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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Wild free-agent thoughts; Josh Harding re-signs

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news, Wild player moves Updated: July 1, 2011 - 12:54 PM

Updates: Andrew Brunette has signed a one-year deal with Chicago. Rejoins Joel Quenneville. Nashville, and Barry Trotz, came after him hard, but between watching Wimbledon in person and dealing with a buzzing cell, Bruno makes the decision to go to Chicago.

Also, Jose Theodore signed a two-year deal with Florida. He's retiring in Boca. Has been hoping for Florida since January.

UPDATED

Happy Canada Day to you all, where the celebration always includes popping open a Kokanee and overspending for a free agent or five.

Every team does it. It's an annual tradition.

Speaking of free agency, follow me on twitter for the latest Wild news: www.twitter.com/russostrib

1. The Wild's backup goalie is done. Jose Theodore is moving on, and the Wild's re-signed their own -- Josh Harding -- to a one-year, $750,000 deal. The Wild says he's been given a clean bill of health by their doctors from last year's torn right ACL and MCL. Clearly, the Wild believes he's ready to back up Niklas Backstrom next season.

Here's Harding's comments from the other day

Harding flew to Minnesota yesterday to get examined by the Wild's doctors. Passed with flying colors, signed this morning.

 2. I just noticed this was trimmed out of today's paper -- The Wild re-signed depth forward Jed Ortmeyer to a one-year deal and re-signed depth defenseman Drew Bagnall to a two-year deal yesterday. Both Ortmeyer and Bagnall played huge roles for Houston last season and the Aeros' ultimate run to the Calder Cup Finals. They'll also be callup options and provide competition in camp.

3. As for free agency beginning today, I don't see the Wild dipping its toes too deep into free agency this summer.

That doesn't mean they don't add a forward here, a defenseman there, but as we've talked a lot about the past few weeks, the Wild's direction, path, whatever you want to call it seems pretty clear right now.

So for them to suddenly go sign some 30-something today to another three- or four-year deal at $4 million annually seems pretty contradictory to what they've been doing. Obviously, everything always depends on the WHO, but I just don't see it.

The path this year seems to be to finally add the Gillies and the Scandellas and maybe the Almonds and Wellmans and Prossers while waiting for the real top, top prospects to turn pro -- the Granlunds, Larssons, Coyles, etc.

Draft and development, fill most positions internally -- especially the depth ones -- and then look to fill some holes via trade or free agency is the path now. No more buying Eric Nystrom when Gillies could take that spot, buy

I still see some clear holes on this team, but I also think the Wild's preference is to try to let some of the kids fill those holes.

For instance, offensively -- You look at the top lines now, and you've got Bouchard-Koivu-Setoguchi; Latendresse-Brodziak-Havlat; with the third line being Powe-Cullen-Clutterbuck. This is on paper now.

But after last season, can you really trust that Guillaume Latendresse is going to be completely healthy even if he's getting "visits" to check in on his fitness? So, do you sign another offensive-minded forward if you can eventually get him on a short-term, fiscally-responsible deal? Or, do you look at filling that internally with a guy like Casey Wellman. As I've said before, to me, if Wellman's going to succeed in the NHL, he's got to be put in an offensive position. He's got the speed to keep up with Havlat and Brodziak, and he certainly has the shot to bury Havlat's passes.

So maybe the Wild looks at Wellman as being Latendresse insurance. It still wouldn't shock me if the Wild eventually adds one forward, but it may be one of those late-month signings in the second or third wave of free agency.

Defensively, the Wild's dumping Cam Barker today and has traded Brent Burns. I'd think because of that, you'd have to add at least one defenseman. You have Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon, along with returning Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner. Marco Scandella will be on this team. I think that's clear. The one thing that's become very clear to me lately is how much Mike Yeo respects Nate Prosser's game and how much management was impressed with Prosser's play throughout the playoffs. So I think they really want to give him the opportunity to win a spot, which is what Chuck Fletcher meant in today's story when he said he doesn't want to "box" youngsters out.

Remember, if you sign a player to a one-way contract, he's got the inside track to a spot over a guy like Prosser on a two-way.

So the blue line looks to be inexperienced, but it's not like they're going to have four or five 20-year-olds. Stoner's a six-year pro. Prosser is 25. Scandella is young, but at some point, he's got to be given his shot. And Spurgeon is young, but he's also Jared Spurgeon. Poised, smart, somebody the Wild has a ton of faith in.

BUT, there are always injuries. Like Latendresse, it's getting to the point where: Can you really trust Zidlicky to stay healthy? While Schultz and Zanon have proven to be durable over the years, Zidlicky's proving to be fairly brittle with all sorts of lower body injuries and dings.

So how do you not sign one experienced, NHL defenseman at some point -- whether today or in a few days?

I think you've got to.

The big thing is what kind of defenseman is it -- physical, offensive, veteran presence? Do you go Ian White type, who is young, expensive and will warrant long-term deal. Or do you go short-term guy like a Sean O'Donnell-type? Or do you go young, mistake-free, more reasonable-salaried guy like Mike Lundin, who's more in shape with the direction you're going in as a team?

It'll be interesting to watch what they do also because by my count, not including signed Larsson, Bulmer, Jobke and Caron, the Wild's at 43 of 50 contracts. Draft pick Kyle Medvec may be signed too, so that's 44. So they're getting up there.

I'll write more about this in the coming days, but I see the Wild at around the $55-56 million midpoint next season.

After being a salary-cap ceiling team the past two years, the Wild isn’t expected to reach the tippy-top this year.
 
The reasons: 1) It’s getting younger; 2) Next year’s free-agent crop looks outstanding; 3) The Wild wants to save cap room to pay its own youngsters; 4) the collective bargaining agreement expires after this season, meaning the salary cap could be restructured and teams could have to move contracts.
 
OK, folks. More later. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/russostrib for the latest news.

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