Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Wild having trouble signing Gustafsson?; Wild goalie thoughts; Phillips honored

Posted by: Michael Russo under Vikings draft, Wild news, Wild off-season news Updated: May 29, 2012 - 7:59 PM

 

 

That's a picture I took of Johan Gustafsson in the media mixed zone after backstopping Team Sweden to gold at the world juniors in Calgary in January.

The question right now is if one day Wild fans will get to see the 6-foot-1 Gustafsson in a Wild sweater. It's become abundantly clear to me in the last few days that the Wild is having trouble signing the 2010 sixth-round pick to an entry-level deal.

The deadline to sign Gustafsson is Friday, so 1 of 3 things is about to happen: 1) The Wild will sign him; 2) The Wild will trade his rights in time for another team to sign him by Friday (General Manager Chuck Fletcher will be in New York for the GM's Meeting on Wednesday); 3) The Wild won't sign Gustafsson and he can re-enter the June draft.

Why hasn't he signed?

Earlier this month, it sounded like a signing was imminent and there were just complications because there was no transfer agreement between the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL. But I understand that was agreed upon late last week, and yet Gustafsson still hasn't signed.

Now I'm sensing more pessimism inside the Wild. 

After some inquiries, Fletcher would only say, "Not done yet." I talked to Gustafsson's agent, Jay Grossman, this afternoon, and he was very vague. He just said he's traded phone calls with the Wild, had no communication today and didn't want to say anything to fuel the fire.

Again, Grossman, a veteran agent who has several top clients including Ilya Kovalchuk, was vague, but it was interesting that he said there was a "fire" to fuel. 

This is pure conjecture, but in my history, when you don't sign a draft pick by the two-year deadline, it's for 1 of 2 reasons: 1. He's a bust and you don't want him; 2. There's a contract dispute.

Again, pure conjecture because neither side is really explaining the holdup yet, but usually contract disputes with draft picks taken this late (sixth round) revolves around an agent believing that if his client re-entered the draft, he would be taken a lot higher this time around.

That means he usually wants the current team to pay him the type of money now that a higher draft pick would typically receive. Often times teams scoff at that, and that could be the case here.

Also, and again pure conjecture, but perhaps Grossman feels Gustafsson could be blocked by Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper, two other highly thought of goalie prospects, and may be better served going to another organization. The Wild also has the rights to Stephen Michalek, a 2011 sixth-round pick who plays goal for Harvard, and Dennis Endras (well, technically, because he'll play, as expected, next season in Manheim).

Regardless, even if Gustafsson signs, it sounds from the Wild's perspective that it expects him to spend another year playing for Lulea in Sweden before coming to North America in 2013-14.

Gustafsson was nominated for Rookie of the Year in the Swedish Elite League this past season after a 1.68 goals against average and .932 save percentage. He made 17 saves in the gold-medal, 1-0 overtime win over Russia at world juniors and is starting to get plenty of Team Sweden experience.

I sent out texts to a half-dozen folks who know the draft well a little while ago to see where they felt Gustafsson would be chosen if he re-entered the draft, and I got two very different opinions by the time I wrote this blog.

--The head of amateur scouting for another NHL team responded: "2-4. Teams with goalie need or multiple seconds could step up. Early mid at the latest. Solid body of work to date for him."

--Shane Malloy, the author of "Art of Scouting" and host of a weekly prospects show on XM Home Ice: "Although he has the athletic ability and hockey sense, his size remains an issue at the NHL. A team might take a chance on him as a late-round pick if the Wild do not sign him. He is skinny like [Ryan] Miller and I'm not sure if his game will improve to the NHL, but patience is needed with goalies, so it might be a good idea to keep him and let him develop. The Wild has some decent goalies coming up, so we will see what they decide to do."

OK, back live to moi:

On the size issue, I haven't heard any other concerns of Gustafsson's size, and he is 6-1 and closing in on 200 pounds. He had no size issue at world juniors at all. Certainly wasn't thin.

I've written this before, but my guess is next year, Hackett and Kuemper start as a tandem in Houston. Kuemper is coming off shoulder surgery, and even though Hackett is close, you don't rush goalies. I would be shocked if he starts as Niklas Backstrom's backup.

My guess is the Wild will either re-sign Josh Harding as Backstrom's No. 2 if he's willing to come back in that capacity or sign a veteran backup. No. 2's are a dime a dozen this offseason.

I think the preference would be to bring Harding back. He's a good soldier, can take the cage if Backstrom falters or is injured and he does love Minnesota and the area. But, Harding has said on a number of occasions he would like to be a No. 1, too, and there are some teams looking for them this summer. Re-signing in Minnesota wouldn't be the worst decision for Harding because Backstrom only has another year left on his deal and if Harding has a great year, maybe the Wild turns the reins over to him as No. 1 in 2013-14?

Plus, Harding should also worry about getting squeezed on the open market because there are more No. 1's available than jobs and I am fairly certain the Wild did not get a trade offer for him at this past trade deadline.

As for Gustafsson, if the Wild can sign him by Friday, I believe he should be at July's development camp, which begins the 8th with physicals and fitness testing with the first on-ice session coming on the 9th.

In other prospect news, Zack Phillips received two honors in the past few days. The 2011 first-round pick who is expected to play next season in Houston and/or Minnesota was named the Saint John Sea Dogs' Most Valuable Player after posting an 80-point season that included a team-best 50 assists. From the release: "Phillips was a key player for the Sea Dogs, rattling off a 22-game points streak from Oct. 14 to Dec. 4, 2011, the longest in team history. The Fredericton native collected 13 goals and 41 points in that span, much of which the team spent without captain Jonathan Huberdeau. The Minnesota Wild prospect also wore the ‘C’ as interim captain in Huberdeau’s absence.

Phillips was also the recipient of the George Parsons Trophy as Most Sportsmanlike Player of the Memorial Cup.

As I mentioned, Fletcher is on his way to New York for the GM's Meeting, then Toronto for the draft combine, where the rest of the Wild staff is. The GM's Meeting is usually when the NHL Draft trade season begins.

It was at last year's GM's Meeting when Fletcher first began talking to San Jose about the eventual Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley trades and Philadelphia about the eventual Darroll Powe trade. Then, at the combine, Fletcher first talked to agent Allan Walsh about Martin Havlat waiving his no-trade clause. Five weeks later, Havlat would be traded in the Heatley deal July 3.

That's it for me now. By the way, I'll again be filling in for Dan Cole on KFAN next Tuesday from 12-3. I already have some great guests lined up, like St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and the man, the myth, the legend ... Kevin Gorg. Other potential surprises, too.

I'll also be on with Paul Allen on KFAN tomorrow morning at 9 (Wednesday) to preview Finals. I'll also have a Finals preview in the paper, and hopefully you saw today's Ryan Carter feature.

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