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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#VanekWatch is officially over. Thomas Vanek is coming home.
The Austrian-born left winger, who led the Gophers to a national championship 11 years ago and has settled in the Twin Cities, has agreed to a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Wild less than two hours into free agency.
“About a year ago when I made my decision to go to free agency, this was definitely a team that I had in mind,” Vanek said. “For it to come true today, I’ve still not come to terms with it. I’m extremely thrilled to be a part of the Wild and of a group like this. I’m just happy.”
He has a full no-move clause and left money and term on the table from other teams. He'll earn $5.5 million in 2014-15, $6.5 million in 2015-16 and $7.5 million in 2016-17. He'll wear No. 26.
“Thomas is an elite offensive talent who showed a strong desire to play in Minnesota,” said GM Chuck Fletcher. “We are excited to welcome him to our organization.”
Vanek, 30, the fifth overall pick in the 2003 draft with the Buffalo Sabres, saw his stock fall during a tough postseason for the Montreal Canadiens, but he brings with him a history of goal scoring.
Since the start of 2005-06, Vanek has scored the eighth-most goals in the NHL (277 goals in 663 games), third-most power-play goals (113), 556 points and is tied for 11th with 0.42 goals per game.
“He’s always a threat when he has the puck, and when he doesn’t have the puck, he always finds ways to get himself available,” Jason Pominville, his former Buffalo linemate, said to me by phone yesterday. “He would step in and help our power play right away. As a net-front presence, he’s always there with screens and always finds a way to get his stick on the puck.
“He’s so good at tipping pucks, it’s crazy.”
My guess: Coach Mike Yeo is aware of the Pominville/Vanek chemistry but will start camp with Parise-Granlund-Pominville because he liked that line down the stretch and Vanek-Koivu-Coyle.
Vanek scored 57 goals and 113 points in 83 games over two years for the Gophers. He led the team in scoring both years, was a WCHA Rookie of the Year and his 31 goals as a freshman is second in school history. In 2003, he was the Frozen Four MVP, beating Michigan in overtime and scoring the winning goal in the national championship game against New Hampshire.
"I've been a little bit nervous for the last week or so, knowing that it was a good possibility but also knowing there would be other good offers out there," said former Gophers teammate Keith Ballard. "Thomas said he would keep me in the loop and I tried to do a little arm-twisting here and there. I answered some questions for him, and I was just hoping something would work. I'm very excited."
Added Ballard: “It was tough for him. He had the luxury of coming off a pretty significant [seven-year, $50 million] deal, and I don’t think he’s looking at this as his last contract either. Last week he told me he didn’t just want to come here because this is where he lives. He said several times he thinks we’re a legitimate contender and likes our team. That’s what you want.
“We have a really good team and we got better today.”
Jarome Iginla has signed a three-year deal with Colorado.
In more Wild news, Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick returned to Buffalo. The Wild will still be looking to replace Clayton Stoner (Willie Mitchell?) and maybe McCormick. By signing Vanek, third line could be Cooke-Haula-Nino. That leaves Zucker, Brodziak, Fontaine as the other forwards, so if the Wild does sign another forward, there's a bit of a logjam and also leaving little room for new kids to make the team.
The Wild has signed Charlotte Checkers captain Brett Sutter to a two-way deal. He's LA Kings coach Darryl Sutter's son. Signing is for depth, could play games, but will likely start with Iowa. The center has played 54 games for Carolina and Calgary. Most his career has been spent in the minors.
The Wild has also signed defenseman Stu Bickel, the Chanhasssen native and former Gopher, as a depth defenseman to a one-year, two-way deal.
Lots of free-agent signings in the first hour:
Defenseman Clayton Stoner has reached a four-year deal worth $13 million from the Anaheim Ducks. A
"I have always loved everything about Minnesota, from the people, to the hockey to the way of life," Stoner said. "I will my teammates, the friends I have met here and always look back at the memories with a smile."
Ducks are getting a physical defenseman who is cashing in on a quality postseason. In 227 career games, the 2004 third-rounder scored 31 points and compiled 296 penalty minutes.
At that term and salary, this is why the Wild let him move on and why he decided to move on. Stoner said talks with the Wild went nowhere. The Wild will look to replace Stoner now, maybe with Willie Mitchell.
As for Thomas Vanek, his agents say it's down to two teams. One is the Wild. Jarome Iginla's camp has gone on radio silent, as have the Wild's front office.
