look forward to their cap situation for next season and what they need to do to make this team better.

What Have the Wild Done Since the Trade Deadline?

Signed F Casey Wellman to a two-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $1,350,000 - Wellman played out the first year of his contract after signing with the Wild near the end of last season.  He scored four points in his first twelve NHL games which isn't bad for someone coming straight out of college.  Nonetheless, he strikes me as being a lot of hype without quite enough substance to garner such a big entry-level deal.  Admittedly, the Wild acquired him in a competitive market and they didn't commit too much in the way of guaranteed cash (his salary is $900,000 but he's also eligible for $900,000 in bonuses in 2010-11), so things could certainly be worse.  Although Wellman could be sent to the AHL, it seems likely to me that the Wild have him penciled in on the NHL roster next season.

Signed G Matthew Hackett to a three-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $900,000 - Hackett was drafted in the third round of the 2009 draft after passing through the 2008 draft completely.  In 2009-10 he posted a .925 save percentage with the Plymouth Whalers and will likely play with Minnesota's AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, in 2010-11.  He was invited to Team Canada's training camp for the last World Junior Championship but was cut in favour of two guys who lost to the Americans.  It was a sad, sad day.  Anyroad, Hackett is a legitimate goaltending prospect but the Wild already have Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and Anton Khudobin in the organization so unless one of them gets moved, Hackett will likely be an AHL back-up in his first year of pro hockey.

Signed D Nate Prosser to a one-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $900,000 - This is a really interesting contract.  Because it was signed in-season and Prosser played (three) NHL games the contract is already over and Prosser is currently a restricted free agent.  Clearly the Wild wanted the player and the player wanted to opt out of the entry-level system.  As for Prosser himself, the undrafted free agent defenseman posted 28 points and 58 penalty minutes in 39 games with Colorado College in his senior year.  The Wild have him listed at 6'2'' and 195 lbs. so he's not small and he's apparently got some toughness in his game.  It seems obvious that the Wild wouldn't have signed him unless he was in the plans for the NHL team.  I don't know how good he'll be, but the early returns should start coming in at the NHL level right away.

Tom Thompson's contract is not renewed - It seems like a small thing, but the assistant general manager was let go by the club after the end of last season.  He was a hold-over from the Doug Risebrough days and the new General Manager apparently decided he didn't fit.  The slow purge is something a lot of Oiler fans are familiar with too and the two organizations have had similar Springs so far in terms of trimming non-player personnel.

Fired Kevin Constantine as coach of the Houston Aeros - This actually happened a few days before the announcement on Thompson but it doesn't much matter.  Constantine was another guy that was around B.C. (Before Chuck) and so his job was never really safe.  The fact that the Aeros finished dead last in their division probably didn't help either.  Thompson and Constantine meet Prendergast and Daum.

Signed F Jean-Michel Daoust to a two-way contract for one year at $500,000 per year - Daoust scored 55 points in 78 games with Houston last season.  His AHL salary of $85,000 slots him between former Falcons Liam Reddox who made $65,000 a year ago and Charles Linglet who made $105,000.  Daoust will be 26 in 2010-11 so he's more Linglet than Reddox at this stage, i.e., nothing more than AHL depth.

Signed F Chad Rau to a two-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $537,500 per year - Originally drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs 228th overall in 2005, Rau played last season with Houston after not getting a deal done with the Leafs.  He ended the season with 38 points in 79 games which would be a decent rookie campaign if Rau wasn't 22 when it happened.  He's not likely to make the NHL.

Hired Mike Yeo to coach the Houston Aeros - Yeo was an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins and had been an assistant coach in the Penguins' organization since 2000-01.  He was in Wilkes-Barre for six seasons before moving up to the big club for four more starting in 2006-07.  Of note, he survived the firing of Michel Therrien.  It seems clear that Chuck Fletcher - the former Penguins' assistant GM - knows him quite well.  Call it a "familiarity hire."  Also of note, Yeo spent five seasons playing with Houston when they were a part of the old IHL in the late 90s.  This is Yeo's first opportunity to be a head coach.

Signed F James Sheppard to a one-way contract for one year at $803,250 per year - James Sheppard did not have a particularly good season with the Wild last year.  The former ninth overall pick played in sixty-four games last season and registered  only six points while posting a -13 at even strength.  That's just very, very bad.  Now, part of the problem was the percentages and the way the coach decided to use him but even then, I can see why he would be considered a disappointment.  That said, giving up on top ten picks isn't something most teams do easily and Sheppard did sign a contract for less than his qualifying offer so the Wild have done pretty well here.  Maybe next year they'll play him in a situation where he can have some success.

Assistant Coach Mike Ramsey Resigns - More change brewing.  Ramsey had been an assistant coach with the Wild since they entered the league.  Apparently the split was amicable but I get the feeling this decision may have been different if Lemaire and Risebrough were still around.  Here's head coach Todd Richards talking about his relationship with Ramsey (it's also a cynicism test): "I look back over the season, and one of the things is as a staff, we all got along really, really well.  Just like any type of relationship when you're together that much, you aren't always going to see eye to eye, but I think there was a mutual respect amongst all of us. I felt we all got along great." 


