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The Wild Head to Free Agency

All three of these guys might be gone by the start of next season.
All three of these guys might be gone by the start of next season.

Yesterday, I started my look at the teams in the Northwest division by profiling the plight of the Calgary Flames. Today, I turn my attention south and take a closer look at the Minnesota Wild. Are the Wild ready to turn the corner and make it back to the playoffs, or do they need to tear things down for a rebuild? The team has missed the playoffs three years in a row and have yet to pick higher than ninth, so it's a question that needs to be answered soon.

What have they done so far?

Signed F Johan Larsson to a three-year entry-level contract with a cap hit of $793,333 - Larsson was Minnesota's second round pick in the 2010 draft and spent most of the 2010-11 season in the Swedish Elite League. He didn't have a poor season, but he wasn't particularly impressive either, scoring just eight points in forty-three regular season games, and earning just 9:43 per night in ice time. It's a fine signing by the Wild, but Larsson is still a long way out from helping at the NHL level and is likely to be back in Sweden next year.

Signed G Darcy Kuemper to a three-year entry-level contract with a cap hit of $776,667 - Kuemper was taken in the sixth round of the 2009 draft. The goaltender's numbers weren't particularly impressive in his draft year (2.96 GAA and .898 Sv% in 55 games), but the Rebels were awful that year, and those seemingly poor numbers were miles ahead of primary backup Morgan Clark (3.76 GAA and .880 Sv% in 20 games). With some added maturity and a much better team in front of him this year, Kuemper's numbers look phenomenal this year (1.86 GAA and .933 Sv% in 62 games), and are again well clear of his primary backup (Dawson Guhle had a 2.93 GAA and .883 Sv% in 10 games). But even though Kuemper is a good prospect, he may have trouble getting a lot of ice time as a rookie pro because the Wild already have Matt Hackett under contract, and Dennis Endras may come over from Germany. Assuming the Wild add a backup at the NHL level, Kuemper will probably need to battle for the backup job in Houston.

Signed F Kris Foucault to a three-year entry-level contract with a cap hit of $553,333 - Foucault has taken in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. He showed some nice offense in his draft year, scoring 17 points in 26 regular season games and another 16 in 18 playoff games, but his offense hasn't improved two years down the line with just 48 points in 65 games this past season. Now, the Calgary Hitmen were a horrendous team this year (Foucault led them in scoring), so this may be a case of not having anyone to play with and not spending enough time in the offensive zone. On the other hand, he was being counted on for offense and almost certainly didn't lack power play opportunity (17 of his points - or 35% - came on the power play). I'd have cut this guy loose rather than have hold down a spot on my reserve list for the next three years.

Traded D Maxim Noreau to New Jersey and received F David McIntyre - Noreau is a small offensive defenseman who put up big numbers over the last couple of years in the AHL whose entry-level contract was coming to an end. The Wild thought enough of the player to give him five NHL games last year, but obviously the Wild felt that, by 24 years of age, they knew that Noreau wasn't going to become a useful NHL player. McIntyre is also 24 years old, but was an AHL rookie last year after spending four years in the NCAA. He was a scorer in college, but struggled to establish himself in the AHL and ended up with just 30 points in 78 games. Given his age, I don't think he'll be able of much help as a professional, and I certainly don't think he's a better bet than Noreau. The Wild are betting $85,000 (McIntyre's signing bonus for 2011-12) that I'm wrong.

Fired Todd Richards and hired Mike Yeo as head coach - I didn't think that Todd Richards made very good use of the resources at his disposal as head coach. His usage of Mikko Koivu in particular was pretty galling since moving him out of a more defensive role into a more offensive role not only hurt the team's ability to win games, but also probably cost them some significant dollars on Koivu's long-term contract. Firing him was the right move. Yeo has never been a head coach at the NHL level before, so it's hard to judge his abilities, but he spent ten years as an assistant with the Wilkes-Barre and then Pittsburgh Penguins from 2000-01 to 2009-10 before moving on to become the head coach of Minnesota's AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, in 2010-11. That team won more games than any other in its Conference (though still finished second in its division), and went on to lose in the Calder Cup finals. So there's some success there. We don't know enough to make a definitive judgment, but it seems like a decent enough hire. 

Signed D Nate Prosser to a one-year two-way contract with a cap hit of $715,000 - This contract is just Prosser signing his qualifying offer. He spent most of his first year as a professional in the AHL, but played well enough to earn a two-game cup of coffee with the Wild. His offense (8-19-27 in 73 games) was good enough for third on the club among defensemen as was his +12 rating. At 25, there's not much time left for him to establish himself, but with the Wild reshaping their defense this year, he may do just that. Definitely worth a contract.