Of skilled wingers, Jussi Jokinen to Florida at 4 years x $4 million, Mike Cammalleri to New Jersey at 5 x 5, Benoit Pouliot to Edmonton at 5 x 4, Milan Michalek re-signed with Ottawa at 3 x 4, Alex Hemsky is reportedly going to rejoin Jason Spezza in Dallas.
Center Paul Stastny has signed with St. Louis at 4 x 7. Ryan Miller to Vancouver.
Morning from Minnesota, where I'm staking out the Wild.
Free agency begins at 11 a.m. CT. I'm be on XM 211 and Sirius 207 at 10:25 a.m. CT.
I'll be updating this throughout the day and of course when there's news. And of course, follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/russostrib.
Hopefully you read today's free-agency primer here.
Thomas Vanek is expected to get a short-term (probably three years) offer from the Wild, but the Wild also spent part of yesterday talking more with Jarome Iginla's peeps. My guess is the Wild offer Iginla a two-year deal in the $12 million neighborhood. Just a guess though. Colorado, Detroit, Vancouver and Tampa Bay are also reportedly interested as well as Boston, which wants to re-sign him but has cap issues.
I spoke to Jason Pominville yesterday, and you can see in the article that he had a pretty good scouting report on what Vanek could bring to the Wild and a funny line about Iginla.
Just a reminder, the free-agent crop this year, especially up front, is slim. The next group of scoring wingers (some of whom I listed in the article) all have significant red flags (from injury to inconsistency to, uh, attitude problems, to off-ice problems), so if the Wild misses on Vanek or Iginla, this could be what GM Chuck Fletcher meant when he said Saturday, "There’s certain players you might value more than other players and if you don’t think the player is a perfect fit maybe the best move is just to maybe move on. I don’t think it’s that deep a free-agent class where if we don’t get No. 1 we should just blindly go after No. 2 or 3. Let’s be patient.”
So it'll be interesting to see what happens today. Jason Spezza was just traded to on-the-rise Dallas, meaning the division just got more stacked, especially up the middle. Although, I'll admit I'm not a big Spezza fan. But Seguin-Spezza, in the words of Larry David, "Pretty, pretty, pretty good."
I have not gotten confirmation that Cody McCormick is going to market, although there is only 40 more minutes til free agency begins.
Willie Mitchell is still an option to replace Clayton Stoner. I'm sure there are other options, too. I'd expect Stoner signs early in today's free-agency period. It certainly looks like Stoner's 10 years in the Wild organization is ending today. Good guy, good quote.
Also, as I alluded to in the free-agent primer but now can confirm, the Wild is officially out on Matt Niskanen. The Wild won't make an offer. Niskanen has the opportunity to sign a six- or seven-year deal deal today and the Wild's just not comfortable signing Niskanen to a contract that long. Lightning makes sense. So does Washington.
We'll see if this means the Wild's out on a top defenseman or if it just means it's going in a different direction than Niskanen. I heard the Wild called on Anton Stralman, but he's apparently going to get a five-year deal in the $25 million range.
Remember, every time you sign a player to a long-term deal like that, it means it'll likely take you out of future potentially top free agents and it could box out youngsters ready to make the team in the future. Also, the Wild's nervous signing more players for too, too long because there's an unknown right now what some of these re-signings, especially next summer, are going to cost the Wild.
If some of next year's RFA's suddenly have monster breakout years this year (Granlund, Coyle, Brodin, whoeever), it could cost the Wild big term and money. That's why I'd suspect later this summer or into this season that Fletcher will try to get ahead with some and extend their contracts now.
For those confused why I never talk about pursuing a goalie, please read this article from Friday.
The Wild is expected to sign Guillaume Gelinas, 21, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's best defenseman this past season after scoring 23 goals and 92 points in 67 games for Val-d'Or. He scored another 34 points in 24 playoff games for a team that lost the Memorial Cup to Edmonton. He would start in Iowa next season.
MINNESOTA WILD TO PARTNER WITH DAKTRONICS TO PROVIDE TECHNOLOGY RENOVATION AT XCEL ENERGY CENTER
NEW HD VIDEO DISPLAY IN MAIN SCOREBOARD WILL BE CENTERPIECE OF PROJECT
SAINT PAUL, Minn. – The National Hockey League’s (NHL) Minnesota Wild announced today it has partnered with Daktronics (Nasdaq – DAKT) of Brookings, S.D. and Redwood Falls, Minn., to manufacture and install a comprehensive technology upgrade at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, Minn., that will include a new custom HD LED center-hung video board.
