Bitetto, 28, split last season between the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild, meaning he’ll be quite familiar with the Central Division and the Jets. In 36 games he recorded just three points, but was always willing to engage physically and protect a teammate if necessary. The sixth-round pick from 2010 has never been a full-time NHL player, but does have 132 games under his belt over the years and should serve as some injury insurance for a blue line that has been depleted through free agency this offseason.
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.
Monday: The Wild have officially announced the two-year $1.4MM contract.
Sunday: The Minnesota Wild have come to terms with one of their own, signing defenseman Brad Hunt to a multi-year agreement, according to The Athletic’s Mike Russo. Terms haven’t been disclosed, but Russo believes the deal is a two-year, one-way pact, likely worth $1.4MM ($700K AAV).
The 30-year-old Hunt came over to Minnesota from Vegas in a January trade and a swap of late draft picks. While having trouble finding consistent playing time with the Golden Knights over his season and a half with them, he immediately found himself with a more permanent role as a bottom-line defenseman with the Wild, especially with defenseman Mathew Dumba injured. An offensive-first defenseman and locker-room leader, Hunt tallied three goals and five points in 29 games in his short stint with Minnesota.
Hunt was to be an unrestricted free-agent on July 1, but the team decided it wanted to keep the veteran around as a sixth/seventh defenseman. With a blueline expected to be healthy this season, Hunt will have to fight for playing time with players like Nick Seeler and Greg Pateryn. The team still has a number of their own unrestricted free agents they could focus on before free agency kicks off on July 1, including Eric Fehr, Anthony Bitetto, Matt Read, Nate Prosser and Andrew Hammond, if they are interested in bringing any of them back.
With the trade deadline now just over a week away, activity has started to pick up around the NHL. Rumors of major trades continue, but so far just a few deals have been completed.
Lafreniere To Stay In CHL: Potential 2020 first-overall pick Alexis Lafreniere set the record straight after rumors were circulating that the 17-year-old may opt to sign a contract overseas and follow the footsteps of Auston Matthews who played his draft year in the Swiss NLA. Lafreniere’s agent, Momentum Hockey Agency, released a statement making it clear that while the young talent did look into playing overseas, he and his family decided to stay in the CHL with Rimouski Oceanic of the QMJHL where he’s played the last two years, having totaled 74 goals and 172 points in 110 games. At 6-foot-1, he already has the size and proven ability to play in a professional league, but he will stay put for one more year.
Pastrnak, Maatta Injured: The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins each took a hit to their team when each team lost a significant player to injury. The Boston Bruins lost David Pastrnak for a minimum of two weeks after he underwent thumb surgery on Feb. 12 after he fell at a team function. The Bruins, who are fighting with the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second spot in the Atlantic Division won’t be helped even if its for a few weeks without Pastrnak, who is the team’s leading scorer with 31 goals as well as 66 points, second on the team. The Penguins also took a hit on their blueline when they placed Olli Maatta on injured reserve with an upper-body injury that would sideline him indefinitely. The team was getting back Justin Schultz from injury at the time, but the team was looking forward to getting back a fully healthy defense, which now they won’t have for some time. To make matters worse, the team had recently dealt away Jamie Oleksiak to make room for Schultz, leaving the team with a lack of depth all of the sudden.
Wild Owner Approves Selling: Just hours after Minnesota Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau guaranteed that the Wild would make the playoffs, Wild owner Craig Leipold announced that he has given general manager Paul Fenton the green light to sell off some of the team’s players in advance of the upcoming trade deadline. With the team dropping four straight and having a 2-5-3 record in their last 10 games, it might be time for Fenton to make his mark on this team after being hired this summer to fix the team’s inability to advance deep into the playoffs. Among the numerous players who could be shipped off include pending unrestricted free agent Eric Staal as well as Charlie Coyle, who still has one more year on his deal. There are also a number of bottom six players who could be moved as well, including Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks, Brad Hunt, Matt Bartkowski and Anthony Bitetto.
