When I looked at the Minnesota Wild before free agency, it didn't look like there was a clear plan going forward. After a summer that involved a big trade and little free agent activity, I have a much clearer understanding of what I think Chuck Fletcher is trying to do. If I'm right, I don't think the club will be particularly good next year, but I do think they've had a very good summer.
What have they done since we last checked in?
Signed D Drew Bagnall to a two-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $612,500 - Bagnall is a twenty-seven year-old defense-only defenseman who has played the last four seasons in the AHL. At 6'3'' and 220 lbs. he's got good size, and in each of his four seasons, he's had at least 100 penalty minutes, so you know he's not a fun guy to play against. He gets into about ten fights per season, so that accounts for a lot of his time in the box, and shows again that we're talking about a guy who relies on his toughness to get by. With just 32 points in 262 career AHL regular season games, that makes sense. He played well enough last season to get a brief call-up with the Wild, which no doubt encouraged him to re-sign with the organization over the summer. His $105,000 salary at the AHL level also makes him an easier call-up option than other higher-paid veterans since he doesn't need to clear re-entry waivers on the way up. This looks like a pretty good deal for both sides.
Signed G Josh Harding to a one-year contract with an NHL cap hit of $750,000 - Josh Harding has had an odd professional career. He got his first taste of NHL hockey in 2005-06 in the midst of a solid three-year stint in the AHL. From 2005-06 to 2009-10, Harding put up pretty good numbers, including a .927 EV Sv% on 1,769 shots, and an .868 PK Sv% on 403 shots. But he's been buried behind quality goaltending the entire time, and so hasn't ever gotten the opportunity to start games on a consistent basis. Last summer, he'd finally worked himself up to a $1,200,000, but ended up missing the entire season because of a knee injury. As a result, he ended up re-signing with the Wild for substantially less than his qualifying offer just to make sure that he got a contract to stay in the league. The end result is that a goalie with a career .927 EV Sv% on over 1,500 shots ends up with a contract for under a million bucks. You never know with a player coming off an injury, but this is a terrific gamble for Minnesota.
Traded F Martin Havlat to the San Jose Sharks and received F Dany Heatley - This is a deal that only makes sense for Minnesota if they're getting the better player, but I'm not totally convinced that they are. Dany Heatley is a goal-scorer who scored just 26 goals last year. Part of that is the fact that he had the lowest shooting percentage of his career (although 12.0% is still pretty good), but another part is probably the fact that he's getting older. Heatley turned 30 in January, and we know that that's about the time when many elite goal-scorers see their production trail off. Heatley isn't particularly quick, and he's never been particularly well-regarded defensively either. That's not to say that he's going to be a bad player, just that he might never score forty goals again, and when goal-scoring is the main skill of a guy who's eating a huge chunk of your payroll, that's at least a little bit concerning. Of course, the guy they gave up isn't a sure thing to provide value either. Martin Havlat's injury troubles are well-documented (although he's been quite healthy in the last three years), and he just turned thirty himself, which situates him in either the late-prime or just-past-prime portion of his career with four more years to go on his contract. He scored quite a bit last season, but considering he was generally being sheltered from tough minutes you'd kind of hope so. He wasn't exactly playing with dregs either, (Brodziak, Bouchard, Cullen), so the fact that he ended up in the red in terms of Corsi is at least a little bit concerning, even if the small negative was one of the best rates on the team. In the end, this is a deal where both teams move a player and hope that the guy they're getting back performs better than he did in the last city. I think Havlat is probably the better immediate bet, which is pretty damning given the $2,500,000 difference in cap hit, but this deal does make some sense if the Wild aren't planning on spending to the cap: Heatley has just three years left on his deal at an average of $6,333,333 per year, while Havlat has four years left on his deal at an average of $5,250,000 per year. So on a cash basis the difference isn't as great, Heatley's contract value is declining which helps to make him movable, and the Wild are getting a healthier player with less term on his deal. It's a deal that makes sense for the Wild if they plan to be a bit more tight-fisted while they rebuild the team.
Signed F Jed Ortmeyer to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $585,000 - Ortmeyer has played 310 NHL regular season games in his career and was a regular with the San Jose Sharks as recently as 2009-10. The Sharks used him as a fourth line option. He spent most of his time with and against fourth line players, and started quite a bit in the defensive zone. He ended the year breaking even, but got the puck moving the right way more often than most of San Jose's other fourth line options. The Sharks, nevertheless, went in another direction when his contract was up, and Ortmeyer ended up with the Wild. They sent him to Houston where he scored pretty much as expected (i.e. not all that well), and got a four-game cameo in Minnesota. He's a solid pro who will likely spend most of the year in the AHL.
