Minnesota Wild Step Up To The Free Agent Plate, Home Run Or Foul Ball?

Marc Elliott

ST. PAUL…. Last Friday, July 1st was the annual “Free Agent Frenzy” day in the National Hockey League. This is the day when the leagues GM’s and other Exec’s spend lots of money, some of it intelligently, and some not so much. Some of these chaps get referred to on this day as guys who are spending money like “drunken sailors”. That of course is a timeworn phrase, and I have no evidence whatsoever that some of the deals made on this day were consummated while in a state of intoxication or if the men involved were stone cold sober. That’s not to say that some fans, after their club has made some sort of questionable deal aren’t saying that their teams exec’s must have been totally hammered while working the phones that day.

At any rate, while watching the wire and observing on NHL Network radio and TV, there were definitely some of the annual head shakers completed. What is my definition of such? To me that is when a club makes an obvious overpayment to a player, either in terms of dollars or in length of contract. There are occasionally some contracts where a team might overpay because they are in a market where they believe they have to offer more to a certain player they are in pursuit of because they aren’t confident in what their market offers players from a lifestyle standpoint or it’s just not a sexy, racy venue for some guys.

Some clubs might overpay for a certain player because they need to get their roster dollar amount up to the league salary cap floor. There are “cap” teams that spend up to the allowed amount (cap ceiling) and then there are “budget” teams that don’t. So, here we go, here are this years head scratcher deals, in no particular order; Edmonton signs Milan Lucic to a 7 year, $42mil deal. Yikes! While Lucic has been one of the top power forwards in the NHL for the past few seasons, I blanch at the term given to this player, especially considering that the league is moving toward speed and Lucic has never been a speed player and never will be. I also see a player whose offensive production will be leveling off and in decline within 2 to 3 seasons. The annual dollars aren’t bad here, but I would not have offered over 4 years to this player. This is a bad contract. But since it came from his former GM in Boston, Peter Chiarelli, who is probably trying to make up for cutting the cord on him with the B’s, it all makes sense.

The next deal that has me applying fingernails to scalp is the Detroit Red Wing signing of UFA Frans Nielsen to a 6 year, $31.5mil deal with an annual cap hit of $5.25mil. The dollars are fine here, but again, the length of this deal has me wondering about the train of thought going into this deal. Nielsen is a fine player, very skilled, and has the statistical support to be known as one of the leagues best shootout players ever. From the info that I could research, he is top 5 all time. Frans though is 32, but he still has the skills and though he doesn’t skate like a sled, how will he be 5 years from now? 6 years?
Speaking of Boston, they have inked former St. Louis Blues Captain David Backes to a 5 year, $30mil contract with an annual cap hit of $6mil. My concerns? Backes is 32, he plays that “heavy” style of game and I am left to ponder if Backes body can endure the entire 5 years of this deal and still be the player he has been. He has been featured on the Blues top lines even though in my book he doesn’t show those kind of numbers. He is a standup guy though no doubt. I would have been more comfortable with a 3 year deal.

THIS BRINGS ME TO THE Minnesota Wild. Some of the knocks against them include being weak up the middle, not enough scoring punch amongst other concerns. After the buyout of Thomas Vanek the club freed up some cap space. They used some of that to re-sign RFA Jason Zucker to a 2 year $4mil deal. To me Zucker is an enigmatic player who just got a fairly generous bridge deal. Is he worth that contract? Not in  my book, but I’m not Chuck Fletcher. Zucker is a guy with upside that needs to find himself a big year.

The big deal for the team was to sign UFA Eric Staal to a 3 year, $10.5mil deal with an annual cap hit of $3.5 mil. Honestly, I am not sure if I would have pursued Staal. This player was at one time one of the premier power forwards in the game. He is a member of the Triple Gold club (Stanley Cup, WC Champ, OLY Champ) and that brings some street cred to be certain. However, he is 31 and will turn 32 shortly after this upcoming season begins and I believe that he is a guy with a ton of “hockey miles” on his physical person. There were supposedly 3 to 4 teams in on him, but Fletcher made the deal. Perhaps the lure of playing close to his Thunder Bay, ON hometown was attractive and perhaps there weren’t really any other clubs after his services. I do not know.

Don’t get me wrong though, this player was one of the top talents in the world for several seasons, I just cannot tell what he has left in the tank. He has went from a point plus per game player to a half point per game player. Due to his pending UFA status his former club the Carolina Hurricanes traded him to the NY Rangers prior to the deadline where he obtained only 6 points in 20 games. In the SC playoffs this year he was pointless in 5 games. If you were to ask me if this signing moves the team closer to SC contention I would have to say no. Staal can help, but what he might bring at this point in his career is a large question mark.

The team has brought back rugged forward Chris Stewart on a 2 year, $2.3mil deal. If nothing else perhaps the team once again has a guy who might prevent the teams smurf-like forwards from getting run over and then wondering who is going to handle that for them. Sorry, but I can’t give the team more then a ’C’ for this years free agent period! PEACE