Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Free Agency Less of a Frenzy in 2010

OK, I’ve been wanting to hop back on the blog for a while now, but I wanted to wait until Ilya Kovalchuk signed to write about free agents, seeing as he was the biggest name is a rather weak free agent market this year. There was some hope, but the whole situation is a mess now and is taking way too long, so I’ll just write this for now and see if that topic is worth revisiting later (update: Kovalchuk’s arbitration hearing will be on Wednesday—but I already finished the entry so I’ll enter it regardless). If you want my thoughts on the Koivu deal, they are near the bottom. I also included some thoughts on our “new” GM, Chuck Fletcher, a little over a year after getting the job. I just want to touch on the new players first.

As I said, the NHL free agent class this year was relatively weak (with the exception of Kovalchuk), but I think the Wild made out pretty well. They won’t be contending for a Cup anytime soon, but barring the same amount of injuries as last year, I think the team could be poised to grab one of the last playoff spots. It hurts to say that they probably won’t win the division or the conference next year, but the West is so strong that I just can’t see that happening, even when trying to be optimistic…you never know, though.

Fletcher had Wild fans extremely nervous on Day One of free agency, but the Wild came out with the number two center they desired. Matt Cullen, a former Moorhead Spud and St. Cloud Husky, will return to his home state after 14 NHL seasons and one Stanley Cup championship (2006 with Carolina) under his belt. The Wild may have overpaid a bit for Cullen, giving him $3.5 million a year for three years, but I am happy with that. It was better than offering too little and missing out on him all together.

The Wild, unsure about the health status of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, were devoid a second-line center all year last year and I think that killed them. With candidates Saku Koivu and Olli Jokinen already snatched up by the Ducks and Flames, respectively, the Wild needed to make this happen. If there was a deeper class of free agents, I would agree the Wild overpaid a little, but if Cullen had walked on the Wild, Minnesota could’ve been in deep trouble and probably would have gotten into a bidding war with Nashville and others over Matthew Lombardi, who made the same money the next day when he signed with the Preds (a good signing for them).

This acquisition works for me only many levels. First off, Cullen is a Minnesotan. It will be easy for the Team of 18,000 to get behind one of their own and Cullen is at a point in his career where he can handle the pressure of playing in front of his home state. Many younger Minnesotans have shown that it can be overwhelming having that much pressure put on them at that age. I know there are more, but the first name that comes to mind is Nick Leddy. After he was traded from Minnesota to Chicago last year, you could tell a weight had been lifted off his shoulders by the way he played. In fact, he improved so much that Chicago signed him after one year of playing at the U. Instead of feeling the pressure of an entire state that invested a first round draft pick in his future, Cullen will feel excited to help his home state and to play in front of his friends and family. He has a ring already, to there is less personal pressure added on.

Second, as I just noted, Cullen really wants to be here. Cullen could have spurned the Wild to play with a true Cup contender, but after he signed, he sent texts to Michael Russo of the Star Tribune (which Russo posted on Twitter) that showed his excitement. "Holy cow, I'm pumped. Ohh!!!" and "It truly is a dream come true," were the two that I remember. I love the enthusiasm. Not many players would be that excited to come here.

Third, Cullen has a Stanley Cup ring. No one on the Wild last year had one of those. Cullen can replace the experience given to the team by Owen Nolan (who still hasn’t won a Cup himself) down the stretch and in the playoffs, if the Wild do contend. Cullen has also averaged 46 points per season since the lockout. His averages of 18.4 goals per season and 27.6 assists per season over the past five years would have each ranked fifth on the Wild last year. His 46 points would have ranked fourth behind only Mikko Koivu, Andrew Brunette, and Martin Havlat. With that point production coming from a spot in the lineup where the Wild were severely lacking last season, I think Cullen was worth the few extra bucks.

Last year, the Wild had no U.S.-born players on their team. Sure, players like Nate Prosser (Elk River, MN), Casey Wellman (Brentwood, CA), and Robbie Earl (Chicago, IL) made appearances on the team, but they were all far from permanent roster fixtures. This year they will add Cullen to the American mix, as well as their second signing of July 1st, Eric Nystrom. Nystrom (Syosset, NY) will bring to the team a third or fourth-line winger that will add character and grit to a team that needs it.

