My last column focused on how the Minnesota Wild were on the way to losing in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs despite winning the division and having home-ice advantage. Injuries to key defensemen, a lack of scoring from Marian Gaborik, problems on special teams, and a hot goalie led to their demise. While winning their first-ever division title was nice, the season will be remembered for losing in the first round of the playoffs. Seven months of grinding out a division title went down the tubes with a second consecutive first-round playoff loss. Now, some of the players have to wonder if they will be back next season. With new ownership in place, it is not etched in ice that coach Jacques Lemaire and GM Doug Risebrough will even be back.
The Wild have 10 unrestricted free agents, which means they can sign with any other team after July 1. The Wild currently have 12 players under contract for next season, at a cost of $33.88 million, roughly $20 million below what is expected to be a $53-million to $55-million salary cap. Defenseman Kurtis Foster, a restricted free agent, will likely be signed for around $1.025 million. So the Wild will have 13 players at $34.905 million. This leaves 10 more players to fill out the 23-player roster, and about $18 million to $20 million to spend on them up to the salary cap. This does not leave much flexibility to sign better players as free agents under the current salary structure.
Two of the unrestricted free agents are Pavol Demitra, who made $4.5 million this season, and Brian Rolston, whose salary was $2.432 million. It is likely that at least one of these players won't be back next year since signing both of them would eat up about half of the $20 million available under the salary cap. Demitra should be the one let go. He just had his worst offensive season and missed a number of games with injuries not just this year, but last year as well. Demitra only had 15 goals this season, down from 25 - $4.5 million for 15 goals is not money well spent.
Rolston had his third consecutive 30-goal season and was one of the few players who elevated his game in the playoff loss. Rolston is more durable than Demitra and is a respected leader in the locker room. Rolston is going to want a raise, and he deserves it. He is the best free agent signing the Wild have made in recent years. His salary for the past three seasons has been below market value for a 30-goal scorer. There will be plenty of bidders for his services, driving up the price. The Wild need to sign him before July 1. Let Demitra go or sign him for less money. Demitra says he wants to stay here. Let's see how badly he wants to stay.
Gaborik will make $7.5 million next year, the final year of his current contract. The Wild will try to keep him and will offer him an extension this summer to see how much he wants to stay. Demitra is a close friend of Gaborik, so if Demitra is let go, how will this affect Gaborik wanting to sign an extension? Will the Wild decide to keep Demitra around to lure Gaborik into staying?
Three defensemen are unrestricted free agents: Keith Carney, who made $2.1 million; Sean Hill, who made $1.325 million; and Petteri Nummelin, who made $1.1 million. Hill will likely be let go, as he played horrible in the playoffs and had the worst plus/minus rating on the team with a -16 for the season. Carney is 38 years old and only scored one goal this season. Nummelin is the cheapest of the three, but he is injury prone - playing in only 27 of 82 games this season. Nummelin is the better on the offense end, getting more shots on goal than Carney, who played in 61 games. Unless Carney is willing to take less money, he may be let go.
Two wingers the Wild will try to keep are Todd Fedoruk and Branko Radivojevic. Fedoruk brings some toughness to protect Gaborik and creates havoc in front of the net for the opposing goalie. He made $875,000 this season, so he won't cost as much as some of the other veterans. Radivojevic had a strong final two months of the season, which might have saved his job. He made $640,000 this season, so the price will be right for him to stay.
Two more tough decisions to be made are whether to keep restricted free agents Stephane Veilleux and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. Veilleux scored 11 goals this season, but had a -13 plus/minus rating and played poorly in the playoffs, leading the team in penalty minutes. He was one of the players who lost his cool in game four and took a number of dumb penalties. He was paid $546,700 this season, so he is affordable if he did not play himself off the team with his poor showing in the playoffs.
Bouchard, on the other hand, was paid $2.6 million. He was the second-leading scorer on the team with 63 points, with 13 goals and 50 assists. He scored 20 goals in 2006-2007, and 17 goals in 2005-2006. So he is one of the main scorers on the team. Bouchard could earn between $3 and $4 million on the open market, which would hurt the cap flexibility of the Wild if they want to keep him. Given the shortage of scorers on the Wild roster, they will try to keep Bouchard if they can keep the price closer to $3 million.
There is no denying that the Wild need to get some more players who can put the puck in the net. They have not won a playoff series since 2003. Even though the Wild continue to sell out every home game, if they continue to lose in the playoffs or miss the playoffs, the fans could start losing interest. They need to keep the scorers they have now, which includes Gaborik, Rolston and Bouchard. Gaborik may have some extra motivation next year because of his poor playoff series. But he needs some help to get even better. Without him, the Wild won't get any better.