- Craig Custance
Matt Cullen is a hockey fan as much as he is a hockey player. He's not one of those guys who get eliminated from the playoffs and then stop watching. He's into these playoffs. Like all of us, he was astonished by Gregory Campbell finishing his shift with a broken leg.
"I've never been prouder to be a hockey player," Cullen said. And he's been impressed with the Blackhawks' transformation and improvement during their playoff run.
But one feeling is unshakable. Cullen's Minnesota Wild missed an opportunity. The Blackhawks team that is now up 3-1 on the Kings isn't the same team Minnesota saw in the first round.
"I don't think they were at their best at the time [we faced them]. I just feel like we had a real opportunity," Cullen said Thursday afternoon. "I don't think anybody really felt like Chicago played their best hockey against us. It was a series we really could have won or made a lot closer than we did."
The frustration extends further back. In Cullen's mind, the Wild shouldn't have been playing the Blackhawks in the first place. With a stronger finish to the regular season, maybe they would have had a better seed. Maybe they would have been the team upsetting the Ducks.
These are the thoughts that haunt every competitive player who is no longer skating this time of year. The what-ifs can be maddening, especially when you're 36 and desperate for another long run in pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
It's a hard time to be a player on the outside looking in. But it's actually a fun time to be a general manager because this is the time plans are laid to make sure the disappointment of one season isn't repeated in the next.
That's Chuck Fletcher's job right now. He spent this week meeting with his pro scouts, coaches and the rest of his staff to formulate a plan that will help the Wild's continued growth to build off the success of last season.
"The next six weeks are fun," Fletcher said when we chatted last weekend at the NHL draft combine. "Especially in the cap system, it's difficult to make a lot of changes during the season. It's difficult to make a lot of adjustments to your roster or move a lot of players out or in. The decisions you make in the summer, much more so than in the past, will clearly define what you're going to be in the next year."
July 2012 certainly was a fun month for Minnesota, but the Wild's success last offseason -- landing prized free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter -- presents some formidable challenges this coming summer. And those decisions start now.
Suter and Parise come with matching salary-cap hits of about $7.5 million, which makes things tight this year with the cap coming down from $70.2 million to $64.3 million. Minnesota has money coming off the books in unrestricted free agents Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cullen, Brett Clark and Niklas Backstrom, but it's not like the Wild are prepared to let every one of them walk. According to CapGeek.com, the Wild currently have 18 players signed with about $8 million in cap space for next season. If they want to bring any of those veterans back, there will be some roster shuffling.
"We really haven't had contract talks with any of the players yet," Fletcher said. "We've done that for a reason. We didn't want to pick and choose at this point. Regardless of the cap, we're probably not going to bring that whole crew back. We're going to have to make some adjustments. When I looked through there were 11 teams and counting that have some work to do where it won't be a typical summer in the sense that the cap will be an issue. It's going to be an interesting market. I think it's going to be fewer teams actively pursuing players."
Fletcher hasn't ruled out bringing some of his potential UFAs back, and for good reason. In Cullen's case, you have a veteran center coming off a season in which he formed strong chemistry with Devin Setoguchi. He was clearly missed when injured, and only Parise, Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu had more points than Cullen last season among Minnesota's forwards. He saw regular time on both the penalty kill and power play and is one of the few Minnesota players with his name on the Stanley Cup. He registered 18 points in 25 games during Carolina's Stanley Cup run in 2006.
Guys like that aren't easy to replace, and Cullen, a Minnesota native, wants to be part of the Wild's continued development.
"I love it here. I'm going to live in Minnesota the rest of my life. It's going to come down to a hockey decision," Cullen said. "Bottom line, I don't know how much of it's going to be up to me. We all know the cap stuff. Some tough decisions to make this summer. I haven't heard anything yet. We'll kind of wait and see."
Backstrom's camp is in the same mode, and the goalie situation might be the most interesting part of the Wild's offseason.
Backup Josh Harding is signed for a reasonable $1.9 million, and the Wild have a talented young goalie in Darcy Kuemper providing organizational depth. But for a team that's looking to make a playoff statement now, those aren't the two goalies you pin those hopes on.
Starting netminder Backstrom earned $6 million last season and led the league with 24 wins. His save percentage dropped to .909, but he has a career save percentage of .917. Serious contract talks haven't started yet.
"Right now, we're just waiting for Minnesota to finish their meetings and go from there," Backstrom's agent, Jeff Kowall, said Thursday. "Our first step is to see what Minnesota's plans are, and hopefully there's something to be worked out."
It's an interesting time to have flexibility in goal if a deal can't be worked out with Backstrom. If Minnesota prefers to go short-term with a veteran until Kuemper proves he's ready, guys like Nikolai Khabibulin and Evgeni Nabokov should be available. If you want to spend more money, Mike Smith could hit the market if he's not comfortable with the ownership situation in Phoenix. Chicago probably won't be able to keep Ray Emery, who lost all of one game this season in 19 starts with the Blackhawks, going 17-1-0 (and getting the hook once for a no-decision) with a .922 save percentage.
And then there's the trade market. Roberto Luongo will be traded, although that contract doesn't appear to be a fit with the Wild. But Ryan Miller's term is much more reasonable and may make him the most attractive goalie available this summer. And Fletcher knows Marc-Andre Fleury well from his time in Pittsburgh. Considering the Penguins' decision to ride Tomas Vokoun in these playoffs, the possibility of a Fleury trade looks more and more likely this summer.
"[Backstrom's] our No. 1 goalie. We'll just have to see," Fletcher said. "There's a whole host of factors involved there. ... Goaltending is our No. 1 priority to address."
Much of the growth the Wild will make between this season and next will be in the improvement of young players like Jonas Brodin, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle. Mathew Dumba will be given a chance to show he's ready to be the next young Minnesota player to make an impact at the NHL level.
But the improvement in Minnesota can't be left on the shoulder of its kids. Part of the responsibility still lies in the hands of Wild management. If there's a way to clear more cap space by removing Dany Heatley and his $7.5 million cap hit from the equation, it has to be considered. He had 11 goals in 36 games in a season shortened by a shoulder injury and surgery in early April. The ability to retain salary may open up a trade possibility, and a buyout can't be ruled out, either.
It's a little easier to make significant steps forward when you can just spend on free agents, like last summer. This year will take creativity.
"We have to find ways to improve our team. Maybe you do that through the trade route, that in turn opens up an opportunity to work on something -- work on one of our own guys or go out to the market," Fletcher said. "There's a lot of different ways we can go."
After netting Ryan Suter and Zach Parise last summer, the Minnesota Wild face a new challenge in 2013 -- advancing their team as a Cup contender despite salary cap constraints. As free agency creeps closer, priority No. 1 will be goaltending.