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.

Also find Russo on Facebook.

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Posts about Wild off-season news

Zach Parise takes part in Ice Bucket Challenge (with video), challenges Zajac, Faulk, Okposo

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: August 11, 2014 - 5:09 PM

If you haven't heard of the #IceBucketChallenge yet, it is a social media craze that was created by former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who is suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Athletes, celebrities and regular folks just like you have been challenging each other to douse themselves with buckets of ice water to raise awareness for the debillitating disease. If challenged, you have 24 hours to complete the challenge and challenge three others, in addition to donating $100 to ALS research.

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin and Wild left wing Stephane Veilleux challenged the Wild's Zach Parise. Earlier today, Parise accepted the challenge, poured ice water over his head and in turn challenged NHL stars Travis Zajac, Justin Faulk and Kyle Okposo.

Here is the video Parise sent me:

Here is the very funny Veilleux Ice Bucket Challenge

With the beautiful Minneapolis skyline in the background, here is Martin's challenge of Parise, Andy Greene and James Neal.

And of course, this was bound to happen!

So, I obliged

Falk returning to Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: August 1, 2014 - 4:33 PM

After a year with the New York Rangers, free agent defenseman Justin Falk is returning to the Wild.

The team signed Falk, 25, to a one-year, two-way deal on Friday. The 6-5, 215 pounder played 21 games for the Rangers last season, with two assists and 20 penalty minutes.

Drafted in the fourth round in 2007 by the Wild, Falk played in 108 games from 2009-13. He had a goal and 14 assists, and 100 penalty minutes, with Minnesota. Basically, a depth signing. 

Fletcher on Niederreiter, Kuemper; Wild depth chart

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: August 1, 2014 - 8:24 AM

Happy Aug. 1 everybody. We have officially entered the dog days of the summertime where the NHL (un)officially goes on hiatus. As GM Chuck Fletcher said when I had him on KFAN the other day, even GM’s who may even want to make a trade often has trouble getting hold of colleagues this time of the offseason.

I’m also going on a bit of a vaca, so I wanted to quickly toss up a blog to provide an update. On KFAN the other day, I asked Fletcher about re-signing Justin Fontaine to a two-year, $2 million deal and about Darcy Kuemper and Nino Niederreiter, who remain unsigned.

On Fontaine, Fletcher said, “I like and respect his versatility. He was a player that we asked to play in a lot of different roles last year. I think he played on every line. I remember him getting the game-winning goal against Nashville early in the year playing on the first line. He spent time on the second, third and fourth line. In the playoffs he played really well for a little bit of that Chicago series as a third line right wing. He’s a smart player, he’s a guy that can adapt to different roles, he can check, he obviously has some creativity and some offensive flare as well. He’s just scratching the service, we think, of his potential here in the NHL. He’s been a big scorer both at UMD and in the American League and there’s no reason to believe that he can’t keep getting better offensively. At that type of price, at a million dollar cap number, again, great flexibility for the coaching staff and some offensive upside to boot. We are very happy to have resigned Justin.”

On Niederreiter and Kuemper, “We’ve been sort of working our way on both files, certainly had more conversations with Niederreiter’s representative and we’ve talked about bunch of different scenarios, the process is ongoing. We haven’t had as much time on Kuemper’s file I think in part because we thought he may have filed for arbitration and then he didn’t so we thought that would be a scenario where we would prepare to go to arbitration and have a chance to have several conversations over a short period of time and when that didn’t come to pass, it sort of slowed down a little bit. We will see. There’s a long time until training camp and the Group 2 marketplace right now seems to be focused more on the arbitrations. As those contracts come in typically teams get to work a little bit more on their non-arb guys, so we will just see how it goes. I think the agents for those players are trying to see where the market will settle in at and there really just isn’t much rush right now.”

My guess is Niederreiter will eventually sign a two- to four-year deal later this month or in early September.

