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Wild: No room for free agency fireworks

By Chad Graff St. Paul Pioneer Press ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Wild team that skated off the ice at Xcel Energy Center with their heads hung low after being swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in May will essentially be the same team that takes the i...

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(Laszlo Balogh, Reuters) Mike Reilly, left, of the U.S. collides with Slovakia’s Marek Viedensky during the World Championships May 12 at the CEZ Arena in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Reilly will sign a two-year contract with the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday.

By Chad Graff

St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL - The Minnesota Wild team that skated off the ice at Xcel Energy Center with their heads hung low after being swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in May will essentially be the same team that takes the ice in October for opening night.

With a salary cap-strapped roster, and hoping their young players continue to improve, the Wild aren’t expected to make many changes this summer.

With free agency officially beginning Wednesday, the Wild aren’t expected to do much more than add depth after already making their biggest move, re-signing goaltender Devan Dubnyk to a six-year, $26 million contract.

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“I’m actually excited coming back with our team,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said.

“I think it’s a great thing,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said.

The Wild have been knocked out of the playoffs in the second round for two straight years, and three straight times by Central Division rival Chicago. Yet there is optimism.

“We have some players that still have some things to prove, and we have 12 young guys 25 and younger that we ended the season with,” Fletcher said. “Certainly none of those 12 have hit their peak, in our opinion. There’s still considerable upside within our group, and I think the way the season ended left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth.

“I think it’ll be a motivated, more experienced group that comes to camp next season - and certainly a team that we feel can be quite successful in the league.”

If the Wild are going to improve, though, surely it can’t come just from the development of young players. While full seasons from Jason Zucker, 23, and Matt Dumba, 20, are reasons for optimism, the Wild will need better season-long performances from several members of their core.

Thomas Vanek’s 21 goals in 80 games was the worst pace of his career. Same for Jason Pominville’s 18 goals in 82 games. And Mikko Koivu’s 48 points in 80 games was his worst pace since his rookie season in 2005-06.

Those are statistics Yeo surely knows, even if he remains convinced that those players can help lead an improved Wild team next season.

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“We’re confident with our core,” the coach said. “We know we have to get better. Part of that growth is the growth of the young players, and part of it is us continuing to find ways to get better as a team. I think that one thing - with how difficult this league is, with how tight things are on a night-to-night basis and the competition we have in the West - I think the more consistency you have the better. I think it gives us a little bit more of a leg up come training camp, a little more familiarity with our systems, more consistency with lines and chemistry. Obviously, I’m very happy about that.”

Much of the Wild’s summer to-do list has already been completed.

They bought out veteran forward Matt Cooke to save cap space. They inked goalie Dubnyk to a long-term deal. They recruited free-agent Gophers defenseman Mike Reilly, who will sign on Wednesday. And they’re nearing an extension deal with Mikael Granlund, their No. 1 center for much of last season.

Now they’re left without much room before they hit the salary cap ceiling. Couple that with a relatively weak crop of unrestricted free agents, and there’s reason to believe Wednesday will bring little more than depth signings from the Wild.

They’ll still need to add a forward or two in a bottom-6 role - players similar to Ryan Carter and Sean Bergenheim - and a third pairing defenseman like Jordan Leopold. But fireworks in free agency? Unlikely.

“Unless we make a trade,” Fletcher said, “I don’t think we’ll have much room.”

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

Related Topics: HOCKEY
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