General manager Paul Fenton has spent recent weeks trying to make the Wild a younger and more salary-cap friendly team.
Fenton turned into 26-year-old right wing Nino Niederreiter and his $5.25 million cap hit (which runs through 2021-22) into 25-year-old center Victor Rask and his $4 million cap hit (through 2021-22); Fenton turned 26-year-old center and winger Charlie Coyle and his $3.2 million cap hit (through 2019-20) into 22-year-old center and winger Ryan Donato and his $900,000 cap hit (he will be a restricted free agent after this season); and Fenton turned 27-year-old center and winger Mikael Granlund and his $5.75 million cap hit (through 2019-20) into 22-year-old left winger Kevin Fiala and his $863,333 cap hit (he will be a restricted free agent after this season).
Fenton has said he wants the Wild to make the playoffs this season, but what else is he going to say? If it happens, it happens, but it’s going to be on Fenton’s terms and that’s with different roster look.
There is one move that Fenton made near Monday’s trade deadline that is a bit confusing. Center Eric Staal, whom the Wild was shopping but unable to trade in part because he had a 10-team list of clubs to whom he could block a deal, was instead given a two-year, $6.5 million contract extension that will take him through his age 36 season.
I understand veteran leadership can be important, but the Wild already have two aging players who aren’t going anywhere. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have no-move clauses and are seven seasons into their monster 13-year, $98 million deals.
Center Mikko Koivu, who is sidelined for the remainder of this season because of a knee injury, also has a season left on the two-year, $11 million contract extension that former general manager Chuck Fletcher gave him in September 2017. That contract carries a cap hit of $5.5 million and, as Fenton can tell you, no matter how much of a professional Koivu might be, this is a young man’s league and every salary-cap dollar is precious.
That gets us back to Staal’s new contract, which will carry a $3.25 million average annual value. Staal’s current deal comes in with an AAV of $3.5 million. Staal had a brilliant season for the Wild in 2017-18, becoming only the second player in franchise history to score more than 40 goals in a season. His 42 goals were tied for fourth in the NHL and made his three-year, $10.5 million free-agent deal he signed in 2016 look like a bargain.
This season, however, has been a disappointment for the veteran.
Staal, who has 18 goals and 23 assists, has made it clear he would like to remain in Minnesota, but he hasn’t come close to looking like the player the Wild saw last season. Far too often, Staal has looked slow and been ineffective. Either something isn’t right with him or the speed of the game has become too much. There is some feeling that all of the trade speculation surrounding Staal was impacting his game, but this is an experienced player who should have the ability to tune that out.
Fenton, who clearly isn’t afraid to make a trade, seemed to have a key trade piece in Staal. Staal had the limited no-trade leverage, but he also would have had an opportunity to add center depth to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Instead, Staal got his wish to stay and Fenton, instead of allowing him to hit the free-agent market this offseason, signed him to a team-friendly deal. What’s odd is that if Staal really wanted to stay in Minnesota, he would have taken a bargain-basement deal at any point. If he balked at that, Fenton would have every right to be livid because getting a second-round draft pick back for Staal would have ultimately helped Fenton and put Staal, late in his career, on a true winner.
And here’s the last thing that’s baffling. Staal reportedly got a modified no-trade clause included in this contract, too. Why? A year from now, if the Wild are struggling at the deadline, Fenton should have made sure he had the ability to trade Staal for whatever he could get without the player being able to block the deal.
Why Fenton didn’t do exactly that is a bit of a head-scratcher.