A deeper look at salary cap and roster implications of the Wild’s trades

The flurry of Wild trades over the last month had plenty to do with shaking up a stale core of players. But they probably had as much — or more — to do with creating even a little bit of much-needed payroll flexibility for a team that has been constantly pressed up against the salary cap in recent years.

Let’s take a look at how the Wild is situated heading toward the summer and beyond after the three major trades.

*First, a youth movement clearly has financial benefits in terms of controllable assets — either on entry-level deals or in the case of the three players I’m about to list as restricted free agents.

Let’s guess and say holdover Joel Eriksson Ek and newcomer Ryan Donato both get two-year deals worth $2 million a season as restricted free agents this summer and newcomer Kevin Fiala maybe gets a slightly longer deal at $3 million a year since he has three straight years of double-digit goals, including a 23-goal season last year.

The individual numbers might shake out a little differently, but let’s go with $7 million combined for those three players in 2019-20 and 2020-21.

Before the trades, the Wild was on the hook for Charlie Coyle at $3.2 million next season and unrestricted free agency the year after. Mikael Granlund was going to count $5.75 million next year and be a UFA in 2020. Nino Niederreiter has $5.25 million a year for the next three years after this one.

Isolating just on next season, the Wild took back Victor Rask ($4 million a year, same length as Niederreiter) and will pay Donato and Fiala maybe $5 million combined.

So they went from $14.2 committed to three players to more like $9 million. The Wild spent $3.25 million of that projected $5.2 million savings on a modest extension for Eric Staal, but that still leaves them about $2 million ahead of where they were going to be pre-moves.

That puts them at about $70.3 million spent toward the cap next season (including the final year of the Tyler Ennis buyout at $1.1 million), leaving a little under $13 million more to spend under a cap projected at about $83 million.

That includes 12 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies — basically most of the guys who dress now, plus Matt Dumba, Mikko Koivu and Rask back from injury.

Depth/entry-level guys will eat up another few million, so let’s say the Wild sits right now with about $10 million to spend this summer — and doesn’t have to use any of that money on anything in particular since at a base level every position is accounted for after the Staal extension.

Without the trades, and still with the Staal extension, that number would have been more like $5 million in cap space.

Neither is a ton of room to play with, but $10 million at least gets you into the conversation with a big acquisition or two. And the Wild could carve out more room if it deals Jason Zucker ($5.5 million) before his modified no-trade clause kicks in this summer, depending on what salary it received in return. Based on what GM Paul Fenton has done already, one would expect a Zucker deal would net another NHL-ready but lower-priced asset.

The bottom line is that in the short term, Fenton at least was able to carve out enough space to make the Wild relevant in free agency. Before the trades, it was going to be very hard to envision anything but the status quo because of salary constraints.

*Two years from now, things get even more interesting. Had the Wild kept Granlund and Coyle, both would have been due at least modest raises as unrestricted free agents. Granlund would have figured to jump into the $7.5-8 million a year range, while Coyle maybe would bump to $4 million. You can argue about whether those players are worth that much, and that conclusion likely influenced the Wild’s decision to trade them. Letting them walk as UFAs would have yielded nothing in return.

Let’s say they also still had Nino at $5.25 million. Now we’re talking $17 million a year for those three guys — compared to the $9 million I’m projecting for the players the Wild got in return, assuming Donato and Fiala sign modest multi-year deals as RFAs this summer.

Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway will be due modest raises as RFAs in the summer of 2020 assuming they continue to play meaningful roles, while two expensive players will be unrestricted free agents: defenseman Jared Spurgeon and veteran center Mikko Koivu. Koivu will be 37 that summer and will be an interesting decision. Spurgeon is a no-brainer for an extension.

Regardless, Fenton should still have some flexibility that summer as well — maybe another $10-15 million under the cap depending on what happens this summer, what happens with Koivu and how much the cap goes up. Don’t forget, that’s the summer the Wild could also add prized prospect Kirill Kaprizov.

