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 offseason begins; Bringing Sheppard, Ebbett back?; Talking Wellman

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Rookies, Vikings draft, Wild news, Wild off-season news Updated: April 12, 2010 - 11:36 AM

First, if you didn't read my end of the year package, here are the links:

Wild fixes aren't easy or obvious

A look ahead, a look back, 3 off-ice stories

North Stars memories end in finale for Modano, Wellman scores first NHL goal

End-of-the-year NHL and Wild awards

--This will probably be a very long blog, so apologies in advance. Obviously we're in the offseason, so blogs will be less often. But as you know, I'll jump on anytime there's news or I feel like I want to pontificate on some great playoff game I watched or leaguewide goings-on, etc.

I will be getting out of town sporadically, but I'm always in touch with sources and in tune with the team and will jump on even if I'm on vacation. I will say this: This will be a much quieter next two months than last offseason obviously. There won't be a GM, coaching search and you don't make many player movements at all until after the playoffs and around the draft. The Wild's not even allowed to work on Mikko Koivu's contract until after July 1.

So GM Chuck Fletcher plans to spend the next few months reviewing everything and analyzing everything from its schedule to the way it practices, travels, scouts and treats injuries.

Fletcher said there will be changes. I won't speculate on some even though I've got some ideas. But what I'm saying, don't expect a lot of Wild news for awhile.

--The Wild went for end-of-the-year physicals Sunday. Right now and Tuesday are their end-of-the-year meetings with Fletcher and coach Todd Richards. I plan on talking to Fletcher later today or tomorrow, so I'll update blog if anything's going on.

These meetings are usually very frank. Sometimes both directions. I would think that a smattering of players will feel comfortable enough to tell Fletcher and Richards what they think the problems are, and that's a good thing. And you can bet Fletcher and Richards will be very honest with a couple players.

The one person that is in dire need of a wake-up call is James Sheppard, who sustained a sprained MCL in Game 81.

In 64 games, Sheppard scored two goals and four assists, or one more goal and one more assist than rookie Casey Wellman got in 12 games.

I've gotten dozens and dozens of emails this season and especially in the last week saying when is it time to get rid of Sheppard.

I agree with one point fans are making: The Wild cannot waste another roster spot on Sheppard if he doesn't warrant one.

You can bet that will be conveyed to him in a clear, concise, brash way by Fletcher. Right now, the Wild plans to tender Sheppard a qualifying offer because the Wild's not good enough yet to just be dumping 21-year-old former first-round picks, and forwards at that.

Remember, his cap hit this year was $1.4 million only because potential bonuses on entry-level deals have to be worked into the cap. But performance bonuses don't exist on second contracts, so his salary is 850K. But that includes an $85,000 signing bonus, so his salary is actually $765,000. He'd get a 10-percent raise on that, so his QO would be $841,500. If they tender him the QO, it'll be a two-way deal with a $67,500 minor-league salary.

I'm pretty sure all that's right.

None of this means he'll be on the team. You can bet the Wild will continue to try hard to trade him. If it can't, if Sheppard doesn't deserve a spot out of camp, at that point it will be incumbent on the Wild to just risk waivers and try to send him to Houston. If you lose him then, you lose him because, yes, the one thing this season proved is the Wild cannot waste another roster spot on Sheppard if he doesn't deserve it.

So what am I saying? If you assume the Wild won't just put him on the team next season if he doesn't deserve to be, re-signing Sheppard is only a $67,500 investment. That's why the initial plan is to retain him.

But I do believe Fletcher is going to try to scare the you know what out of him during their meeting today or tomorrow, pray for a committed summer, pray for a great training camp and pray he capitalizes on one final chance.

Remember, Wild fans might have a history of watching Sheppard for three years, but Fletcher's never gotten the chance to sit him down and "explain" to him the facts of life -- that his NHL career is truly in jeopardy if he doesn't wake up.

Rookies are passing him by.

Again, the plan is to qualify Sheppard, but that can also change if Fletcher makes trades (additions) before free agency.

On this subject, here's what Fletcher said to me last week when I asked about retaining Sheppard: “At this point, I don’t see why we wouldn’t qualify him. He’s still a young player. It’s too early to get into what we’re going to do and what we’re not going to do. There’s a lot of time. We have spent a lot of time kicking around ideas, preparing for the draft, free agency and looking for possible solutions to perceived problems. But until we begin fully breaking down the season, it’s premature to speculate on my part. Whatever plan we come up with for this summer, it only takes one phone call from a GM to send me down a different path. We’ll go through a thorough analysis of the season -- strengths and weaknesses and looking at why we weren’t successful on the road and inconsistent all around. But we’re a non-playoff team. As I’ve said, nobody should feel secure.”

-- On to Casey Wellman, he obviously got a real good peek at what he needs to work on to succeed at this level. He admitted the big thing is to get stronger...He doesn't have a huge frame, but if he can put on 10 or 15 pounds, it'll go a long way to helping him function at this level. I never felt he was overmatched, but he was definitely checked off pucks or bounced off guys when he tried to forecheck. He's got a lot of talent, incredible instincts and a great shot. So strength will be the big key. He's got a shot to make next year's club depending on what else is done this summer roster-wise.

