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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Posts about Wild training camp

Wild captain Mikko Koivu discusses brother Saku Koivu's retirement

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 10, 2014 - 2:39 PM

For nine seasons, we have witnessed Koivu vs. Koivu matchups, whether it be Minnesota vs. Montreal or Minnesota vs. Anaheim.

Well, after 18 seasons, Saku Koivu retired from the NHL this morning. He scored 255 goals, 577 assists and 832 points in 1,124 games for the Montreal Canadiens and Anaheim Ducks. He captained the Canadiens 10 years and won four medals with Finland in the Winter Olympics.

Younger brother Mikko Koivu, the Wild’s all-time leading scorer and captain, skated with the team at its informal skate this morning.

“You’re going to look back and see all the things he did with the Canadiens and the Ducks and the Finnish national team as well, I think he has the respect of each and every team and in each and every town that he played for, from his country, from his teammates and from the staffs,” Koivu said. “He has always been a class act, and I think you’re going to hear that a lot from around the league and around the hockey world.”

If you know Mikko, he never exactly loved playing against his big brother starting with that first game way back in 2005.

“It was always tough,” Mikko Koivu said. “I didn’t really like that going against him and my biggest fear was to face him in the playoffs. I don’t know. It didn’t feel right to go against him. He obviously was a center, too, so I would face him a lot of times and it was a tough situation for both of us, but now looking back, maybe I could have taken it a different way. It was a great experience. For our family, not a lot of people get to do that.”

Saku Koivu had a chance to sign with the Wild a few years back but felt it was Mikko’s team.

“We experienced it with Team Finland and obviously that’s a short period of time,” Mikko Koivu said. “More than anything, he wanted to protect me and give me my time to do my thing here. I think it felt right for him and I respected that. Looking back, I think it was the right call for us.”

By the way, Koivu, 31, who scored 11 goals and 43 assists last season, said his ankle doesn’t affect him anymore. He missed 17 games and the Olympics last year after ankle surgery. He said he trained differently this offseason, although he didn’t want to get into specifics. “I feel good and I feel healthy and I’m excited to get going.”

-- In other Wild news overshadowed yesterday, the Wild announced it will have an ECHL affiliation with the Alaska Aces. The St. Louis Blues will share that affiliation. All its main prospects and minor-leaguers will be with the AHL Iowa Wild still.

Also, the Wild will hold an open practice for fans to watch on Sept. 20 at Xcel Energy Center from 9:30 a.m.-noon. Remember, single-game tickets go on sale that morning at 10 at the arena’s box office.

Nino Niederreiter spurns KHL offer, closing in on re-signing with the Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 9, 2014 - 9:21 AM

It’s clear there’s still work to be done, but Nino Niederreiter’s agent, Andre Rufener, said Tuesday morning that he’s “very positive” his client will sign a new contract with the Wild by the time players report for training camp next Thursday.

The agent said Niederreiter is such a “Wild at heart,” the 22-year-old winger wanted no part of a giant contract offer from a “very good” Kontinental Hockey League team all summer long.

“We are close [to a contract with the Wild] and I really hope and I truly believe that we can get it done,” Rufener said by phone from Switzerland earlier this morning. “It’s in our best interest to get it done before camp, so that’s what we’re trying to do.

“I’m very positive about it [getting done]. I will be disappointed if we could not get it done. We’re very close and we cannot let that slide through our fingers from both sides.”

Rufener and the Wild have exchanged a plethora of ideas on contracts ranging from two to six years, the agent said, with General Manager Chuck Fletcher coming up with another “new, interesting idea” on a long-term contract Monday.

“We have to take a look into this,” Rufener said. “It’s interesting and it’s a possibility. At this point, it’s not clear yet. Terms are not clear yet. There’s still several options. We’re working on it and Chuck tells me, too, that it’s in our best interest to get this done in the next week, by next Wednesday. That’s what we want to do.”

Niederreiter, who scored 14 goals last season after coming to the Wild from the Islanders in the Cal Clutterbuck trade in June 2013, came up large in Game 7 of the first round of last year’s playoffs against Colorado. He scored two goals and one assist, including setting up Jared Spurgeon for a late tying goal and scoring the series-clinching goal in overtime.

“He is in great shape. He had a great summer,” said Rufener. “He practiced really hard. He’s really motivated.”

Fletcher, who declined to comment on negotiations with unsigned Darcy Kuemper and Niederreiter on Monday, has previously said it is important to get the Niederreiter deal correct with so many contracts to young players expiring next summer (most notably Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Erik Haula and Marco Scandella).

