For the first time in six years, the Wild enter the most important offseason in the Zach Parise-Ryan Suter era without having first reached the playoffs.
With a general manager eager to make moves, the Wild have the cap space available to make a big move in free agency. Two names I'd have on my wish list if I were GM Paul Fenton are Minnesota natives Anders Lee and Brock Nelson.
Let me clarify that it’s likely only one of them because the Wild can’t afford both players and it’s highly unlikely the New York Islanders would let both of them walk in free agency.
Currently, the Wild have about $15 million in cap space for next season. But that figure can increase in two ways. One, the league’s salary cap is going up from $79.5 million to $83 million, and second, Fenton's made it clear that he isn’t afraid to trade core players.
That could mean trading a forward like Jason Zucker — who was reportedly nearly dealt to Calgary at the trade deadline — or moving a defenseman, which is a position of strength for the Wild.
Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin carry cap hits of $5.1 million and $4.1 million, respectively next season. The 2019-20 season is also the last year of Spurgeon's contract, whereas Brodin is on the books until 2020-21.
Spurgeon is probably the most under-appreciated defenseman in the NHL and trading him would be a big blow to the blue line. Any team would love his services but because his contract will be up after next season, he'll be due for a raise.
So the Wild have to ask themselves if it's worth extending him longterm. The easy answer is yes but it might be not financially feasible. Trading him is a definite possibility from the way I see things.
Nelson or Lee won't come cheap, having earned $4.2 million and $3.75 million, respectively, with New York this season. In Lee's case, that's a bargain considering his production the last few years.
- Lee's season averages since 2016-17: 34 goals, 21 assists, 55 points
- Nelson's season averages since 2016-17: 21 goals, 23 assists, 44 points
Both are skilled players, but Lee's the kind of goal scorer and finisher this team desperately needs.
He'll be 29 when free agency hits and considering his production lately, it's a safe assumption he'll command an average annual value of at least $6 million per season.
Even with the salary cap going up, the Wild has to decide how long they want to lock up Lee. With Parise and Suter's contracts on the books for six more seasons, Minnesota can't put themselves in a position to add a third longterm, big-money contract to the payroll.
Maybe the Edina native takes a shorter-term deal because he wants to return home? Regardless, he's going to get paid by some team.
For Nelson, he's not the same high-volume goal scorer that Lee is, but that also means he probably won't command the same amount of money. Both players also play the center position.
Currently down the middle the Wild have Mikko Koivu, who's rehabbing a significant injury, Eric Staal, Joel Eriksson Ek, Victor Rask and Nico Sturm, who was just signed out of Clarkson University.
So yes, the Wild has a surplus at the position but none of them are true No. 1 centers.
In a video message to season ticket-holders in March, owner Craig Leipold vowed that the Wild will "make some noise this summer." I don't see that as fan-friendly lip service.
Last summer, when Fenton was hired, Leipold promised "tweaks" and for the most part that's what the Wild did. After watching the team trend in the wrong direction he realized it's going to take more than tweaks, thus his desire for Fenton to be active this summer.
NHL free agency begins July 1 and Wild fans should take notice of the upcoming moves.
The Wild just missed the playoffs this year in large part because of their record on home ice, and the fact their supplemental players (Granlund, Coyle, Niedderreiter and Zucker) took steps backwards.
This likely won't be a full on rebuild and ownership recognizes the State of Hockey wouldn't tolerate that, so something big will probably be in the works this summer.
Fun fact: In 2008, at Edina high school, Lee was a stud on the football team. He was the Minnesota Gatorade Football Player of the Year, so if Kirk Cousins doesn't work out the next two years, maybe Lee still hasn't a little something left in the tank.