Wild shore up defense by signing Ballard, Spurgeon

With precious little space left under the salary cap, the

Minnesota Wild were looking for another experienced, puck-moving

defenseman.

Keith Ballard was seeking a fresh start, and thus the match was

made.

The Wild signed Ballard to a two-year, $3 million contract on

Friday and also re-signed defenseman Jared Spurgeon to a

three-year, $8 million contract.

Minnesota wasn’t done yet shaking up its roster. The Wild freed

up salary-cap space by trading forward Devin Setoguchi to the

Winnipeg Jets for a second-round pick in next year’s draft. They

also signed forward Matt Cooke, a 14-year NHL veteran who has spent

the past five seasons with Pittsburgh.

Ballard was let go by Vancouver earlier this week when the

Canucks used a compliance buyout to help their own salary cap

situation. He said he had interest from a half-dozen other teams

but picked the Wild because he believed he best fit with them on

the ice.

As a bonus, well, he’s one of the many NHL players who are

natives of this hockey-rich state.

”I’m excited for playing in front of these fans in this

building,” Ballard said at Xcel Energy Center, where he won the

first of two NCAA championships with the University of Minnesota.

”I’ve had a lot of real good memories here. The fans in Minnesota

are amazing.”

As the first day of NHL free agency began, the Wild let right

wing Pierre-Marc Bouchard and center Matt Cullen sign elsewhere.

Ballard was all they had room for, with the salary cap decreasing

this season.

But the 30-year-old’s skill set, track record and experience

level were well worth that remaining space for the Wild. With Ryan

Suter, named a first team NHL All-Star, anchoring the blue line

they’ve got talent in that group. But Jonas Brodin, Marco

Scandella, Clayton Stoner and Spurgeon are young. So another

veteran voice was desired. The Wild used a compliance buyout to

release defenseman Tom Gilbert this week as well.

”He competes, he can skate, he can move the puck, and he’s a

good player,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. ”Our defense

is much deeper today than it was yesterday.”

Ballard, who is from the town of Baudette, Minn., on the

Canadian border, consulted with new teammate Zach Parise on

Thursday to find out what his experience of returning to his home

state to play in was like. Ballard was satisfied with what he

heard.

”We’re used to moving away here every fall and being on our own

and your life slows down a little bit. But he said it was fun and

he really enjoyed it,” Ballard said. ”You can get wrapped up in

all your buddies and all your friends and getting pulled in every

direction, but for me I understand that this is an important year

and you’ve got to be able to balance everything.”

Ballard averaged nearly 30 points per season over his first five

years in the league, three with Phoenix and two with Florida.

Traded to the Canucks, Ballard’s game fell off in Vancouver that

first season and never recovered.

”I came in there just off of a fairly major hip surgery, and I

wasn’t really ready to go to start the season, and you kind of get

one first impression, right?” Ballard said. ”It took me awhile

just to get comfortable on the ice, and I had some injuries that

year. It was partially that and partially trying to get accustomed

to a role that was probably different than what I was used to the

first five years of my career.”

Said Fletcher: ”We’re pretty confident that we can get his game

back and he can get his game back to what it was before.”

Spurgeon will make $1.5 million this season, $2.9 million in

2014-15 and $3.6 million in 2015-16. He had five goals and 10

assists in 39 games last season.

Cullen signed a two-year, $7 million contract with

Nashville.

”We lost a really good person and a really good player, but

that’s the nature of the cap system,” Fletcher said. ”Fortunately

we have good depth up front.”

Bouchard signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the New

York Islanders. He’d been with the Wild since they took him with

the eighth overall pick in the 2002 draft, and he’s second in

franchise history with 565 games and 241 assists.

”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,” Fletcher

said. ”I’m very happy for him.”

Despite the loss of two of their most experienced players,

Fletcher noted the Wild have seven veterans among their top 10

forwards. The departures, though, mean more contributions will be

needed from Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker. Others

waiting in the wings who could push for roster spots in training

camp are Brett Bulmer, Justin Fontaine and Zack Phillips.

”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,” Fletcher said. ”It’s a

good mix. We like where we’re at.”

AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to

this report.