Wild have turned the page, ready for key offseason
If the Wild hope to build off this season in 2014-15, they'll have to make some wise decisions this offseason, particularly with regard to free agents.
The Wild's offseason priorities likely include officially keeping head coach Mike Yeo (right) and his staff, deciding which pieces to pursue or keep and evaluating who to snag in the July draft.
Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports
By Phil Ervin
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Xcel Energy Center was eerily silent Friday.
No Christmas-colored lights reflecting off the glass. No sound of sticks colliding with pucks over the ambience of skates cutting up the ice.
Save for a few media exchanges, the only noise came behind closed doors as general manager Chuck Fletcher, coach Mike Yeo and the rest of the Wild front office conducted player exit interviews.
A day before, Yeo told reporters he wasn't ready to reflect on the season that was -- and wasn't. His boss, on the other hand, has already moved past that point.
"We took a step," Fletcher said of Minnesota's trip to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "I'm proud of the step we took. Yet, having said that, today we've already turned the page, and we're working towards next year.
"We have a lot of work to do."
For a franchise that just wrapped up its deepest playoff jaunt since 2003, that includes officially keeping Yeo and his staff, deciding which pieces to pursue, keep or let walk, slamming the emergency "off" switch on the team's ever-spinning goaltender carousel and evaluating who to snag in the July draft.
Once Minnesota concludes its end-of-season meetings with players, Fletcher said he'll turn full attention toward Yeo, his assistants and the 24 or so other team staff members whose contracts are up in six weeks. Fletcher wouldn't say outright he's re-signing Yeo, but there's no reasonable doubt he will after the coach turned around a team that on New Year's Day was 10th in the Western Conference and fifth in the Central Division.
The Wild went 23-10-7 after the calendar flipped, earned the West's top wild-card seed and rebounded from 2-0 playoff deficits to outlast Colorado in seven games and take Chicago to six.
"He's, I think, grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years," Fletcher said of Yeo, promoted in 2011 from head coach of the Houston Aeros, the Wild's AHL affiliate at the time. "Mike has done a tremendous job of putting in a certain style of play and asking for a certain team commitment, and our best players have bought in. When that happens, usually the rest of the group follows."
Once coaching and staff contracts are taken care of, Fletcher will sit down with the organization's coaches and scouts starting Monday, June 9 to assess the club's personnel needs. Four players become restricted free agents this offseason, while seven more are up for unrestricted free agency.
That means several decisions are pending but also, potentially, creates more cap space than Fletcher had to work with last season -- roughly $22.7 million worth at present, according to capgeek.com. It's an enticing dollar amount, but the general manager said he and the front office must exercise caution.
"Cap space is not malleable," said Fletcher, who just finished his fifth campaign as GM. "Once you use it, it's gone. We need to make sure we preserve enough of it to keep the kids we want to keep, and I think that'll have a major impact on what we do this summer."
Unrestricted free agency, though, raises more questions. Dany Heatley, Matt Moulson, Mike Rupp, Cody McCormick, Jake Dowell, Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Ilya Bryzgalov's contracts are completely up.
Heatley, 33 years old and a $7.5 million cap hit this past season, will be off the books. Rupp, 34, made $1.5 million this season for playing in 13 NHL games. Moulson and Bryzgalov came over in trade-deadline deals this season; Moulson's a candidate to return, but with three goalies under contract for next year, Bryzgalov is likely out.
Stoner and McCormick (also a deadline acquisition) had strong seasons, especially in the playoffs, and should be back. Prosser, on the other hand, is another candidate to be let loose.
Depending who stays and who goes, Fletcher stands to make at least one free-agent splash -- if he chooses to pursue one aggressively. The common name bandied about is Montreal's Thomas Vanek, who played college hockey at Minnesota and is rumored to desire a spot with the Wild.
But Vanek, 30 himself, commanded a $6.4 million salary each of the past five seasons and may be affordable only at a "hometown" discount price. The Wild already have roughly $34.7 million -- almost half the projected 2014-15 cap of $71.1 million -- dedicated to skaters aged 29 or older.
That's before any trades that take place, of course.
"Adding young players is everything," Fletcher said. "You look around the league, you read all the comments in various markets, and (hear) two things generally: 'We need to get bigger, and we need to get younger.'"
And perhaps the most important offseason focal point for Fletcher is the crease. Maligned goalies Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are both under contract for next season, while Kuemper, who started 25 regular-season games and five postseason contests, could glean a one-way contract in arbitration.
Backstrom had season-ending abdominal surgery. Harding missed the season's final five months while dealing with symptoms of multiple sclerosis, his second leave of absence the past two seasons.
"I wish I could sit here and tell you we had the answer right now," Fletcher said when asked about his goaltending situation. "Certainly, some of the doctors will play a part in this, the salary cap will play a part in this, and we'll sit down and try to make the best decisions we can, but certainly, there's a realistic chance that we need to have three goaltenders next year. That is something we'll look at and see how things play out this summer."
Are those three goalies named Niklas, Josh and Darcy?
"Stay tuned," Fletcher said.
The draft is June 27-28 in Philadelphia, presenting Fletcher yet another opportunity to stock the pantry.
With the Central Division only gaining steam and Minnesota's main core expected back next season, Fletcher said he views the past 7 1/2 months as just another rung on the ladder. If the Wild were to wait another 11 years to win a playoff series, he, Yeo and several other top staffers will likely be out of a job long before then.
The words "Stanley Cup" came up frequently during his 27-minute exchange with local media Friday, too.
"We won six (playoff) games," Fletcher said. "You need 16 to win a Cup."
Ready for some rest: Coyle attended his exit interview Friday wearing a black, zip-up hoodie and sweat pants. His hands rarely left his pockets, the upper part of his torso visibly in pain.
It was revealed earlier this week the gritty center/winger played with two separated shoulders during the playoffs. But he wasn't about to let that excuse any malperformance, including just two points in the Western Conference semifinal series against Chicago.
"You can say what you want, but I don't think about it. I just go out and play," said Coyle, who finished the regular season with 12 goals and 18 assists in 70 games. "You just fight through it.
"Everyone was doing that. Every guy was doing that."
Coyle said he suffered his first shoulder injury in Game 4 against Colorado, then separated the other one against Chicago. He looked especially hampered in Game 6.
But as he's quick to point out, he wasn't the only one suffering.
Moulson suffered oblique and groin injuries toward the end of the year and was scratched for the final three games of the Chicago series. He finished the postseason with just one goal and two assists.
Fletcher also mentioned Mikko Koivu and Prosser by name as players who played through playoff injuries.
"We had guys banged up," Fletcher said, "but I don't want to make too many excuses."