If watching the Vegas Golden Knights make their selections in the expansion draft was a real-life version of a fantasy draft, then following it up with a ton of picks in the NHL Entry draft had to make it one exhausting weekend for that fanbase. Oh the halcyon days of the Minnesota Wild taking players like Joe Juneau, Scott Pellerin, Curtis Leschyshyn, Sean O’Donnell and then drafting Marian Gaborik (3rd Overall), Nick Schultz (33rd Overall) and European veterans Maxim Sushinsky and Lubomir Sekeras (132nd Overall and 232nd Overall respectively). What is that you say, you don’t remember Sushinsky? Let me help give you a quick jaunt down memory lane.
So we had our expansion draft’ moment too, although shared with another team (Columbus) we still relished the newness and it didn’t matter to us that our team was full of cast-off prospects from other clubs and older players at the very end of their NHL careers. With the expansion and entry drafts behind us free agency approaches and another opportunity to re-shape and adjust the roster gets close at hand. The Minnesota sent qualifying offers to restricted free agents Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Mike Reilly, Steve Michalek, Kurtis Gabriel, Zack Mitchell and Zack Palmquist. No real big surprises there. The team then quickly signed restricted free agent Gustav Olofsson to a 2-year, $1.45 million one-way contract. That seems to indicate he’ll almost assuredly make the big club, and the tall (6’3″) and lanky defenseman had a reasonable season in Iowa where he had 6 goals, 24 points in 59 games. In addition the team has two more small moves that will likely effect the Iowa Wild more than Minnesota as they signed Pat Cannone and traded Jordan Schroeder to Columbus for Dante Salituro who may get a shot with the big club on the 4th line as this TwinCities.com article suggests.
The team did not qualify Christian Folin or minor league journeyman Guillaume Gelinas, Brady Brassart and Alex Gudbranson. Some believe the team may still re-sign Folin, but for the time being they’re going to allow him to test the market as well as see what options are open. Folin brought size and at least a modicum of physicality to a fairly soft Wild blueline, but his struggles in the latter half of the year probably made management think twice about bringing him back. If you read or listen to Minneapolis Star Tribune and Wild beat writer Michael Russo it is interesting (and perhaps disturbing) how little the team seems to be kicking the tires on potential free agents.
Despite speculation by some media members, fans as well as even some statements made by Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher one thought some significant moves would be made. So far its mostly been subtraction as the team dealt Erik Haula and prospect Alex Tuch to the Vegas Golden Knights for a 3rd round pick and the fact they avoided taking defenseman Mathew Dumba and Marco Scandella. In the next few days some felt the team was going to move one of these defenseman for some cap relief as well as changing up the roster dynamic a bit. That hasn’t happened and in the meantime other teams in the Central Division are making moves and that gets fans anxious. I don’t think we’ll see any team give the club a fair deal when the league knows the Wild are in a tough spot. They will wait patiently for the Wild will give them an unbelievable bargain. Overall, the Wild’s moves so far have all the interest level of this video clip.
Here’s an overview of what has taken place for some of the clubs in the division so far.
No team made bigger moves prior to the draft than the Blackhawks who are still in salary cap hell and needing to purge salary to get cap compliant as of right now ($2.995 million over the cap). Yet they may already be there if Marian Hossa is indeed out for the season while he deals with a serious and career-threatening skin condition which would allow Chicago to put him on Long-Term Injury giving them the cap relief they need. That is after dealing Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin as well as trading Artemi Parnarin to Columbus for Brandon Saad and Anton Forsberg.
When I first heard the team dealt away Hjalmarsson I was happy as he’s been a pain to go against ever since he arrived in the Windy City. Connor Murphy is good return but we’ll see if he becomes the frustrating shut down defenseman like Hjalmarsson is. Seeing Chicago deal Parnarin for Saad was interesting and most have interpreted it as the Blackhawks recognizing they couldn’t afford Parnarin in two seasons when he was set to become an unrestricted free agent. Also, Saad had good chemistry with Jonathan Toews who had a pretty blah season last year and its hoped his return can re-ignite the captain offensively. Forsberg also gives Chicago its replacement for backup goaltender Scott Darling who they traded to the Carolina Hurricanes. Personally, I think the Blackhawks are a little easier to play against and that should bode well for the Wild.
St. Louis Blues
St. Louis waited for the entry draft to make most of its moves in shipping out Jori Lehtera and a 1st round pick (and a possible additional 1st round pick in 2018) to the Philadelphia Flyers for Brayden Schenn. Lehtera had kind of falling out in St. Louis and was only used sporadically in the playoffs. Schenn gives the Blues gives the team their team more grit and arguably more skill down the middle. The Blues didn’t stop there as they dealt enforcer / agitator Ryan Reaves and a 2nd round pick (2017) to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Oskar Sundqvist and the last pick in the 1st round of the draft whom they selected the Klim Kostin who was one of the best European players available in the draft. The thought of the Blues without Reaves to terrorize the Wild also sounds pretty good to me in the short term. Yet in the long term Kostin might become a player that is as dangerous as Vladimir Tarasenko which would be pretty scary.
