Minnesota Wild shore up defense with free agency

Published 4:31 pm Saturday, July 6, 2013

ST. PAUL (AP) — With precious little space left under the salary cap, the Minnesota Wild were looking for another experienced, puck-moving defenseman.

Keith Ballard was seeking a fresh start, and thus the match was made.

The Wild signed Ballard to a two-year, $3 million contract on Friday and also re-signed defenseman Jared Spurgeon to a three-year, $8 million contract.

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Minnesota wasn’t done yet shaking up its roster. The Wild freed up salary-cap space by trading forward Devin Setoguchi to the Winnipeg Jets for a second-round pick in next year’s draft. They also signed forward Matt Cooke, a 14-year NHL veteran who has spent the past five seasons with Pittsburgh.

Ballard was let go by Vancouver earlier this week when the Canucks used a compliance buyout to help their own salary cap situation. He said he had interest from a half-dozen other teams but picked the Wild because he believed he best fit with them on the ice.

As a bonus, well, he’s one of the many NHL players who are natives of this hockey-rich state.

“I’m excited for playing in front of these fans in this building,” Ballard said at Xcel Energy Center, where he won the first of two NCAA championships with the University of Minnesota. “I’ve had a lot of real good memories here. The fans in Minnesota are amazing.”

As the first day of NHL free agency began, the Wild let right wing Pierre-Marc Bouchard and center Matt Cullen sign elsewhere. Ballard was all they had room for, with the salary cap decreasing this season.

But the 30-year-old’s skill set, track record and experience level were well worth that remaining space for the Wild. With Ryan Suter, named a first team NHL All-Star, anchoring the blue line they’ve got talent in that group. But Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner and Spurgeon are young. So another veteran voice was desired. The Wild used a compliance buyout to release defenseman Tom Gilbert this week as well.

“He competes, he can skate, he can move the puck, and he’s a good player,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “Our defense is much deeper today than it was yesterday.”

Ballard is from the town of Baudette near the Canadian border, consulted with new teammate Zach Parise on Thursday to find out what his experience of returning to his home state to play in was like. Ballard was satisfied with what he heard.

“We’re used to moving away here every fall and being on our own and your life slows down a little bit. But he said it was fun and he really enjoyed it,” Ballard said. “You can get wrapped up in all your buddies and all your friends and getting pulled in every direction, but for me I understand that this is an important year and you’ve got to be able to balance everything.”

Ballard averaged nearly 30 points per season over his first five years in the league, three with Phoenix and two with Florida. Traded to the Canucks, Ballard’s game fell off in Vancouver that first season and never recovered.

“I came in there just off of a fairly major hip surgery, and I wasn’t really ready to go to start the season, and you kind of get one first impression, right?” Ballard said. “It took me awhile just to get comfortable on the ice, and I had some injuries that year. It was partially that and partially trying to get accustomed to a role that was probably different than what I was used to the first five years of my career.”

Said Fletcher: “We’re pretty confident that we can get his game back and he can get his game back to what it was before.”

Spurgeon will make $1.5 million this season, $2.9 million in 2014-15 and $3.6 million in 2015-16. He had five goals and 10 assists in 39 games last season.

Cullen signed a two-year, $7 million contract with Nashville.

“We lost a really good person and a really good player, but that’s the nature of the cap system,” Fletcher said. “Fortunately we have good depth up front.”

Bouchard signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the New York Islanders. He’d been with the Wild since they took him with the eighth overall pick in the 2002 draft, and he’s second in franchise history with 565 games and 241 assists.

“The cruel irony I guess is he’s finally getting healthy, and now he’s going to play his best hockey in a long time,” Fletcher said. “I’m very happy for him.”

Despite the loss of two of their most experienced players, Fletcher noted the Wild have seven veterans among their top 10 forwards. The departures, though, mean more contributions will be needed from Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker. Others waiting in the wings who could push for roster spots in training camp are Brett Bulmer, Justin Fontaine and Zack Phillips.

“No team’s perfect, but our team right now is deep and we have several all-star caliber players and we have a lot of character in the group and some pretty good skill,” Fletcher said. “It’s a good mix. We like where we’re at.”