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Updated: July 1st, 2014 7:34pm
Fletcher gets his guy but Wild GM sees Central get that much tougher

Fletcher gets his guy but Wild GM sees Central get that much tougher

by Judd Zulgad
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- As Chuck Fletcher worked to sign winger Thomas Vanek on the opening day of the NHL's free agency period Tuesday, the Wild general manager monitored what was going on around the league by occasionally glancing at the televisions that were turned on in the team's offices.

Fletcher began to see a trend and it wasn't a positive one if your desire is to win the Central Division.

"It's pretty daunting looking at the scroll (on the TV) and seeing every single player went to the West," he said. "It seemed like everybody came to our division."

Of course, this wasn't the case, but Fletcher would be justified to have gone home Tuesday with mixed feelings. On one hand, he was able to land the goal-scorer he coveted by signing Vanek to a three-year, $19.5 million contract. But Fletcher also saw other teams around an already tough division get that much better.

Colorado agreed with winger Jarome Iginla, whom the Wild had interest in signing, on a three-year, $16 million contract. Chicago, probably the best team in the Central, signed Brad Richards to a $2 million, one-year deal. Paul Stastny jumped from Colorado to St. Louis for $28 million over four years. Dallas signed winger Ales Hemsky to a $12 million, three-year deal and worked a trade with the Senators for center Jason Spezza.

"It's only going to get more difficult to make the playoffs, and we're going to have our hands full to make the playoffs next year and once you get in anything can happen," said Fletcher, whose team was eliminated in the second round by the Blackhawks this past season. "But it's a battle just to get in, and I think we recognize that and I know the coaches recognize that."

Wild coach Mike Yeo certainly does.

"What I'm feeling is the same thing that the rest of our division is feeling and I think that they are throwing us in that category, too," Yeo said. "I have a lot of respect for the league. I do believe that we play in the toughest division in the league. You heard Chuck say it, 'It's going to be tough for us to make the playoffs.' Our players have to be aware of that, but at the same time we're capable of an awful lot here. So we should look forward to that challenge."

While Fletcher was able to sign Vanek, he lost defenseman Clayton Stoner (four years, $13 million) to Anaheim and lost out on veteran defenseman Willie Mitchell, who jumped from Los Angeles to Florida for $8.25 million over two years.

"I didn't expect this," Fletcher said when asked about all the rich deals that got done. "Maybe I'm naive. We were consistently under-bidding on a few other players, I'll tell you that. I don't know if other teams were, but the prices caught me a little off guard for maybe what you would consider role players or bottom-of-the-lineup type players. But I definitely think some mistakes have been made today on some players, so I think we'll be a little bit patient and let things sort out."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Clayton Stoner, Mike Yeo