*Whether that translates into success — the ability, at least, to remake the Wild on the fly instead of full-on rebuild — will depend in large part on how well those “controllable assets” perform.

Granlund, Coyle, Niederreiter and other similar Wild players who came of age at the same time delivered good value as young players but collectively didn’t make a big enough jump to match their bumps in salary. They were also bolstered by high-priced veterans in their primes (at the time) like Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Koivu.

Parise and Suter have six years left each on their deals after this one, counting a combined $15 million against the Wild cap each year. They’re still good players and should be for some years to come — given that both have full no-move clauses, the Wild better hope for as much — but the aging curve suggests they won’t have the same impact in the back half of their contracts as they did in the front.

But the Wild is at least positioned to add other impact free agents in years to come. That wasn’t as possible just a month ago.

That said, Donato, Fiala, Eriksson Ek, Greenway and Kunin (plus eventually Kaprizov and others) are the next wave. However far above or below expectations (and salary level) they achieve will probably tell the story of the Wild in the next 3-5 years.

Three-point deficiency hurts Gophers’ efficiency — and NCAA chances

Welcome to the Thursday edition of The Cooler, where every day is a must-win. Let’s get to it:

*Observers of Gophers men’s basketball will tell you that the team’s lack of reliable three-point shooting (outside of freshman Gabe Kalscheur) has been a disappointing trend this season that has hurt Minnesota on multiple occasions.

Numbers tell us exactly how bad it is — and that it’s not just a problem of accuracy but of volume.

Namely: Out of 353 Division I teams, the Gophers are No. 346 when it comes to percentage of overall field goal attempts that come from three-point range. Only 29.2 percent of the Gophers’ shots this season have come from three-point range — lowest in the Big Ten by a wide margin and the lowest of all the Power 5 conference schools.

Some of that is dictated, of course, by the presence of Jordan Murphy — the Gophers best overall player and double-double machine who has attempted just 18 threes all year (and made just four). Daniel Oturu, another threat in the post and scoring option, has attempted just one three.

Getting the ball to either of those guys is a good idea, so in a sense Richard Pitino’s squad is playing to a strength. The Gophers also make up for some of the inefficiency from lack of three pointers by getting to the free throw line at the second-highest rate in the Big Ten behind Iowa.

But here’s the thing: Kalscheur is making threes at a 42.2 percent clip and takes 5.5 of them a game. Amir Coffey and Dupree McBrayer are taking 7.6 per game combined, but both are below 30 percent from behind the arc. Nobody else on the roster is shooting them well and/or often.

It adds up to subpar efficiency; the Gophers rank 11th among 14 Big Ten teams in eFG percentage, which factors in the extra point awarded for making threes instead of twos. In 17 conference games, the Gophers have made just 84 threes. Opponents have made 107, meaning Minnesota has been outscored by 69 points from behind the arc in Big Ten play — about four points per game.

I’m not sure what the full solution to this problem is, but I’d start here: Kalscheur — who leads the team in offensive efficiency at 117.1, is shooting a red-hot 56.4 percent from three-point range in his last eight games. But he’s only attempting 4.9 per game in that span.

I’d love to see him double that number going forward, starting tonight at Northwestern. Instead of hoping Coffey or McBrayer get hot from deep — something that has happened too infrequently this season to count on it — building a game plan around the bigs inside and Kalscheur shooting threes as much as possible is the Gophers’ best chance at being more efficient and getting into the NCAA tournament.

*You can’t blame any of the three-point woes on former Gophers coach Tubby Smith, since his players are long gone from Minnesota.

But you CAN blame Tubby for things happening at Memphis. Just ask Penny Hardaway, who took over for Smith as head coach this season. Hardaway recently offered a long and honest critique of one of his best players, Kyvon Davenport. It amounted to Davenport not being much of a student of the game, but it also included some shade thrown Tubby’s way.