I mentioned this on here a few weeks ago, but I've gotten emails from readers saying they hope Wellman plays in the minors and the team doesn't make the same mistake it made with Sheppard. Apples and oranges, folks. Sheppard was 19. Wellman will be 23.

Cue Fletcher (just so you know the context, I've held this quote for probably three weeks and just never squeezed it into the paper): "I don’t mind keeping anybody at the NHL level if they show they're ready to play and contribute. If not, then you send them back to juniors or the minors. Even in training camp this year, Marco Scandella was pretty close to making our team. You can make an argument we could have kept him out of training camp. But we looked at our numbers and felt we couldn't promise him the ice time he needed to develop.

"I think every player is different. Casey wellman, he’ll be 23 years old next October. That’s a lot different than an 18-, 19-year-old kid coming out of junior. He’s played two years of college, he’s stronger and more mature at 23 than most people are at 18 obviously. His circumstances are a lot different [than Sheppard] at the time. Casey will have to show in training camp he can play and contribute though."

--Not to gross you out, but since I was, you deserve to be, too. Ran into Andrew Ebbett after the finale the other day. He showed me his finger. I almost showed Ebbett what I ate that night.

Remember, a few weeks ago in the waning minutes, Ebbett blocked an Anze Kopitar shot. He took off his glove when he got to the bench and sprinted to the locker room. His finger was mangled.

He had surgery where they put a rod in. But coming out of his finger are two screws one inch apart. On top of the screws is a one-inch rod about half an inch above the finger. It is brutal-looking. It looks like an erector set. He's got to have this contraption on for another three weeks.

Sad ending to his season. It's very unclear if he'll be back. Ebbett did a great job here, but remember, the Wild wants to get better up the middle as a whole. So my guess is, they only bring him back later this summer if other fixes fall through. Again, there's only so many roster spots (12-13 forwards), so many centers (4-5), so I very much doubt the Wild signs Ebbett before July 1. 

But again, it was a great waiver pickup. The Wild got a lot of mileage out of Ebbett. The biggest shame was the concussion he got in Phoenix in December. He was on fire, then he got sidelined and it took him a long time to find that level of top play or at least offense again. But Ebbett showed he can play in this league, and again, I'd think the Wild would be interested if he's still unsigned later in July and if the Wild's short centermen.

--The Draft lottery will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday -- live on Versus. The Wild will draft ninth unless it wins the lottery (2.7 percent chance) and moves up to fifth.

--It's still premature to announce World Championships. Some players have been asked, but a lot of guys are banged up and haven't made decisions. When it's finalized, I'll let you know. Todd Richards will be an assistant for USA. In the next few days, we should get some updates on other surgeries in some players' near futures.

--The Tampa Bay Lightning expectedly cleaned house today, dismissing both GM Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet. The two had as unhealthy of a GM-coach relationship as there can be. They battled the entire second half, and with new ownership in place, it was decided a fresh start would be best.

I heard from Lawton this morning, and he's already back in Minnesota. It's impossible to completely analyze the job he did because owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie had so much input into personnel decisions (trades, signings) and hirings. I'm hoping to talk to Lawton more in-depth in the next few days.

The Lightning's in the process of hiring a CEO and then will hire the GM. I've been told for weeks that if Doug Risebrough wants the job, it's his. When former Wild COO Jac Sperling was guiding the ownership process down there with Jeff Vinik, the two did an incredible amount of due diligence on the Lightning, not just behind the scenes, but the on-ice product. One of the people they talked with more than once was Doug Risebrough.

Sperling is down there guiding the search for CEO right now, he's close with Risebrough. It makes sense. But also, there could be a lot of potential positions open in the NHL over the next couple months, and I know Risebrough wants to see all his options before he decides what he's going to do in the future.

I'll tell you -- with what Tampa has on the ice in terms of starpower and a solid blue line, that's a pretty attractive job. It would seem they're a couple pieces and a great coach away from being back.

2010 EASTERN CONFERENCE QUARTER-FINALS


SERIES A TIME (ET) #1 Washington vs. #8 Montreal Network
Thursday, April 15, 2010 7 p.m. Montreal at Washington VERSUS, TSN
Saturday, April 17, 2010 7 p.m. Montreal at Washington VERSUS, TSN
Monday, April 19, 2010 7 p.m. Washington at Montreal TSN
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 7 p.m. Washington at Montreal TSN
*Friday, April 23, 2010 7 p.m. Montreal at Washington VERSUS, TSN
*Monday, April 26, 2010 7 p.m. Washington at Montreal TSN, VERSUS
*Wednesday, April 28, 2010 TBD Montreal at Washington TSN

