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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Posts about Wild player moves

Josh Harding suspended; Darcy Kuemper signed to 2-year deal

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 18, 2014 - 9:06 PM

Thanks to Josh Harding’s broken foot, Darcy Kuemper got his one-way contract.

On the eve of players taking the ice for the first time, the Wild conceded in its standoff with its young goalie by signing Kuemper to a two-year, $2.5 million contract.

“I’m super excited to continue this journey with the Wild and can’t wait to see and get back on the ice with my teammates,” Kuemper said in a text message.

The move comes a day after veteran Ilya Bryzgalov agreed to a tryout and hours after General Manager Chuck Fletcher met with Harding to try to establish how he got injured in an off-ice incident Sunday involving an altercation with a teammate.

Soon after the meeting, Fletcher made the decision to suspend Harding. During the time he recovers, Harding won’t be paid a prorated portion of his $2.1 million salary and he won’t count against the Wild’s salary cap. The paperwork was filed and all parties were notified late Thursday.

In the meantime, Fletcher said Thursday night that Kuemper’s signing won’t affect Bryzgalov’s tryout. If Kuemper’s not one of the top-2 goalies in training camp, the Wild can sign Bryzgalov and assign Kuemper to Iowa of the American Hockey League without waivers.

If that happened, Kuemper would be paid his $1 million salary there. Bryzgalov also gives the Wild insurance if veteran Niklas Backstrom were to get hurt.

Kuemper, 24, who went 12-8-4 with a 2.43 goals-against average and .915 save percentage last season, arrives in the Twin Cities on Friday morning. Both Kuemper and Bryzgalov are expected on the ice for the first day of camp.

Bryzgalov, who went 7-1-3 down the stretch last season for the Wild, wanted to return to the Wild all summer. Finally, Harding’s injury forced the Wild to offer him a tryout.

“He did a great job for us last year,” coach Mike Yeo said of Bryzgalov. “I spoke to Bryz [Wednesday] night and he’s really excited to be coming back to our team. I know he really enjoyed this group and playing here. He’s motivated and he’s excited.”

Bryzgalov, 34, may be quirky, but he’s as smart as they come. He was well aware he could be just biding time for the Wild to sign Kuemper.

Fletcher made no promises and Bryzgalov still accepted the tryout. He wants to keep his NHL career alive. Yeo wouldn’t promise Bryzgalov, who has 220 career wins, how many exhibition games he may play, “but he will get an opportunity.”

A day before, Yeo also said Harding’s injury presented an “unbelievable opportunity” for Kuemper to prove he can be a fulltime NHL goalie.

One thing that is uncertain is how much Bryzgalov has skated this summer considering he was unable to land a job.

“I didn’t get too much into that with him, but if he comes in the first couple days of camp and he’s not at his best, we’re not going to panic because we know what he’s capable of,” Yeo said. “We’ll just have to see how long we think it can take him to get back to his level. That fact that we have a good understanding of him already and what he can do, that certainly helps him.”

Walking with the aid of crutches and a boot on his right foot, Harding arrived Thursday for his meeting with management. Fletcher said Wednesday it was important to get to the bottom of how Harding busted up his foot Sunday.

The injury, one that will sideline Harding for a minimum of two months, threw the Wild’s goaltending depth into a state of flux.

Harding’s only worry is getting his foot better. He declined to comment further, while Fletcher wouldn’t comment on the Harding meeting and subsequent suspension.

Nino Niederreiter re-signs, agreeing to a 3-year, $8 million contract

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 11, 2014 - 4:38 PM

Game 7’s overtime hero has re-signed and is ready to pick up where he left off.

One week before players are set to report for training camp, Nino Niederreiter, the young power winger who scored the Western Conference quarterfinals clinching goal last season for the Wild, agreed to terms on a three-year, $8 million contract Thursday.

“I’m glad it’s over and I’m part of the Wild family again,” Niederreiter said by phone from Portland, Ore., where he’s skating with the Western Hockey League Winterhawks and working with his power-skating instructor. “I think it’s all about now. The season’s coming up and I think I found a way to score goals in the league and felt I got better and better as last season went on, so now I’m very happy to focus and not worry about the contract situation.

“Now I just want to go out there and play and really, really work on things.”

The 6-foot-2, 209-pound Niederreiter, 22, scored a career-high 14 goals and 36 points in 81 games last season. He was plus-12, which ranked fourth on the team, and ranked second with 175 hits. In 13 playoffs games, he scored three goals and six points and led the team with 40 hits. In Game 7 of the first round against Colorado, Niederreiter scored two goals, including the winner in overtime, and assisted on Jared Spurgeon’s late third-period, overtime-forcing goal.

