A day that started with three Minnesotans staying in state to play for the Minnesota Wild, perhaps ended a bit busier than originally expected for the Wild.
General manager Chuck Fletcher had previously said he didn’t expect to be a big player in unrestricted free agency. When free agency opened Wednesday, Fletcher added one big piece from outside the organization in former University of Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly and followed by securing much of the Wild’s depth, which helped the team to its third-straight playoff appearance last season.
Reilly, an original 2011 draft choice by the Columbus Blue Jackets, signed a two-year, entry-level contract with Minnesota and will be given a chance to contribute immediately at the NHL level after a standout three-year college career with the Gophers.
“Oh, absolutely,” Fletcher said when asked if Reilly would have a chance to play at the NHL level next season. “He’ll have to come in and earn it but this is a good hockey player. This is a world-class hockey player we added to our team.”
The Wild followed by agreeing to a two-year contract with restricted free agent Mikael Granlund and re-signing defenseman Nate Prosser and forward Ryan Carter. The Minnesota theme continued with Prosser, from Elk River, Minn., signing a two-year contract and Carter, from White Bear Lake, Minn., signed for one season.
Reilly, born in Chicago, grew up in Chanhassen, Minn. and gives the Wild’s current roster four players who grew up in the state along with college connections in Thomas Vanek, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine.
Fletcher added depth to the organization by signing forwards Zac Dalpe, Ruslan Fedotenko and Marc Hagel to two-way contracts. The Wild then signed goaltender Stephen Michalek, a 2011 sixth-round draft pick by the team, to a two-year, entry level contract.
With a young core of 13 players under 25 years old, Fletcher believes his team can take another step internally. Reilly is being added to the mix and Fletcher said center Tyler Graovac and winger Kurtis Gabriel could be ready to contribute at the NHL level next season.
‘We liked our team,” Fletcher said of not making major changes from the outside. “I think we were the first or second best team in the league after January 1, so certainly have a talented team, a good hockey team. We could have 14 players 25-and-under next year, which I think might be the most in the NHL, and typically players don’t hit their prime until 26 or 27, so we’re pretty excited about our future.
“A lot of guys will have opportunities to become important players. There’s no sense boxing some of these young kids out. They’re ready. I think (Jason) Zucker, (Nino) Niederreiter, (Charlie) Coyle, Granlund, go on and on, (Jonas) Brodin, (Marco) Scandella, Mike Reilly, (Matt) Dumba, they all deserve an opportunity to grab more ice time and get a bigger share of the pie.”
Reilly, 21, finally made his signing with Minnesota official at the start of free agency. The 6-foot-1, puck-moving defenseman was a Hobey Baker finalist last season for the Gophers while tallying six goals and 36 assists in 39 games. He’ll join a deep defensive corps with Prosser that Fletcher called the strength of the team.
“I’m beyond excited to be a part of that group and feel blessed to be a part of that group,” Prosser said. “It’s a bunch of great guys, great individuals, that are fun to be around. We’ll have some fun this year, but we’ll also be ready to compete and win some games.”
Prosser had two goals and five assists in 63 games before an injury. Prosser said he’s “100 percent” healthy. Carter also dealt with injury and played in 53 games in his first season in a Wild sweater, scoring three goals and passing out 10 assists. He was second on the team with 55 penalty minutes.
Granlund is part of the young core. Drafted the same year as Reilly, Granlund had eight goals and 31 assists last season. The two-year contract worked for both sides.
“When you get into longer contracts with young players, you’re projecting and you can tend to have big misses either way when you’re projecting,” Fletcher sad. “I don’t think anybody anticipates Granlund being an 8-goal, 40-point guy for the rest of his career. I think he’s going to take off here over the next two years. Too what level? Who knows?
“What I think a two-year deal does is give you that flexibility to price him fairly on what he’s done to this point in time and then two years from now you can have a more accurate projection as to what he’s going to do going forward. It also helps to keep the cap number a little bit lower, which from our standpoint is a good thing for the next two years. It will give us a few more dollars to allocate elsewhere.”
The moves likely mean an end to Kyle Brodziak’s tenure in Minnesota. Brodziak, 31, is an unrestricted free agent after six years with the Wild in which he scored 72 goals and had 97 assists.
“I want to thank Kyle for everything he did for us,” Fletcher said. “He did a lot of yeoman’s work for us. He competed, he fought battles for his teammates, he scored goals, he moved from the second line to the fourth line. He just played a variety of roles and played them very well…Unfortunately we just don’t have the ability to bring him back and I’m hopeful he gets a great opportunity elsewhere.”
Leaving a busy first day of free agency, Fletcher was pleased.
“Right now, this is our team,” Fletcher said. “The biggest thing that we feel very good about is we have very good depth on ‘D’ and we have very good depth in goal, and those are the two hardest areas to replace in-season. And we think we have some young forwards that can certainly challenge for a spot in camp and provide depth over the course of the season. We’re very cognizant right now of making sure we have enough depth and also staying with enough of a cushion underneath the cap.”