ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said a focus of the offseason would be improving his team’s depth.
On the first day of NHL free agency on Sunday, Fletcher and the Wild made moves with depth, speed and toughness in mind.
Minnesota wasted little time on the opening day of free agency by signing forwards Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell and offering contracts to free-agent prizes Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Parise and Suter are reportedly going to mull several offers and possible decide on their respective destinations on Monday. But for now, the Wild made moves to address the depth and help a team that led the NHL in mid-December last season before injuries decimated the roster and the team slipped out of the playoff chase.
"We felt last year, particularly when all the injuries set in, that our lack of depth was exposed," Fletcher said Sunday. "And we obviously have gone into the summer with the goal of improving our depth, and through the graduation of a lot of our young players from junior or college and Europe to the pro ranks, we think that’s certainly a great start for improving our depth and our skill level. But we also wanted to go out and maybe add a couple guys that could play on our third and fourth lines that have some experience and, basically, just make us harder to play against. Both these players do make us harder to play against, in different ways."
Konopka, who had 193 penalty minutes last year with the Ottawa Senators, signed for two years. Mitchell, who had nine goals and 10 assists last season for the San Jose Sharks, signed for three years. Multiple sources report Konopka’s contract is for $925,000, with Mitchell signing for $1.9 million.
Konopka will add toughness and had ties with the Minnesota staff. He played in Anaheim in 2006 when Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher was with the Ducks and Konopka played for Tampa Bay in 2009 when Minnesota assistant coach Rick Wilson was an assistant with the Lightning.
"I felt they understood me as a hockey player," Konopka told the Wild’s team website. "I really respect them immensely as coaches and management and that was a huge factor in the decision."
Konopka added: “I really think it’s an underrated team in Minnesota and want to prove a lot of people wrong and definitely make a run with the team.”
Konopka, 31, is strong on faceoffs, winning 58.9 percent of his faceoffs taken last year. Another big enforcer to go with Matt Kassian, who was re-signed by the Wild on Thursday, Konopka’s 193 penalty minutes were third in the NHL last season. He has 877 penalty minutes in 250 career games.
Konopka is happy to join Kassian and said the two will help protect the team’s playmakers.
"Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, the list goes on and on; there’s a lot underrated players in Minnesota," Konopka said. "Our job is to make sure they feel comfortable so they can do what they do."
Mitchell is another San Jose player to join Minnesota, which traded for Heatley and Devin Setoguchi last season. Soon after word of Mitchell’s signing, Setoguchi tweeted; “Nice to have my good buddy Torrey Mitchell back…. He’ll of the player #kidcanskate”
Mitchell, 27, will be remembered by Wild fans as the Sharks player involved in the play four years ago in which Minnesota defenseman Kurtis Foster broke his leg as he and Mitchell raced for the puck on an icing call and Mitchell knocked Foster in the boards, breaking his femur. In 280 games, Mitchell has 73 points and will likely fill a role on the third line.
"The biggest part of my game is my speed," Mitchell said. "I’ve got to use my speed to create offense, but at the same time be a penalty kill guy and a reliable on the third line and hopefully chip in offensively."
Early after the 11 a.m. Central time start of free agency, the team tweeted it had offered contracts to Parise, the New Jersey Devils forward, and Suter, the Nashville Predators defenseman, who are the two biggest targets in free agency this season. Several teams have been linked to Parise and Suter, including the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Wild had been believed to be focused on the two and confirmed their interest by the contract offers.
Parise, a Minnesota native, is a five-time 30-goal scorer in his seven NHL seasons. Suter, a Wisconsin native, is the top defenseman on the market and a two-way defender who had seven goals and 39 assists last season with a plus-15 rating.
Two Wild players from last season have reportedly signed elsewhere. The Wild didn’t tender forward Guillaume Latendresse, who had five goals in 16 games last season while dealing with a concussion, and he entered Sunday as an unrestricted free agent. ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun reported that Latendresse agreed to a one-year, $1.2 million contract, plus bonuses, with the Ottawa Senators.
Defenseman Mike Lundin, who was limited to 17 games last season because of injuries, also signed a one-year $1.15 million deal with Ottawa. Lundin, a Minnesota native, played one season for the Wild.
Forward Warren Peterson, who had five points in 58 games for Minnesota last season, signed a one-year, two-way contract with Pittsburgh worth a reported $600,000.