The Blues’ most pressing internal contract situation is RFA Colton Paryako who is likely due a pretty hefty raise. With $11 million cap space it shouldn’t be too tough to give him that raise, but it will get a bit tight to add 5 more players to fill out the rest of their roster. Could that mean the Blues will be looking to deal another player in effort to cut salary very similar to that of the situation the Wild find itself? I think its rather likely but who would the odd-man out be? If I was the Blues GM Doug Armstrong, my odd man out would be Paul Stastny who has a ugly cap hit at $7 million per season but just one year remaining on his deal. Patrik Berglund‘s shoulder injury will put the Blues in a tough spot to start this season.
Dallas made some bold moves in the off-season, firing coach Lindy Ruff and replacing him with Ken Hitchcock and then trading for (and extending) goaltender Ben Bishop. Then the team bought out Antti Niemi and then traded for defenseman Marc Methot. Hitchcock’s teams have a reputation for playing solid team-defense and that in itself should help clear up a lot of Dallas’ defensive woes.
With Bishop’s struggles in Tampa Bay one could argue this may be more of a lateral move than a significant upgrade. Methot will give the Stars a decent shut-down defenseman and when you combine it with the demand for a more focused effort defensively should make the Stars far more difficult to score on let alone play against. The team has $18 million cap space and shouldn’t have too much trouble getting RFA’s Radek Faksa and Brett Ritchie to sign reasonable deals. There is some speculation whether the team will bring back UFA Patrick Sharp who had a very forgettable 2016-17 campaign. I also don’t think they’re going to re-sign fellow UFA’s Jiri Hudler or Ales Hemsky which should open the door for youngsters like Jason Dickinson, Denis Gurianov and Roope Hintz who tore it up in the Finland’s Sm-Liiga this year.
Nashville, Colorado and Winnipeg haven’t done much yet but that doesn’t mean they won’t in free agency as all of these teams have a ton of cap space to work with. Who is available for the Wild to pick from as free agents? Here are 6 unrestricted free agents that I think might be a reasonable fit for Minnesota.
RW – Justin Williams ($3.25 million last season) ~ The 35-year old winger is still very productive and brings a ton of playoff experience to the table. While his asking price will likely be at least similar to last season, if the team wants a player that can make an impact on the Top 9 and be a possible contributor on the power play he is as good as any other UFA that’s available. He had nearly 50 points in a supporting role with the Capitals last season.
C – Brian Boyle ($2 million last season) ~ The big, 6’6″ 32-year old center also has a ton of playoff experience and is ideally suited in a bottom 6 role. He may not be a big point-producer but he should be a fairly affordable option. Boyle is decent on draws too. Boyle could really end up being a poor man’s Martin Hanzal.
LW – Chris Kunitz ($3.55 million last season) ~ The 37-year old is still a feisty competitor who has demonstrated he can be a solid contributor in Top 9 role. If the Wild were lacking want to, Kunitz brings a championship pedigree and help instill that ‘do anything to win’ mentality. He will probably command half of his previous salary which likely puts him on a short list of free agents the team wants to approach.
D – Michael Stone ($4 million last season) ~ It was not the Flames’ defenseman’s best season last year and that should mean he will be available at a bit of a discount to round out Minnesota’s blueline. The 6’3″, 210lbs Stone is a right-handed shot and at just 27 years old gives you a player who will be at or near his prime. If Minnesota does jettison Marco Scandella as many expect, Stone would give the Wild a player of similar body-type and playing style.
D – Ron Hainsey ($2.5 million last season) ~ The former Montreal 1st rounder helped Pittsburgh win a Stanley Cup this spring. He’s not flashy, but he’s a defenseman who doesn’t hesitate to take the body and plays a safe, stay-at-home game which is ideal for a bottom-pairing defenseman. At 36 years old, he’d probably accept a two-year deal perhaps a little under $2 million per season.
C – Mikhail Grigorenko ($1.3 million last season) ~ While some have talked about bringing in Nail Yakupov on a long-shot flier for the Wild I think it might be smarter to give this former 1st round pick (12th Overall in 2012) a try. He is a 23-year old center with lots of skill that has played for two poor teams the last few years in Buffalo and Colorado respectively. He might thrive on a more solid team and is the type of player that would fit in well somewhere in the Top 9. I think he might be had at or around $2 million per season on a short ‘prove it’ kind of contract.