Kuemper could be a chore. It certainly was three years ago when the Wild signed him to his entry-level contract. When Kuemper’s agent this time elected not to file for arbitration, that at least put a holdout – or the threat of one – on the table. Arbitration can be a contentious route if both sides actually go through with the hearing, but the good part of arbitration is it at least assures a one- or two-year deal at the end of the process. The Wild clearly felt Kuemper would file for arbitration and either the two sides would settle on a deal beforehand or an arbitrator would award him a contract he deserves comparable to others.

Now that he hasn’t filed for arbitration, it certainly appears as if this will be a battle.

“I don’t know, that’s hard to say,” Fletcher told me on KFAN. “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.”

When Fletcher says spending too much money on players impacts other things, remember, the Wild next summer has Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Erik Haula – among others – to re-sign. Overpaying, say, Niederreiter even by a few hundred grand would have ramifications and likely cost the Wild on the others. That’s why Fletcher says he has to be mindful with his RFA’s in a cap world. That’s also why Fletcher, later this summer and into the season, will look to try to extend the contracts of guys like Granlund, Coyle, Brodin and maybe others.

Fletcher will be looking to sign all his young players to contracts of two to four years. Short-term deals are easiest because it’s less likely neither side will make a mistake.

I asked Fletcher how it’s even possible to come up with a comparable for Kuemper because he is such an oddity. Theoretically, at his age of 24 and being a goalie, he could even use more seasoning in the minors. Yet, because of the spot the Wild was in last season with the health of Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom, Kuemper was thrust onto the team and performed well to save the Wild’s bacon. Then he began to struggle a bit, and then sustained two head injuries.

“Obviously there’s been other players that have played similar amounts of games in the league, whether it’s Anttii Raanta or even Kevin Poulin with the Islanders. There’s different players out there that have played 20, 30 games in the league. Obviously everything comes down to term. Shorter term deals dollars are always lower. You try to get term, you try to get two-, three-, four-year deals, obviously you have to start projecting, figuring out where the player’s going to be and where the marketplace is going to be and what he can get in arbitration. It just depends on how big of bite you want to take. There are some comps. At the end of the day, the way the CBA is set up, after entry-level, the players don’t have a lot of rights. Typically their first contract coming out of entry-level unless they’re clearly established, top-end players, the second contract is usually a time to lock in a decent deal and prepare yourself for the bigger deals to come. We’ll see how it all plays out. At this time it’s way too early to say there’s going to be any issues going forward.”

The Wild’s again going to be relying on Backstrom and Harding’s health to start this season. The Wild says both are healthy and there’s no reason to think they won’t be ready to perform at the start of camp. But those are just words right now. The Wild has endured goalie health issues basically during Fletcher’s entire five-year tenure, so my guess is Kuemper’s agent is using that as leverage to try to get a big contract now. We’ll see how it all plays out. Fletcher plans to sit down with Harding next week to get a sense of how he is feeling physically and mentally.

“We’re definitely comfortable. When healthy, our guys have performed well,” Fletcher said. “Two seasons ago, Backstrom tied for the league-lead in wins. Josh has the best goals-against average of any goalie in the league last year, so both goalies have shown the ability to perform at a high level. And Darcy played well in stretches last year, particularly in January leading up to the Olympic break. He played very well for our team when we were banged up. … We’re fortunate we have three NHL-capable goaltenders that are able to play. We really only need one of them to be healthy, I guess, would be the cynical way of looking at it. We’re going to go with what we have. Right now there’s no reason to think that any one of them won’t be ready for training camp. Backstrom feels good and Harding feels good and we’ll see how things play out come camp. You always have the ability to make adjustments in the season if necessary.”

On the blue line, Fletcher said “three of our top-four defensemen were young last year (Brodin, Spurgeon, Scandella) and now they’re just another year older and wiser and more experienced. The young guys on the blue line keep getting better. I think if we can look at a veteran defenseman down the road, that would be one area where we can still look to the outside.”

Fletcher said he may look at defenseman on two-way options, but he said there aren’t a lot of names out there that are clear upgrades on what they have. “At this point, I think there are still some teams shuffling the deck. The smart thing I think would be to just be patient and see what could become available over the next two to three months.”