Looking Foward to 2010-11

Those who've read here before know that I like to use the chart below as a cap space guideline.  Because it's based on percentages, we need to set a cap figure for 2010-11 and I'll use 57M, which is a slight increase from last season. Here's the chart:

Top 3 Forwards - 27.5% or 15.675M
Middle 6 Forwards - 20.0% or 11.4M
Top 4 Defenders - 27.5% or 15.675M
Goaltending - 10.0% or 5.7M
Bottom 8 Players - 15.0% or 8.55M

And here it is again with the players the Wild have signed:

Top 3 Forwards - Havlat, Bouchard, Koivu - 21.6% or $12,330,000
Middle 6 Forwards - Kobasew, Miettinen, Brunette, Brodziak, Clutterbuck, ??? - 16.8% or $9,549,999
Top 4 Defenders - Zidlicky, Burns, Schultz, Zanon - 22.8% or $12,983,333
Goaltending - Backstrom, ??? - 10.5% or $6,000,000
Bottom 8 Players - Barker, Stoner, Wellman, Sheppard, Almond, (Parrish), ???, ???, ??? - 12.9% or $7,357,694

This leaves the Wild with about $8.5M to spend and five players to sign.  In that way, the situation is similar to that of the Canucks but, as we'll see, the Wild will need to have a bit more flexibility due to Bouchard's uncertain injury status.  Of the restricted free agents they have to sign, it seems likely that the Wild will sign Nate Prosser and keep him in a depth role to start his pro career.  I would hope that his qualifying offer of $0.9M would be sufficient to get that done.  After that the Wild will likely sign at least one of Josh Harding and Anton Khudobin to play the role of back-up.  I'd be awfully tempted to sign both if there was a market for Backstrom but that seems doubtful given the glut of goalies available.  The Wild (and Bruins, and Oilers and Hawks...) should serve as a warning to all that signing goalies to money and term is usually not so wise.  The Wild, for instance, would be in a great position to sign an impact player if only they weren't spending so much money in goal.  They obviously thought that they were getting an impact player with Backstrom but his performance in 2009-10 was anything but elite.  Regardless, if we assume the Wild keep Backstrom, we'll set the backup price at the same $1.1M figure that Harding received a year ago.

The middle six winger spot is very likely going to the last remaining restricted free agent they'll sign at the NHL level, Guillaume Latendresse.  His break-out season a year ago was fuelled by the percentages so there's some chance that he ends up getting overpaid but even if the Wild give him the same $2.333M contract they've been fond of in the past (Miettinen and Brunette have that same deal), Latendresse may still be able to provide reasonable value.  Even before last season he was able to score at even strength, registering a respectable 45 points in 134 games despite playing less than 14 minutes per night.  The Wild will obviously hope for more than that but with some PP time, it's quite reasonable to think that Latendresse can net 40 points.  I'll call his contract $2.5M which leaves $4M for two more players. 

And this is where Bouchard's injury really stings.  If they know ahead of time that Bouchard will be on LTIR, they can go ahead and spend an extra $4M, but if not, they'll be forced to create space once he becomes fit to play.  If I were running things and was unsure about Bouchard for 2010-11, I'd be looking for either one minimum wage player and a second "impact" player to sign in the $5.8M range or two forwards who are both able to make a reasonable impact near the top of the lineup for about $3.25M each.  That way, if Bouchard is available, you send Kobasew away via either trade or waivers and you're back under the cap.  If he's not available, you get to keep Kobasew, though he may end up on the fourth line.  Since I probably don't have enough money to get in on the bidding for either Ilya Kovalchuk or Patrick Marleau, the rest of the available free agents make the first option look pretty poor.  Thus, I'd likely start July 1st by making calls to Alexander Frolov, Colby Armstrong and Alex Tanguay to see if two of them might be interested in a deal somewhere in that mid-level range over a two-year term.

If the Wild are in fact able to add two significant forwards to their lineup, they should be an improved club from a year ago, especially if Bouchard is ready to play.  A top nine forward group of Havlat, Koivu, Bouchard, Frolov, Armstrong, Miettinen, Brodziak, Clutterbuck and Latendresse would seem to be quite deep on paper with each line able to handle themselves reasonably well at evens.  Further, both Backstrom and Harding had a save percentage of .905 or worse a year ago, so it seems likely that the goaltenders will improve on their performance from a year ago.  Both the PK and PP were in the top fifteen last season, so there is some danger that they could worsen on special teams but most of the same personnel for those units will remain in tact.  Overall, I expect the Wild to be a significantly better team next season that should challenge Vancouver for the division title.  Then again, that's what I said last Fall.

My next detailed look at the Wild will likely be around July 11th after the dust settles from the unrestricted free agency signing period.  I'm particularly interested to see how the Wild handle themselves early on in free agency because of the uncertainty surrounding Bouchard.  I'd also like to acknowledge for providing all of the contract information.