Wild salary cap pain settles in

Marc Elliott

Pat Maroon is headed to the Wild in a trade deal.

FOREST CENTER – Most of the Minnesota WILD fanbase knew this day was on its way. Somehow a lot of us had hoped it wasn't going to happen but there was not going to be any way possible to avoid it.

Yesterday on July 1 the annual NHL Free Agent signing period commenced and there were some deals of note, and then, for our local team there were none. If you think that WILD GM Bill Guerin was lonelier than a Maytag washing machine repairman while quite a bit of the rest of the league was busy consummating free-agent deals, you were right.   But when salary cap space is in severely short supply due to a couple of player buyouts from the recent past, there was no other way this was going to unfold. I'm not going to relive the buyouts, they are done deals outside of the cap penalties still in place. There is literally no sense in reviewing them any further. Hopefully a lesson was learned from this on both the ownership and team management levels.  

I had cautioned about the distinct possibility that these buyouts were going to cause more roster pain than we thought, but then GMBG himself challenged that a bit. Through some of his own verbiage about the situation, I felt that Guerin believed that through some careful signings of veteran players that still had some game left that were willing to play for cheap, along with some talented younger players that were still on their ELCs and so forth, I believed that somehow, just maybe the pain of the cap penalty phase was going to be survivable. That was until yesterday. If I was being honest with myself about the matter I knew in the back of my mind that this was exactly what was going to happen. And now it has.  

Many analysts and observers weren't jumping up and down about this year's crop of free agents. There were a few gems available but for the most part even some of them had drawbacks involved. Whether it was age, hockey mileage and the like it had the earmarks of a day that wasn't going to be the most remarkable UFA event we had seen in the recent past. And that is how it turned out.  

Earlier in the week Guerin made his mandatory qualifying offers to the Restricted Free Agent players the club has interest in. Filip Gustavsson, Calen Addison and Brandon Duhaime received offers. Sam Steel, Mason Shaw and Damien Giroux did not. The team likely could not afford an offer to the veteran Steel, they are in a holding pattern to see how Shaw's injury recovery goes and Giroux is a dollars available casualty. Players who have arbitration rights can file for a hearing this week. That could get interesting.  

As far as any activity by the club went on Saturday it was minimal. The team signed two players.    

Jake Lucchini is a 28-year-old, 6'0", 180lb forward from Trail, BC who played at Michigan Tech and was most recently in the OTT Sens system. Before that he was a member of the PIT Pens organization. He has a total of 11GP of NHL experience. (1G 0A 1Pt.) He inked a one-year deal for $750k.  

The signing of Minnesota homeboy Vinni Lettieri had a bit more of a buzz around it. Yes, he is the grandson of Minnesota hockey icon Lou Nanne, played HS hockey at Minnetonka, was a Golden Gopher, and went from there to the NY Rangers system. From there he went to the ANA Ducks before playing the BOS Bruin system the past season. In the NHL over five seasons he has 83GP with 7G, 11A for 18 points.   Both of these signings are showing as non-rostered players at this point so there must be a two-way contract component involved with both.  

Sometime late today the team traded for TBL Lightning forward Pat Maroon. The Bolts retained 20% of his $1mil salary enabling the WILD to obtain him for an $800k cap hit this year. He goes to UFA status for the 2024-25 season. At 35 years old this might be his last stop. For stats he does have an impressive 729GP with 117G and 171A for 288 points. He is known as a forceful leader in the room and on the ice.   The team will need that with the departure of winger and fan favorite Ryan Reaves. He got the contract he was looking for with the TOR Maple Leafs on Saturday with a 3-year deal worth $4mil. While I see some inherent issues with that it isn't costing the Leafs that much overall and he isn't the WILD's worry anymore. I'll tell you what though, Reavo is a good guy and like many fans here I wish him nothing but the best. He is a hard-nosed player and an entertainer. He definitely lifted the spirits of the team and the fans.  

Coming along with Maroon as a part of the TBL deal is forward Max Cajkovic. The 22-year-old hails from Slovakia and is 5'11" and 185 lbs. He was a 2019 TBL 3rd-round draft pick going 89th overall. He has no NHL game experience at this time and has played between the ECHL and AHL.   

The combination deal cost the WILD next year's 7th round entry draft choice. This weekend's deals place the team at 17 of 23 available contracts signed for the big club and 41 of 50 between the WILD and Baby WILD. The team's projected cap space available at this moment is roughly $7.5mil. With Gustavsson yet to sign his offered contract there are still pucks in the air with the team. I do not believe any details about his offer have been made public yet and even if he opts to go to salary arb more often than not a deal gets done before an actual hearing on the matter takes place.    

But Gus's obstinance regarding signing the deal, any deal, means the team is in a holding pattern regarding any other moves. Within his deal lie the team's abilities to do anything else at this time. My feelings are simply that this would be a hard deal to negotiate because the team only has a 39-game (22-16) sample size of what to offer him. He was a feel-good story that came at the team out of nowhere last season borne of the Cam Talbot malaise after they re-signed Marc Andre' Fleury for a return to St. Paul.   I like Gus. He played well for the most part and is an engaging player for the fans and media alike. But my overview of him does not envision the next coming of Martin Brodeur or even Fleury in his prime. But without knowing the details of the team's offer to him I'm not certain what to think here.  

Agents tend to overvalue and GMs undervalue. Somewhere in the middle is a deal waiting to happen. Is that possible or is it time to cut bait here and make a trade? Time will tell. As some fans sit with arms folded and feet tapping the clock is ticking. PEACE  

NEXT WEEK, a WILD 2023 Entry Draft review! OVER & OUT!