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Analyzing Mikko Koivu's contract and the future of #mnwild; Rick Wilson assistant finalist; Butch update

  • Blog Post by: Michael Russo
  • July 16, 2010 - 5:25 PM

Couple late afternoon updates:

Rick Wilson, the former North Stars and longtime Dallas Stars assistant/associate coach, is a finalist for the Wild assistant job, multiple sources confirm. Wilson, a former UND and NHL defenseman, has been an NHL assistant for 20 years with the Islanders, Kings, North Stars, Stars and last season, Tampa Bay.

Wilson has two more years on his deal with the Lightning, but the Tampa Tribune's Erik Erlendsson tells me GM Steve Yzerman told Wilson at the draft that while the Lightning sorts out the coaching staff, he was free to seek employment elsewhere.

Wilson, 59, has worked with a gazillion NHL head coaches, winning a Cup in Dallas alongside Kent Hitchcock, and working alongside everybody from Al Arbour to Bob Gainey to Dave Tippett. He was an assistant with the North Stars/Stars from 1992-2008, spending part of the 2001-02 season as Dallas' interim coach.

I heard from several coaches that know him this afternoon, and they say "fabulous coach" and "Great hire. Would be a great hire as well." 

Also, talked with Pierre-Marc Bouchard this afternoon on Reusse's radio show on 1500 ESPN. He puts himself at 90 percent, is improving, is upbeat and hopes to put on skates soon for an easy skate. His goal is to hopefully be ready by training camp. He sounded real good, so that's a positive sign for a guy that's been pretty down in the dumps the past year. He also said he played golf yesterday with Guillaume Latendresse.

(Updated in the middle in bold)

Good morning from MPLS. Wanted to write a Mikko Koivu blog after I slept on it, so to speak, but first a couple reminders:

1. I’ll be sitting in with Patrick Reusse on his show on 1500 ESPN this afternoon from 12-2 CT. So if you have hockey questions or Mikko questions, feel free to call in and hijack his show. Reusse will love it! Of course, it may be my last time sitting in with him. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, working his way back from a concussion, is expected to be a guest at 1 p.m., and although he’s talked with us newspaper beat writers about his comeback this summer, I’m pretty sure this is his first radio interview in months. So tune in and see if his voice changed.
By the way, how about the wind at the British Open this morning? See that? I can talk all sports with Reusse.
2. Just a reminder, the Wild’s development camp continues this weekend with 11 a.m. scrimmages at Xcel Energy Center. So if you need a fun hockey fix and want to get a look at the future of the Wild, the Saturday scrimmage is open to season-ticket holders and the Sunday scrimmage is open to the general public. Doors open at 10:30 a.m. and you’ll get to feel like a member of the spoiled media -- entry is free.
3. Told coach Todd Richards plans on talking with a couple assistant coaching candidates through the weekend. I think he’s far along in the process and they’ll have a hire next week. Kurt Kleinendorst is definitely a finalist. Not sure of the others, although I’m told my dartboard full of names on previous blogs are in the mix. But I’m sure I haven’t uncovered them all. I hear the Wild would love Craig Hartsburg to be a finalist, but the timing is probably not right for him and he’s likely staying in Everett.
 
Onto Koivu, and this could be a rambling, drawn-out appraisal, one that becomes a Russo’s Rants record in mass, so get a cup of coffee, a Vivarin and get ready for hours of reading. You might want to do it in shifts.
 
First, as I joked with Koivu in an email last night, at some point over the next eight years, there’s a good bet one of us strangles the other. Koivu is one of the most intense athletes I’ve ever covered. And I’ve got a tendency to lose my skull. Koivu hates to lose, so if you fumble over a question or ask a pointed question after one of those losses, he’s liable to get fire in his eyes, aim, fire and make you feel about 3 feet tall. I’ve been on the other end of that stare, strangely in the city of Dallas mostly (probably because the Wild never wins in Dallas). It ain’t fun. But get Koivu out of the rink or on the phone or at the local coffee shop, he and I get along royally.
 
Other than the obvious talent, it’s this Koivu quality or intangible that makes GM Chuck Fletcher want to make Koivu the centerpiece to everything he builds in Minnesota.
 
Obviously, a seven-year, $47.25 million commitment is, in fact, quite the commitment. It’s a $6.75 million salary cap, which is a colossal price for somebody who’s not scored more than 22 goals. I figured Ryan Kesler’s $5 million-a-year contract would be a starting point and the Wild would have to come in higher, but I never thought for a second it’d come in over 6. And truthfully, neither did a couple agents or GM’s I texted with last night.
 
I asked Fletcher about Koivu’s cap hit on yesterday’s conference call, saying he’s giving this to somebody who doesn’t score 40 or 50 goals. Fletcher replied, “How do you know?”
 