It’s like he just wasn’t interested,” Hardaway said of Davenport. “He wasn’t interested in this style. It seems like he came to play for Coach Tubby, and the way that Coach Tubby allowed him to play and allowed him to be. He wasn’t challenged this much physically or mentally to do things on every possession, so that kind of frustrated him, and he kind of shut down.”

*Follow the bouncing ball to Royce White — a former Smith recruit at Minnesota who bounced to Iowa State and parlayed a great year with the Cyclones into being drafted in the first round by the Rockets. White has said he was then blackballed by the NBA for speaking out about mental health issues. And now White has a new venture: He’s giving mixed martial arts a try.

Iowa’s McCaffery reportedly berates official with expletive-laced tirade

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of The Cooler, where this winter has a lot of us on edge, man. Let’s get to it:

*Iowa men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery, whose temper tends to boil over and plays right into his “very angry high school principal from a 1980s movie” appearance, was reportedly extra angry Tuesday in the aftermath of a 90-70 loss at Ohio State.

After a game in which both McCaffery and his son Connor, an Iowa guard, were assessed technical fouls, the head coach — according to the Toledo Blade — followed a referee down a hallway at Ohio State’s Value City Arena and shouted profanities at him.

One of the utterances included the word “cheating” and a compound expletive of the worst kind.

When asked about the incident postgame, McCaffery simply said, “Can’t talk about that,” according to the newspaper.

Iowa is still firmly in the NCAA tourney picture, but a 20-point loss to the Buckeyes won’t help its seeding on Selection Sunday.

*Ryan Donato had two more assists for the Wild in its impressive 3-2 comeback win over Winnipeg, including a nice power play setup to Jason Zucker in the slot for the tying goal with 1:27 left in regulation.

Donato has six points in four games with the Wild. Perhaps more impressively: he has not been on the ice for any goals by Wild opponents in those four games, and Minnesota has won all four.

It’s a small sample size, but Donato’s puck possession metrics are quite good — as they have been throughout his short NHL career — and it’s interesting to see how the Wild has deployed him differently than the Bruins did.

Boston almost always put Donato on the ice for offensive zone starts (75 percent of the time this year), while the Wild has been closer to 50/50 with offensive/defensive zone starts (with a little less, 47.2 percent, actually coming in the offensive zone).

That might be a better way to utilize Donato’s speed, since if his line can gain possession in a defensive zone start, a good breakout could lead to open ice and a line rush.

*The Vikings picked up the option on Mike Zimmer’s contract, extending him through 2020 and putting to rest at least any lame duck status entering this season.

To celebrate the occasion, Vikings GM Rick Spielman made some word soup down at the combine.

I don’t think, from our ownership through our entire organization, that we don’t believe in Coach Zimmer, and that he is the right head coach for us going forward,” Spielman said.

I … I … think that’s a good thing?

Video: College basketball team uses a football play for buzzer-beating win

In a tie game with 4.7 seconds left, the City University of New York Athletic Conference men’s basketball championship game hung in the balance Friday.

Baruch College had the ball under its own basket and was set to inbound against College of Staten Island, hoping to get a good look at a game-winning shot.

To achieve that objective, Baruch head coach John Alesi reached into his playbook and found … a football play?

Yeah, that’s more or less what it looked like. All five players started out of bounds behind their own end line, and when the whistle signaled the start of play, four of them sprinted forward in what essentially looked like pass patterns while the inbounder acted like the quarterback.

Alesi said he lifted the concept for the play from something he saw on social media.

It was so unique and I saw the value in it. We didn’t run the same play, but it was the same concept,” he said. We’re wide receivers, thinking about running your route, and breaking off your route and coming back to the ball. I had it in the back of my mind that in the right spot, it would be a great way to get the ball in bounds.”

It worked beautifully. Staten Island players looked thoroughly confused, allowing for an easy inbound pass to a teammate (running back?) and a low-risk pass up the court for the game-winning shot and a berth in the NCAA Division III tournament for Baruch.