Traded D Brent Burns and a 2nd round pick in the 2012 entry draft to San Jose and received F Devin Setoguchi, F Chalie Coyle, and a 1st round pick in the 2011 entry draft (#28 overall - Zack Phillips) - By the sounds of things, Brent Burns wasn't going to re-sign with the Wild at any kind of friendly discount, so this is a trade that makes a lot of sense for them - a solid roster player, a valuable prospect, and a high pick. I don't think there's much surplus value to be had from Setoguchi at $3M, but you need good players to win and there's nothing wrong with having a $3M player on a fair contract. He's good enough that he can help now, and young enough that he'll help down the road too, so he makes a lot sense for the Wild. Coyle just finished his first year in the NCAA, and had a decent year, netting 26 points in 37 games. Given that it was his first year, I decided to check in on his power play numbers to see if he'd had much in the way of opportunity, and it turns out that he led the team with 13 power play points, which was half of his scoring output. He's a big guy, and he can skate well, so there's a good chance of him making it to the NHL level, but I don't think we're looking at a budding star. Nevertheless, the Wild felt it was time to move on, and this is a nice return if that decision has been made.

Traded a 3rd round pick in 2013 to Philadelphia and received F Darroll Powe - Powe is a good enough player that the Flyers used him in 81 regular season games and all 11 of their playoff games, so we're talking about a 26 year-old NHL regular in exchange for a third rounder two drafts from now. In both of the last two years, the Flyers have used Powe in a defensive role on the fourth line. He has started much more frequently in the defensive zone than the offensive zone (317 OZ starts compared to 460 DZ starts over the last two years), and his Corsi numbers reflect that, although they do outpace most of the other fourth line regulars (Blair Betts, Jody Shelley, and Dan Carcillo). Basically, he should be able to help on Minnesota's fourth line, and while that isn't a great return on a pick in the top 100, it is pretty much guaranteed. The pick is a bit high for my liking, but I can understand why teams do this sort of thing.

Looking ahead to 2011-12

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 decide on a budget figure for each team, and for Minnesota, I've decided to use the cap ceiling of $64.3M, which means the numbers listed below will be cap numbers instead of salaries. Here's the chart:

Top 3 Forwards - 27.5% or 17.68M
Middle 6 Forwards - 20.0% or 12.86M
Top 4 Defenders - 27.5% or 17.68M
Goaltending - 10.0% or 6.43M
Bottom 8 Players - 15.0% or 9.65M

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

Top 3 Forwards - Koivu, Havlat, Bouchard - 24.6% or 15.83M
Middle 6 Forwards - Cullen, Setoguchi, Latendresse, Clutterbuck, Brodziak, ??? - 18.0% or 11.55M
Top 4 Defenders - Zidlicky, Schultz, Zanon, ??? - 14.7% or 9.43M
Goaltending - Backstrom, ??? - 9.3% or 6.00M
Bottom 8 Players - Nystrom, Powe, Staubitz, Stoner, Spurgeon, Barker (BO), ???, ???, ??? - 6.5% or 4.15M

The Wild are in a somewhat similar spot to the Calgary Flames, but they're a little bit better off in most areas. They don't have many high-end prospects, but Jonas Brodin and Mikael Granlund give them two more than the Flames. Some of the team's core group is on the wrong side of thirty (Zidlicky, Cullen, Backstrom), but many of their best players are in their prime (Koivu, Havlat, Schultz). And perhaps most importantly, whereas the Flames are pressed quite tightly for cash, the Wild have plenty of money to spend. But the one thing that the Flames have on Minnesota is a big one: the Flames were actually a decent team in 2010-11.

The Wild were absolutely destroyed last year. They outshot their opponents just 13 times in 82 games, the lowest total in the league, and even though shots aren't the be-all, end-all, this is definitely one sign of a bad team. The only thing that kept them in the playoff hunt was the play of Nicklas Backstrom. And yet the roster didn't look like it should result in a bad team! It's a curious thing, and I for one would be trying to build this team into a contender with the existing core of players with an eye to changing strategies at the deadline - incidentally, the Wild did a really poor job at the last deadline - if the new coach leads this team to a second poor season in a row.

For free agency, that means targeting a few players who will be willing to come for some short-term cash on to shore up the roster now, or longer term deals to young players who could be part of a rebuild if that's the direction the team ends up going. It means avoiding guys like Brad Richards and Christian Ehrhoff who will expect big money and lots of term. To me, a successful day might look something like Ed Jovanovski around $6M for a single year, Roman Hamrlik around $5M for a single year, and Niclas Bergfors on a longer term deal if something can be worked out under $2M per year, and some cheap fill-ins around the edges. It gives the team a chance to compete in the here and now while leaving the door wide-open for a deadline sell-off and more complete rebuild. Of course, the team has already traded Brent Burns, and there have been rumblings that Nick Schultz is available, so maybe the decision to tear this puppy down has already been made.