The salary cap-strapped Wild began the process of freeing up an additional $4 million to use this summer when it placed veteran defenseman Tom Gilbert on unconditional waivers Wednesday.
Once the Bloomington Jefferson product clears at 11 a.m. Thursday, Gilbert will be bought out from the final year of his contract. At the same time, Keith Ballard also will clear unconditional waivers so the Vancouver Canucks can buy out the remaining two years of his contract.
With the Wild suddenly in the market for a defenseman, it wouldn’t be shocking if the Wild inquires into signing the former Gophers defenseman. Both Gilbert and Ballard will become free agents when the market opens at 11 a.m. Friday.
Ballard, 30, who won national titles as a freshman and sophomore at the University of Minnesota, will be seeking a one- or two-year deal so he can re-establish his career as a quality two-way defenseman after three tumultuous years in Vancouver. Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher can’t call Ballard until Thursday. But in a new collective bargaining agreement wrinkle, teams could begin calling free agents at 11:01 p.m. Tuesday as part of a two-day recruitment window.
Other defensemen that might be of interest to the Wild include Andrew Ference, Rob Scuderi, bought-out Mike Komisarek and Michal Rozsival. The Wild also plans to give Matt Dumba, its 2012 first-round draft pick, a long look in training camp.
Veteran center Matt Cullen, who can become a free agent Friday, hasn’t ruled out the Wild but fielded a number of calls from teams Wednesday. “I’m just waiting to hear what Minnesota’s doing, but in the meantime, I’ve taken some calls from other teams,” Cullen said. “It’s a weird deal the way it’s set up now, and I’m just trying to go into this with as open a mind as possible. Chuck’s been very up front and honest with me, and I’ll continue to do the same thing with them and keep communicating.”
Despite Fletcher making and receiving “a ton of calls” Wednesday, it was a much less hectic day for the GM than exactly one year earlier when he and Wild owner Craig Leipold were sitting across a table in Madison, Wis., from Ryan Suter putting the final touches on a Suter-Zach Parise July 4 twin inking.
Coincidently on Wednesday, Suter became the first Wild player to be named an NHL First-Team All-Star. Four days earlier, Suter’s defense partner Jonas Brodin made the All-Rookie Team. Suter’s honor came after he led the NHL in average ice time (27 minutes, 16 seconds per game), finished second among defensemen with 28 assists and third with 32 points.
It’s fair to say Wednesday wasn’t as cheery for Gilbert, Suter’s fellow Wisconsin Badger who couldn’t be reached for comment. He will receive two-thirds of the $3 million owed to him ($2 million spread over two years) but suddenly is looking for work. Every team is allowed two amnesty buyouts (which free a team of cap hit) that can be used this summer or next.
“Due to the NHL salary cap decreasing this season, we needed to make this difficult decision to give the team more flexibility,” Fletcher said in a statement.
It’s Fletcher’s second buyout as Wild GM. Two years ago, he bought out defenseman Cam Barker. This buyout might not have occurred if the Wild was allowed to buy out Dany Heatley and his $7.5 million cap hit, but Heatley is considered an injured player because of season-ending shoulder surgery.
Gilbert, acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline two seasons ago for veteran defenseman Nick Schultz, scored three goals and 18 points in 63 games for his hometown Wild. He struggled at times last season. He was minus-11, was scratched twice and saw his ice time decrease to an average of 19:19 a game. This was a player who logged more than 30 minutes six times after the 2012 trade.
Before last season, Gilbert and center Kyle Brodziak, who also had a rough season, each were stricken with pneumonia. While neither used the illness as an excuse, both players lost significant weight and Gilbert was hospitalized.