“Daktronics is a proven leader in this industry and we are confident and really excited about adding these new technologies and what they will mean for in-arena opportunities,” said Matt Majka, Minnesota Wild Chief Operating Officer. “We want to enhance our home ice advantage and give back to the fans what they give us each and every night.”
The new center-hung video board will be nearly six times larger than the current one, stretching from blue line to blue line. Although larger, its size was intentionally selected to complement the game or event, rather than dominate it. The design will feature the latest technology available and incorporate the North Woods motif already conveyed throughout the arena.
Additional upgrades will include replacement of outdoor marquees and ribbon displays that encircle the interior arena fascia. The new elements will be largely manufactured in Minnesota and installed over the summer, with the official unveiling planned for the Wild’s first home preseason game on Sept. 27 against the Winnipeg Jets.
The new center-hung configuration will consist of 10 LED video displays. The two main displays will each measure approximately 19 feet high by 37.5 feet wide. The two end displays will measure approximately 19 feet high by 24 feet wide. The top ring will measure 3 feet high by 145 feet wide and the bottom ring will measure 3 feet high by 120 feet wide. Four circular displays, two on each side of the main video displays, will each measure more than 4 feet in diameter.
UPDATE: Vanek is meeting with the Wild tonight.
Good morning from 34,000 feet on my way back from Philly.
I’ll be on KFAN after I land in the 10:35 a.m. range, but I’ll also be filling in for Paul Allen on Monday from 9-noon. It’ll be a good look back at the Wild’s draft and a free-agent primer in advance of the market opening Tuesday.
I’ll have a number of guests, including 1) Steve Bartlett, Thomas Vanek's agent, and former agent of ex-Wild good guy and 3-time, 30-goal scorer Brian Rolston; 2) Matt Niskanen’s agent, Neil Sheehy (the man I stalked during the Zach Parise/Ryan Suter pursuit); 3) One of the Wild’s draft picks, perhaps third-rounder Louis Belpedio (A charismatic kid who captained the U.S. Under-18 Development team); 4) Hall of Fame hockey writer Jim Matheson from the Edmonton Journal to talk about the upcoming NHL offseason; 5) Fox Sports North's Marney Gellner.
The draft is over. Now all eyes on free agency Tuesday at 11 a.m.
-- As you know unless you have been in hibernation, the Wild has interest in Thomas Vanek and I believe plans are in the works for Vanek to sit down with coach Mike Yeo
and GM Chuck Fletcher today in the Twin Cities. The Wild is interested in signing Vanek to a short-term deal, but the team wants to make sure he would be comfortable with that and wants to discuss with him its idea of fit and role and what each other may expect. Vanek will certainly have more lucrative and longer-term offers, but the stars could be aligning here due to the Wild’s need for a scorer and the lure of him staying home.
-- The Wild will also be looking for a rugged, fifth or sixth defenseman now that it seems certain that Clayton Stoner will be departing via free agency. Willie Mitchell is a definite possibility, although I’m sure the Wild has other lines in the water, too. I have nothing confirmed, so I don’t want to guess.
-- The Wild also has interest in Niskanen, but it hasn’t been nearly as aggressive here yet, I believe, for three reasons. 1) The first priority is a scoring forward because the Wild’s not nearly good enough around the net; 2) Niskanen has some potential ginormous opportunities, including the potential of seven-year deals. The Wild, as Fletcher has indicated for two weeks and in today’s Insider in the newspaper, is wary adding another super-long deal. Contracts are guaranteed in the NHL and the more long-term deals you have, the less flexibility you have elsewhere, whether that be affording guys you need to re-sign or turning over the roster at times when you feel it necessary. So, this is still very much up in the air just because Niskanen will have the chance to strike it rich. Remember, he doesn’t live in the Twin Cities. He lives on a lake in northern Minnesota, so the lure of “coming home” may not be there as much for Niskanen. 3) Fletcher is a lot more comfortable with his top-4 than he was heading into last season, most notably because Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon had solid seasons.
As of now, no meeting has been set up with Niskanen personally. He also got married Saturday, so he’s a wee bit busy.
