With Wednesday's late announcement that forward Guillaume Latendresse had agreed to a two-year deal in Minnesota, it appears Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher has done his work on the team's restricted free agents.
Latendresse proved to be a shining example of what a change of scenery can do for a player. After scoring just two goals in 23 games for Montreal, Latendresse found his game in Minnesota, scoring 23 goals in 55 games while becoming the kind of fan favorite he never really was in Montreal, despite being a local talent.
He looked comfortable in Minnesota. Latendresse got regular playing time almost immediately, skating on the top line and top power play unit at times. At only 23, it is reasonable to expect Latendresse will keep improving, and Fletcher gave him a contract that both rewards him and challenges him to keep working.
According to Minneapolis Star Tribune writer Michael Russo, Latendresse signed for two years and $5 million. The deal will expire one year before Latendresse will be eligible for unrestricted free agency.
The only restricted free agent left is goalie Josh Harding, who is on the verge of his first shot at unrestricted free agency, will only command a one-year deal, and is still a candidate to be traded. With so many goalies on the open market who are more accomplished, though, it could be a while before Fletcher can pull the trigger on a deal for Harding.
With Latendresse signed, Fletcher should have a very good idea how much money he can spend on free agents.
It won't be a lot.
According to CapGeek.com, the Wild have 21 players under contract for 2010-11. With Latendresse's new deal, the team has a shade over $8 million in cap room. Given the complicated mess at center, that's not very much.
It's at center where youngster Casey Wellman must show he is ready for the NHL. Wellman was signed out of college at UMass, and he got a brief cup of coffee with the Wild. He showed a ton of promise thanks to his speed, but he left for the summer with the intention of packing some muscle on his gangly frame. Without that, it doesn't seem likely that he would hold up to the rigors of an 82-game schedule.
The uncertain health of Pierre-Marc Bouchard adds to the Wild's issues. Bouchard averaged 79 games a season for the first four years after the lockout, before being limited to one in 2009-10. Concussion problems are still plaguing the undersized pivot, and the Wild are on the hook for a $4.080 million cap hit. Bouchard is trying to get better, but there is simply no way of knowing if or when he will be cleared to skate.
So what can Fletcher do? A player like Phoenix center Matthew Lombardi seems like a perfect fit, but Fletcher doesn't have the cap space for someone like him. Lombardi is a rare breed in this free-agent class, a sure-fire top-six center who is only going to get better. He will command much more money than normal because he is so uncommon in this market.
Fletcher will have to gamble on a lesser-known player. Names like Minnesota native Matt Cullen, former Wild center Eric Belanger, and veteran Saku Koivu -- brother of Wild captain Mikko -- will be talked about.
Cullen has expressed a desire to stay with Ottawa, the team that acquired him in a deadline deal from Carolina. However, he is expected to hit the open market, and the lure of returning to his home state may be too much to pass up. Cullen was born in Virginia, a town on the Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota. He played his high school hockey in Moorhead, then was a college star at St. Cloud State, about an hour northwest of the Twin Cities.
Released by the Dallas Stars this week, center Mike Modano may have some interest in returning to Minnesota, where his NHL career started with the North Stars. However, outside of the nostalgia and emotions involved, it's not a move that makes much sense.
Outside of those veterans, Vancouver grinder Kyle Wellwood could be a cheap option. Even on the open market, Wellwood, 27, isn't likely to strike it rich, but his playing style could be an asset on Minnesota's third or fourth line.
For Fletcher, there is little else to worry about spending money on. Marek Zidlicky, Brent Burns, Nick Schultz, Cam Barker, and Greg Zanon make up the top tier of the defense. While some locals would love to see Fletcher pursue Devils defenseman Paul Martin, a Minnesota native, it may take a corresponding move for Martin to fit on the roster.
No, the needs aren't on defense. Minnesota needs more skill and scoring punch up front. They need to find centers who can win faceoffs, chip in offensively, and help get the puck up the rink in transition. Unless Fletcher can find that help, Todd Richards' second year as head coach might not go much better than his rookie year did.