I'd like to think I know some things about NHL hockey after watching it for over 40 years.
I know that free agency cannot be looked upon as a catch-all panacea for what ails your team. (See 'Rangers, New York' for many, many examples of this.)
I know that the amateur draft is a bigger crapshoot than a drunken tour thru a Vegas casino. You are betting your future on a bunch of 18-year-old kids, who have barely proved anything (especially those who have not gone thru the Canadian Juniors system, such as Minnesota high school kids and Europeans, who have barely begun to go thru the process in their own countries.)
I know that one of the toughest things that NHL teams have to face in this era of 'cost containment' (Commissioner Bettman's words, not mine) is the decline in gate attendance (teams in certain markets are having difficulty selling tickets, even in Northern markets). Overall, the NHL will show you whatever statistics to refute that; but the reality is that in most NHL markets -- especially those outside the Dominion of Canada -- there just aren't as many fannies in the seats these days. And that directly hurts the bottom line. Most southern teams (outside of California) are facing this reality these days. With the NHL unable to reach any terms on a long-term USA TV deal (either on over-the-air broadcast or on cable) there will be no financial help from the TV side, either.
So where does this leave the Minnesota Wild going into Thursday's start of free agency?
In this blogger's opinion, not in a very good place.
The options for free agency are limited, as long as albatross contracts, such as those of Mark Parrish, Marek Zidlicky and the injured-for-15-months Pierre-Marc Bouchard are still on the Wild's payroll, not to mention the club's continued insistence on keeping the likes of first-round draft uber-bust James Sheppard (and his new one-year, $800K contract) on the roster.
The Wild still need to re-sign two restricted free agents (Guillaume Latendresse, Josh Harding), the six players drafted Friday and Saturday in Los Angeles at the entry draft, and add help, especially at the center position, a position where the League as a whole is perilously thin. The Wild need forwards, especially centers. Now. They really cannot afford to wait until a better crop of free agents comes in, next season or any season after that.
Picking from this season's crop of UFA's is like going thru the thrift store after a three-day clearance sale. There really isn't a lot out there. It's definitely a seller's market, especially if you are a center or can play center, especially on the power play. The reality is that the best time to get better quickly is in free agency, and everyone knows it. That is where the lack of draft picks for the Wild over nine of the last 10 seasons comes in.
Doug Risebrough's legacy -- trading draft picks for virtually nothing, year after year -- is now really coming back to hurt the Wild, as the cupboards are so bare, they have no assets to trade for anyone of value right now. The lack of quality picks from 2004-2009 (players that are NHL-ready immediately after the draft) now really comes back to hurt the franchise, as the picks of the likes of A.J. Thelen, Benoit "B-b-b-Benny" Pouliot and James Sheppard are now seen, as three of the worst NHL first-round draft selections in the 2000's. Thelen never dressed in Iron Range Red, and Pouliot and Sheppard never should have. Pouliot was pawned off on Bob Gainey and the Montreal Canadiens, in the trade steal of the year for Latendresse, while Sheppard played sparingly as other, younger, more talented players stepped in and stepped up, while Sheppard was frequently relegated to operating the Martin Skoula Memorial Popcorn Machine in the Al Shaver press box at the 'X'.
So what, then? What do the Wild do to better themselves this summer?
A few comments from one blogger:
1. Fish or cut bait with Bouchard. Don't try to drag this saga out into the regular season. Retirement should be the only option for this guy NOW. He is never coming back to play hockey, at least on the same level as he did prior to getting his clock cleaned March 25, 2009 on Long Island (a game I was in attendance at, BTW), so the time has finally come to cut the ties, set 'Butch' adrift, and free up about $4.5M in cap space.
2. Matt Cullen? No thanks. The ex-Carolina Hurricane (and four other NHL organizations), St. Cloud State Husky and Moorhead Spud is indeed out there, but I don't think he would be comfortable in Minnesota. The expectations would be set way too high, the pressure would be too great to excel with no help around you, and when you have a 90-year-old sportswriter (Sid) trying to glom onto you at every single opportunity, how can you play at a productive level?
3. Trade Zidlicky before his new, no-trade contract goes into effect July 1. For what offense he brings to the blue line, the fact of the matter is he is a defensive liability of the first order, and is nowhere worthy of his new, $4M, 3-year chokehold of a contract thru 2012-13. Like Filip Kuba, Martin Skoula and Kim Johnsson before him, Zidlicky is another Euro-defenseman who is over-paid, over-rated, and over here ... on the Wild roster.
4. Someone in the Koivu household tell Saku that the Wild is his brother's team, and that he would be a big, big help to his little brother if he signed with the Wild. With both Koivu brothers on the roster, team discipline would be at an all-time high. And after the way last season disintegrated (remember the two games at Detroit? The games at home against lowly Atlanta and Florida?) there definitely is some discipline needed from within the roster itself.
Free Agency begins Thursday. What happens then? Who knows?