Hey, very true. But what I meant is Koivu probably could pop in 35 or 40 if he really wanted to, but the reality is he really doesn’t want to.
 
What makes Koivu such a unique player is the completeness. He’s proudly told me on 100 occasions that he refuses, and I mean it when I say refuses, to cheat offensively if it means being a defensive liability. He was taught the game by a coach – his father, and he believes you win by consciousness to the defensive side of the puck. Why do you think Jacques Lemaire beamed any time he talked of Koivu? So my point with the convoluted question to Fletcher: When you give such a huge contract to a non-goal scorer on a team starved for goals and you’re already strapped for salary-cap room the next two years at least ($49,899,444 already in 2011-12), how does such a team acquire the goal scorer to eventually play with Koivu?
 
There was a huge debate over the Twittersphere yesterday about how Koivu is overpaid. I’ll get more into that in a few minutes because trust me, when you look at the point-getting and goal-scoring stars around the NHL and what they make, I get why people out there are freaked out over Koivu’s cap hit. I created a Twitter stir yesterday during a two-tweet rant aimed at the people screaming he was “overpaid.” But my point wasn’t so much the “overpaid” argument as much as the Wild couldn’t afford to lose him and that the big centers who “get” to the open market always get their exorbitant contracts. I’ll get back into this in a sec.
 
But my fear with the cap hit: The Wild’s already weighed down with some hefty contracts, so now when you throw this contract into the fold, can the Wild still afford to eventually get Koivu a goal-scoring winger to play with?
 
Remember, the cap’s not always going to escalate, although it should in 11-12 as well. And most believe the league’s going to fight to get the player percentage of revenue to decrease (this is what determines the salary cap) in the next collective bargaining agreement fracas, so there’s a chance the cap goes down if the CBA expires after the 2011-12 season. So while next year Koivu’s cap hit could be a little more than 10 percent of the cap, it could be dramatically more in the next CBA.
 
Then it could be a real handcuff.
 
Koivu got 71 points last year, doing it on a bum knee and with a shredded shoulder for more than half and half the year, respectively. Imagine how many points Koivu could get alongside a sniper. Koivu’s an assist machine, yet he’s never played with a game-breaker (remember Marian Gaborik really never played with Mikko at even-strength).
 
Antti Miettinen scored 20 next to him last year. But let’s be honest, he should have had 40. Not to pick on Miettinen because I do like him as a hockey player, but he’s better suited for a second- or third-line role. He’s got skill, but he’s not a goal scorer. He missed lots of golden set-ups from Koivu and Andrew Brunette last year and scored 60 percent of his goals in 13 of his 79 games played (6 in 6 games from Nov. 15-Dec. 5 and 6 in 7 games from Jan. 13-27).
 
Koivu led the Wild in scoring the past two seasons. And the Wild’s missed the playoffs the last two seasons.
 
So to me, Fletcher’s got to figure out a way to find a scorer for Koivu. But unless there’s significant unloading of salaries, the Wild’s going to have to build this scorer from within.
 
And you know what, it could actually happen.
 
If you look at most the young stars in the NHL, they were developed from within – the Kanes, the Toews’, the Parises, the Ovechkins, Malkins and Crosbys, the Datsyuks and Zetterbergs, soon to be the Stamkos’ and Tavares’ and Halls and Seguins’ and countless others.
 
This has got to be the model for the Wild from now on. It’s not a short-term thing. It’ll take some patience from you folks, but maybe Mikael Granlund turns out to be that Koivu winger (he’s a natural center, yes, but it seems every natural center growing up plays wing in the NHL). Maybe it’s Brett Bulmer, whom I hear has impressed the heck out of the Wild brass at development camp. Maybe it’s Casey Wellman or Johan Larsson and Justin Zucker.
 
Again, I just think this has to be the hope. Because I’m no math genius, but I can count to $60 million, and unless Fletcher finds more lightning in a bottle (Guillaume Latendresse, if last year was the real Guillaume Latendresse), draft and developing has got to be the Wild’s blueprint.
 
Now, a few things about the contract.
 
1) I’m not about to rip the Wild for not throwing a fraudulent 12-year deal at Koivu with declining salaries meant to lower the cap. Why? Because then I’d be a hypocrite since I’ve criticized these Hossa, Luongo, Lecavalier contracts that are designed merely to circumvent the CBA these very owners locked the fans out for. But man, it would have been nice to have a lower cap for the reasons I outlined above.
2)The seven-year deal is specifically seven years because it can be insured in case of injury. Deals over seven years can’t be insured.
3)As for the fluctuating contract of $5.4 million salaries with five $1.89 million signing bonuses, which theoretically means three $7.29 million salary years and a $9.18 million one in 2017-18. There are multiple reasons for this. 1) Lockout protection. In other words, if there’s a lockout in 2012-13 and Koivu loses his salary, he basically recoups it during a backloaded contract. 2) I’m told the signing bonus payments protect Koivu’s estate, which is mostly legal protection. That’s way over this sportswriter’s pay grade.
 
