ST. PAUL, Minn. — The full picture of the Minnesota Wild’s buyout of Tom Gilbert came into focus Friday.
Minnesota re-signed restricted free agent Jared Spurgeon to a three-year contract and officially signed defenseman Keith Ballard on Friday, using the salary-cap space it gained by buying out defenseman Tom Gilbert this week. With Spurgeon and Ballard, the Wild also have set the core of their defense for next season.
In buying out Gilbert, Minnesota saved $4 million against the cap. Ballard reportedly signed for $1.5 million in each of the next two years. Multiple reports Friday said that Spurgeon received an $8 million contract and will count just over $2.6 million per year against the cap.
With the salary cap decreasing to $64.3 million this year, the Wild how has just over $2.2 million in salary cap space left and will need to leave space for in-season maneuvering.
“I think we have a lot of parity in our league and certainly the salary cap forces teams to make decisions,” Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher said Friday. “This year with the declining cap, we had to make some tough decisions. Next year the cap will, presumably, be more favorable and we’ll have a little bit more cap space and we’ll be able to maybe compete in a different way. That’s our reality. We’re not going to complain about it. It is what it is. Again, there’s probably a third of the league that had to make a lot of tough choices and we were one of them.”
Re-signing Spurgeon was one priority for Fletcher.
Spurgeon, 23, played in 39 games last season and had five goals and 10 assists and was third on the team in time on ice, averaged 21 minutes, 32 seconds of ice time. Spurgeon has 12 goals and 38 assists in 162 NHL games, all with the Wild.
Spurgeon helps solidify the defense that will include Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Ballard, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and possibly 2012 first-rounder Mathew Dumba. While Spurgeon is short (5-foot-9), Fletcher praised his ability to play in all situations and be a core defenseman for the team in the future.
“The knock on Jared is he’s small,” Fletcher said. “Unfortunately for him, he’ll always be small. But he’s a heck of a hockey player. He played 21-and-a-half minutes a game last year, was on pace for a 30-point season, was a plus player and clearly is one of the better young defensemen in the league. He’s always going to have to battle that perception that he’s too small, but when you really take away the optics and look at the stats, he’s a good hockey player. So, to sign him for three years is great.
“He has the ability to play both special teams. He moves the puck. He’s earned the respect of his teammates and of our organization. So, that’s a big signing for us. Certainly having that cap certainty going forward is great.”
Fletcher indicated the Wild have likely made their biggest moves in free agency after adding Ballard and re-signing Spurgeon and goaltender Niklas Backstrom in June. While Fletcher said he will continue to search for ways to improve the team, he said it would be “misleading” to say the team would still be active on the free-agent market or looking for bargains once the market settles.
“Certainly we’ll be looking in both the trade market and the free-agent market, but our cap situation is still pretty tight,” Fletcher said. “We don’t have a lot of room. In saying that, I’m happy with our team. We have a lot of depth. We were just going through it upstairs. We have seven veteran forwards in our top 10. We have several good young players that will compete for spots. We should have very good competition in camp, which is what I think every coach and manager wants to see.
“There won’t be spots handed out to young players, they’ll have to earn it, and our depth on D and our depth in goal are good. Again, no team’s perfect, but our team right now is deep and we have several all-star caliber players and we have a lot of character in the group, and some pretty good skill. It’s a good mix. We like where we’re at. We’ll always look for ways to get better, but to suggest that we’re going to definitely be making something happen here in the next week would probably be misleading.”
Cullen, Bouchard leave: Because of Minnesota’s cap situation, Fletcher was unable to re-sign two forwards from last year’s team, Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
Cullen and the Wild seemed amenable to a return, but ultimately the lack of salary-cap space made bringing back Cullen, who had seven goals and 20 assists as the second-line center last year, impossible. Cullen, a Minnesota native, ended up signing a two-year contract with the Nashville Predators, worth a reported $7 million.
“We were fortunate to have the situation where we were able to sign Keith,” Fletcher said. “Clearly we needed another defenseman, and we just don’t have the cap space. Certainly Matt and I have been in communication. He understands our situation. I just want to say Matt’s a true professional. He gave us everything he could over the last three years.
“We lost a really good person and a really good player. But that’s the nature of the cap system. Fortunately we have good depth up front. It’s not going to be easy to replace Matt Cullen, but fortunately we have depth and we’ll see how the line combinations stack up. But clearly it’s a little bit disappointing when you lose Matt Cullen.”
Bouchard, who was the longest tenured member of the Wild, signed a reported one-year, $2 million contract with the New York Islanders. Bouchard, who was plagued for four seasons with concussion-related symptoms, had eight goals and 12 assists in 43 games for Minnesota last season. He is first in Wild history in power-play assists (104), second in games played (565) and assists (241) and third in scoring (347 points) and game-winning goals (19).
“Had a good discussion with Pierre-Marc this morning and he was excited,” Fletcher said. “It’s a good situation for him and he’s healthy. I have no doubt he’ll be a good hockey player. He was a really good player for us and the cruel irony I guess is he’s finally getting healthy, and now he’s going to play his best hockey in a long time. I’m very happy for him, terrific person and again, a good player, and he’ll do very well in Long Island.”
Wild sets development camp times: Minnesota will host its annual prospect development next week at the Xcel Energy Center from July 9-14. Included as part of the camp, there will be a three-on-three tournament that is free and open to the public. In the past the Wild held an evening scrimmage that will be replaced by the tournament.
The tournament will start on Thursday, July 11 from 3:30 to 4:45 p.m. The final two days of the tournament on Friday and Saturday, July 12-13, with the tournament played from 2:45-4 p.m.
Some of the prospects expected to attend the development cap are Brett Bulmer, Raphael Bussieres, Mathew Dumba, Tyler Graovac, Johan Gustafsson, Erik Haula and Zack Phillips. Of the 36 players, 20 have been Wild draft picks, including all seven players selected in Sunday’s draft.