Philadelphia’s Hart Gets A Mentor: The Philadelphia Flyers finally consummated a rumored trade in which it acquired Edmonton Oilers goaltender Cam Talbot for Anthony Stolarz. While Edmonton freed themselves some much needed cap room as Talbot was making $4.17MM, the Flyers got themselves what they hope will be a long-term veteran who can mentor their prized rookie Carter Hart for the next few years. Talbot, who was already familiar with Hart before, waived his no-movement clause to come to Philadelphia and made it clear that he was open to signing a new contract before July 1 to remain with the team.
Ottawa Intends To Trade Duchene: The Ottawa Senators have stopped in their attempts to sign Matt Duchene to an extension and have indicated to all teams that they intend to trade the 26-year-old center. According to reports, the Senators have shifted their focus of signing Duchene to making a full effort to locking up Mark Stone to an extension. Stone may have a day or two to make up his mind on whether he is willing to sign an extension or he too, will be made available to the league with the intention of selling them off at the trade deadline. Already there has been rumors that the Nashville Predators, the Columbus Blue Jackets and the New York Islanders have expressed serious interest in acquiring the center with more suitors likely to join in before the upcoming trade deadline on Feb. 25.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
In direct opposition to comments made earlier today by head coach Bruce Boudreau, who guaranteed his team would make the playoffs, the owner and general manager of the Minnesota Wild have made other plans. The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that owner Craig Leipold has given first-year GM Paul Fenton the “green light” to move roster players before the trade deadline given the team’s current slump.
Russo writes that Leipold and Fenton met yesterday to discuss the state of the team. Minnesota has just one win in it’s past seven games since losing captain Mikko Koivu to season-ending injury and has slipped into the thick of the “turtle derby” for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Wild have fallen significantly behind the Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues in the division and now hold on to the second wild card slot by a mere two points over the Vancouver Canucks with a game in hand. Behind Vancouver at 57 points sit the Arizona Coyotes, who are working toward full health, and the Colorado Avalanche, with their potent top line, both at 55 points and a game in hand on Minnesota. There’s also the Chicago Blackhawks at 55 points and even games and the Edmonton Oilers at 53 with a game in hand and a determination to make the postseason. The Wild are by no means guaranteed a playoff spot, even if they keep their current roster together or even make a minor addition or two, as an onslaught of other teams are within striking distance. In light of this situation, Leipold has given Fenton his approval to improve the Wild for the future if he can, even if that means hurting the team’s playoff odds.
So what exactly does this mean for Minnesota? Russo does not expect sweeping changes. He feels that Leipold and the Wild brass still feel that their Stanley Cup window is open, but without Koivu and Matt Dumba, the team’s odds of even making it to the postseason and through the first round are slim, never mind finally winning a title. The core players are likely safe, but Fenton will use his newly-granted flexibility to test the trade waters on his impending free agents and some other expendable pieces. Eric Staal is the player that will jump out to most; the respected veteran is in the final year of his contract and could help many contenders down the middle. Bottom-six forwards Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks, and Matt Read and depth defenders Brad Hunt, Anthony Bitetto, Nate Prosser, and Matt Bartkowski are all impending UFA’s and should all be up for grabs as well. Among signed players, rumor mill regular Charlie Coyle and buried bruiser J.T. Brown are also obvious names to watch. Russo quickly examines the trade status of much of the roster and settles on Greg Pateryn and Marcus Foligno as possible outside-the-box casualties as well.
There isn’t going to be a fire sale in Minnesota, but no longer are the Wild going to be considered buyers. Perhaps a strong showing by the team in the six games between now and the deadline – four of which are against non-playoff teams – will even convince Fenton to stand pat and hope they can hold on to a wild card spot. However, if Minnesota cannot shake this slump, then Staal and any of the other marketable players mentioned are likely to be gone ahead of the deadline. Perhaps that causes the Wild to miss the playoffs, perhaps it doesn’t, but when the odds are 50/50 as is, the team may as well get what they can for expiring and expendable pieces.
Monday: All three players have cleared waivers and can now be sent to the minor leagues.
