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Fenton's summer checklist a lengthy one

Start of a new season still six months away, but Wild's GM will certainly be busy between now and then

by Dan Myers @MNWildScribe /

ST. PAUL -- Wild General Manager Paul Fenton will have a busy summer, but at least it won't be anything like his first one on the job.

With all due respect to the process that saw him named as the third GM in franchise history last May, it's safe to say that Fenton is looking forward to a more "normal" offseason. 

Now settled into his office, in the Twin Cities and with the organization, Fenton's job now becomes returning the Wild to the postseason next spring.

While the regular season is still six months away, the job of prepping the Wild for the 2019-20 season has already begun inside the team's offices. 

Here is a look at what Fenton has to look forward to before the team drops the puck on next season:

Finding some offense

While Fenton and coach Bruce Boudreau are still unpacking the 2018-19 season, it won't take long to find perhaps Minnesota's biggest issue from last season: Consistent offense.

Identifying that need is the easy part. Fixing it will prove to be much more difficult.

Sure, getting defenseman Matt Dumba back from injury will certainly help. Dumba led all NHL defensemen in goals when he went down in mid-December with a torn pectoralis muscle.

The Wild certainly has some candidates to improve from within as well.

Jason Zucker and Eric Staal each saw their goal totals decrease rather dramatically from the year prior.

Zach Parise believes he can get back to his 30-plus goal form, a benchmark he likely would have reached this season if not for knee and foot injuries late in the year.

Kevin Fiala appeared ready to threaten 30 goals this season for Nashville, but was never able to ascend high enough in the lineup to see those kind of prime scoring chances. 

Luke Kunin, Ryan Donato and Jordan Greenway have more experience and should see their offensive numbers go northward next season.

But Minnesota can't count on all of that happening, and even if it does, can a team really have too much goal scoring?

Video: Locker clean out: Parise

The Wild will have the 12th overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft this summer, and while it could take a player with goal-scoring pedigree at that spot, he's unlikely to be of much help next season. 

There are some intriguing free agents available this summer that have some goal-scoring pedigree, but in free agency, you're often paying for past performance, not for current or future play.

Could a trade be in the offing? Finding a viable trade partner with a need that matches the Wild's strengths might be the easiest instant injection of offense. The time to execute that kind of trade would come in the week or so leading up to the draft.

Free agency

For the first time in seven years, the Wild will have some wiggle room to play on July 1, the first day of NHL free agency.

Don't for a second think that wasn't part of Fenton's planning when he traded Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund during the season, bringing in younger, cheaper talent in return. 

The Wild will enter the offseason with about $19 million in cap space, but will need to budget some of that for restricted free agents Fiala, Donato, Joel Eriksson Ek and Nico Sturm. 

After that, Minnesota will probably have about $12 million in cap space to play with. 

Video: Fenton & Boudreau press conference

What will Fenton do with the team's unrestricted free agents, forward Eric Fehr and defensemen Brad Hunt and Anthony Bitetto? 

If he signs one or more of those players, that will eat into that $12 million. If not, that's a significant amount of money to go shopping with on July 1. 

Among those scheduled to be unrestricted free agents this summer are forwards Artemi Panarin, Jordan Eberle, Matt Duchene, Jeff Skinner and Joe Pavelski, defensemen Erik Karlsson, Tyler Myers and Alexander Edler and goaltenders Semyon Varlamov and Mike Smith. 

The belief is that Panarin and Bobrovsky could be targets for the Florida Panthers, where they would play for Panarin's old coach in Chicago, Joel Quenneville, who was named Panthers coach last week. 

Another route the Wild could take would be that of restricted free agency. 

While there has been an unspoken agreement of sorts between GMs to remain hands off, teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets could be in unenviable positions when it comes to signing their own RFAs.

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That could open the door for others with more salary cap flexibility to sign restricted free agents like Mitch Marner, Patrik Laine or Jacob Trouba to giant offer sheets and make life increasingly difficult for those clubs. 

Those clubs will have first right of refusal, of course, and signing these players would require surrendering draft pick compensation, but for the first time in many years, the restricted market could be one teams choose to dabble in.

Whether Fenton is open to this possibility or not is unknown, but expect him to leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding young talent.

Balance is key

Fehr, Kunin and J.T. Brown were the only right-handed shots on the forward roster at the end of the season.

That has to change.

One of Boudreau's biggest issues with Niederreiter was that he didn't want to play the left-handed winger on his off hand. But Boudreau often had no choice. With lefties Greenway, Zach Parise, Jason Zucker and Marcus Foligno already on the depth chart at wing, Niederreiter had to play the right side or force one of those other players to his off side. 

That problem wasn't remedied during the season.

Video: Locker clean out: Foligno

Victor Rask is a lefty. So is Donato. So is Fiala. So is Sturm. 

With Fehr a question mark to return and Brown no more than a fourth-line option, only Kunin brings a right-handed element to the forward group. 

That presents problems at 5-on-5, but can also make life difficult on the power play. 

Looking to kill two birds with one stone, and find a right-handed goal scorer in free agency? Pavelski, a Plover, Wisconsin native, Eberle and Panarin are all right-handed options. So are pending free agents Justin Williams, Wayne Simmonds and former Wild forwards Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek. 

Other than that? Lots of lefties.

How Fenton attacks this issue is one of the more fascinating things to watch this summer.

Looking toward next year

It's never too early to start planning ahead, right? 

How will the Wild's roster shape up in the summer of 2020, when captain Mikko Koivu is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent? 

One name to watch for this summer will be defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who like Koivu has one year remaining on his contract.

The 29-year-old defenseman is absolutely one of the NHL's most talented -- if not under-appreciated -- blueliners. He established new career highs in games played, goals, assists and points this season and seems to be getting better and better every year.

Video: Locker clean out: Spurgeon

He'll need a new contract at some point. 

Expect the Wild to visit with Spurgeon's representation this summer to gauge his interest in a new long-term deal. Spurgeon has indicated that he wants to re-sign in Minnesota and that he wants to be a big part of the future here.

But with Dumba, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin already inked to lucrative long-term contracts, can Fenton make the numbers work for Spurgeon as well? Will he have to move some salary out by making a trade? Could Spurgeon himself find himself on the trade market?

These are all questions that don't need answers this summer, but don't be surprised if Fenton starts working ahead on solving them.


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