At this point, teams usually like to see what they have in training camp before making trades (unless they must get cap compliant before opening night). So Fletcher may do the same and see how guys like Christian Folin, Matt Dumba, Jon Blum and even Stu Bickel perform in camp before deciding whether or not he has to pounce on a trade. At some point, I’ve got to think he makes a trade or signs a desperate veteran to a two-way because a couple injuries on the back end and the Wild’s NHL-experienced depth quickly becomes thin.

What else?

-- Becoming Wild got picked up for another season on Fox Sports North and NHL Network. Pat O’Connor and Dusty Peterson just went to Sweden to shoot Brodin, Helsinki to shoot Granlund and Switzerland to shoot Niederreiter.

-- Stephane Veilleux won the Smashfest ping-pong tourney in Toronto for a second year in a row. The event raised $140,000 to benefit two causes: concussions and traumatic brain injuries; and rare cancer research and advocacy.

-- And lastly, to refresh your memory during the dog days of August,

WILD DEPTH CHART

Here’s a look at how the Wild is shaping up to look like next season. This will change throughout the summer as the Wild add and delete players.

The depth chart is my opinion. Obviously, lines change, roles change, etc. There are interchangeable parts and I’d expect at least another defenseman at some point.

In parentheses, each player’s cap hits with some assistance from the web site, www.capgeek.com.

Forwards

Left wing                         Center                          Right wing

Zach Parise ($7.5+M)       Mikael Granlund (900K)  Jason Pominville (5.6M)

Thomas Vanek ($6.5M)   Mikko Koivu (6.75M)     Charlie Coyle (900K)

Matt Cooke (2.5M)            Erik Haula (900K)           Nino Niederreiter (RFA)

Jason Zucker (900+K)        Kyle Brodziak (2.83 M)    Justin Fontaine (1M)

Cody Almond (550K)

Vying for spots: Zucker, Almond, Stephane Veilleux (587,500), Brett Sutter (600K), Michael Keranen (792,500), Jordan Schroeder (600K), Joel Rechlicz (600K), Brett Bulmer (780K), Kurtis Gabriel (667K), Zack Mitchell (615K), Tyler Graovac (747,500), Zack Phillips ($863,333), Brady Brassart ($836,667), Raphael Bussieres ($759,167), Curt Gogol ($551,667).

Defensemen

Left Defense                     Right Defense

Ryan Suter (7.5+M)          Jared Spurgeon (2.66M)

Marco Scandella (1.025M) Jonas Brodin (1.4+M)

Keith Ballard (1.5M)          Christian Folin (925K)

Jon Blum (675K)

Vying for spots: Folin, Blum, Matt Dumba (894,167), Stu Bickel (600K), Gustav Olofsson (795K), Guillaume Gelinas ($596,667), Colton Jobke ($551,667).

Goalies

Niklas Backstrom (3.42M)

Josh Harding (1.9M)

Darcy Kuemper (RFA)

* Kuemper can be sent to the minors without waivers even if he receives a one-way deal.

Vying for spots: Johan Gustafsson (665K), John Curry (600K).

  

Total cap hit roughly: $57,413,008.

Available cap space: $10.88 million roughly (I based this on a $68.3 million salary-cap ceiling; NHL salary cap next season is $69 million, but the Wild will be charged a bonus overage of a little less than $700,000). Note, the $10.88 million excludes re-signing restricted free agents Niederreiter and Kuemper. The Wild will almost certainly not be a cap ceiling team for the first time in a long time. Its actual payroll (real dollars paid out) is at above $67 million, and all teams have internal budgets.


 

Justin Fontaine agrees to two-year contract with Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: July 29, 2014 - 11:33 AM

Justin Fontaine, the 26-year-old Wild forward, will avoid a Friday arbitration hearing and sign a new two-year deal with the Wild this afternoon. The deal is expected to be worth $1 million annually ($950,000 in Year 1 and $1.05 million in Year 2).

Fontaine, the former University of Minnesota Duluth national champion, tied for fourth on the Wild and tied for 12th among NHL rookies last season with 13 goals. That goal total was third-highest ever by a Wild rookie. He had 21 points in 66 games and his plus-6 was tied for second all-time by a Wild rookie.

