Free agency opens a week from today and there are quite a few prominent players set to hit the open market, while many teams have key restricted free agents to re-sign as well. The Wild have few UFA’s to worry about, but there are a number of young RFA’s in need of new deals with little experience in Minnesota to go off of. Here’s a closer look at their free agent situation:
Key Restricted Free Agents: F Kevin Fiala – The lone return for center Mikael Granlund at the trade deadline, Fiala arrived in Minnesota with high expectations. Will the terms of his extension reflect that? Or will the team push for a short-term “show me” deal? That’s the question facing the former Nashville Predators top prospect, the No. 11 overall pick in 2014. Although he has 223 NHL games to his credit, Fiala played in only 19 games with the Wild and contributed just seven points. With that said, he still totaled 39 points on the year and had 48 points the season prior. Fiala is not eligible for salary arbitration yet, so does not have that added leverage, but on a long-term extension he could make a fair case for an AAV of $5MM+. A bridge deal would keep that number lower until Fiala can prove that his numbers in Nashville can be replicated in Minnesota.
F Ryan Donato – Like Fiala, Donato landed in Minnesota with much fan fare, both as the core return for Charlie Coyle and as a decorated and talked-about rookie. While Donato had struggled early on in the season with the Boston Bruins, recording nine points in 34 games and frequently being exposed defensively, he excelled right away with the Wild, adding 16 points in 22 games. While that level of production might be a lofty expectation moving forward, the team is certainly excited to have Donato and could be looking into a long-term deal. With only 68 career games played though, Donato’s value is not as high as it would be after a full NHL season and his camp will probably settle for a one- or two-year deal with a low salary number to allow him to prove his worth in time for a new contract. Donato does have arbitration rights, but it would be a surprise if he files.
F Joel Eriksson Ek – While Eriksson Ek played in 17 fewer games this season than last, he scored at a higher per-game clip, saw more ice time, and improved his defensive play. At 22, Eriksson Ek is still growing, but his production thus far leaves a lot to be desired from a recent first-round pick. Through 148 NHL games over three seasons with the Wild, Eriksson Ek has just 37 points and still has yet to really carve out an identifiable role. Minnesota won’t quit on him just yet, but they may try to sign him to his one-year, $874K qualifying offer to see if one more year helps to clarify his long-term fit and potential.
Key Unrestricted Free Agents: F Eric Fehr – The veteran Fehr did well for himself last season, returning to relevance after many had written him off following uninspiring stops in Pittsburgh, Toronto, and San Jose over the few years prior. Fehr signed a one-year, $1MM contract with the Wild last summer and proved to be a good value, recording 15 points and playing an important defensive role up front. The 33-year-old played in 72 games and, despite pedestrian minutes, still managed to finish second among all Minnesota forwards in blocked shots and sixth in takeaways. Fehr was a reliable penalty killer and an asset at the face-off dot, especially considering his team-leading 68% defensive zone starts. Age hasn’t affected Fehr’s size and defensive instincts, so he will be valued as a veteran fourth line option on the market. Still, after other recent stints did not work out so well, one has to think that Fehr may be willing to stick at or near his current price point to remain in Minnesota, where he has the best chance of continuing to play his game at the highest level.
D Nate Prosser – After Prosser failed to find a role in Minnesota last year, heading down to AHL Iowa with just 15 games and no points to show for his season to date, some wondered if he would ever end up back in the NHL. Yet, Prosser took full advantage of his minor league opportunity, recording eight points in 31 games but more importantly playing a shutdown role and showing leadership on the ice en route to a deep playoff run. The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that the showing has done Prosser some good, as the 33-year-old has drawn “lots of attention” from prospective suitors. The only time in his career that Prosser strayed from Minnesota – a brief and failed stint with the St. Louis Blues – he wound up back with the Wild that same year. It’s fair to assume that he’ll entertain other offers this off-season though, as Minnesota already has seven defenders signed to one-way deals next season and Prosser’s opportunity to make an impact will likely be greater elsewhere.
Projected Cap Space: The Wild are in good shape financially, close to $20MM below the salary cap ceiling of $81.5MM and only Fiala among the free agents listed who could command a salary that will eat into that total very much. With that said, GM Paul Fenton and company will still need to be wise with their extensions to maximize the space they can use to explore the market and improve a roster that is going through a major overhaul.