Sunday: Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman reports the Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators put three players on waivers Sunday as the Wild placed defenseman Nate Prosser and winger J.T. Brown on waivers, while the Senators put winger Nick Paul on waivers as well. Friedman also reported that Toronto Maple Leafs’ Martin Marincin and Buffalo Sabres’ Remi Elie both cleared waivers.
Loaded with eight defensemen after the team traded for Brad Hunt and claimed Anthony Bitetto off waivers from Nashville, the Wild had to add some roster flexibility. Wild general manager Paul Fenton is starting to get more active as this is the sixth roster move the team has made in less than three weeks. The team had no choice to make a move and still have two of their top young players, Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin sitting in Iowa, awaiting a recall since the All-Star break.
For Prosser, the move likely means the end of the line in Minnesota. The Wild also have defenseman Matt Dumba on IR currently and while he’s not expected back too soon, the team does expect him back at some point this season, meaning they had to make some move. The 32-year-old veteran was a great locker-room presence, but he has appeared in just 15 games this season and hasn’t registered a point. Prosser has played most of his career in Minnesota since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2010. He did opt to sign in St. Louis before the 2017-18 season, but only played one game for the Blues before the Wild claimed him off of waivers from him. He played 56 games for Minnesota last year. If he passes through waivers, which is no guarantee as many teams might be interested in a veteran defenseman, the team can opt to keep him on the roster or send him to the Iowa Wild of the AHL.
Brown makes his second trip to the waiver wire as Brown was put on waivers last year in January by the Tampa Bay Lightning and claimed by the Anaheim Ducks, playing in a bottom-six role for the Ducks. He then opted to sign with the Wild and has played sporadically, often being designated as a healthy scrtatch. He played in 35 games for Minnesota this year, posting a goal and four points.
As for Ottawa, NHL teams could find some interest in the 6-foot-4 Paul, who is still just 23 years old and has some potential. Unfortunately, he hasn’t shown that in 20 games with Ottawa as he’s put up just one goal and two points, while averaging just 8:28 of ice time. He played just 5:17 against Pittsburgh Friday and if he clears looks like he’ll be headed back to Belleville of the AHL. Paul cleared waivers to start the season, but the team had to place him back on waivers to return him to the AHL. He has played 15 games there, posting two goals and 11 points.
The New Jersey Devils and Minnesota Wild have agreed to a swap of depth defensemen, the teams announced this evening. Heading to New Jersey is former first-round pick Ryan Murphy, while collegiate standout Michael Kapla goes the other way to Minnesota. Kapla is the third different defenseman acquired by the Wild in the past ten days, following the trade for Brad Hunt and claim of Anthony Bitetto.
What is clear from this move is that Minnesota and GM Paul Fenton were not happy with their depth on the blue line and have opted to change out multiple players in an attempt to shore up their options on the back end. The recent additions of Hunt and Bitetto were made even as Murphy, a veteran of close to 200 NHL games, toiled in the minors, implying that they did not see the 25-year-old as a solution. Rather than keep Murphy in Iowa with knowledge that they did not trust him to play a role in Minnesota if necessary, Fenton and company decided to swap him out for another AHLer. Kapla, 24, has shown improvement at both ends in his second full pro season with the AHL’s Binghamton Devils, but has not been given much opportunity to showcase his talents in New Jersey. The former UMass-Lowell captain has not played an NHL game since the final weeks of the 2016-17 season, right after he initially signed with New Jersey. Kapla may not necessarily see much time in Minnesota right away following this trade, but he was surely open to a change of scenery. If not this season, the impending restricted free agent is at least an intriguing depth piece for the Wild moving forward.
What’s unclear is what the Devils get out of this trade. Of course, Murphy is the more experienced and refined player and has the possession skills and offensive instincts to make a difference in the right NHL situation. However, he is also an impending unrestricted free agent and New Jersey is well outside the current playoff picture with little hope of climbing back in. There is a chance that Murphy could excel with the Devils, NHL or AHL, and earn an extension, but otherwise this is a strange swap of a controllable asset for an expiring one by the team in less need of immediate help. Had the Wild also sent over some other “sweetener” – a late draft pick or low-end prospect – the deal would make some more sense. New Jersey fans just have to hope that Murphy, the 2011 twelfth overall pick, is the one to break out down the stretch and not Kapla, if either do.
