Chuck Fletcher’s trip to Philadelphia this weekend was about more than just making eight draft picks for the Minnesota Wild.
There was little time for Fletcher, Minnesota’s general manager, to see the Liberty Bell or eat cheesesteaks.
The NHL’s shopping period, in which teams can speak with the agents for pending free agents — and even discuss parameters of a contract without deals becoming official — opened last week as teams congregated in Philadelphia for the NHL Draft.
The time in Philadelphia was the shopping period. The buying period begins tomorrow with the official start of free agency.
"I think there’s been an awful lot of tire kicking from teams to players and players to teams," Fletcher told reporters after the draft. "It will be interesting to see what happens on (July 1)."
Fletcher forever changed the Wild’s outlook by signing the league’s two biggest free agents, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, in 2012 to matching 13-year contracts. Two years later, Fletcher is shopping again for some of the biggest names in free agency.
The rumors have circled about Montreal forward Thomas Vanek, the former University of Minnesota star, for more than a year and Fletcher has reportedly checked in with Vanek’s agent since the opening of the league’s negotiating period. Another big name in this year’s free agency, Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen, has also been rumored.
Unlike in 2012, don’t expect Fletcher to hand out the biggest contracts.
With several of the team’s young players needing to be re-signed this summer and next, Fletcher is going to be careful about handing out big-money, long-term deals.
"Every time you go out and you sign these long-term contracts, you just have less flexibility," Fletcher said. "You have more long-term commitments and sometimes those long-term commitments become long-term liabilities, and you just start to box yourself in. To me, I’d almost rather be a little lean this year and maintain a little more flexibility than just pushing it right to the max."
This year, Nino Niederreiter, Darcy Kuemper, Jason Zucker, Justin Fontaine and Jonathon Blum are restricted free agents, and on Monday, the Wild extended qualifying offers to all five players. Next year, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Christian Folin will be restricted free agents.
The core of Minnesota’s budding talent will need to be re-signed.
Fletcher is still interested in being a buyer in free agency. But as he looks for help from the outside, Fletcher also expects improvement from inside, including from many of the future restricted free agents.
"I still think we have a lot of players that are going to get better, that will be better next season than they were this season," Fletcher said. "To improve, you either go outside and add pieces or you hope for internal improvement, and I do think it’s very realistic to assume there will be some internal improvement from some of our younger players. Either they get a bigger role or, with the experience they’ve gained, start to produce more. That will be really key and then if we can go outside and do it, great."
Along with Vanek and Niskanen, other names mentioned in rumors with the Wild have been Los Angeles defenseman Willie Mitchell and Boston forward Jarome Iginla. Other top free agents include Minnesota forward Matt Moulson, Colorado center Paul Stastny, Islanders defenseman Dan Boyle, Detroit forward Daniel Alfredsson and Calgary forward Mike Cammalleri.
Niskanen, who was born in Viriginia, Minn., had a career season with 10 goals, 36 assists and a plus-33 rating.
Mitchell is a former Wild player and perhaps could be sought if defenseman Clayton Stoner, who played in 63 games for Minnesota last year, leaves as a free agent.
"I don’t think it’s that deep a free-agent class that if we don’t get number one, I don’t think we should just blindly go after two and three," Fletcher said. "Let’s be patient. Maybe with the cap only being ($69 million) instead of ($70 million), there’s going to be some teams looking to move money. Maybe it’s this summer, maybe its next fall, maybe it’s the deadline, but I think there will be other opportunities if we’re not active on July 1.We’ll continue to pursue some leads there and see what can happen. I just think we can afford to be patient if the right scenario doesn’t exist."
Fletcher said the team has had ongoing dialogue with unrestricted free agent Cody McCormick, who was acquired at the trade deadline last season.
"I think the whole league’s talking to everybody now," Fletcher said about McCormick. "It’s not really realistic for players to maybe agree now when they can wait a couple more days at this point. I think Cody liked the situation here and we certainly liked him, but you never know. It only takes one team to do something that we would consider out of the norm to swing it the wrong way. I’m comfortable we’ve made a very good representation to him about what we can do and we’ll continue to talk and we’ll see."
Stoner, a third-round draft choice by Minnesota in 2004, was a key player in the playoffs as a big body on the blue line. He could have the chance to cash in as an unrestricted free agent.
Defenseman Nate Prosser, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and forwards Dany Heatley, Mike Rupp and Jake Dowell are unrestricted free agents, too.
"These guys have waited this long, why not wait another week and see what’s there," Fletcher said last week. "I think some of those guys will move on at this point. They’re aware of where we’re at."