ST. PAUL, Minn. – When Chicago would no longer give him a long-term contract, Martin Havlat turned his focus to Minnesota.
He was intrigued by the Wild’s hockey-savvy fans, well-regarded arena, young core players and new up-tempo style, enough that he was willing to take a little less money than offered elsewhere to leave general manager Chuck Fletcher salary-cap flexibility.
“I think that speaks volumes about him. He wanted to be here,” Fletcher said.
Havlat, who signed a six-year deal worth US$30 million Wednesday, was introduced at Xcel Energy Center on Friday. The 28-year-old right wing is similar to the player he was essentially signed to replace, the 27-year-old Marian Gaborik.
Same position. Injury prone. Prolific scorer.
Here’s one big difference, though: Feeling spurned by the Blackhawks, Havlat is delighted to be in Minnesota. Gaborik, over several years of conflicts with the organization over contracts, injury treatment, playing time and playing style, was ready to leave the Wild.
“I feel very fortunate to be here,” Havlat said. “I think it’s going to be a fresh start for everybody.”
Havlat and Gaborik exchanged well wishes after they changed teams, and Gaborik – now with the New York Rangers – even offered Havlat his luxury condominium in Minneapolis.
“I’m not here to replace him,” Havlat insisted. “Like I said, I’m here to help the team and do my best.”
The Czech isn’t quite as efficient of a goal scorer as Gaborik, but his skills fit with the style coach Todd Richards will push his front line to play. Fletcher said ability far outweighed the injury risk with Havlat, who missed dozens of games between 2005 and 2007 due to a shoulder problem.
“He’s exactly what we were looking for: a big, strong player that has speed and can finish around the net,” Richards said.
Havlat played the last three seasons for the Blackhawks, who went to the Western Conference finals this spring. He posted some critical comments on his Twitter account toward Chicago’s front office the night he signed with Minnesota, and the Blackhawks gave Marian Hossa a 12-year contract, but Havlat declined on Friday to speak in detail about any subject other than the Wild.
“I feel that everything’s behind me, and I just want to look forward now,” Havlat said.
Earlier, he tweeted this:
-June 28: “Everyone should know I am only thinking about signing with Chicago. It’s where I want to be.”
-July 1: “Excited to be in Minny where I was welcomed and appreciated by management. The real story about what happened in Chicago to come out. … There’s something to be said for loyalty and honor.”
Havlat confirmed those were his words, but maintained his focus on the future.
“I was really happy there and the fans were great and they were supportive those three years and the team guys were great too,” he said, “and I can say only good things about them.”
The Wild signed defenceman Shane Hnidy to a one-year contract Friday, adding a nine-year veteran to their third blue-line pairing and giving Fletcher three acquisitions – defenceman Greg Zanon was also signed on Wednesday – over the last three days.
“They wanted to be here, and they gave us numbers that allowed us to have them here,” Fletcher said.
Saku Koivu would fill out an unquestionably productive foray into free agency. The Wild were still in the running on Friday, but Fletcher sounded confident in alternatives at the centre position if Koivu chooses to sign elsewhere.
Trading is possible. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Benoit Pouliot will probably move from the wing and get looks at the pivot during training camp. Eric Belanger and Kyle Brodziak are also on the roster behind stalwart Mikko Koivu.
“We’ll see what transpires here and then readjust accordingly,” Fletcher said.
Richards also finalized his coaching staff on Friday, retaining Mike Ramsey and hiring Dave Barr to be his assistants on the bench. Goalie coach Bob Mason is staying, too.