“I’m very happy the way the playoffs went,” said Niederreiter, who was also one of Switzerland’s best players in the Olympics. “It’s still tough the way we lost Game 6 [against Chicago], but at the end of the day, we have to look forward. I’m happy I had a chance to perform in the playoffs and now I just have to keep it up going forward here.”

Niederreiter said he will be in Portland until Sunday and plans to be on the ice with his teammates during informal practices Monday. Players report for camp next Thursday and skate for the first time next Friday.

Niederreiter’s agent said earlier this week that Niederreiter turned down a lucrative contract offer to play in Russia. Goalie Darcy Kuemper, the only unsigned Wild player left, is mulling over some potential opportunities in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

Earlier this week, Kuemper’s agent said he is asking the Wild for a one-year, one-way contract. The Wild has offered Kuemper a two-year deal, the first year being a two-way, the second being a one-way.

Falk returning to Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: August 1, 2014 - 4:33 PM

After a year with the New York Rangers, free agent defenseman Justin Falk is returning to the Wild.

The team signed Falk, 25, to a one-year, two-way deal on Friday. The 6-5, 215 pounder played 21 games for the Rangers last season, with two assists and 20 penalty minutes.

Drafted in the fourth round in 2007 by the Wild, Falk played in 108 games from 2009-13. He had a goal and 14 assists, and 100 penalty minutes, with Minnesota. Basically, a depth signing. 

Justin Fontaine agrees to two-year contract with Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: July 29, 2014 - 11:33 AM

Justin Fontaine, the 26-year-old Wild forward, will avoid a Friday arbitration hearing and sign a new two-year deal with the Wild this afternoon. The deal is expected to be worth $1 million annually ($950,000 in Year 1 and $1.05 million in Year 2).

Fontaine, the former University of Minnesota Duluth national champion, tied for fourth on the Wild and tied for 12th among NHL rookies last season with 13 goals. That goal total was third-highest ever by a Wild rookie. He had 21 points in 66 games and his plus-6 was tied for second all-time by a Wild rookie.

On Jan. 9 at Phoenix, he recorded his first career hat trick.

Fontaine is one of three remaining restricted free agents left to be signed by the Wild. The other two are the biggees, winger Nino Niederreiter and goalie Darcy Kuemper.

Kuemper, by all indications, could take awhile. It was difficult to get Kuemper signed to his initial entry-level deal and Kuemper had a quality rookie season, helping save the Wild's hide when Josh Harding was lost to complications with multiple sclerosis and Niklas Backstrom to another abdominal injury.

The Wild will again be relying on the uncertainty of Backstrom and Harding this season, which certainly seems to give Kuemper leverage in negotiations toward a new deal. Kuemper went 12-8-4 last season with a 2.43 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. He sustained a concussion at St. Louis when run by David Backes and was lost to another head injury in Game 7 of the first round when he was hit behind the net and his head hit teammate Ryan Suter.

Niederreiter could take awhile, too, but these things usually get done. Training camp doesn't start until Sept. 18, so there's plenty of time. Niederreiter scored 14 goals, 36 points and was plus-12 in 81 games last season. He was also the Game 7 hero against Colorado, scoring two goals (including the overtime winner) and assisting on Jared Spurgeon's late tying goal in the third period.

GM Chuck Fletcher told me earlier this month his goal is to sign Niederreiter to a two- to four-year deal.

Speaking of Fletcher, I am filling in for Dan Barreiro on KFAN (100.3-FM) today from 3-6 p.m. CT. The Wild GM will join be at 3:35.

Also on the show will be Lou Nanne, the Star Tribune's Lavelle E. Neal III, Paul Charchian and A.J. Mansour.

Thomas Vanek/Wild overload, plus Wednesday updates

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: July 2, 2014 - 11:01 AM

Wednesday morning update: I'll post updated depth chart later on after we see if the Wild makes any more moves today. The Wild has also made another two-way contract signing, adding right wing Joel Rechlicz, 27, of Brookfield, Wisconsin. Minor-league, 6-foot-4, 235-pound bruiser who has played 26 NHL games for the Islanders and Caps. Will start with Iowa, meant to add toughness. Nicknamed the "Wrecker," played some junior hockey in Minnesota. I put his YouTube montage on the bottom of the blog.

Where to start?

Like #PariseWatch and #SuterWatch before, #VanekWatch is officially over.

