Can the Minnesota Wild Mitigate Their Salary Cap Problem?

By Mark Donatiello
Scott Rovak – US PRESSWIRE

The Minnesota Wild are narrowly under the salary cap this year with just $170,000 of wiggle room on their NHL roster. After Gary Bettman‘s assault on player salaries during the lockout resulted in a drop in the salary cap to $64 million for next year, a big $6 million decline from this season’s pro-rated spending limit, the Wild salary cap situation gets a little bit dicey going forward.

The Wild will be able to create some salary cap room next year, but it may come at the expense of some of their top players this year. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom carries a $6 million hit this season and is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. Given the breadth and depth of prospects in the system, Backstrom could certainly be let go.

The move would be risky, given Josh Harding‘s health concerns and Matthew Hackett‘s RFA status next season, particularly when considering how unproven the promising goaltenders in the Minnesota system are. Still, with one move, the Wild can make up for the decline in the salary cap for next season by not bringing back their starting goaltender.

Dany Heatley has one more year left on his deal worth $7.5 million per season. The Wild may be able to move him next year to a contender desperate for scoring and willing to overpay for one year–or they can keep their top-line forward and his pricey deal. He is also an excellent candidate for the new amnesty clause if he isn’t in the long-term plans of the team, particularly when his best playing days are clearly behind him. Together, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Matt Cullen coming off the books at the end of this season will open up a Heatley-sized cap space at the end of the 2013 season as well.

The team is fortunate to have an elite group of prospects already in the system that may be ready to fill in the voids left by big contracts they may need to part with in order to accommodate other high-priced commitments. Still, the Wild have a salary cap problem, even with big contracts coming off the books.

It’s unlikely that they will amnesty their captain Mikko Koivu, so it’s safe to say the full $6.75 million cap hit he carries will be on the books through the 2017-18 season. Combined with the $7.5 million hit Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will carry for the next 13 years, the Minnesota Wild have more than a third of the new salary cap tied up in just three players. These limitations will force risky decisions to fill out the roster.

The Wild can let Backstrom go, but they will be forced to go with an unproven netminder in the meantime and it is always a nice luxury to groom a prospect behind a talented veteran. They can part with Heatley to open cap space, but it would leave a significant void in their top six. The team can fast track prospects to fill the holes in their roster, but depending on unproven players on a team that is built to win in the next few years is extremely risky as well.

Maybe the Wild’s salary cap problem is manageable, but at a game above .500 through the quarter mark in the 2013 season, ineffective spending is certainly cause for concern. It remains unclear whether they can assemble a top-level roster, but they’ll have to navigate a tight salary cap as they build their team going forward.

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