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Updated: July 5th, 2013 1:55am
Myers: Wild not able to be 'major player in free agency' market

Myers: Wild not able to be 'major player in free agency' market

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by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. --  Alongside the day in 1997 that the NHL awarded Minnesota an expansion franchise, Independence Day 2012 will go down as the most memorable off-ice moment in Minnesota Wild history.

But any fans hoping for a repeat of last year's $200 million spending spree, which brought Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to the State of Hockey, are guaranteed to be disappointed at 11 a.m. Friday when free agents can officially sign new contracts.

Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher is working hard in advance of the opening of NHL free agency, but he's made it clear that 2013 will be nothing like 12 months ago.

"We're not going to be major player in free agency at all," Fletcher said on Tuesday. "It's just not mathematically possible."

Math comes into play in the form of the salary cap, which is roughly $6 million smaller than a year ago as a result of the lockout that wiped out half of the past NHL season. While some teams -- the Winnipeg Jets and New York Islanders most notably --  are $25 million or so under the new cap, the Wild entered the week with roughly just $1 million to spend.

That changed on Wednesday when Fletcher made what he termed a 'difficult decision' and bought out the contract of underperforming defenseman Tom Gilbert, clearing $4 million of cap space. Gilbert, who was a star at Bloomington Jefferson High School and the University of Wisconsin, came to the Wild in the spring of 2012 in a trade with Edmonton and played 63 games with his hometown team, scoring three goals last season.

On Tuesday, before the Gilbert move was made, Fletcher wouldn't talk about any individuals, including unrestricted free agent forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard, other than to say that the team was "exploring all options."

It has widely been rumored that Bouchard has played his final games in a Wild sweater. And with Fletcher's propensity for praising the young players in the Wild system and talking about successful efforts to re-stock the cupboards that were relatively bare when he took over the general managers' job four years ago, it would seem likely that fans in Minnesota, not Iowa (new home of the team's top minor league club), will see more of Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin going forward.

"Our depth has gotten a lot better over the last couple years," Fletcher said. "A few important young guys made their debut last season and I expect a few more to make their debut this season...We always prefer to develop from within, which is certainly less expensive than diving into the free agent market every year."

And in comparison to previous summers, there's not as much of a free agent market worth dipping into anyway. At least there are not team-building prizes like Parise and Suter to be had. Fletcher calls it a "compressed market" and says that free agency is not what it was last year.

There are a few big names from roughly a decade ago - Daniel Alfredsson, Jaromir Jagr and Teemu Selanne - to name three members of the over 40 club floating out there. Don't expect any of them in Christmas colors next season. The Wild's moves in free agency this year will be less headline-grabbing, but Fletcher has already said publicly that he expects his team to do more 12 months from now.

Last year at this time, when he was first introduced to the Minnesota media, Parise talked openly of he and Suter -- who was named a NHL First Team All-Star on Wednesday -- being "recruiters" of free agent talent to the Wild, offering to sell them on the hockey culture, the passionate fans and the quality of life.

While Fletcher won't touch that idea officially, noting that any recruiting of players under contract is considered tampering, he did say that the most important work of making the Wild a potentially popular free agent destination was done a year ago by owner Craig Leipold, via writing two big checks. There won't be as many checks, and they'll be nowhere near as big this season, but the work done a year ago has paid off some on the ice, and should pay off again in the future when there's more money to spend.

"The fact that Craig went out and spent the money he did last year sends a message," Fletcher said. "Craig made everyone take notice."

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers
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