Here’s the video:

Luol Deng is reviving the Wolves’ season — and the narrative of his career

Welcome to the Tuesday edition of The Cooler, where even the old guys are a decade younger than us. Let’s get to it:

*A Timberwolves season mostly sabotaged by Jimmy Butler early and a rash of injuries later has been revived, at least to a point, by an on-the-surface unlikely suspect: veteran Luol Deng, a man we tend to think of as old but who in real life is just 33.

A few years back, Deng was a pretty efficient and solid player for the Heat — not quite the scorer he was earlier on with the Bulls, but a good enough player to fetch a four-year, $72 million with the Lakers just as the avalanche of TV money was pouring into the NBA before the 2016-17 season.

Deng struggled for half a season in L.A., and the Lakers struggled even more. Then a full-scale youth movement kicked in, and Deng basically sat dormant for more than 100 games until a buyout freed him. He arrived in Minnesota in September on a one-year minimum deal and, despite being reunited with his old coach Tom Thibodeau, continued to sit.

Then, of course, Thibs was fired halfway through this season. And now? Deng is enjoying a sort of second act in his career thanks to running with an opportunity given him by interim coach Ryan Saunders — a man who we think of young, and who is in fact just a year younger than Deng.

Two weeks ago, the Wolves’ season was going nowhere. It still might not be going anywhere, but Deng is trying his hardest to give it an upward trajectory. On Feb. 11, he started in place of the ill Andrew Wiggins.

Beginning with that game, a victory over the Clippers, the Wolves are 4-1 and Deng is a ridiculous plus-86 — meaning Minnesota has outscored opponents by 86 points when Deng was on the court in those five games. The Wolves overall are plus-26 in those five games. So they’re minus-60 when Deng is not on the court.

The Wolves probably gave away too many winnable games early in the year through the Butler drama, and their bizarre stretch without enough healthy point guards (or Rob Covington) led to a string of losses in winnable games.

At 29-31 after this 4-1 stretch, they’re still barely lurking in the Western Conference race — three back of No. 8 San Antonio (two in the loss column) after the Spurs’ disastrous 1-7 road trip. Maybe the Clippers or Spurs are still catchable, but it still probably takes at least 44 wins to make it. That would mean closing with a 15-8 run for the Wolves (by extension a 19-9 run counting the work they’ve already done) against a tough schedule.

For now, this much is clear: the old guy (Deng) and young guy (Saunders) are sure helping each other get NBA jobs next year and beyond. Neither might have imagined they would be in this position just a couple months ago.

*As a reporter, there isn’t a more mortifying feeling than having your phone ring in the middle of a news conference — except, maybe, having a call come in from your mom and the phone answered by the head coach of an NHL team.

Kudos, then, to John Tortorella for making sweet lemonade from lemons.

*I enjoyed this, so I’m sharing it. My answer: Brett Favre, Robert Smith, Randy Moss and Jim Kleinsasser.

First Wild deadline under Fenton feels like opposite — and an undoing — of Fletcher

The NHL trade deadline approached this year with the Wild in a familiar position in some respects: battling for a playoff spot and hoping to pull out of a mid-winter nosedive.

The approach from Paul Fenton in his first trade deadline as Wild GM, though, was about 180 degrees different than that of his predecessor, Chuck Fletcher.

In some ways, the contrasting approaches make sense.

Fenton is looking after a team in transition — one that seems determined not to completely bottom out but one that is nevertheless reshaping itself with at least one eye on the future.

Before he was let go, Fletcher presided over teams that made the playoffs in six consecutive seasons — and in at least a few of those years there existed a mentality that the right acquisition could fuel a deep postseason run.

The big problem was in how much Fletcher gave up compared to how much his acquisitions delivered.

Using NHLtradetracker.com, I looked at the past six trade deadlines under Fletcher from 2013-18, which netted 11 players and a handful of low draft picks for the Wild and sent out a few lower-level players and 13 draft picks from the organization.

The lower-level picks (fourth round or lower) acquired by Fletcher more or less canceled out the lower-level picks he gave up, but the Wild at or in the run-up to the deadline from 2013-18 gave up two first-round picks, five second-rounders and two-third rounders in various trades.

