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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It's Sept. 1, and Kuemper, Niederreiter remain unsigned; Nick Seeler transferring to Gophers

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: September 1, 2014 - 12:57 PM

It’s Sept. 1 (happy Labor Day everybody), meaning in 17 days, Wild players report to training camp for physicals and fitness testing. On Sept. 19, players take the ice for the first time. The only question right now is whether Nino Niederreiter and Darcy Kuemper will be there with the rest of their teammates.

As of now, both restricted free agents remain unsigned, meaning their contract squabbles with the Wild threaten their on-time arrival to camp. General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Friday at the State Fair that conversations remain ongoing but gave no indication that either is close to being signed. There’s more than a dozen quality restricted free agents around the NHL still unsigned, including (per capgeek.com) Niederreiter’s junior linemate Ryan Johansen (Columbus), St. Louis’ Jaden Schwartz, Boston’s Torey Krug, Colorado’s Tyson Barrie (Edmonton just signed Justin Schultz to a one-year, $3.675 million deal, so there’s a potential comparable), Dallas’ Brenden Dillon and Cody Eakin, Boston’s Reilly Smith, Anaheim’s Devante Smith-Pelly, the Rangers’ John Moore, Nashville’s Ryan Ellis and Detroit’s Danny DeKeyser.

Usually, this stuff works itself out right before camp begins. Kuemper is 24. Niederreiter turns 22 on Sept. 8, so at such young ages and with such competition in camp, it certainly won’t help matters if they miss the start of camp.

From the Wild’s perspective, Fletcher is at least painting this as, “not a concern,” because goalies Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom are healthy and ready to go. Up front, the Wild has a number of forwards competing for top-6 or bottom-6 roles. For instance, Niederreiter’s late arrival could open the door for Jason Zucker, who has a big camp ahead of him. If you remember, last year, Zucker had a sub-par camp and then injured his groin at the same time Mikael Granlund began to excel in camp. That pretty much set in stone Zucker’s start in Iowa. Justin Fontaine has the ability to play any role. This year, the Wild also has players like Cody Almond, Stephane Veilleux, Kurtis Gabriel, Brett Sutter, Michael Keranen and Jordan Schroeder that will battle for roster spots up front. So, there’s some insurance.

“We’d rather have a contract done, but these things happen. You’d like everything to be clean and simple, but it doesn’t always happen that way,” Fletcher said. “We’ll continue to try to etch into it.”

The Niederreiter negotiations, to me, are the most compelling because of how many Wild forwards can become restricted free agents next summer – Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula. Fletcher said again that in the next couple months, he’ll talk to the agents of all of next summer’s potential RFA’s (including Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella) to “try to get ahead of it.” (aka, extensions). “In some cases, we may need to wait until next summer.”

But with so many young players to re-sign soon, Fletcher feels he has to get the Niederreiter deal right or it’ll affect the others.

Also, Fletcher told me as of now he’s not anticipating signing any more unrestricted free agents. It’s too early to say if he’ll invite any unsigned free agents in for tryouts. Few unsigned players would accept tryouts at this early juncture anyway (last year, the Wild invited David Steckel. He didn’t make the team, started in Iowa and eventually signed with Anaheim). Fletcher says he’s probably at least answered the phone call of agents for more than a dozen unsigned free agents. Some I know of include Ilya Bryzgalov, Ryan Malone, Paul Bissonnette and George Parros.

Fletcher’s leaning toward seeing what the Wild has in camp and then reacting if he needs to.

“Obviously things change. I mean, if we had a couple long holdouts, maybe that changes the thinking, but as of now, I want to give the kids like Zuck a chance,” Fletcher said. “Like, Justin Fontaine is a pretty good hockey player and was pretty good in that Chicago series. This guy has a chance to be a 20-goal scorer. If you keep bringing in vets, how are these kids ever going to play?”

-- Nick Seeler, a fifth-round pick by the Wild in 2011 and former Eden Prairie High defenseman, has transferred from the University of Nebraska-Omaha to the University of Minnesota, according to sources. @hammyhockey on Twitter was the first to report the news last week.

Seeler left UNO last month. He will have to sit out this season for the Gophers but will be allowed to practice. Not playing for a year obviously isn’t the most ideal scenario for his development, but it is what it is and he’ll at least be able to practice daily with one of the best college programs in the country and work with Don Lucia, Mike Guentzel and Grant Potulny.

Seeler is 21, so he is too old to play junior. So his options were to sign with the Wild and play in Iowa, play in Europe or transfer schools and sit out a year. From talking to the Wild, it was pretty clear early on that getting his education was very important to Seeler and his family, so this route makes sense.

Gopher fans should like Seeler next year. Real good player and brings a nastiness that intrigues that Wild and should make him a fan and coaching favorite at the U. Here's his bio.

-- Again, if you missed my Q and A at the State Fair with coach Mike Yeo, here is the link. Also, the inaugural Mike Yeo Classic, a bass tournament to raise money for local Minnesota charities, takes place on Lake Minnetonka on Sept. 9. For more information on how to fish with Matt Cooke, Justin Fontaine or Keith Ballard, click this link.

-- Important dates: The Traverse City prospects tournament is Sept. 12-16. The roster can be seen on the previous blog. Camp starts Sept. 19 on the ice (players report Sept. 18). Sept. 20, regular-season single-game tickets are on sale at 10 a.m. at Xcel Energy Center’s box office and 12 p.m. at Ticketmaster and wild.com. Preseason single-game tickets are on sale now. Sept. 22 is the first preseason game in Winnipeg. Sept. 27 is the first preseason game at home vs. Winnipeg. The regular season opens Oct. 9 vs. Colorado at 8 p.m.

-- And to refresh your memory,

WILD DEPTH CHART

Here’s a look at how the Wild is shaping up to look like this season. The depth chart is my opinion. Obviously, lines change, roles change, etc., and Yeo said lines Day One will change by Day Two as he experiments throughout camp.

In parentheses, each player’s cap hits with some assistance from the web site, www.capgeek.com.

Forwards

Left wing                         Center                          Right wing

Zach Parise ($7.5+M)       Mikael Granlund (900K)  Jason Pominville (5.6M)

Thomas Vanek ($6.5M)   Mikko Koivu (6.75M)     Charlie Coyle (900K)

Matt Cooke (2.5M)            Erik Haula (900K)           Nino Niederreiter (RFA)

Jason Zucker (900+K)        Kyle Brodziak (2.83 M)    Justin Fontaine (1M)

Cody Almond (550K)

Vying for spots: Zucker, Almond, Stephane Veilleux (587,500), Brett Sutter (600K), Michael Keranen (792,500), Jordan Schroeder (600K), Joel Rechlicz (600K), Brett Bulmer (780K), Kurtis Gabriel (667K), Zack Mitchell (615K), Tyler Graovac (747,500), Zack Phillips ($863,333), Brady Brassart ($836,667), Raphael Bussieres ($759,167), Curt Gogol ($551,667).

Defensemen

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 (675K)

Vying for spots: Folin, Blum, Matt Dumba (894,167), Justin Falk (700K), Stu Bickel (600K), Gustav Olofsson (795K), Guillaume Gelinas ($596,667), Colton Jobke ($551,667).

Goalies

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.

Vying for spots: Johan Gustafsson (665K), John Curry (600K).

  

Total cap hit roughly: $57,413,008.

Available cap space: $10.88 million roughly (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 $10.88 million excludes re-signing restricted free agents Niederreiter and Kuemper. The Wild will almost certainly not be a cap ceiling team for the first time in a long time. Its actual payroll (real dollars paid out) is at above $67 million, and all teams have internal budgets.

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