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Updated: July 1st, 2014 8:49pm
Zulgad: Leipold willing to spend in order to build Wild into winner

Zulgad: Leipold willing to spend in order to build Wild into winner

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Forget for a moment that the deck was stacked against 29 NHL teams when it came to signing Thomas Vanek. Forget that Vanek was so intent on playing in Minnesota that he turned down richer and longer-term contract offers from the Sabres and Islanders last season.

Forget that the veteran winger also said no thanks to a better offer from the Islanders on Tuesday before signing with the Wild.

The bottom line is that for the second time in three years, the Wild was willing to spend their money on a significant free agent(s). Two years ago, the Wild pulled off the memorable July 4 daily double by signing winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to matching $98 million, 13-year contracts.

Vanek's three-year, $19.5 million free-agent deal doesn't approach those two, but it does serve as another reminder that owner Craig Leipold wants to do more than simply talk about winning. The Parise, Suter and Vanek contracts aren't the only examples of this.

Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher didn't just trade for Jason Pominville at the deadline in 2013. He also was given the go-ahead to sign the winger to a five-year, $28 million extension before last season.

"I wanted to join an organization that had a chance to win," said Vanek, who has 277 regular-season goals in nine NHL seasons. "That's why I was willing to sign for three years and not worry about going higher. I have a lot of belief in myself that I can play for another seven, eight years. So to play for an organization that's willing to trade for guys, sign guys and wants to win, that's important."

The Wild made a run to the second round of the playoffs this past season before losing to Chicago in a competitive six-game series. One of Minnesota's main issues was the lack of goal scoring when it was needed. That also was a problem during the regular season when the Wild finished tied for 24th in the NHL after averaging only 2.4 goals per game.

There have been questions about Vanek's consistency and effort level, but anyone who follows the NHL knows that often true goal-scorers can be like dynamic NFL wide receivers. They might not always give the effort you want, but they have a skill that can't be taught and that skill is necessary for any team to find success.

The Wild knew Vanek wanted to return to Minnesota - he played two seasons for the Gophers, his wife is from Stillwater and the family maintains a home in that town - but give Fletcher credit for making it happen.

Vanek signing with the Wild had been assumed for a year, but initially it was thought it would take a six- or seven-year offer to get him. Fletcher realized giving Vanek a lengthy and rich contract would be a bad idea. This is a team with several young players (Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Jonas Brodin) who are going to need to be paid in the coming seasons and this group should form the nucleus of the Wild for years to come. Vanek, according to ESPN, did get a no-trade clause in his contract.

This was not a situation where Leipold was trying to operate on the cheap, but rather one where it didn't make sense to overspend in a salary-cap league.

While the Parise and Suter contracts eventually could become issues, Fletcher's biggest problem is that center Mikko Koivu is in the midst of a seven-year, $47.3 million contract that runs through 2017-18 and includes a no-trade clause. Koivu might be a third-line center next season, meaning he will be overpaid.

However, even the Koivu contract proves that Leipold is willing to spend if he's told it will help.

That has to mean something for a fan base that has little, outside of hockey, to be pleased about when it comes to its men's pro teams.

Kevin Love can't wait to escape Minnesota and it's unlikely any marquee free agent is going to want to come here no matter how much cap room the Timberwolves might clear. Meanwhile, right or wrong, the perception is the Twins are cheap and don't have a genuine interest in free agency.

This leaves the Vikings and Wild. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf has allowed his front office to spend on the free-agent market but at last check the team has a 3-13 and 5-10-1 finish on its resume in the two of the past three years and the quarterback position still hasn't been figured out.

The Wild isn't without a significant question mark of their own, considering they have three goalies (Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper) and no clear-cut starter.

The issue is that the Wild has Backstrom under contract for two more years and Harding for one more season. Kuemper is a restricted free agent and has been tendered a qualifying offer.

The fact the Wild doesn't have more flexibility when it comes to goaltending is the bad news. The good news is that if Fletcher gives Leipold an option to make a move down the road that will improve the situation it's likely something will get done.

"Ownership, again, has been tremendous," Fletcher said. "Craig has stepped up time and time again and allowed us to spend big dollars. I think our leadership is terrific." 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. 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
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