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Wild GM gets busy on his offseason to-do list

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sports Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

By Chad Graff

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — The Minnesota Wild’s season didn’t end the way they wanted it to, a funny bounce off the back glass that led to the Blackhawks’ winning goal in overtime Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center.

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But beating Colorado in the first round of the playoffs and playing Chicago so tough in the second has left Wild players, coaches and fans excited about the future.

While Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and the rest of the Wild players take the next few months off to rest and recuperate, it’s time for general manager Chuck Fletcher to get busy. The Wild front office has some decisions to make as it hopes to improve on the best Wild season in years.

Here are some things that need to be on Fletcher’s to-do list:

1. Coaches

The contracts for most of the coaching staff, including head coach Mike Yeo, expire on June 30. Indications are that the front office will re-sign all the coaches to multi-year deals, but the work has to be put in place. Negotiations are expected in the coming days.

Before Fletcher can focus on other areas, he needs his coaching staff in place.

2. Goalies

Ilya Bryzgalov was in the Wild goal for much of the playoffs, and performed well down the stretch, allowing just five goals in the final four games. Of the four goalies on the roster with starting experience, he is the only one not under contract for next season. It is unlikely the Wild will re-sign him, unless the status of Niklas Backstrom or Josh Harding changes.

Darcy Kuemper, who played so well as a rookie starting in goal from January to March, is a restricted free agent and, while he’ll likely re-sign with the Wild, he likely will get a one-way contract.

That’s a problem since both Backstrom and Harding have one-way contracts for next season and teams usually only carry two goalies during the regular season.

Backstrom, who at 36 is the Wild’s oldest player, is coming off season-ending abdominal surgery after sitting out most of the season anyway. His future is unknown.

So is Harding’s. After playing so well through December, he didn’t appear in a game in the final five months after multiple sclerosis symptoms forced a leave of absence. He is under contract for next season, and Fletcher has to decide how he approaches the situation. Harding has shown glimpses of brilliance, but he has been forced to take two long leaves of absence the past two seasons.

3. A scorer

Talk of former Gophers star Thomas Vanek signing with the Wild has been steady for more than a year, so we’ve got six more weeks of speculation before free agency begins July 1.

The Wild need a goal-scorer. And it seems Vanek, who lives in Minnesota during the offseason, wants to come home. A win-win, right?

Vanek is a longtime friend of Wild winger Jason Pominville; they were teammates in Buffalo. And he turned down long-term contracts from both the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens this season, ramping speculation that he’ll be with the Wild next season.

But the emergence of several young Wild players — Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula, especially — in the playoffs might ease the Wild’s desperation to sign a high-priced scorer.

Would Vanek give the Wild a hometown discount? And do the Wild want to commit a long-term contract to a 30-year-old veteran?

4. Defense

The blue line was one of the Wild’s strengths this season. Next season, it could be even better with highly-regarded college free agent Christian Folin under contract and 2012 first-round draft pick Mathew Dumba eligible finally to play in the American Hockey League.

But both of those players are under two-way contracts, and Fletcher could opt to add size and grit to the defense with a proven defenseman like Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen.

5. Who to keep? 

Before Fletcher can sign any free agents, he’s got to decide what to do with the unrestricted free agents on his roster.

The Wild have plenty of cap space opening up this summer with Dany Heatley’s $7.5 million cap hit coming off the books. Heatley won’t be back. But decisions have to be made on five other unrestricted free agents: forwards Matt Moulson, Mike Rupp and Cody McCormick, and defensemen Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner.

McCormick is the most likely forward to return after playing well on the Wild’s fourth line. It’s unlikely both Prosser and Stoner return on the back end. Stoner has the best chances of returning thanks to his size and performance in the playoffs.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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