Wild likely to pursue big-name free agents

ST. PAUL, Minn. — NHL free agency begins in four days, which means Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher might be getting his fishing equipment ready.

Despite having several young prospects on the verge of making the Minnesota roster, Fletcher hasn’t shied from saying the next step for the franchise is reeling in the “big fish,” the superstar already at the NHL level.

The big fish, in the case of Sunday’s start of NHL free agency, are New Jersey Devils forward Zach Parise and Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter. Rumors of Parise returning to his Minnesota roots have been ongoing for more than a year. Suter, who is from Wisconsin, is the top defenseman on the market and is the puck-moving, two-way defender the Wild have desired.

There are other players available who could interest the Wild, but Fletcher isn’t likely to cast out a wide net, at least initially. Minnesota has young players on the way and role players already in the system, but Fletcher needs the big fish.

“We’re a team where one or two players can make a big difference,” Fletcher said at his season-ending news conference.

Which leads to the reports that Fletcher is willing to throw a boatload of money at Parise and/or Suter, who will each have many suitors. Word is that the Wild won’t be outbid for Parise, the son of former Minnesota North Stars player and coach J.P. Parise. Zach was born in Minneapolis and played prep hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault.

Parise, 27 and a five-time 30-plus goal scorer in six full seasons, is regarded as the NHL’s top free agent. The Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins and Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings reportedly have been interested in signing the 2009 All-Star. Parise has said he’s also interested in re-signing with New Jersey, which has an exclusive negotiating window with the forward until July 1.

Nashville is hoping to lock up Suter, 27, long term before July 1, knowing teams like Detroit will try to lure its standout all-around defenseman if he makes it to unrestricted free agency.

Fletcher is trying not to get caught up in, or feed, the rumor mill.

“Whatever happens July 1, will happen July 1,” he said two weeks ago, avoiding free-agency speculation at his predraft news conference.

Minnesota is in position to do everything in its power to add Parise, Suter or the pair. The Wild have more than $19 million in available cap space. If needed, more room can be cleared.

“As much as you want,” Fletcher said in April when asked about the team’s salary flexibility. “We’re basically down around the (salary) floor right now. We have a lot of room. … You can make that a little bit less or a little bit more depending on what you want to do with it, but we have lots of cap room.”

Parise’s hometown connection can’t hurt Minnesota. He owns a home in the Twin Cities. As for Suter, the Wild acquired his former college teammate Tom Gilbert at last season’s trade deadline. Fletcher didn’t acknowledge the connection, but he can’t be faulted for doing anything he can to bring in Suter, who would be another veteran presence on a young blue line.

The speculation regarding Parise and Suter — in Minnesota and nationwide — has overshadowed other free agents available, such as forwards Ray Whitney, Shane Doan, Alexander Semin, Dustin Penner and Olli Jokinen, and defensemen Matt Carle, Dennis Wideman, Jason Garrison, Bryce Salvador and Brad Stuart.

Fletcher wants his “big fish,” though.

Two recent Stanley Cup winners, the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, only reinforce Fletcher’s belief he is building the Wild the right way and the next step is bringing in a veteran star or two.

He has likened his situation in Minnesota with that of Chicago, which had young stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks’ “big fish” was Brian Campbell, and Marian Hossa soon followed as Chicago won its first Stanley Cup in 49 years in 2010. Los Angeles won its first Stanley Cup this season by adding Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to a core that featured Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick.

“To get to that point, they built up the talent base the only way that I know how to do it,” Fletcher said of the Kings first developing their young stars. “So, to me, when LA won, it validates the approach we’re doing.

“As I’ve said from Day 1, we’re going to do everything we can to win in the present, but behind the scenes it’s like a duck swimming on water. Underneath the surface, our feet are going a million miles an hour trying to improve our team. It may look calm and placid up top, but believe me, we’ve worked extremely hard to add a lot of young kids. We feel we have, and we feel that’s the only way you can become a Stanley Cup-winning team.

“We’re getting better. It’s happening. These kids are turning pro. We’re going to get better. We are getting better, and that’s the exciting thing. To the extent we can add some NHL talent to help it, great. But our plan hasn’t changed.”

There’s little doubt Fletcher’s plan includes talking to Parise and Suter. The question is whether Fletcher has the right hook and bait.

“Frankly it’s a year when a lot of teams have money to spend,” Fletcher said. “I’ve looked. There’s a lot of teams with a lot of money to spend. I think my only statement would be it’s a good year to be a free agent.”

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