Nystrom hasn’t put first-round-draft-pick-type points yet in his career just yet, but he just finished his second full season in the NHL, so I think at 27 years old, Nystrom definitely has room to improve. Just to clarify, by first-round-type points, I don’t think he ever will score 70+ points, like a Havlat or a Koivu is expected to, but I think he can improve on his 11 goals and eight assists from last season, as well as add other dimensions to the team. Calgary drafted him tenth overall in 2002 probably expecting a little more than 20 points per season when he got to the NHL and I think he has an opportunity to deliver on that in Minnesota over the next few years.

Since July 1st, many former Wild players found new homes. But before we get to that, I want to touch on the Robbie Earl and Dennis Endras signings. I’m not a big Earl fan solely because he won a national championship with Wisconsin, but looking past that, I will readily admit that I liked him before committing to the University of Minnesota, that I was excited when the Wild got him from Toronto, and that he helped the team a lot when he was in Minnesota last season. Earl explored the free agent market and thought he had proved last year that he was worth signing to a one-way deal. That didn’t happen, so he accepted a two-way deal to stay in The State of Hockey.

Earl scored six goals in 32 games over six call-ups last season and the Wild was 18-9-5 with him in the lineup. I’m obviously not saying that the Wild could or would sustain a record like that if Earl played a full season in Minnesota, but that 18-9-5 record would equate to a 46-23-12 record over 82 games. That would have been good for 104 points and a Northwest Division title last year. The Wild would have played the Kings at home in round one. In the second round (if they made it), they would have faced Chicago, who the Wild faced one time with Earl in the lineup and as any Wild fan remembers, the Wild won that game 6-5 in a shootout after coming back from a 5-1 third period deficit…obviously that is a HUGE jump and I would probably bet against that ever having happened, but the point is that Earl was a positive influence on a mediocre, injury-riddled team last season.

For me, the Dennis Endras signing kind of came out of nowhere, but I do like it and I believe Endras could be the Wild’s next Niklas Backstrom—an undrafted European goalie that worked his way on to the Wild’s roster and became the number one goalie after the goalies in front of him got injured. Endras backstopped Germany to a fourth place finish in the World Championships this year, stopping 31 of 32 shots against the U.S. in front of over 76,000 fans in a 2-1 overtime, preliminary round win. He also recorded and impressive 41-save shutout against Switzerland in the quarterfinals in a 1-0 German win. After reading all this, I am pretty excited that the Wild signed him. He won’t be wearing a Wild uniform this year unless the they use him as a third goalie in Helsinki, but this could be a small move that could look genius if he becomes a solid NHL goalie with the Wild someday.

I think this signing makes Josh Harding a little more expendable, but that obviously doesn’t mean the Wild will deal him, although I would like to see what the Wild could get for him. In my opinion, he is worthy of being a number one goalie in the NHL and now that his hip surgery is over with he should be healthy. I think he has proven himself enough to at least get a shot. He also has youth on his side and a pretty cheap price tag, unlike a goalie like Tim Thomas, who has been dangled by the Bruins. I think the Wild could get by with a guy like Anton Khudobin or Endras as a backup to Backstrom, especially if Harding was dealt for someone who could score. I also think Matt Hackett will be at least ready to be a backup in the NHL by the time Backstrom’s contract expires in a couple years.

After signing potential AHL call-ups in center Warren Peters and defenseman Drew Bagnall, the Wild added another prospect to its growing pool of talent. Joel Broda, who was let go by the Capitals after being drafted by them, looks like he could be a good player. A WHL “journeyman,” Broda scored more than a point per game with the Calgary Hitmen. He also added 13 goals in 23 playoff games. He is a goal scorer who isn’t afraid to fight. Low-risk/high-reward.

Moving on to the depressing part of free agency…Most fans wish the Wild could keep enforcers John Scott and Derek Boogaard on the team, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards for the team over this offseason. The choice to let them go was the best way for the Wild to go and the best way for Boogaard and Scott to go. There simply wasn’t enough money and space for these players. I will personally miss seeing these guys in Minnesota patrolling the ice and intimidating opponents, but point-wise, they didn’t produce enough to stick around. On the brighter side, both of these players will be able to relish their roles in better markets with fans that will grow to love them just as much as the fans here did.