“The negotiations have gone a little longer than we all expect,” Rufener said. “That didn’t bother us at all because we have a good relationship with the Wild. Of course, it’s a tough negotiation. I understand Chuck’s side with all the contracts coming up in the next year, but of course on the other side I have to protect my player. We are negotiating Nino Niederreiter’s contract and I’m going to make sure he gets what I think he deserves in my opinion. This contract will not affect any other contract or any future contract. Where we’re at right now, it’s going to be a fair deal.

“But I understand Chuck’s point. He understands my point. It’s just a normal, in my opinion, good negotiation where everybody is negotiating in good faith.”

In fact, Rufener said he has had an “unbelievable offer” from a KHL team in his fingertips for two months and Niederreiter will be “leaving over a million and a quarter bucks net after taxes on the table playing in Minnesota and not Russia. That’s a lot of money. This guy is a Wild at heart. A Wild at heart.

“I told Nino up front, ‘this [KHL offer] might be the only leverage we have,’ but it’s not really leverage because Nino made clear he wants to play in the NHL and for Minnesota.”

Niederreiter is scheduled to arrive in Minnesota on Wednesday and even without a new contract yet is expected to skate in the Wild’s informal practices until camp begins next week.

Kuemper's agent on KHL threat: "Darcy has to play somewhere this year"

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 8, 2014 - 5:05 PM

As an addition to the previous blog (which can be read here) on unsigned goalie Darcy Kuemper’s contract stalemate with the Wild, I subsequently spoke by phone with Kuemper’s agent, Jeff Helperl, about his negotiations with General Manager Chuck Fletcher.

“Basically, Chuck and I are stuck,” said Helperl, who confirmed he has spoken to teams in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League about signing Kuemper if he is unable to get a contract done with the Wild.

Helperl said he is asking the Wild for a one-year, one-way contract (not big term at big money, as previously reported), meaning he would be paid his NHL salary whether he plays in Minnesota or at American Hockey League Iowa.

Helperl said the Wild is offering Kuemper a two-year deal. The first year would be a two-way deal (meaning Kuemper is paid a lower salary if/when he plays in the AHL and a higher salary if/when he plays in the NHL) and the second year would be a one-way deal (NHL salary in either place). Jason Zucker signed a similarly-designed contract earlier this offseason.

Kuemper doesn’t require waivers to get to Iowa, which Helperl knows means Kuemper could be destined with Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom both under contract.

“It comes down to Darcy has to play somewhere this year,” Helperl said. “Minnesota, they’re stuck on giving Darcy a two-way deal and I think Darcy deserves more. I’ve basically told Chuck, ‘we’re looking at a one-way deal on a one-year contract.' They want to do a two-year contract. I just kind of told him where things are at. By no means are we shooting for the moon at all. I just want to get a one-way contract and get Darcy playing more games, and wherever that’s going to be, it’s going to be.”

Helperl said last weekend, there was a two-day window where KHL teams were able to discard players. He said, “I had [KHL] teams contact me, so that’s where it all started from.”

Asked if that means Kuemper will sign with the KHL if the Wild doesn’t offer him a one-way contract, Helperl said, “Well, he’s going to play somewhere, so it could happen.”

From the Wild’s standpoint though, Kuemper does have a chance to play “somewhere” even on a two-way contract. If he doesn’t make Minnesota out of camp, he would start in Iowa. If he proves in camp that he’s the Wild’s best goalie, the two-way is insignificant because he would make his NHL salary with the big club anyway.

This sounds more like Helperl is just trying to design the contract to give Kuemper the best chance to play games in the NHL as opposed to the AHL. In other words, if Kuemper's on a one-way, the theory is the less likely the Wild would be to send him to Iowa because the team would have to pay him his NHL salary there.

I asked Helperl if Kuemper really would prefer to play in Russia over potentially playing in Iowa: “He needs to get going. He needs to get playing. He needs to try to figure out where things are at [in his career],” Helperl said. “I’ve never seen him more confident as a player and how hard he’s worked this summer. Basically, Chuck and I are stuck, so that’s where it’s at. It’s easy as it can be.”

Wild players officially report for training camp next Thursday with players taking the ice for the first time next Friday. Is there a deadline as to when Kuemper will decide on the KHL?

