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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Development camp thoughts; The Nate Prosser debate; Zucker re-signed

Posted by: Michael Russo under Vikings, Wild off-season news Updated: July 15, 2014 - 1:50 PM

UPDATE: Jason Zucker was indeed close. He has agreed to a two-year deal. The first year is a two-way, meaning he can be assigned to Iowa and make a minor-league salary and the second year is one-way, meaning he would be paid his NHL salary at either location. Zucker, 22, has 12 points in 47 career NHL games and scored an overtime winner two postseasons ago against Chicago. He underwent what was described as minor knee surgery last February. There were complications, however, and he never played again last season. 

Considering the hoopla going on with the MLB All-Star Game, it was quite an impressive turnout when 4,100 fans showed up at Xcel Energy Center for last night’s scrimmage to wrap up the Wild’s development camp.

It’s amazing how much the Wild, particularly Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir, packs into camp between practices, skill and skating work, off-ice workouts, lessons like cooking and (smartness with) social media and fun away from the rink, like paintball, trips to Lake Minnetonka and dinners.

Not shockingly, the prospects are exhausted by week’s end, so imagine the invitees who take part in multiple camps. For instance, Gophers forward Vinni Lettieri, who scored a goal in Green’s 5-3 win over White, took part in the Wild’s camp immediately after taking part in the Rangers’ camp.

There were a number of quality efforts in the two scrimmages.

-- The Wild’s defensemen were real good. Gustav Olofsson, a second-round pick in 2013 who should play for Iowa to at least start next season, was sensational last night. His footwork and ability to get pucks out of trouble in the defensive zone is pretty special.

Jonas Brodin-esque.

Louie Belpedio, a third-round pick last month, is pretty smooth. Smart defensively, moves the puck, is pretty swift in traffic with his stickwork. Christian Folin, signed out of college last year, is just solid. Matt Dumba, the Wild’s 2012 first-rounder, has a bomb and plays at full-speed all the time. And Guillaume Gelinas, the Q’s best defenseman last year and signed as a free agent July 1, really stood out with a couple goals – including one last night. He’s got skill and loves jumping up in the play. He’s certainly king of the backcheck, but he has got the wheels to recover.

I thought invitees Zach Palmquist and Alex Gudbranson stood out. Gudbranson is the younger brother of Florida’s Erik Gudbranson, the third pick in the 2010 draft.

-- Alex Tuch, taken 18th overall last month, scored a nice goal last night and he’s big, strong with a bigtime shot.

-- Reid Duke, one of the Wild’s three sixth-rounders last month, scored twice last night and certainly plays with edge. One of his unique goal celebrations included slashing fellow sixth-rounder Chase Lang, then getting into a tussle with him. Duke played on a struggling Lethbridge team last year but still managed 40 points and is expected to have a bigger role there this year.

-- Alex Iafallo, the pride of UMD, scored the winner last night on a sweet penalty-shot goal.

-- The guy who really stood out last night was Zack Mitchell. He showed exceptional patience and a slick wraparound move to score one goal and he was all over the place. Mitchell had 83 points in 67 games for OHL Guelph last year and was signed as a free agent in March. He’ll play for Iowa to start this season.

-- Michael Keranen, who tied for the Finnish Elite League scoring lead last season and voted by the players as the best player in the league, is a terrific playmaker. He helped set up Adam Gilmour’s beauty of a goal last night and showed why the Wild signed him as a European free agent in early June. He’ll be given a good look in training camp. Originally, it looked like if he didn’t make the Wild that he would return to Finland. But it looks like he would now be Iowa bound to start if he doesn’t make the Wild.

Obviously, a lot depends on the injury situation coming out of camp and whether he plays his way onto the team and somebody plays his way off.

-- BY the way, that’s the same thing with the Jordan Schroeder signing. He’ll come in motivated to make the team and try to prove himself. He’ll have to earn his way on. But if you look at the depth chart, all the bubble players may be at the mercy of the health and play by guys in front of him. We all know how fast and skilled Schroeder is. Wild will want him to really add some grit to his game in September.

-- Free-agent goalies Michael Shibrowski and Brandon Whitney looked pretty good in the scrimmages. Draft pick Kaapo Kahkonen struggled pretty visibly in both scrimmages, but he is 17 and has had to make three round-trip flights from Finland in the past six weeks. But he’s pretty raw.

-- Draft pick Alexandre Belanger, a goalie, didn’t play last night because of soreness. Same with invitee Olivier Archambault. Brooks Bertsch of St. Cloud State didn’t play again after getting rocked with an open-ice hit by Hunter Warner (keep your head up with this tough player on the ice) in Friday’s scrimmage. Mario Lucia didn’t play yesterday because he had to return to class at Notre Dame. Louie Nanne also didn’t take part in camp because he’s in class at RPI.