The Wild let two more forwards and two more defensemen go as well. Shane Hnidy, who really seemed to be just a top-six fill-in defenseman to me has not been signed yet. The Coyotes picked up Andrew Ebbett, who will join his fourth team (Anaheim, Chicago, Minnesota, and Phoenix) in under a year. He seems valuable enough to keep, but he landed with teams that were too deep at certain times to keep him. Jamie Sifers, who made the original roster and spent time in Minnesota and Houston last season was scooped up by Chicago…I mean Atlanta. It feels like just yesterday I was watching Sifers, Torrey Mitchell, and little Peter Lenes dominate Minnesota Duluth in a pair of 5-1 wins at Gutterson Fieldhouse. I can’t believe it’s almost been five years.

The most crushing loss, though, in my opinion, was Owen Nolan. Nolan was a real leader last season and played through some tough injuries while mentoring the younger players on the team. Any respect he hadn’t earned by doing all that, he earned by encouraging Fletcher not to trade him to a contender like the Sharks or Capitals at the trade deadline, so that he could help the Wild try to make a late-season run. I hope Nolan gets his Cup—he deserves it. He will be greatly missed by the Wild, assuming there isn’t a turn of events that causes him to come back (I’ve seen crazier things happen).

The Wild didn’t get dramatically better right away with any of these signings and they lost a few fan favorites, but they are definitely a serviceable Western Conference team that could surprise if everyone produces like they’re supposed to and stays healthy. The players they lost weren’t the most talented guys in the league and I think the additions outweigh the subtractions. Fletcher didn’t have much too work with in this market, but the Wild improved at least a little bit in July.


Mikko Koivu would have been an unrestricted free agent in 2011, but instead will be wearing a Wild uniform for seven more seasons. Over the seven seasons (starting in 2011-2012), Koivu will receive $47.25 million, a franchise high, and his cap hit will be just under $7 million per year. Wild fans love Koivu for his complete game and GM Chuck Fletcher believes Koivu will only get better. Some disagree.

ESPN’s Peter Keating wrote a long article explaining why Koivu was not worth what he got in his extension, but I disagree with that main argument. He basically used very advanced statistics that showed how Koivu was overpaid. Looking past the fact that some of the stats he threw out there were a bit outrageous I will say this: No matter how much money we threw at him, I will always disagree when someone says the Wild overpaid him.

Koivu is the franchise. Marian Gaborik was a franchise player and we let him go for nothing in return. It would kill Wild fans to let go of another franchise player and Fletcher did what he needed to do to make sure that didn’t happen. The Gaborik situation was the elephant in the room throughout his entire final season here and both sides ended up losing (in my opinion). Keating compared the Koivu deal to the Kovalchuk deal, which is ludicrous, in my opinion. They are two different players. They have different attitudes. Their situations are very different. And after 1,300+ words of mind-numbing statistical evidence that the Devils made out like gangbusters and the Wild gave up way too much to retain their 2001 first round draft pick and first ever permanent captain, the Kovalchuk deal was rejected by the NHL.

So much for that. The Wild just drafted a very promising Finnish center in Mikael Granlund. Who would be better to help guide him through his first years in the NHL than the future captain of Team Finland? Koivu led the team in points last year and was the lone bright spot in the team’s last playoff appearance. Sure, his stats, whether as simple as goals and assists, or as deep as “GVT” or “Relative Corsi,” may not make him look like a $7 million a year player, but I would take him for even more if he wanted it.

I don’t care what the article says, intangibles cannot be measured in stats—otherwise they are not intangibles. There is not an official stat for measuring leadership, loyalty, or love from the fans, even if there are some things that you could argue come close to putting a number on those categories. I don’t buy it. And that’s not just because these stats were used to lessen the perceived value of one of my favorite players.

He is great in the faceoff circle, is generally responsible in the defensive zone, and is a great playmaker that makes a pretty average line look like a solid number one line in the NHL. The article used one stat (GVT) to compare Mikko players like Joe Thornton, Martin St. Louis, and Marian Hossa. I know it is only a small part of the article, but let me run with those comparisons for a minute.

