Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported today that Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard has been cleared to begin light exercise after missing the entire season with concussion symptoms. In that report, Bouchard says he never considered retirement, and that the "goal is to be ready for training camp."
Bouchard has been a huge question mark in the off-season plans for the Wild. Originally slated to begin next season in the number two center position, a spot that has been weak for the entire history of the franchise, the loss of Bouchard put a spotlight on the gap and sent the Wild scrambling for an answer. All centers on the roster took their turn on the line, with none of them seemingly able to keep up with, let alone enhance, the abilities of Martin Havlat and Guillaume Latendresse.
With just fifteen days until the draft, the second most active trading period in the NHL, and just three weeks from free agancy, the Wild need to know if Bouchard is in their plans for the season or not. With a relatively large cap hit of $4.08 miilion, Bouchard needs to contribute in a big way, or the Wild need to find a way to be rid of the contract. Last season, they were able to spend up to his hit to replace him, which allowed for players such as Chuck Kobasew to be brought in, but being in limbo about his future at this juncture was certainly not pleasant.
So with news that he can begin light exercise, what does that mean for the Wild?
First off, it cements the current cap situation. With 17 players under contract, they have just over $10 million to sign at least six players. With Bouchard on LTIR, they had $14 million to play with, making bringing in a big name forward easier. Now, Bouchard likely needs to take a place on one of the top two lines, with the only question remaining being what role is that?
Will they continue forward with plans to put him in the second line center role? With fellow play maker Havlat, and new found finisher Latendresse, Bouchard could fit well. Or do they move him to a top line wing? He has traditionally played on the right wing, the top line position currently being held by Antti Miettinen. However, Miettinen's 42 points qualified him as the 42nd best right wing in the league. Not exactly cut throat numbers. Moving Bouchard to the top line is intriguing, as long as Andrew Brunette can keep up with two playmakers feeding him the puck, or if Mikko Koivu can shift his game to be a scorer rather than a set up man.
Or do the Wild package him and trade him away? Is there a taker for a small, non shooting forward with concussion issues who missed an entire season? That's not likely, and burying $4 million on a third or fourth line is painful enough of a prospect even when not coupled with Bouchard's limited ability as a checker.
There was talk at the deadline that the Cam Barker trade was supposed to be larger, with the Wild inquiring heavily about Blackhawks center Patrick Sharp. The Hawks cannot take any salary back in the deal, however, so it would need to be prospects, not players going back in return. THis does not help the Bouchard situation. Unless Bouchard is moved off the roster or to another line, Sharp does not fit the current team make up.
There is always the option of waiving Bouchard and hoping someone claims him. Or if no one claims him, burying the contract in the AHL, but Craig Leipold does not seem like the type to do so.
So. Bouchard can exercise. He's coming back. What was supposed to answer the biggest question of the Wild's off-season has done so, but simply split it into many smaller questions. Chuck Fletcher is certainly not in an enviable situation right now.