The Minnesota Wild have added another depth defenseman in their search to change their fortunes this season, claiming Anthony Bitetto off waivers from the Nashville Predators according to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet. Bitetto obviously has ties to Minnesota GM Paul Fenton, who was with Nashville when the defenseman was drafted in 2010.
Claiming Bitetto actually may have a real impact on some of the other players vying for spots on the Wild, given how full their roster will now be. The team is expected to activate Eric Fehr within the next few days, meaning that there isn’t any room for the recently demoted Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek. Someone else would have to go, and likely face waivers themselves.
Bitetto’s claim also is a bit of a head-scratcher given the depth the Wild already have on defense after trading for Brad Hunt recently. The team is now carrying eight defenders with Matt Dumba on injured reserve, but have others like Louis Belpedio and Ryan Murphy in the minor leagues who could fill in if necessary. The claim doesn’t cost them much of anything though given Bitetto’s minimum salary contract, and perhaps they can sneak him through waivers themselves in a few days. Nashville at that point would have a chance to reclaim him.
The Predators are carrying eight defensemen at the moment and none of them are waiver-exempt, so if someone was going to go down it makes sense that it would be Bitetto. The 28-year old has played just 18 games this season and is averaging fewer than 11 minutes in those appearances. It seems unlikely that he would be claimed, meaning that he can be at the ready for the team in the minor leagues or just give them a little more last minute flexibility in the NHL.
Bitetto is on a one-year minimum salary contract and will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer. His NHL career consists 114 games and 19 points, while possession statistics reflect very poorly on the veteran minor league defenseman.
In a long notebook with many takes, The Athletic’s Eric Duhatschek (subscription required) points out that assuming that Seattle does acquire an expansion team that starts in the 2020-21 season, realignment will have to happen as it’s highly unlikely Seattle will end up in the Central Division, which is the division that’s short one team.
Duhatschek suggests the smartest way to fix the divisional problem when/if Seattle gives the NHL a 32nd team, would be to move the Colorado Avalanche to the Pacific Divison and then move both the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers to the Central Division. Geographically, that would make the most sense, although neither Edmonton or Calgary would make a great fit in the Central. One other possibility would be that by 2020-21, the Arizona Coyotes may have decided to move away and relocate. That could also fix the problem, but only time will tell.
- Adam Vingan of the Tennessean writes that Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Ellis has been practicing with the team and could return within the next couple of weeks. The 26-year-old stud defenseman has been out after knee surgery this summer. Vingan also writes that despite their solid defense, it’s likely the team will have to make a move with Matt Irwin and Anthony Bitetto the most likely candidates to be sent to the Milwaukee Admirals. Since the return of Yannick Weber a week ago, Irwin has been scratched twice, while Bitetto once.
- Patrick Johnston of The Province writes that Vancouver Canucks winger Sven Baertschi, who took a puck to the face during last night’s game against the Calgary Flames, will return home to Vancouver rather than continue with the team on their current roadtrip. While there are no details on the severity of the injury, Johnston said the angle of the shot and its velocity would suggest the injury could be significant as he has already been ruled out for the team’s game against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday. The 25-year-old has struggled lately on offense, but is still third on the team with eight goals this year.
- Sarah McLellan of the Star Tribune tweets that veteran Zach Parise and defenseman Jared Spurgeon are skating and may just be a couple of weeks away from returning to the team. Parise, who underwent back surgery in October, hasn’t played all year. He scored 19 goals and had 42 points last year for the Wild and was counted on to be a key contributor. Spurgeon has been out since Dec. 1 with a groin strain. He has three goals and 12 assists in 23 games this season.
- The Arizona Coyotes will play in their 21st road game of the season tonight when they face the Chicago Blackhawks tonight. The Coyotes will be the first team in NHL history to play 21 road games within the first 66 days of the season, according to NHL.com’s Dave Vest.
- Mike Chambers of the Denver Post tweets that defenseman Erik Johnson is fine after blocking a shot late in Saturday’s game against the Florida Panthers. He is expected to play Monday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.