I want to just clarify one major point, this lockout protection is also very much to protect the team. Technically, if there was a lockout, the Wild could be forced into paying a "signing bonus," which obviously an owner would not want to pay out during a year where there's no hockey. So both sides agreed to avoid that situation.
 
This lockout concern is the real one and becoming more and more repeated by players and teams. The players look like they’ll be guided by battle-tested former baseball union boss Donald Fehr, and the NHL looks like it’s ready to go to battle again in these next CBA negotiations. Concerns include the salary cap formulation, these long, deceptive contracts, guaranteed contracts and accelerated free agency (25 years old or seven years) that the league allowed in the last CBA, which by the way causes the departures of guys like Marian Gaborik and inflated contracts to guys like Mikko Koivu (this was an idiotic gift in exchange for the salary cap, and now is costing teams players and money and is in the be careful what you wish for category).
 
So there’s something to maybe look forward to in a few years.
 
Lastly, if you’re still awake and with me, which I put at about 20 percent of you, the overpaying stuff on Koivu’s contract.
 
1) Unless you watch the Wild on a daily basis or more than the one or two times he comes to your building a year, you’ve got no clue his value to the Wild. So if you’re doing statistical analysis on Koivu’s points compared to Tomas Plekanec or somebody else, sorry, you lost me right there. You can’t analyze Koivu by his, say, goal scoring because of the reasons I said above. He forgoes goals for other areas. Sometimes I wish he wouldn’t. But he does and will continue to. And you can’t analyze Koivu by his stats because the Wild’s scoring depth can’t compare to other teams.
 
And it’s not just the lack of snipers he plays with. Last season, Brunette, Koivu and Miettinen faced an opponent’s top checking line and two best defensemen pretty much 82 games on virtually every shift. When the Wild improves its depth, then maybe Koivu won’t be checked as hard and you can start using statistical analysis to determine Koivu’s worth.
 
2) Trust me, I get all the, “Oh my Goodness, how does Mikko Koivu make more than Kane and Getzlaf and Toews and Parise and Datsyuk and a little less than Marleau and so on and on.” I get it, but that’s not how you determine comparables in the NHL.
Kane, Getzlaf, Toews, these guys are on second contracts. They’ll get theirs. Datsyuk (6.7) was signed in 2007, and plays for a team that made sure teammates didn’t get more than Nick Lidstrom. Marleau (6.9) desperately wanted to stay in San Jose. He would have gotten more on the open market. Parise will definitely get his $$$ on his next contract. He’s a year from restricted free agency and two from unrestricted free agency.
 
This is Koivu’s fourth contract. There’s a difference between a guy becoming a restricted Group II free agent (Pavelski or somebody like that) and an unrestricted Group III free agent. So while in premise you can say, “Is he better than X,” that’s not how it works.
 
3) Unless you know the history of the Wild, you can’t really understand why the Wild couldn’t risk losing Koivu. This is a team that lost Brian Rolston after three consecutive 30-goal seasons. This is a team that just lost Marian Gaborik, a true gamebreaker. This is a team that for years has had trouble developing or acquiring top centermen. The Wild could not risk losing Koivu. So there was an immense pressure here, which led to all the leverage being on Koivu’s side. You can't replace Mikko Koivu. The Wild had no choice.
 
So, I guess, the point of all these words was this: I get the panic over the size of Koivu’s cap hit, but my chief concern would be not the size of Koivu’s cap hit so much as the size of all the Wild’s commitments. I get questions all the time how teams like Pittsburgh can have Crosby, Malkin, Staal and Fleury and still go out and sign a Michalek at $4 million and a Martin at $5.
 
The answer is because other than a few exceptions – Kunitz, Orpik, Letang – the Penguins fill out the rest of their roster with $1 million or less players.
 
The Wild’s model in the previous regime it seems to me was a pattern of 3 ½ million players and above. In fact, nine players make north of $3 million. I haven’t looked it up, but that’s got to be the most or near the most in the league. So this season coming up, nine out of 23 players make 35.9 million of the 59.4 million pie (60.4 percent of the cap). That obviously hampers the Wild’s ability to go out and sign the big names in free agency.  
 
So again, the hope is that starting in 2011-12, a lot of these entry-level, two-way contract guys are ready to crack the lineup. The hope is that with good drafting (Gillies, Almond, Falk, Scandella, Cuma, Hackett, Foucault, Haula, Granlund, Bulmer, Larsson, Zucker, others I’m forgetting) and acquisitions of college (Wellman, Prosser, Palmer), European (Endras) and junior (Broda) free agents, the Wild can start to build from within and find its diamonds in the rough.
 
That really is the best way for success, and frankly, if you do a little math, has got to be the way here in Minnesota.
 
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