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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Houston Aeros' run comes to an end; Look ahead for Aeros/Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo under Vikings draft, Wild coaching, Wild off-season news Updated: June 8, 2011 - 9:11 AM

It was a heck of a run through the Calder Cup playoffs, but the Houston Aeros' season finally came to an end Tuesday night at the hands of the Binghamton Senators in Game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals.

So much for bulletin-board material, but the Wednesday night parade through Binghamton will go on as planned.

The Senators rallied from a 2-1 third-period deficit with a pair of power-play goals by Bobby Butler and Ryan Keller. The Aeros were playing without injured Cody Almond and Jared Spurgeon.

Almond has a sprained knee, Spurgeon an ankle injury. Both should be ready by the start of training camp. Same goes with Brett Bulmer, who broke a bone in his leg in the conference finals.

The Aeros will have a bit of a different look next year. Barring roster changes before camp:

Colton Gillies, Houston's best player in the playoffs, will have a great chance to be promoted to the NHL, as will defenseman Marco Scandella. Jared Spurgeon, who played the entire second half in Minnesota, will also be in position to burst onto the Wild scene right from the outset.

Almond and Casey Wellman will also vie for roster spots in Minnesota.

The big unrestricted free agents down there are Robbie Earl, Jed Ortmeyer and Drew Bagnall. I'd think the Wild will very much want to re-sign Ortmeyer and Bagnall for depth in Minnesota. They played huge parts in Houston's run as well. Earl may be looking to move on after seeing his NHL games played decrease from 32 to six.

Darcy Kuemper will be joining Matt Hackett in Houston next season. One question is what happens to Dennis Endras. Is Endras good enough to be the Wild's No. 2? Does he go to Houston, and if so, where does that put Kuemper? Or does Endras just return to Germany if he doesn't make the Wild?

I still think the Wild signs a veteran backup for Niklas Backstrom, whether that be Jose Theodore if he can't find a No. 1 job (Phoenix, Florida, Detroit?) or another veteran. I just can't imagine the Wild will be confident just anointing Endras the No. 2 before even seeing him in camp. After all, Endras had a terrible season in the German Elite League last year by all accounts and Chuck Fletcher is the same GM who didn't feel comfortable just anointing Anton Khudobin the No. 2 when Josh Harding tore his ACL and MCL last September.

Another question is whether Patrick O'Sullivan returns. Despite his poor Calder Cup Final, he made an immediate impact in Houston after he was sent down there in January. He's a restricted free agent and the Wild can tender him a qualifying offer to retain his rights. But there's talk O'Sullivan may be Europe-bound.

James Sheppard could also be down in Houston for the first time in his career next year. Sheppard, a restricted free agent who missed all season because of a broken kneecap, can be tendered a two-way contract this month because he played fewer than 180 games in the past three seasons and fewer than 60 this season.

This means re-signing him is zero risk. He can play in the minors at a minimal amount (assuming he passed through waivers to get there), try to get his career and development back on track and this way, the Wild's not throwing away a 23-year-old first-round pick. If he had to be offered a one-way, I think the Wild would cut him loose. Now I don't see it.

Back to the D, right now the Wild has five returning defensemen on one-way contracts -- Brent Burns, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon, Marek Zidlicky and Cam Barker. Clayton Stoner's contract actually goes from being a one-way to a two-way, although let's be honest, he had a strong second half. He'd have to perform in camp this fall the way he did last fall not to make the team.

If you assume Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella have a chance to make the team, that's eight defensemen. So if the Wild's not able to make any trades at the draft involving blue-liners, I really think it further supports my report last week that the Wild is considering buying out Barker. Because of his age, the Wild can buy him out for one-third as opposed to two-thirds by June 30. If you buy him out, you're creating a roster spot for Scandella and you're getting out of Barker's $3.083 million cap hit next year (cap hit of 375K, then $541,667 would be spread over two years).

Lastly, now that Houston's season is over, Mike Yeo will get a formal interview for the Wild's head-coaching job. Fletcher is currently in Boston for the GM's Meetings, but I'd think we'll soon be coming to a conclusion in the Wild's coach search.

So far, I've confirmed interviews have gone to Craig MacTavish, Michel Therrien, Ken Hitchcock, Kirk Muller and Peter Horachek, with MacT looking like the leading contender -- at this point.

That's it for now. I'll be on 1500 ESPN tonight at 6.

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