Signed F Darroll Powe to a three-year contract with a cap hit of $1,066,667 - The Wild traded a third-round pick for Powe earlier in the off-season. The three-year deal shows that Powe is in the plans longer term. He's 26 years old, so I don't think a leap forward is in the cards, but Powe has done well in a defensive fourth-line role over the last couple of years (he had 317 OZ starts compared to 460 DZ starts over the last two years). He should be able to help on Minnesota's fourth line. The money isn't bad, but doesn't represent great value so it's easy to wonder whether the Wild might not have been able to find a similar player in free agency without giving up the pick, especially for a club that isn't good enough to compete with the best teams in the Western Conference.
Signed F Colton Gillies to a two-year contract with a cap hit of $625,000 - Gillies seems like he should have been a pretty ridiculous reach when he was drafted 16th overall in 2007 (he had just 30 points in 65 games and a -20 rating that was the worst among his team's forwards), but Bob McKenize had him 18th in his pre-draft rankings because of his size and ability to one day become a power forward. It hasn't happened. He spent most of last year in the AHL, where he scored at about the level you'd expect given his junior offense (26 points in 64 AHL games), and with this contract, will likely be with the Wild full time. I guess there wasn't much to lose in giving him the one-way deal since he very likely would have been nabbed off of waivers, but there's no reason to think he'll be able to do anything more than survive on the team's fourth line. That makes the two-year term a bit goofy, but if he's really bad, they can always keep him in the press-box or try to demote him to the minors (that second year with one-way money makes him less likely to get picked up by another team).
Signed D Mike Lundin to a one-year contract with a cap hit of $1,000,000 - Lundin is a twenty-six year-old Minnesota native who spent the last two years with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Lundin led the defense in EV ice-time in 2009-10 and played a top-four guy for them at even strength and a significant role on the PK in both seasons. He's not a shut-down guy, but the Lightning did rely on him to play a lot in the defensive zone - just 41.9% of his end-zone starts were in the offensive zone over the last two years - so it's something of a surprise that he didn't get a qualifying offer from the Lightning (it would have been just $787,500). The results weren't spectacular, but the role alone suggests that this is a player that a couple of coaches found useful, and that makes this is a really good bet for the Wild.
Signed D Kyle Medvec to a two-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $570,000 - Medvec is a Minnesota native (catch the theme) who was drafted by the Wild in the fourth round of the 2006 draft, but spent his draft +1 season in the USHL and then played four years at the University of Vermont. He doesn't have much in the way of offense but the numbers that matter for him are 6'6'' and 225 lbs. He had just 136 penalty minutes in 137 college games, so he's more actual player than he is enforcer, and the big knock is mobility, so we'll see how he does in the AHL. If he does well at that level, it's another jump from there to the NHL, but if he can keep up, the Wild will have themselves a big man on the blueline and you can never have too many of those. He's a longshot, but I can see why they gave him a contract.
Signed D Jonas Brodin to a three-year entry-level contract with an NHL cap hit of $1,475,000 - Brodin was taken 10th overall in the most recent entry draft. I'm a fan of signing guys early since you're only taking on a little bit of extra risk (what are the odds that you don't want to sign your first round pick two years out?), which might get you a better price, and if the player doesn't make the club, the slide rule will work to lower his cap hit over the next year or two. The cap hit here is in the range for his draft position (it's lower than Magnus Paajarvi's, for example), so signing made sense for Minnesota. Brodin was just getting settled in the SEL last season, so I expect he'll end up back there for 2011-12, but he's an outstanding prospect.
Signed F Jarod Palmer to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $735,000 - Palmer, a native of Minnesota, came to the Wild as an undrafted free agent for the 2010-11 season after four years at Miami of Ohio. He was a scorer in the NCAA, but in the AHL, he seems to be working himself into a grinder at the AHL level. He was one of the team's leaders in +/- (his +12 was good enough for third), and he engaged in eight fights during the regular season. There wasn't a lot of offense - 28 points in 65 games - but he's exactly the kind of guy being held down by Colton Gillies' draft pedigree.
Signed F Casey Wellman to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $850,500 - I though Wellman was more hype than substance after he signed with Minnesota, and his performance was somewhere between those two things. He scored quite well in the AHL's regular season (35 points in 42 games), but cooled off in the playoffs (11 points in 24 games). I think the Wild probably expected him to spend all of last year in the NHL, so in that sense, his season was a disappointment, but at the same time, he had a pretty good AHL debut. He's another guy who will compete for one of what looks right now to be two open spots in camp.