“The days are coming where camp is going to get started. We’ll see when camp starts and see where we’re at,” Helperl said. “It’s an ongoing, moving target all the time. I last spoke to Chuck I think last week and I don’t think we moved very far ahead. It’s pretty simple. We’re looking for a one-year, one-way deal.”

In the meantime, Harding and Backstrom are skating daily and are ready for training camp. Helperl said, “Chuck keeps reminding me over and over again how healthy they are and how good they’re looking right now, so what am I supposed to do from that?”

Most KHL deals have NHL out-clauses. If Kuemper chooses the KHL, I asked Helperl if his contract would have an out-clause that would allow Kuemper to return to the Wild if the team gets into a goaltending pickle like last year. Helperl said, “I don’t know that. I don’t know how the contract’s going to be worded. I don’t know that.”

Fletcher declined to comment on Kuemper.

Wild players are skating together daily until training camp. Helperl said he’s not sure yet if Kuemper will take part in that. “We’ll see how talks go from now to then.”

Unsigned Nino Niederreiter told me he arrives back in Minnesota on Wednesday. He is expected to take part in these captain’s practices. As I mentioned on the previous blog, the hope is that a contract is agreed upon in the next week so he reports to camp on time.

Darcy Kuemper exploring KHL defection option

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 8, 2014 - 4:26 PM

With most Minnesota-based NHLers having departed for their team cities, the Wild’s informal captain’s skates officially began today.

Twenty-one guys were on the ice today. In order of me spotting them, Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding, Matt Cooke, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Ryan Suter, Charlie Coyle, Thomas Vanek, Stu Bickel, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker, Tyler Graovac, Kurtis Gabriel, Jordan Schroeder, Keith Ballard, Stephane Veilleux, Justin Fontaine, Kyle Brodziak, Erik Haula, Christian Folin and Cody Almond were in the house today.

Zach Parise, who had been skating with the NHLers and Wild guys the past few weeks, is in New York representing the Wild in the annual NHL national media blitz. He’ll be rejoining Tuesday or Wednesday.

So, only sure-thing roster guys not here today: Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and unsigned Nino Niederreiter. Jon Blum is expected to join Tuesday.

Another guy not here is unsigned goalie Darcy Kuemper, who is in the middle of a big game of chicken with the Wild right now.

As reported in July, Kuemper had the right to file for arbitration. When he chose not to, the alarm was sounded that a contract battle could be brewing. As I mentioned then, Kuemper’s agent battled the Wild oh-so close to that June 1 deadline prior to his entry-level contract getting done. The one positive about arbitration is there’s always a resolution. File arb, and both sides either settle on a new deal before or after the hearing or allow a neutral arbitrator to determine the contract on a one- or two-year award.

When that didn’t happen, you just knew the threat of not arriving to camp on time would be an option.

As reported throughout the summer, Harding and Backstrom are healthy. With both goalies ready for training camp and on one-way contracts, there’s a very good chance that unless Kuemper outperforms both in camp that he could be destined to start in Iowa.

Kuemper doesn’t require waivers either, so the Wild has been offering him a two-way contract (meaning lower salary if he plays in the AHL, higher salary if he plays in the NHL).

Quick update: Kuemper’s agent talked to me this afternoon, so I'll update the blog a bit later. Kuemper is  looking for a one-way contract (NHL salary if he played in the AHL or NHL).

Kuemper's agent confirmed Kuemper is investigating his options to play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. If Kuemper chooses this route, the Wild would not lose his NHL rights and Kuemper would have an out-clause if the Wild came calling. The KHL threat is not a shock; many unsigned restricted free agents this close to camp use the KHL as a threat and, I can tell you, the Wild typically doesn’t acknowledge KHL threats.

At this young stage of his career, with Kuemper having few contract rights beyond that right of filing for arbitration (which he didn’t use), the only real leverage he may have right now is threatening to play in Europe.

The problem Kuemper has is as long as Harding and Backstrom are healthy and looking like they’ll be fine to start the season, GM Chuck Fletcher, who declined to comment on Kuemper, is likely to stand his ground.

Harding, arguably the Wild’s first-half MVP last year until complications with multiple sclerosis, has been on the ice during all these informal sessions the past few weeks and looks and feels great. Backstrom was out there today, also looked good and said he feels healthy heading into camp. Last year at this time, he was complaining of soreness and tightness in his hips and groin and this time said his movements feel “much smoother” on the ice.

"I want to get back to the level I'm used to being at," said Backstrom, the Wild's all-time leader in victories. "So far everything has been going good, so everything should be good when camp starts. I'm excited for this season."