On Jan. 9 at Phoenix, he recorded his first career hat trick.

Fontaine is one of three remaining restricted free agents left to be signed by the Wild. The other two are the biggees, winger Nino Niederreiter and goalie Darcy Kuemper.

Kuemper, by all indications, could take awhile. It was difficult to get Kuemper signed to his initial entry-level deal and Kuemper had a quality rookie season, helping save the Wild's hide when Josh Harding was lost to complications with multiple sclerosis and Niklas Backstrom to another abdominal injury.

The Wild will again be relying on the uncertainty of Backstrom and Harding this season, which certainly seems to give Kuemper leverage in negotiations toward a new deal. Kuemper went 12-8-4 last season with a 2.43 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. He sustained a concussion at St. Louis when run by David Backes and was lost to another head injury in Game 7 of the first round when he was hit behind the net and his head hit teammate Ryan Suter.

Niederreiter could take awhile, too, but these things usually get done. Training camp doesn't start until Sept. 18, so there's plenty of time. Niederreiter scored 14 goals, 36 points and was plus-12 in 81 games last season. He was also the Game 7 hero against Colorado, scoring two goals (including the overtime winner) and assisting on Jared Spurgeon's late tying goal in the third period.

GM Chuck Fletcher told me earlier this month his goal is to sign Niederreiter to a two- to four-year deal.

Speaking of Fletcher, I am filling in for Dan Barreiro on KFAN (100.3-FM) today from 3-6 p.m. CT. The Wild GM will join be at 3:35.

Also on the show will be Lou Nanne, the Star Tribune's Lavelle E. Neal III, Paul Charchian and A.J. Mansour.

Report: Thomas Vanek connected in federal gambling investigation

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: July 21, 2014 - 8:31 PM

WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y. is reporting (and has video) that recently-signed Wild winger and former Buffalo Sabre and Rochester Amerk Thomas Vanek was in federal court today in upstate New York as part of an ongoing gambling investigation.

According to the station, Vanek's appearance stems from the June arrest of three owners/managers of the Marina Restaurant and Bar in Charlotte, N.Y. on gambling and money laundering charges. The three men were allegedly conducting an illegal gambling business out of the bar since January 2012 (see above links and this article).

The TV station reports, "Vanek is not charged with any crime and he voluntarily came to the federal court building with his lawyer."

In a statement sent to me by Vanek's agent Steve Bartlett, Vanek said, "Representatives of the U.S. Federal Government have asked for my cooperation in an investigation.  I am not the subject of any investigation or prosecution.  I will fully cooperate with the U.S. Federal authorities in their investigation or in any proceedings arising out of it."

Bartlett said Vanek is a witness in a federal case and, "No further comment on the matter will be made at this time."

I contacted NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and he said, "We are looking into it, but have no comment at this time."

In a statement, the Wild said, “We are aware of Thomas Vanek's cooperation with a federal investigation and have no further comment at this time. We direct you to Thomas' earlier statement ... "

Vanek, 30, played for Rochester in 2004-05 and played nine seasons for the Sabres before being traded last season to the Islanders, then the Canadiens. On July 1, the former Gophers star signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Wild. His 277 career goals rank eighth in the NHL since the start of the 2005-06 season. His 113 power-play goals rank third over that span.

Vanek lives fulltime in the Twin Cities.

--------------------------------

In other news, former Wild defenseman Nate Prosser has agreed to a one-year, two-way deal with the St. Louis Blues. Prosser, 28, the Elk River native and former Colorado College product, played 126 games for the Wild over parts of five seasons.

I'll be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN (100.3-FM) on Tuesday from 9-noon. Lots of Wild, Vikes, Wolves, Twins, Gophers talk.

Guests: Singer/songwriter Eric Hutchinson, actor/comedian Erik Stolhanske, Wild defenseman Christian Folin, Minnesota United FC midfielder Jamie Watson, Minnesota Daily Gophers beat writer Jack Satzinger and Fox Sports North's Tom Hanneman. Joe Anderson and Cities97's Paul Fletcher will also join for parts of the show.

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