Thank goodness. One more Vanek question, and my head would have exploded, so just like Thomas Vanek said he was still having trouble coming to terms that he actually signed with the Wild, so was I.

“This is a place that I’ve spent a lot of time in the past 10 years or so and I think what intrigued it the most was obviously with Zach signing here and Suter signing here, this team is getting really good and is very good,” Vanek said. “About a year ago when I made my decision to go to free agency, this was definitely a team that I had in mind. For it to come true today, I’ve still not come to terms with it. I’m extremely thrilled to be a part of the Wild and of a group like this. I’m just happy.”

Can’t wait ‘til the next #-----Watch!

OK, where to go with this blog, which is a supplement to the newspaper coverage, so please check that out, too, online later tonight on www.startribune.com/wild and of course in print. Here's the main Vanek article and the notebook on Stoner leaving and the depth signings, etc.

Some news, some tidbits (maybe about the Division of Death that is the Central; My Cities97 buddy, Paul Fletcher, texted me Division of Death and I kinda like it) and then I’ll give you the highlights of the Vanek, GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo pressers.

The Wild still needs a physical defenseman to replace Clayton Stoner, who hit the mother lode today with a four-year deal worth, wait for it, $3.25 million annually. They wanted Willie Mitchell, but the Florida Panthers wooed the ex-Wild and two-time Cup champ with crazy money $4.25 million a year for two years. Then take into consideration the no state income tax in the great state of Florida, and it’s easy see why he sprinted for the humidity.

The Wild also lost gritty forward Cody McCormick, who went back to Buffalo, although there may not be a sprint to replace his role immediately if at all.

So, what to do? What to do, particularly because the list of physical defensemen still available is pretty yucky.

“Well, certainly we'll have to look at it,” GM Chuck Fletcher said. “We're probably still looking at a defenseman as well to maybe round out our group. Right now it's been insanity out there. I think this is the biggest spending day, if not the history of the world, the history of the NHL. I mean, it's just been crazy. So my first thought is to just go home and come back tomorrow and maybe the tide will turn and management will get the upper hand and we'll get some better deals. But it's a difficult task to get into this market right now. The prices are high. The terms are long. Thomas may be one of the only players who took a pay cut and a term cut to come anywhere. Everybody else is doubling or tripling their salary, so it's good for the players, but it's maybe not the market we want to be in right now."

More on the spending spree? Fletcher said, “I didn't expect this. Maybe I'm naive. We were consistently under-bidding on a few other players, I'll tell you that. I don't know if other teams were, but the prices caught me a little off guard for maybe what you would consider role players or bottom-of-the-lineup type players. But I definitely think some mistakes have been made today on some players, so I think we'll be a little bit patient and let things sort out."

He says he's tempted to go home, yet I hear he's still at headquarters working, so maybe they're not done for the night.

If I’m Fletcher, after seeing the list of names still out there (go to capgeek.com and click free agents and you can filter through the, uh, yucky physical defensemen; I should be a scout), I’d investigate the trade market first (Johnny Boychuk, perhaps?). But we’ll see if he pounces on one of the available free agents tonight, Tuesday or later this week if he finds a value signing.

--He did sign Stu Bickel, the big, tough, Twin Cities suburbanite who played on a local college team. Bickel is signed to a one-year, two-way deal that pays him $600,000 in the NHL or $150,000 in Iowa. He’s played NHL games for the Rangers, so he can play some games if the Wild needs him.

The Wild also signed Brett Sutter, one of Darryl’s boys. He was the Charlotte captain and is a gritty center who can play NHL games, too. His contract is a two-year, two-way deal.

“Hard-working character guy who plays the way you would expect a Sutter to play,” Fletcher said.

The Wild also made the Guillaume Gelinas signing official, making them probably the only organization in history who has had two Guillaumes.

--At the strike of 11, the Wild immediately got in on Vanek and Jarome Iginla. I hear it was right in on Iginla until the end, but once it got down to business on Vanek and the parameters of a deal began to materialize, it focused in on Vanek. After Vanek signed his three-year, $19.5 million deal (no-move clause, $5.5M, $6.5M, $7.5M), Iginla signed with Colorado.

“We didn’t know what the numbers would be until today,” Fletcher said. “We expressed early on that the term would have to be a little bit shorter, preferably three years, which would work well for what we have coming. Today we got into the numbers, it took a couple hours, but fortunately we were able to arrive at where we are right now. There were other players we spoke with and considered and came close on a couple other players, but at the end of the day, this seemed like the right decision.”

Was this your master plan after signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, who incidentally each collected $5 million signing bonuses today (final installment of their $25 million signing bonuses paid out in three years)?