The risk, of course, of not signing Kuemper is that Backstrom is coming off two more season-ending surgeries (separate hip and abdominal surgeries) and Harding’s MS has forced him to miss significant time the past two seasons, including the entire second half last season. The Wild proved last year how important it was to have Kuemper in the minors to save its bacon when Harding went down and Backstrom was playing hurt. In fact, the Wild proved last year the importance of having four goalies. When Kuemper began to struggle and then sustained a concussion, the Wild was lucky Ilya Bryzgalov was acquired. Bryzgalov went 7-1-3 down the stretch.

--From the Wild’s standpoint, Kuemper, 24, has limited NHL experience (32 regular-season games, 26 last year, and eight playoff games, six last year) and coming off two concussions (one in the playoffs in Game 7 of the first round). He has shown promise at times and looked shaky at others, had a chance to file for arb and it didn’t and with two NHL goalies on one-ways, the Wild is unwilling to give him term and dollars without a bigger sample size. The Wild also knows that if worse comes to worse, there’s always Bryzgalov available as a free agent and he has made it publicly clear through his agent, Ritch Winter, that he wants to play in Minnesota.

--From Kuemper’s standpoint, the Wild’s presumed Goalie of the Future saved the team’s hide twice last season – once in the second half when the season looked like it may unravel and once in the first round of the playoffs when the Wild returned home down 0-2 against Colorado with Bryzgalov in net. He went 3-1 in his next four starts, including back-to-back home starts to even the series, before Bryzgalov replaced him with a deficit in Game 7’s come-from-behind win. Kuemper’s agent is also well aware of the injury/illness concerns in goal if Kuemper isn’t in the fold.

I asked Fletcher on KFAN earlier this summer about the potential battle unfolding with Kuemper. Here is a link to Fletcher’s comments from that blog: “I wouldn’t say there’s been enough conversations to say it’s going to be a battle. I mean I guess every negotiation is a battle, but the agent is always trying to get the best contract he can for the player and we are trying to do what is right for the team. It’s always a little trickier I think on our side, the agent obviously wants to represent his client. We have an obligation to every player on our team and if we do a bad contract or spend too much money on a player it impacts our ability to be competitive in other areas. It’s not that we’re trying to fight the player, we’re trying to protect the team. It’s a pretty big obligation. We are certainly going to take our time to get the right deal.

“Darcy certainly has great potential and played very well in stretches for us this season, but at the end of the day I think he’s played around 30 games in the NHL. Usually this isn’t the time to fight for the big contract. We feel Darcy right now is trying to establish himself in the league and once he does that it’ll be a little simpler to come up with terms. Our focus right now is just on getting good deals with both of them. If we can get the right deal for the player and for the team, then it’ll give us a chance to be competitive. If we spend too much money on players before they’re ready to get the money they feel they deserve it impacts a lot of other things down the road. If we can get a deal done tomorrow, great, if it takes even into training camp, it’s really not a big deal. We’ve got great depth, we’ve got a lots of players. We are going to have to what’s right financially to keep this thing moving forward.”

There is little doubt the Wild wants to get Kuemper signed. But there is a price point and term and type of contract (one-way or two) that Fletcher doesn’t seem willing to budge on.

As for Niederreiter, who turned 22 today, he is also unsigned. His agent also hasn’t replied to an interview request made Sunday. I hear the Wild and Niederreiter are also a ways apart, but as I have said before, this stuff typically works itself out and the hope is a deal can get done by the time players report for camp next Thursday and take the ice for the first time next Friday.

The Wild feels it has enough depth to get by for awhile if Niederreiter’s contract takes longer to reconcile, and his delay could theoretically open the door wider for others like Jason Zucker. However, Niederreiter has one of the Wild’s best shots and is one of the team’s bigger bodies and most physical players. He certainly showed his value as well in Game 7 of the first round, setting up Jared Spurgeon’s late tying goal and scoring two goals off blistering shots, including the series winner in overtime.

As I have mentioned before, this is the negotiation worth keeping an eye on because it absolutely affects Granlund, Coyle, Haula and even Brodin. Those players can all become restricted free agents next summer, which is why Fletcher says that he will “try to get ahead of it” and sign some of these guys to extensions before it gets to next summer.

Fletcher has previously said he is trying to sign Niederreiter to a contract length of two to four years. A two-year bridge deal seems to make the most sense for both sides. It’s hard for the Wild to project out exactly what type of player Niederreiter will be and two years gives Niederreiter enough time to put up some big numbers to get the big contract. He scored 14 goals and 36 points in 81 games last season.