-- Back to the scorer, as I reported in today’s Insider here, the Wild has at least contacted Jarome Iginla’s camp about its interest. But the deal here: Iginla, the friendliest Wild killer anywhere who resurrected himself during a 30-goal season for the Bruins, would like to re-sign in Boston. Boston would like to re-sign Iginla, but if it’s on a two-year deal, Boston would have to dump some salary. So things are kind of in flux. If behind the scenes the Bruins ask Iginla to be patient and wait for them to make some arrangements, this could take a little while into July. My guess is the Wild will feel the urgency July 1 to find that scoring forward and won’t feel it can wait, so I’d bet even if in the back of Iginla’s mind he may be interested in Minnesota if Boston didn’t work out, I don’t think the Wild will be able to wait and take that chance it loses out on the slim pickings out there.
So, I’d think Iginla is a longshot and Vanek is the most probable.
-- Remember, I don’t claim to know everybody the Wild’s interested in, which as Fletcher said the other day, “makes me happy.” So it wouldn’t shock me if there ends up being a signing or two of a player not previously reported.
-- Remember also, as Fletcher alluded to in the Insider, free agency is slim pickings this year. If the Wild misses or backs out on some of its No. 1 targets, this is not the year “we should just blindly go after No. 2 or 3.”
So Fletcher, how do you weigh the need to get better because teams ahead of you or behind you may vs. potentially not adding? “I still think we have a lot of players that are going to get better
and will be better next season than they were last season. So to improve you either go outside and add pieces or you hope for internal improvement. And I do think it’s very realistic to assume there will be some internal improvement for some of our younger players as they
either get a bigger role or they with the experience they’ve gained start to produce more. That’ll be really key.”
I also talked to Yeo yesterday and he also said the coaching staff can’t afford to sit back and assume that personnel changes will help improve the team, like offensively or the power play.
“It would be a big mistake on our part as a staff to just assume that personnel just makes it better,” he said. “Whether it’s concepts, philosophy, tactics, whatever, we have to find a way to be more consistently effectively. Also, producing offense from back end. It’s something we’re trying to build and improve on, but it hasn’t come quick enough.”
-- I made you wait long enough – the depth chart.
As I always do after the draft and before free agency, here’s a mind-refresher of what the team potentially looks like now before the upcoming additions. This will change undoubtedly by Wednesday, so this will adjust all summer. But this is, as of now.
Note, the depth chart is my opinion. In parentheses, each player’s cap hits with some assistance from the incredible web site, www.capgeek.com. The RFA’s will get done soon. I’d think Justin Fontaine would sign a one- or two-year deal in the $1.1 to $1.3 million range annually. I don’t even want to guess on Darcy Kuemper. If I’m Nino Niederreiter, I sign a one- or two-year deal, prove myself bigtime and then try to hit a homer on my next contract. Jason Zucker is a rare Group 1 free agent, meaning he has almost no rights. No arbitration, can’t sign an offer sheet, nada. So I’d think he takes his qualifying offer. Kuemper, Fontaine and Jon Blum have arb rights. That has to be filed by July 5, and remember, if it happens, it’s just part of the process and usually a contract gets settled prior to the hearing. Arb, in my opinion, is usually a good thing because it guarantees no holdout, too.
WILD DEPTH CHART
Left wing Center Right wing
Zach Parise ($7.5+M) Mikael Granlund (900K) Jason Pominville (5.6M)
Nino Niederreiter (RFA) Mikko Koivu (6.75M) Charlie Coyle (900K)
Matt Cooke (2.5M) Erik Haula (900K) Jason Zucker (RFA)
--------------------------- Kyle Brodziak (2.83 M) Justin Fontaine (RFA)
Vying for spots: Zucker, Stephane Veilleux (587,500), Michael Keranen (792,500), Brett Bulmer (780K), Kurtis Gabriel (667K), Tyler Graovac (747,500)
Unrestricted free agents that may re-sign: Cody McCormick.
Unrestricted free agents departing: Dany Heatley, Matt Moulson, Mike Rupp, Jake Dowell.
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 (RFA)
Unrestricted free agents that may be departing: Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser.
Vying for spots: Folin, Blum, Matt Dumba (894,167), Gustav Olofsson (795K).
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.
Unrestricted free agent departing: Ilya Bryzgalov
Total cap hit roughly: $47,787,758.
Available cap space roughly: $20.5 million (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 $20.5 million excludes re-signing restricted free agents. Also, always take that number a subtract a few million because Fletcher will always try to leave space for injury callups and in-season acquisitions.
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