Koivu isn’t making a ton more than those players, is at least three or four years younger than all of them, and unlike all of them, he wears his team’s “C”. Hossa needed three seasons with strong contenders to get a Cup, Thornton couldn’t lead his team to a single win in the conference final with over $14 million on his line (not including himself at $7.2 mil), and St. Louis’ team got a higher draft pick than the Wild—oh, and St. Louis is eight years older.

Maybe the Wild paid him more than statistics that can apparently even measure intangibles (?) say they should have, but the bottom line is that our captain will be wearing red and green for a long time. Until the Wild can just go out on a whim and sign a top-20 player with experience captaining their team entering his prime for a bargain price, I’ll gladly take it. I'm pretty sure the Finnish fans would appreciate seeing a Mikko Koivu that is not in a dispute over a contract in early October anyway.


Naturally, I gave Chuck Fletcher a chance when he got the Wild GM job last summer and so far he hasn’t disappointed. I would have preferred to see him pick Jordan Schroeder instead of Nick Leddy at the 2009 draft, but if that’s his worst mistake, I’ll take it. It’s not like he picked Nick Leddy over John Tavares. He actually realized that the Leddy pick wasn’t working out and got a solid d-man in return from Chicago in Cam Barker. I think the move was beneficial for everyone involved. Doug Risebrough (albeit this wasn’t all his fault) let one of the best scorers in the NHL leave and got nothing in return when Marian Gaborik left. This move set the Wild back quite a bit. As we saw from Koivu’s new deal, Fletcher learned from Risebrough’s mistakes.

Risebrough also notoriously traded away draft picks. Most notably, in 2008, he traded up one spot to get Tyler Cuma. New Jersey walked away with the player they probably would have taken anyway and an extra third round pick in 2009. And to top it off, the Wild passed up on John Carlson with the pick. Don’t get me wrong, I like Tyler Cuma and Marco Scandella (who they took in the second round), but it pains me to look back on how they got Cuma and what they gave up to get him. Fletcher, on the other hand, collects picks and sees them as “currency. He made four picks in the first two rounds this year. When is the last time the Wild did that? Never.

What I’m getting at is that Fletcher has just been better overall so far. Not perfect, but better. And he was just a rookie GM. The Wild could have been terrible last year, but they came out of 2009-2010 with a somewhat respectable record despite injuries that would cripple any team. He calls players up and gives them a taste of the NHL. He interacts with his coaches and the team a lot more, as well. He develops players. He makes moves. He showed in June that he can draft well. He adds young talent—and develops it. He mixes it up. He gets in the conversation for any player that will help the Wild (see: Paul Martin). He takes chances. He looks to the future, and doesn’t forget about the present. He is a smart guy.

The Wild lacks an Alex Ovechkin-like star player that will earn them automatic respect like other teams do, but there is enough talent to produce a winning team if enough players can stay healthy. In a couple years, the first two lines could include Mikko Koivu, Martin Havlat, Mikael Granlund, Guillaume Latendresse, and a healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard with four very solid defensemen (because if there is any area of the organization that has depth, it comes on the blue line), and Niklas Backstrom in goal. Looks like a good start to me.

Players like Chuck Kobasew, Eric Nystrom, Brad Staubitz, Cal Clutterbuck, and possibly a redeemed James Sheppard could help round out the bottom six. In addition, there will be young players like Casey Wellman, Jarod Palmer, Brett Bulmer, Kristopher Foucault, Joel Broda, and several other prospects gunning for permanent spots, if they don’t make the team even sooner. This team will be backed by one of the best fan bases in the NHL.

Even in an ocean-deep Western Conference, there is enough to compete in the group Fletcher has assembled so far and by the way he sounded in every interview I saw or read about at the end of last year, he’s far from satisfied. He wants a Cup and won’t sit back at all until he gets it. If for some reason you hate what he’s doing, I encourage you to give him a chance.


Interesting news is scarce in the offseason, but I’ll try to come up with something before the preseason starts. I could mix in a blog about the Gophers or about the World Junior Development Camp or the Wild’s schedule (or all of that and more), but that’s it until next time.

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