Signed D Justin Falk to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $605,000 - Falk just signed his qualifying offer, and was probably a little bit disappointed that he didn't get offered a one-way contract. He spent 22 games in the NHL last season, which was his third as a professional after graduating from the WHL. He also led the Aeros in +/- with a +16 rating. He doesn't take a lot of penalties, but at 6'5'' and 215 lbs., he's certainly big enough for the position. The Wild have a few defenders at the bottom of their roster on two-way deals (Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner, Tyler Cuma, and Jared Spurgeon are the others), and there are three jobs available if they keep seven defenders. Falk is in the mix, but if he loses out, he'll no doubt be the first call-up option if he doesn't get picked up off waivers.
Signed D Jeff Penner to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $525,000 - Penner took a huge pay-cut at the NHL level from his qualifying offer to move from $65,000 to $70,000 at the AHL level. That's a bit of a tell on where he expects to play next season. Penner was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bruins after just one year in the NCAA, but they traded him to Minnesota along with Mikko Lehtonen for Anton Khudobin at last year's trade deadline, so the Wild probably like him, but I think he's behind the group of four mentioned above, partly because he didn't spend any time in the NHL last year, partly because, at 5'10'', he's undersized for the position, and partly because he was scratched through most of the 2011 playoffs. He led Providence in +/- last year with a +10 rating, and he has 86 points in 217 career regular season games in the AHL, so there are some things that help this to make sense as an AHL move, but I don't think he has much chance of Penner making the Wild out of camp.
Signed F Jeff Taffe to a one-year two-way contract with an NHL cap hit of $600,000 - Taffe is one of these fringe forwards who gets paid the AHL's equivalent of big bucks, and the Wild are paying the Minneosta native $200,000 at the AHL level this season. Taffe has scored 376 points in 463 career AHL regular seaosn games, and has played at least one AHL and one NHL game in each of the six seasons since the lockout. That's his likely destiny again this season unless the Wild are consistently healthy or he makes the team out of camp and sticks, which is very unlikely but not quite impossible.
Looking Ahead to 2011-12
And here it is again with the players that the Wild have signed:
Top 3 Forwards - Koivu, Heatley, Bouchard - 34.7% or 19.54M
Middle 6 Forwards - Cullen, Setoguchi, Latendresse, Clutterbuck, Brodziak, ??? - 20.5% or 11.55M
Top 4 Defenders - Zidlicky, Schultz, Zanon, Lundin - 18.5% or 10.43M
Goaltending - Backstrom, Harding - 12.0% or 6.75M
Bottom 8 Players - Nystrom, Powe, Gillies, Staubitz, Stoner, Spurgeon, Scandella, Parrish (BO), Barker (BO), ??? - 12.3% or 6.93M
Looking at these numbers, I'm thinking that the Wild will probably look to move a player or two in order to make sure that they can stay below the mid-point. After all, I've still got two slots marked with question marks, and the Wild have already committed about $55,200,000. As a result, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a player like Nick Schultz or Pierre-Marc Bouchard get traded with very little salary coming back. Even though the club just added Dany Heatley, I also wouldn't be surprised to see him traded again if they can find a willing partner.
The Wild, it seems to me, are in rebuilding mode, and took on Heatley to lower the number of years they had committed to a veteran forward with an eye to flipping the goal-scorer at the deadline or next summer. If that decision has already been made, Heatley could make for a marvelous pump-and-dump. He's still good enough to do serious damage with cherry minutes and good linemates, and has a strong enough history that a big year could mean a big return. I'd probably go to battle with Heatley alongside Pierre-Marc Bouchard (let him recover some value) and Devin Setoguchi (already on a four-year contract and make your first big trade look good) and let the other guys handle the tough minutes. It's a configuration that serves you well in pumping some players up, and it might even help them to win some games!
In the end, if this is summer is the start of a conscious rebuild, I think that the Wild have done very well for themselves by acquiring significant young assets for Brent Burns, moving around at the draft to get the prospects they liked, lowering their risk by moving Martin Havlat to San Jose, staying out of the UFA market, and getting themselves in position to stay under the midpoint. He's managed to do all of that and still get a "name" player in Heatley and without talking about rebuilding, both of which are helpful in selling tickets. The Wild probably won't be a very good team next season, but all in all, I'm quite impressed with what Chuck Fletcher has accomplished this summer after being pretty down on his performance for the majority of his tenure.