CHICAGO — The Wild are loaded on defense.
They roll five deep with Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba, and Marco Scandella. The Wild parted with Erik Haula and Alex Tuch, payment for the Vegas Golden Knights not selecting Dumba or Scandella in the expansion draft.
Minnesota’s blue line matches the depth and breadth of Nashville’s defense. The Predators recorded 14 wins in the playoffs, mostly because Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis did their best to keep pucks in front of Pekka Rinne while putting them behind Matt Murray, John Gibson, Jonathan Bernier, Jake Allen, and Corey Crawford.
So even though the Wild may have a surplus on the back end, general manager Chuck Fletcher has not been in a rush to share his bounty with anybody, including fellow Harvard graduate Don Sweeney.
“We can start the year with the team we have,” Fletcher said at the draft’s conclusion. “We have to add a couple more forwards. But we like our group. We can go with what we have. If somebody wants to make us an offer on a hockey trade that helps our team, we’re all ears. But there really weren’t that many conversations. We like our group. We worked hard to keep this group. So we’re certainly content to start the year this way.”
Sweeney declined to divulge the identity of his pursuit, both in terms of player and organization, as he chased blue-line assistance before and at the draft. It’s a good bet the Bruins GM was chatting with his Minnesota counterpart.
The Wild were without a first-round pick, which they had wheeled to the Coyotes as part of the ill-fated Martin Hanzal deadline rental. On Friday, after the first round, Sweeney acknowledged putting the No. 18 selection on the market. The 27-year-old Scandella is a left-shot defenseman, which is the Bruins’ priority to complement Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug.
Instead, with no willing takers, the Bruins used their first-rounder to draft Urho Vaakanainen. The Finn is a smooth-skating left-shot defenseman. But at 18 years old, Vaakanainen is at least one season away from NHL contribution, although Charlie McAvoy made the jump less than 10 months after the Bruins announced his name in the first round of the 2016 draft.
“He’s got the ability to cover a lot of ice,” Sweeney said. “His gap control is really good. He gets back on pucks and looks to make his first pass. The enticing part is, does the offensive stuff continue to grow? That’s what I’d like to continue to encourage and see him develop as the course of the year goes along next year.”
The Wild have their own issues. Fletcher would like to build out his fourth line. Restricted free agents Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter are due for raises. Neither will be cheap.
Granlund set career bests in 2016-17 with 26 goals and 43 assists. Niederreiter also hit high-water marks with 25 goals and 32 assists. Both are eligible for arbitration. So while the Wild would be more comfortable moving salary to accommodate Granlund and Niederreiter, Fletcher’s calculator says he has enough room to re-up both without sending dough out the door.
“We can get under,” Fletcher said of the ceiling. “We’ll be the same as we’ve been for the last three years. We’ve been a little tight for the last three years. We could potentially even have a little more room than we’ve had the last couple years. I’m not too worried about that. We’ve got some young guys ready to make the team who can help us carry good cap hits.”
If Fletcher is serious about his resolve, it leaves the Bruins with one fewer option in their chase to fill their most pressing need. The other possibilities are not as appealing.
Like Minnesota, the Golden Knights are stacked on defense. Unlike the Wild, the expansion franchise is not stacked in a good way.
GM George McPhee has four left-shot defensemen he would probably consider flipping: Jason Garrison, Marc Methot, Clayton Stoner, and Alexei Emelin. The first three are 32 years old. Emelin is 31. Garrison, Methot, and Emelin all have forms of no-trade protection in their contracts. Stoner earns $3.25 million annually, which is the least of the four. None qualifies as young, inexpensive, or mobile.
McPhee had better luck trading 30-year-old David Schlemko ($2.1 million annually) to Montreal and 25-year-old Trevor van Riemsdyk ($825,000) to Carolina, partly because of their reduced costs.
The Bruins would not have to cede assets to sign a defenseman through unrestricted free agency. But the UFA left-shot defenseman pool is not appealing either.
The best of the bunch is 28-year-old Karl Alzner, considered not worthy of re-upping by the Capitals. Brendan Smith is also scheduled to be unrestricted, although the Rangers could sign the ex-Red Wing to an extension. Other possibilities include Michael Del Zotto, Dmitry Kulikov, and ex-Bruin Matt Hunwick. Given the slim pickings, the Bruins might consider bringing back 36-year-old John-Michael Liles instead of investing in an outside commodity.
Sweeney has noted his confidence in Chara, Krug, McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Kevan Miller, and Adam McQuaid. With no additions, however, it would require Miller to move to his off side. The Bruins would also be asking Matt Grzelcyk and Rob O’Gara to be ready to make the jump.
It’s not a comfortable position for the Bruins. With the draft having come and gone, options have become more limited.