ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild’s first day of NHL free agency involved more than just high-scoring forward Thomas Vanek.
But Minnesota wasn’t getting involved in the bidding wars for big free agents, either. The Wild added depth to their organization, signing Stu Bickel and Brett Sutter to two-way contracts. Minnesota also signed junior defenseman Guillaume Gelinas to an entry-level deal.
Bickel, who played at the University of Minnesota, signed a one-year contract. Sutter’s deal was for two years and will help the Wild with depth either at the NHL level or with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Iowa Wild.
"We’ve done a few things on the two-way front that I think will get announced later on that will bring us a little bit more grit and toughness," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said earlier at a press conference announcing Vanek’s three-year contract. "We’re probably still looking at a defenseman, as well, to maybe round out our group. Right now it’s been insanity out there. I think this is the biggest spending day, if not the history of the world, the history of the NHL. I mean, it’s just been crazy.
"So, my first thought is to just go home and come back tomorrow and maybe the tide will turn and management will get the upper hand and we’ll get some better deals. But it’s a difficult task to get into this market right now. The prices are high. The terms are long. Thomas may be one of the only players who took a pay cut and a term cut to come anywhere. Everybody else is doubling or tripling their salary, so it’s good for the players, but it’s maybe not the market we want to be in right now."
Bickel and Sutter add two players who’ve spent the majority of their careers in the AHL, but do have some NHL experience.
Bickel, 27, had a goal, seven assists and 85 penalty minutes in 24 games with Hartford of the AHL last season. Bickel, a 6-foot-4 defenseman, played in 67 games for the New York Rangers between 2011-13 and had nine assists and 157 penalty minutes. A Chanhassen, Minn. native, he also played in 18 playoff games with New York.
Sutter, 27, had a goal in 17 games with the Carolina Hurricanes last season. A forward, he has played in 54 career NHL games with Calgary and Carolina with two goals and five assists. In 62 games last season with Charlotte in the AHL, Sutter had 15 goals and 29 assists.
"A young man with tremendous character who’s a guy we think will help Iowa if he’s in Iowa and will certainly play games here in Minnesota," Fletcher said of Sutter. "Again, hard-working, character guy who plays the way that you would expect a center to play, so we’re pretty excited about that signing. So we’ll continue to add some players like that as we go forward."
Gelinas, 21, signed a three-year, entry-level contract after being named the top defenseman in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last season as the league’s highest-scoring defenseman with 23 goals and 69 assists. He was a plus-24 in 67 regular-season games with Val-d’Or.
Gelinas was eighth among all players in scoring and he had seven goals and 18 points more than any other defenseman in the league.
He helped his team to the QMJHL playoff title with 11 goals and 23 assists and a plus-11 rating in 24 playoff games.
"Guillaume completed his junior career by having a tremendous season in the QMJHL," Minnesota assistant general manager Brent Flahr said in a release. "We are excited that he is joining the Wild organization and look forward to watching him work his way up the pro ranks."
Moulson, Stoner, McCormick find big contracts: Three players who ended last season with Minnesota, reportedly found strong contracts elsewhere.
The news started early with Clayton Stoner, a third-round draft pick by the Wild in 2004, reportedly agreeing to a four-year, $13 million contract with the Anaheim Ducks. Stoner, a big, physical defenseman, had one goal and four assists in 63 games for Minnesota last year.
"I had a great conversation with Clayton, and first of all he’s very excited to go to Anaheim," Fletcher said. "They were the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season, so he tripled his salary, got a four-year contract and went to one of the better teams in the West. So he’s thrilled.
"Clayton’s a great guy, character guy, and fought a lot battles for this franchise and certainly (was) a very well-liked teammate, well-liked by management and coaching. I was thrilled for him, to be honest with you, on a personal level. I certainly expressed that to him as well as thanked him for his years of service. He had a tough role, and he did it with class and he did it consistently, so we’re certainly very appreciative of what he did for us."
Curiously, Moulson and McCormick re-joined the team which sent the two forwards to the Wild at the trade deadline last year. Moulson, who started last season with the New York Islanders, was eventually traded to the Buffalo Sabres, who traded him along with McCormick to Minnesota for Torrey Mitchell and two draft picks.
Now the Sabres have Moulson and McCormick back. Moulson reportedly agreed to a five-year, $25 million contract. McCormick, who the Wild had interest in retaining, reportedly agreed to a three-year, $4.5 million contract.
Crazy contracts: The first day of free agency brought a lot of spending league-wide, but Minnesota remained cautious — as Fletcher said it would be in the days leading up to Tuesday — as players signed big-money, and some longer-term contracts.
The Wild could be looking for another defenseman and possibly a big forward for the third or fourth line. Fletcher said the team will be looking for value as free agency continues, and he was caught by surprise with the amount of spending on Tuesday.
"I didn’t expect this, maybe I’m naive," Fletcher said. "We were consistently under-bidding on a few other players, I’ll tell you that. I don’t know if other teams were, but the prices caught me a little off guard for maybe what you would consider role players or bottom-of-the-lineup type players. But I definitely think some mistakes have been made today on some players, so I think we’ll be a little bit patient and let things sort out."
Fletcher also noticed how many of the early deals seemed to fall in the Central Division with Minnesota opponents.
Dallas traded for center Jason Spezza and reportedly signed Ales Hemsky. Center Paul Stastny went from Colorado to St. Louis and the Avalanche responded by signing Jarome Iginla. Later in the day, Brad Richards agreed to terms with the Chicago Blackhawks, and Nashville traded for winger James Neal during last weekend’s draft.
"I think what I’m feeling is the same thing that the rest of our division is feeling, and that they’re throwing us in that category, too," Wild head coach Mike Yeo said. "I have a lot of respect for the league. I do believe that we play in the toughest division in the league. It’s going to be, you heard Chuck say it, it’s going to be tough for us to make the playoffs, and our players have to be aware of that, but at the same time we’re capable of an awful lot here. So we should look forward to that challenge."
Of course, the money being given to free agents can be good or bad, depending on your outlook.
"Depends; in some of them I’m happy and some of them I’m not so happy," Fletcher said. "But it’s a cap system and every dollar a team commits is one less dollar they have to spend elsewhere. Some of the signings were great signings, so certainly the teams in our division are stronger today than what they were yesterday, and we like to think we’re stronger today, as well."