SERIES B TIME (ET) #2 New Jersey vs. #7 Philadelphia Network
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 7:30 p.m. Philadelphia at New Jersey TSN
Friday, April 16, 2010 7:30 p.m. Philadelphia at New Jersey TSN
Sunday, April 18, 2010 6 p.m. New Jersey at Philadelphia TSN
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 7:30 p.m. New Jersey at Philadelphia TSN2
*Thursday, April 22, 2010 7 p.m. Philadelphia at New Jersey TSN
*Sunday, April 25, 2010 TBD New Jersey at Philadelphia TSN
*Tuesday, April 27, 2010 7:30 p.m. Philadelphia at New Jersey TSN

SERIES C TIME (ET) #3 Buffalo vs. #6 Boston Network
Thursday, April 15, 2010 7 p.m. Boston at Buffalo CBC
Saturday, April 17, 2010 1 p.m. Boston at Buffalo NBC, CBC
Monday, April 19, 2010 7 p.m. Buffalo at Boston VERSUS, CBC
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 7 p.m. Buffalo at Boston VERSUS, CBC
*Friday, April 23, 2010 7 p.m. Boston at Buffalo CBC
*Monday, April 26, 2010 7 p.m. Buffalo at Boston CBC
*Wednesday, April 28, 2010 7 p.m. Boston at Buffalo CBC

SERIES D TIME (ET) #4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Ottawa Network
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 7 p.m. Ottawa at Pittsburgh VERSUS, CBC
Friday, April 16, 2010 7 p.m. Ottawa at Pittsburgh VERSUS, CBC
Sunday, April 18, 2010 6:30 p.m. Pittsburgh at Ottawa CBC, VERSUS
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 7 p.m. Pittsburgh at Ottawa CBC, VERSUS
*Thursday, April 22, 2010 7 p.m. Ottawa at Pittsburgh VERSUS, CBC
*Saturday, April 24, 2010 7 p.m. Pittsburgh at Ottawa CBC, VERSUS
*Tuesday, April 27, 2010 7 p.m. Ottawa at Pittsburgh CBC


2010 WESTERN CONFERENCE QUARTER-FINALS


SERIES E TIME (ET) #1 San Jose vs. #8 Colorado Network
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 10:30 p.m. Colorado at San Jose VERSUS (JIP), CBC
Friday, April 16, 2010 10:30 p.m. Colorado at San Jose VERSUS (JIP), CBC
Sunday, April 18, 2010 9:30 p.m. San Jose at Colorado VERSUS (JIP), CBC
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 10 p.m. San Jose at Colorado VERSUS (JIP), CBC
*Thursday, April 22, 2010 10:30 p.m. Colorado at San Jose VERSUS (JIP), CBC
*Saturday, April 24, 2010 TBD San Jose at Colorado CBC
*Monday, April 26, 2010 TBD Colorado at San Jose CBC

SERIES F TIME (ET) #2 Chicago vs. #7 Nashville Network
Friday, April 16, 2010 8:30 p.m. Nashville at Chicago VERSUS (JIP), TSN2
Sunday, April 18, 2010 8:30 p.m. Nashville at Chicago VERSUS (JIP), TSN
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 9 p.m. Chicago at Nashville VERSUS (JIP), TSN
Thursday, April 22, 2010 8:30 p.m. Chicago at Nashville VERSUS (JIP), TSN2
*Saturday, April 24, 2010 3 p.m. Nashville at Chicago NBC, TSN
*Monday, April 26, 2010 TBD Chicago at Nashville TSN
*Wednesday, April 28, 2010 TBD Nashville at Chicago TSN


SERIES G TIME (ET) #3 Vancouver vs. #6 Los Angeles Network
Thursday, April 15, 2010 10 p.m. Los Angeles at Vancouver CBC, VERSUS
Saturday, April 17, 2010 10 p.m. Los Angeles at Vancouver CBC, VERSUS
Monday, April 19, 2010 10 p.m. Vancouver at Los Angeles VERSUS, CBC
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 10 p.m. Vancouver at Los Angeles VERSUS, CBC
*Friday, April 23, 2010 10 p.m. Los Angeles at Vancouver CBC
*Sunday, April 25, 2010 TBD Vancouver at Los Angeles VERSUS, CBC
*Tuesday, April 27, 2010 TBD Los Angeles at Vancouver CBC

SERIES H TIME (ET) #4 Phoenix vs. #5 Detroit Network
Wednesday, April 14, 2010 10 p.m. Detroit at Phoenix VERSUS, TSN
Friday, April 16, 2010 10 p.m. Detroit at Phoenix VERSUS, TSN
Sunday, April 18, 2010 3 p.m. Phoenix at Detroit NBC, TSN
Tuesday, April 20, 2010 6:30 p.m. Phoenix at Detroit TSN
*Friday, April 23, 2010 10 p.m. Detroit at Phoenix VERSUS, TSN
*Sunday, April 25, 2010 2 p.m. Phoenix at Detroit NBC, TSN
*Tuesday, April 27, 2010 TBD Detroit at Phoenix TSN

* if necessary

JIP – Joined In Progress 
 

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