All for two playoff series wins and 14 total playoff victories in the last six seasons.

The trades ranged from regrettable (getting Martin Hanzal and Ryan White for a hasty playoff exit in 2017 cost the Wild, on balance, a No. 1 and a No. 2) to mostly mediocre. The best of the bunch was nabbing Devin Dubnyk for a third-rounder in 2015.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Dubnyk is the only player acquired by Fletcher in-season in those six years who is still with the Wild. And those nine picks …

Well, let’s just say they’ve put Fenton in a bit of a bind and perhaps forced a sort of retroactive strategy. With fewer prospects having the chance to emerge because of the dearth of picks, Fenton has started to stockpile players from the draft years in which the Wild had limited choices.

Ryan Donato, acquired for Charlie Coyle last week? He was a second-round pick in the 2014 draft, a year the Wild didn’t have a second-round pick because of the Jason Pominville trade in 2013. Kevin Fiala, acquired for Mikael Granlund on Monday? He was a first-rounder in 2014.

Both new Wild players are younger (by about four years) and cheaper (by multiple millions) than the players they replaced. They join the likes of Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin and Joel Eriksson Ek (high picks the Wild did make in 2015 or 2016) as a sort of new young core.

If there’s a critique of Fenton’s approach (outside of the initial returns on getting Victor Rask for the red-hot Nino Niederreiter), it’s that he wasn’t able to stockpile major draft assets.

At least, though, he’s on the plus-side of the ledger. Fenton has acquired a fifth (along with Donato), a sixth (along with Brad Hunt) and a seventh (for Matt Hendricks on Monday) and given up just a conditional fifth-rounder (for Hunt).

That beats dealing away nine picks in the top three rounds, even if the circumstances are different.

Video: Eagle pursues osprey, makes it drop a fish on a college baseball game

I don’t know what else to tell you other than that I promise I didn’t make up anything sensational in the headline.

That is, indeed, exactly what happened during a Jacksonville State vs. Jacksonville baseball game this weekend.

It’s quite possibly the weirdest thing to happen on a baseball field involving a bird since Randy Johnson threw that infamous pitch.

Come for the weird video. Stay for the announcer not missing a beat.

“And now a bald eagle has entered the scene …”

Rapper Ja Rule puts ‘curse’ on Timberwolves over Fyre burn

Welcome to the Monday edition of The Cooler, where you never know when you might write a headline you couldn’t dream up in a million years. Let’s get to it:

*Rapper Ja Rule performed at halftime of the Wolves’ loss at Milwaukee on Saturday, and by all accounts there were some problems with his set.

It prompted the Timberwolves’ official account to tweak Ja Rule with a tweet about being “hustled, scammed and bamboozled” – a nod to the rapper’s tweet last month over his involvement in the notorious Fyre Festival. (The Wolves’ tweet even copied his misuse of “lead,” which should be led).

Still following? Good, because Ja Rule noticed the Wolves’ tweet — which has more than 20,000 likes as of Monday — and didn’t appreciate the Fyre burn. He replied: “You just jinx yourself talking to the GOD this way… your CURSED NOW!!! You won’t win a championship for the next 30 years… AND KAT IS LEAVING!!! Apologize and I’ll lift the CURSE!!! kiss of death …

This right here is a good old-fashioned beef!

If he’s trying to curse the Wolves, though, he needs to get in line. Whatever he’s trying to do to the Wolves over the next 30 years can’t be much worse than what happened in the first 30 years.

And maybe, just maybe, whatever curse Ja Rule is trying to put on the franchise will cancel out all the other curses and lead to a championship?

*Normally stoic dads across Twins territory are likely shedding tears today after news emerged that their scrappy hero, Zack Granite, has been designated for assignment to make room for Marwin Gonzalez.

Granite, who strung together a nine-game hitting streak in July 2017 and temporarily made some people lose their faculties and declare they’d rather keep him and trade Byron Buxton, posted a .237 batting average and .611 OPS in 93 at bats that season, his only taste of big league action. He had a very poor 2018 season at Rochester, and now this.

