Devan Dubnyk (Bruce Kluckhohn / NHLI via Getty Images)
The Minnesota Wild were eliminated for a third straight season by the Chicago Blackhawks, so they now begin trying to close the gap between themselves and the West’s top tier teams. Starting to plan for next season will include inking goaltender Devan Dubnyk to a deal, but that could mean saying goodbye to longtime netminder Niklas Backstrom.
For the third straight year, the Minnesota Wild were eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks. Despite rallying in mid-season to reach the playoffs and upsetting the St. Louis Blues in the opening round, the Wild once again had no answer for the powerful Blackhawks.
Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher enters this off-season trying to find ways to improve his club and narrow the talent gap with the Blackhawks. It didn't take long for local pundits to speculate over his summer “to-do” list.
Star-Tribune.com's Michael Russo and TwinCities.com's Chad Graff agree re-signing goaltender Devan Dubnyk should top Fletcher's list. Acquired in a mid-season trade with Arizona, the 29-year-old Dubnyk's outstanding play turned the Wild into one of the NHL's hottest teams during the second half. While Dubnyk struggled at times in the playoffs, the Wild are expected to re-sign the Vezina Trophy finalist.
In recent years, a lack of consistency between the pipes hampered the Wild. Their solid performance since mid-January up to their series against the Blackhawks demonstrated how good they are with a reliable starting goaltender. However, Fletcher must tread carefully in his contract talks with Dubnyk. While it's tempting to re-sign him to a lucrative long-term deal, there's also the risk Dubnyk could struggle to maintain his Vezina-worthy form.
It's assumed Fletcher won't make any other moves until he gets Dubnyk's situation sorted out, though he could free up some cap space in June before the unrestricted free agent market opens on July 1. One way is by shedding the final year of aging, oft-injured goalie Niklas Backstrom.
Russo speculates Fletcher could attempt to trade the 37-year-old Backstrom ($3.417-million annual cap hit), who will earn $4 million in actual salary in 2015-16. Such a move will mean retaining part of his remaining salary. Backstrom is more likely to be bought out, freeing up $2.7 million in cap space for '15-'16.
Along with Russo and Graff, Star-Tribune.com's Chip Scoggins and ESPN.com's Craig Custance agree Fletcher must also find a pure goal scorer who's also a clutch playoff performer. Fletcher's previous attempts to address this issue (acquiring Dany Heatley, Thomas Vanek and Chris Stewart) ended in failure.
Russo notes buying out Backstrom would give the Wild over $11 million in cap space, and that's before re-signing Dubnyk. It won't leave much room to acquire a reliable scorer. Given the lack of talent in this summer's free-agent market, Scoggins suggests Fletcher could be forced to consider trading away a valuable young asset to address this need.
The pundits believe Fletcher's other option is hope promising youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter or Jason Zucker develop into elite scorers. Though veteran forwards like Vanek, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville are in their early-30s, the physical toll of their careers is catching up with them. That could create opportunities next season for those young forwards to reach their full potential.
Fletcher could try trading Koivu, Pominville or Vanek, but Russo notes they're all currently under expensive long-term deals. Compounding the problem is they all have no-trade clauses. Russo also speculates Fletcher could attempt to obtain promising young forwards like Edmonton's Nail Yakupov or Toronto's Nazem Kadri in hopes they blossom into high-end talent. Landing either guy, however, is likely to cost the Wild one of their good young players and likely won't address their need for a game-breaking scorer.
Given his limited cap space this summer, Fletcher could be limited to re-signing key free agents (like Dubnyk and Granlund) and perhaps shop around for an affordable scorer on a short-term deal. Patience might be his off-season watchword.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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