This stretch run by the Minnesota Wild has been absolutely brilliant. The team under John Torchetti is back on track winning their last six games and are clearly in command of their own playoff destiny for the first time in months. The Wild are playing with intensity and drive which you’d expect from a playoff caliber team.
Whatever the final result of this season may be, the offseason picture is beginning to develop now. There are decisions on players and even coaches that will make this offseason pivotal to the future of the Wild franchise. Like any other offseason there will be some faces who have to leave, some that will stay, and some that will be brought in. No matter what happens it’s clear that the Wild need to start considering and planning for its offseason moves sooner rather than later.
Take the Interim Tag Off Torchetti
The first priority hands down for the Wild should be the official hiring of John Torchetti as Head Coach. There is no doubt that the Wild have turned this season around because of the efforts and coaching of Torchetti. He’s reached a group of players that were once thought unreachable under Mike Yeo, and has instilled a culture of accountability and hard work that has been missing from this franchise for some time.
Looking around the league at the available head coaches, no one fits the way Torchetti does. The relationships Torchetti has built with this line-up, from his time in Houston and Iowa and now with the Wild, are key to ensuring a stable future for the Wild. GM Chuck Fletcher needs to know that he’s got his man already behind the bench, all he needs to do is make it official for the long-term.
Players Who Could Leave
When looking at the field of free agents the Wild have this offseason it has to be said that if the team stays assembled as it is now there will only be $645,953 in cap space available. As expected, that number will not be enough to pay for many of the pay increases that will be required to keep all of the free agents on the roster. The Wild will need to make tough choices on how to free up some cap room, which in plain English means some players will not be here next season.
Justin Fontaine could be the first victim in the quest for cap room. He’s currently in the last season of a $1 million deal, and has had a hard season, only scoring five goals and eleven assists in 56 games played. To re-sign him as a UFA would require a price tag north of a million and that just isn’t warranted based on his numbers.
David Jones’ play has been lauded by Torchetti ever since his acquisition from the Flames at the trade deadline. His hard-nose play is a breath of fresh air, but at his current price tag of $4 million the Wild will need to at look his contract expiration as a massive amount of freed up cap space. Jones could come back at a negotiated lower price if the two sides can agree on a more cap friendly number. Still, with his scoresheet production a bit lacking, mixed with the fact that he’ll be 32 next season, it will need to be significantly less or he should be allowed to walk.
The Jarret Stoll experiment will also need end and the 33-year old’s $800,000 salary used elsewhere. Stoll has been a good veteran presence and filled in on the fourth line well, as pointed out in today’s Star Tribune in an article by staff writer Kent Youngblood. Still, with younger players like Tyler Graovac looking for his first full season in the NHL, Stoll’s lineup spot becomes just as valuable to the Wild as his salary.
Players Who Should Stay
If all the players who were previously suggested to let leave do, the Wild would find themselves with about $5.8 million in cap space savings in which to sign free agents. There are a few pending RFAs and UFAs on the roster now that absolutely need to be re-signed in the offseason, and that $5.8 million will go a long way to making sure that happens.
Mathew Dumba is widely considered to be one of the most promising young defensemen in the NHL. His current deal runs out this season making him an RFA in the offseason. Right now, Dumba is making a very affordable $894,166 a season, but that will definitely increase. A fair price for Dumba could fall somewhere in the $1.25-1.75 million per year price tag with a duration of 2-4 years depending. Even if Fletcher is looking to use Dumba as trade bait, having him signed could be a bargaining chip for a team that doesn’t want to have to negotiate with Dumba.
Right now, the Wild are lacking an NHL-ready goaltender talent in Iowa. Steve Michalek will eventually be ready, but for now the Wild need to re-sign Darcy Kuemper to cover the back-up duties. Additionally, he’s had a solid year and really can be considered among the top back-up goaltenders in the league. He’ll be an RFA in the offseason with a current contract of $1.25 million per year. To sign Kuemper, the Wild will most likely need to give him a modest increase in salary somewhere between $1.75-$2 million per year and have a contract duration of about one to two years.
Finally, despite a step back this season and some issues adjusting to Torchetti’s expectations, the Wild should re-sign Jason Zucker. His scoring upside is massive especially if he can improve on last season’s total of 21 goals and this season’s total of 13 goals thus far. As another RFA he’ll be due for a slight raise over his current per year salary of $900,250. The Wild could secure Zucker for about $1.25 million, and like Dumba should look for a period of about 2-4 years. The key with Zucker will be trying to negotiate only a modest raise because of his struggles at the end of this season.
— Hockey-Hunt-Fish (@HockeyHuntFish) March 24, 2016
Players Who Can Come In
Taking a rough look at the cap situation after re-signing their in-house free agents, the Wild could have anywhere between $5.8 and $6.6 million in cap space to sign an available player. Those numbers are a rough guess based on money saved by departing contracts, plus the modest projected league salary cap increase of $3 million, plus the current cap room of $645,953, minus the $1 million in dead space from the Matt Cooke buyout, and minus the projected salary increases outlined above.
There are really three options the Wild can do with their free cap space. First, is to make little to no major moves, which most likely will not happen considering the team’s inactivity last offseason and at this year’s trade deadline. Second, is to use the extra cap space to better facilitate a trade. And finally, the Wild could simply use the extra cap space to outright sign a free agent or two.
The trade and free agent signing scenarios are many when you start talking specific players. So generally speaking, the Wild should continue to look at adding a top six forward either through free agency or through trade. If their cap space in the offseason is indeed in the range projected, signing a top six forward may be possible at that price tag. The Wild could also use the trade market as an option to get a high level of talent if they want to save cap space or spread it out. The personnel situation is much the same as it was at the deadline, therefore the Wild should look to use their surplus of defensive talent to leverage a deal for a top six forward.
This is just a broad overview and first look at what the Wild’s situation and options are in the offseason. There’s a lot of hockey left to be played this year and these numbers and arguments could change for one reason or another. Still, the organization would be remiss if they didn’t begin to plan now for what will be a critical offseason in the direction of the franchise. No matter what courses of action the Wild take, it’s safe to say the Wild fans will expect results…as they always do.