-- Things will really start to quiet down now. The Wild still plans to sign another goalie to a two-way deal to play in Iowa or go up and down between Iowa and Orlando of the ECHL.

It also wants to sign another defenseman preferably to a two-way deal. Nate Prosser is starting to get nibbles from other teams and I do think the Wild is still debating internally whether or not to sign Prosser, the good soldier who proved mightily valuable last season when the Wild sustained blue-line injuries to Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner.

As the Wild showed last season, it’s very easy to think you’re deep on the blue line and then lose two or three players at once. The Wild likes its blue-line depth, but that depth doesn’t include a lot of players with NHL experience (Jon Blum and Stu Bickel are really the only ones as of now).

Prosser proved last year you can easily throw him in and feel comfortable. The question is whether the Wild would be willing to sign Prosser to a one-way contract. That’s what he still wants if he’s going to re-sign in Minnesota. At some point soon, if Prosser is offered a concrete two-way from someone, he may need to pounce though. As I mentioned the other day, there’s only so many so-called “veterans” teams can sign that can play in the minors if those players don’t make the big club. And those “veteran” roster spots are quickly filling up on AHL rosters.

The debate internally, I think, is the Wild is still trying to make a trade for a defenseman before training camp. So if you sign Prosser to a one-way and then acquire another one-way contract, you could be blocking out kids like Christian Folin or Matt Dumba or maybe even have to put a one-way like Prosser in the minors (if he were not to be claimed off waivers).

So stay tuned on all this. Hopefully everything works out for Prosser. One of the nicest players I have ever covered and my feature on him here was still one of my favorite stories I wrote last season.

-- Restricted free agents Darcy Kuemper, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker remain unsigned. Qualifying offers tendered last month expire today at 4 p.m. CT. That really means little though.

A qualifying offer is just the mandatory offer that a team has to make in order to maintain rights to a player.  At 4 p.m. today, the qualifying offer is technically no longer on the table, so a team could theoretically lower the offer or cut the AHL salary back for example. Teams don’t typically do that because it just makes negotiating more of a chore and potentially uglier.

I would assume Zucker is close. I also would be shocked if Fontaine gets to his Aug. 1 arbitration date. I think both sides pretty much agree on what the number will be on a one- or two-year deal. By the way, if it does get to arb, I wouldn’t expect a lot of hoopla surrounding Fontaine … since his arb date has been scheduled the same day as PK Subban!

But it won’t get to arb.

As for Kuemper and Niederreiter, I think it takes awhile. Both are pretty complicated situations.

Kuemper came in last year and saved the Wild’s bacon until he started to struggle and then get hurt. My guess is his agent also feels he has a lot of leverage with the Wild’s uncertain goalie situation regarding the health of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Also, if you remember history, the Wild had a lot of trouble even getting an entry-level deal done with Kuemper the first go-around. So stay tuned here because it would not shock me if we’re still talking about an unsigned Kuemper next month.

In terms of Niederreiter, it’s also not easy to do comparables here. How do you project out exactly what he will be the next few years when he came to Minnesota without any shred of real stats because he was buried on the fourth line on Long Island and then spent all of 2013 in the minors? He showed glimpses of what he could be last season with 14 goals while playing basically every role, from left wing to right, to top line, second line and checking line.

He was also the Game 7 hero (bad word to use in sports, I know) against Colorado, scoring two goals on pure snipes, including the OT winner and setting up Spurgeon’s tying goal in the waning minutes of the third period.

As GM Chuck Fletcher told me last week, his preference would be to sign Niederreiter to a two- to four-year deal, although my guess is at the end of the day, it’ll be a two-year bridge contract. This way, Niederreiter gives himself the ability to pile up numbers the next two years and then tries to hit a homer on his next contract.

-- I’ll be filling in for Paul Allen next Tuesday and Wednesday from 9-noon on KFAN. Folin, who is heading back to Boston to train, may be one of my guests. I’ll try to talk a little hockey both days, but in the dog days of summer, it’ll be pretty hard to justify all-hockey shows. So there will be a lot of Vikings, Twins talk, etc. I’m also going to my first-ever Minnesota United FC game Saturday, so I’m sure we’ll have a futbol guest or two.

Musician Eric Hutchinson, who just was in town playing Oake on the Water at Maynard’s and then the Basilica Block Party, will be coming on one of the days. He’s a great guy and a sports fanatic – a self-proclaimed fantasy baseball and football expert. I’ll also try to get one other surprise, well-known musician on one of those days who’s also a sports fanatic and has a concert in town in the upcoming days.

Also, actor/comedian/SuperTrooper Erik Stolhanske may join me in studio one day. So, the shows will go beyond sports, which won't surprise anybody who knows me.

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