Correct me if I’m wrong because many of you have better memories than me: This will be my 10th season covering the Wild and I don’t think the Wild has had any unsigned players heading into training camp in my tenure. In fact, if Kuemper or Niederreiter aren’t signed before, I think this may be the first since Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis in 2003-04. Again, correct me if I’m wrong.

Jason Zucker excited to "perform" in training camp; Josh Harding on special Upper Deck trading card

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 5, 2014 - 10:11 AM

Moments after Nino Niederreiter scored an overtime winner against Nashville to usher the Wild into last year’s Olympic break, coach Mike Yeo announced that Jason Zucker would have a “minor procedure” stemming from blocking a scorching Shane Doan shot above the right knee late in a Jan. 9 game at Phoenix.

Zucker played on the injury for a month. Behind the scenes prior to the procedure, Zucker was getting treatment on his leg before and after practices and games, and he even played some of his best hockey during that time.

Yeo, Zucker and the entire Wild organization figured the speedy winger would be back in the lineup three weeks after the procedure once the schedule resumed in Edmonton. As it turns out, Zucker did return to the ice for a few skates after the break, but he would never play again due to complications either during the first surgery or aggravation while rehabbing.

What exactly happened is still unclear, but GM Chuck Fletcher said March 20 that Zucker needed a subsequent season-ending surgery that was meant to repair a tendon in Zucker’s right quadriceps. He called it a fluky injury and one he never heard of before.

“I’m not going to go into details, but there was a complication,” Zucker said. “It didn’t go as planned on the recovery portion of it. I think all of it was not exactly as anyone thought, so I had to have the second surgery, and that was a big blow. I think we all thought it was going to be 10 days, 14 days and back. I was excited about not having to deal with it anymore and it turned out to be more serious. It was definitely tough seeing the team play and you’re not, but it was great seeing them do so well (second round of the playoffs). From that standpoint, it was awesome watching that.”

Regardless, Zucker, 22, has been skating all week with many Wild teammates and several other NHLers at Braemar and says he’s “100 percent ready to go back to normal. It was definitely frustrating, but it’s part of hockey. Good thing for me is Chuck and the guys had faith in me to give me another contract and give me another chance.”

Zucker, who has scored eight goals and four assists in 47 regular-season games and an overtime winner and an assist in five playoff games, signed a two-year contract this offseason. The first year is a two-way deal, the second year a one-way deal. In addition, Zucker still doesn’t require waivers to get to Iowa, meaning there’s no doubt he has to play his way onto the team once training camp opens Sept. 18.

However, with Niederreiter still unsigned and potential spots on the third and fourth line, Zucker says he’s up for the challenge.

“I’ve always believed that the door’s always open,” Zucker said. “Even if you have the best guys on your team, if you perform, they’ll try to make room for you if you’re playing well and doing the right things. That’s what I focused on this summer. [Thomas] Vanek’s a great addition and all the rest of the guys are great players. I hope I just can help that out.”

Zucker, who does look thicker and as fast as ever on the ice, said he dedicated himself on and off the ice this summer in an attempt to make the team.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a hockey season,” Zucker said. “I was home [in Las Vegas] for five months. I was doing rehab six days a week, I was in the gym six days a week just making sure that every little bit was ready to go for training camp. I want to do everything I can. I think I went back and watched every single game I played three times just to watch video of myself. I just wanted to do everything I could, myself, to be ready for this year. The rest is obviously how I perform in camp.”

Photo Credit: Upper Deck

As part of Upper Deck’s Heroic Inspirations campaign, Wild goalie Josh Harding will be featured on a collectible trading card he autographed and inscribed for charitable purposes. In a press release, Upper Deck said, "The goal of the card is to give people suffering from MS hope and to raise awareness for Josh Harding’s charity; Harding’s Hope."

The 2013 Masterton Trophy winner and 2013-14 NHL goals-against average and save percentage leader signed and inscribed, “My inspiration is my father,” on 25 cards that have been inserted into packs of the 2014-15 NHL® O-Pee-Chee series. Harding has signed and inscribed other versions of the card with some of his other inspirations. These additional autographed and inscribed cards will be available with a donation to the charity through the Harding’s Hope website at the start of the 2014-15 season.

As I've mentioned previously, Harding has been taking part in all the NHL skates and looks ready to go for training camp.


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