Stanley Cup contenders are officially anointed between the boards, but the Wild’s off-ice decisions have it acting the part.
With a severe salary cap pinch looming and the team still hovering near the top of the Western Conference despite a monthlong swoon, the Wild signaled its playoff ambitions by adding future Hall of Fame goaltender and reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury in the NHL’s splashiest acquisition on Monday ahead of the trade deadline.
“It’s because of what these guys have done all year, the way that they’ve played and the way that they’ve changed things around here,” General Manager Bill Guerin said. “This is a credit to them.
“I’m doing my job.”
Marc-Andre Fleury career statistics
The Wild acquired Fleury from Chicago, sending the Blackhawks a 2022 conditional first-round draft pick that’ll downgrade to a second-rounder if the Wild fails to advance to the Western Conference Final and Fleury doesn’t post at least four wins through the first two rounds.
Chicago also retained half of Fleury’s contract, a three-year, $21 million deal that’s up after this season when the 37-year-old is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.
“It’s a great opportunity for me, coming here to a good team, making the playoffs and having a chance of making a run here,” Fleury said. “I’m excited about that.”
Fleury will fill out a new-look tandem for the Wild in the crease, since the team traded Kaapo Kahkonen and a fifth-round pick to San Jose for edgy defenseman Jacob Middleton.
Prospect Jack McBain was on the move, getting shipped to Arizona for a second-rounder after the Wild was informed the Boston College standout wouldn’t sign with the organization. The team also dealt with Victor Rask after he was demoted to the minors last month; he ended up with Seattle for future considerations, and the Wild retained half his contract.
Add in the recent arrivals of fourth-line center Tyson Jost and physical agitator Nicolas Deslauriers, and the Wild was aggressive in a roster makeover that gears up for a rugged race in the postseason.
“They’re built for the playoffs,” Fleury said.
After a torrid first half that at one point saw the Wild climb atop the NHL, the team stumbled out of the All-Star break, going 4-9 while getting tagged for a league-high 57 goals in that span.
Guerin settled on making a change in net a couple weeks ago, and that’s when he inquired about Fleury.
Still, Guerin went back and forth the last few days on whether the deal would get finalized. Fleury ended up waiving a no-trade clause to join the Wild, and Guerin felt losing a first-rounder for a conference finals appearance was worth it.
And Fleury has a knock for delivering in the playoffs.
He won his first Stanley Cup when he and Guerin played for Pittsburgh in 2009 before going back-to-back in 2016 and 2017 while Guerin worked in the team’s front office.
“He can help all of us,” Guerin said of Fleury, who has the fourth-most postseason wins all-time (90). “That experience is key.”
In 45 games with the rebuilding Blackhawks, Fleury went 19-21-5 with a 2.95 goals-against average, .908 save percentage and four shutouts after an offseason trade from Vegas, where Fleury shined in four seasons.
“He’s fun to watch,” Guerin said. “He’s like watching Kirill [Kaprizov] except a goalie.”
Not only did Fleury finish third in wins, goals-against average and shutouts a year ago, but he was also crowned the league’s best netminder. Fleury was especially sharp in the first round of the playoffs, leading the Golden Knights past the Wild in seven games amid a sparkling 1.71 goals-against average and .931 save percentage.
Overall, he ranks third in NHL history in victories (511), is seventh in games played (928) and has a career .913 save percentage after getting drafted first overall in 2003 by the Penguins.
“There’s not much that beats winning,” Fleury said. “You’re always chasing that feeling and that achievement. Just want to keep doing it again.”
Wearing his trademark No. 29 with Dmitry Kulikov switching to No. 7, Fleury — whose nickname is Flower — backed up Cam Talbot on Monday night against Vegas at Xcel Energy Center but it’s unclear how the Wild will divvy up the workload the rest of the way.
“It is already a great team,” Fleury said. “I think Cam’s a great goaltender too, and I’ll just try to pull my weight, try to do well and try to help win some games.”
How the Wild’s goaltending looks for next season is also a mystery.
Although Fleury hopes to continue playing, Guerin isn’t sure if Fleury will re-sign. Bringing in Fleury, though, meant cutting ties with Kahkonen, a Wild draft pick who won 31 games over three seasons, including a 12-8-3 recent run.
“I had no idea,” Kahkonen told reporters after he was pulled off the ice Monday morning. “Obviously it was shock at first but now that I’ve had a little bit of time here to think about it, I think it’s gonna be a great opportunity.”
Talbot is under contract for another season, and Guerin expected prospect Jesper Wallstedt to leave Sweden to play in North America.
But that’s not all the Wild has to figure out.
Kevin Fiala is on an expiring deal, and the team currently has limited flexibility — approximately $10 million — for its summer spending because the cost of the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter buyouts are increasing to nearly $13 million; they’ll be just shy of $15 million by 2023-24.
“I know what’s coming,” Guerin said. “I know what we’re going to have to do.”
In the meantime, the Wild plans to carry 14 forwards and eight defensemen along with Fleury and Talbot, exceeding the usual 23-man roster limit that expired at the deadline.
The team assigned forward Connor Dewar to the American Hockey League in a paper move to make Dewar eligible to return to Iowa; Dewar is remaining with the Wild, using up one of the team’s four available recalls the rest of the season.
And that’s the next step in this process, the future.
Management rewarded the performance that has the Wild vying for the second seed in the Central Division.
Now the responsibility shifts back to the players for an encore.
“We think they can all help our team,” Guerin said, “and I’m so confident in the group that we already have that they’ll welcome these guys with open arms, and it’ll be a seamless fit for all of them.”