He has some useful skills and seems like a good guy, so hopefully he catches on somewhere else and gives dads in a new market a chance to swoon over solid singles.

*Did you see Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve in the Venus Williams-led Nike advertisement that debuted during the Oscars? If you missed it, here it is (Reeve comes in around the 30 second mark):

*The Yankees locked up former Twins outfielder Aaron Hicks on a seven-year, $70 million contract.

*I don’t know a whole lot about Ryan Donato yet, but the new Wild dude can snipe. That’s a lot of surprising power on Sunday’s game-winner.

Twins have been among biggest, most active free agent spenders this offseason

The Twins haven’t made a free agent splash this offseason like the one the Padres made with Manny Machado.

But their series of ripples, which included a two-year, $21 million deal for Marwin Gonzalez on Friday, have added up to a stark fact that might run contrary to the popular narrative about the team’s management and its ownership.

The deal means the Twins have signed five major league free agents this offseason, committing a total of $48.6 million to Gonzalez, Nelson Cruz, Jonathan Schoop, Martin Perez and Blake Parker.

According to Spotrac, that means the Twins are tied with the Yankees and Angels for the fourth-most free agents signed so far this offseason. Three others are tied for the lead with six.

And the Twins are No. 8 in total free agent spending this offseason with that $48.6 million commitment (most of which is going toward the 2019 payroll since only Gonzalez got more than a one-year deal out of the five).

There are certain factors in play here, including Joe Mauer’s $23 million per season coming off the books and giving the Twins some payroll flexibility while the rest of the league is slow to sign free agents.

But if your instinct is to criticize the Twins for not doing enough this offseason, the evidence so far suggests otherwise.

They are, in fact, among the most active and biggest spenders in baseball.

S.I. list is indictment of Twins’ minor league development and decisions

Welcome to the Friday edition of The Cooler, where you can always count on the Wild to salvage something from a bad sports night. Let’s get to it:

*Keeping in mind that this list is purely subjective, we can still find some troubling nuggets within Sports Illustrated’s compilation of the 100 best players currently in MLB.

On the list, we find just two Twins players: pitcher Jose Berrios at No. 95 and new slugger Nelson Cruz at No. 64. We also find one former Twins prospect, Aaron Hicks, at No. 78.

Now, on one hand maybe we should give the Twins a little more credit for the Cruz signing than fans seem to be inclined to do. It’s not a stretch to say he immediately became their best player given his track record.

But what does it say about the current crop of homegrown Twins that the best (and only) one on their roster checks in at No. 95, while one they dealt away in the infamous John Ryan Murphy deal sits above all of them?

It’s a bad look for their development and decisions. The Twins can only hope this list looks a lot different next year and beyond.

*The Wild broke its five-game losing streak with a 4-1 win at the Rangers on Thursday, creeping back (at least for now) into the second wild card spot, one point ahead of three teams.

The victory at least gave the Wild a chance to pivot and helped Minnesota fans avoid a trifecta of misery after the Gophers men’s hoops team was outclassed by Michigan and the women’s squad blew a seven-point lead in the final minute of a heartbreaking loss at Maryland.

But the Wild would be wise to bank two more points against the lowly Red Wings in Friday’s back-to-back finale. After this one, the Wild faces, in order: the red-hot Blues … then the Jets, Flames, Predators (twice) and Lightning. That’s a gauntlet featuring some of the NHL’s best teams.

*Speaking of teams that need to bank a win Friday, the Wolves are playing the 11-47 Knicks in New York. If you think that record is bad, consider the Knicks are just 2-26 in their last 28. Even if Karl-Anthony Towns doesn’t end up suiting up, Minnesota needs this one coming out of the break — particularly while staring at a back-to-back in Milwaukee on Saturday.

*Old friend Ervin Santana took a minor league deal with a camp invite from the White Sox, per Jon Heyman.