“It even started before then with Mikko [Koivu],” Fletcher said. “People forget, at the time, we weren’t a very good hockey team and Mikko signed a long-term deal with our team a year prior to becoming a UFA. That was our flag in the ground. I really believe if we had lost Mikko at that point, we would be competing for top-five picks right now. We would be at the bottom and we wouldn’t have anybody. Zach and Ryan came in here in part because there was a player like Mikko. I think [Jason] Pominville elected to stay here because of the players that were here prior to him. And now obviously Thomas. It’s a great marketplace. We have a great fan base. Ownership has stepped up again and again to that commitment to winning, and I think the players see that. But it takes good players to get good players and we’re starting to get some pretty good players here.”

On Vanek turning down better offers, Fletcher said, “There’s been other players over the years here that had connections to Minnesota or homes here that said they would love to come here and then they went elsewhere (ahem, Paul Martin). So it’s not always a slam dunk. I don’t know all the particulars, but it’s pretty evident that Thomas turned down more money and more term to sign here. So you never know how that’s going to play out. Put yourself in his shoes. Somebody offers you seven years and $40, $50 million, it’s not easy for anybody to walk away from that no matter how much you have in the bank. We did the best we could. We liked our situation in terms of opportunity for him to play, role for him to play in, we felt we have a very good leadership group here and some players he was familiar with. We knew he liked the marketplace, but at the end of the day, we were coming at him from a three-year contract angle and I think there was some concern in that sense that we may not be able to get him, but I give Thomas credit, he looked at our situation, we worked hard, and we’re extremely pleased to be where we are right now.

“This guy has been a premier scorer since he entered the league. He still managed to have 68 points this year despite playing in three cities. What we were looking for as much as anything, we really wanted a right shot, we really wanted somebody who could play with top players and we wanted somebody who could help our power play. We’re a team that prides itself on our defensive structure and we feel we can defend, but we only scored 2.4 goals per game. With Thomas, maybe that pushes us closer to 2.6 or 2.7 or whatever the number is. Maybe some nights we have a little more breathing room, maybe he gets a big power-play goal that wins us a game in the third period so we don’t have to go into overtime and get to the shootout. Scoring goals is a big part of winning games and he’s a game breaker. The things he does well are things that we need.”

One reason the Wild had to improve offensively today?

Dallas, a team on the rise, traded for Jason Spezza and signed Ales Hemsky to a three-year, $12 million deal. St. Louis signed hometown boy Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million deal. Chicago signed Brad Richards to a one-year, $2 million deal. Iginla signed a three-year, $16 million deal with Colorado. And remember, last weekend, Nashville acquired James Neal.

“It's pretty daunting looking at the TSN scroll this morning and seeing every single player went to the West,” Fletcher said. “It seemed like everybody came to our division. So it's only going to get more difficult to make the playoffs, and we're going to have our hands full to make the playoffs next year and once you get in anything can happen, but it's a battle just to get in and I think we recognize that and I know the coaches recognize that and I think we're excited about the challenge."
 

On Stoner leaving, Fletcher said, “I had a great conversation with Clayton, and first of all he's very excited to go to Anaheim. They were the best team in the Western Conference during the regular season, so he tripled his salary, got a four-year contract and went to one of the better teams in the West. So he's thrilled. Clayton's a great guy, character guy, and fought a lot battles for this franchise and certainly a very well-liked teammate. Well-liked by management and coaching. I was thrilled for him, to be honest with you, on a personal level. I certainly expressed that to him as well as thanked him for his years of service. He had a tough role, and he did it with class and he did it consistently, so we're certainly very appreciative of what he did for us."

--As for Mr. Vanek, he said, “My top priority was to sign here. Obviously I had some other options that I had to think of, but once we agreed on this term and the money, I thought it was a fair deal for both sides. I’m very happy I’m here.

“The best thing I’ve done in my career so far was win the NCAA championship with the Gophers. So to be a part of the Wild now and go after the big prize and having a chance to do it in Minnesota is beyond my wildest dreams.”


On where he’ll play next year, he said, “We haven’t talked about that. I still can’t put into words how exciting it is, but now I’m just worried about getting my kids these jerseys and hopefully they can hang on to them for a lot longer.”
 

On his maligned postseason, he said, “It certainly wasn’t my best one I can tell you that. But I’ll take the blame for that. It’s not always easy moving around and being away from my family like I have been. But those are not excuses those are just factors that do factor into me. Family is big on me. It was tough at
the end. I thought once I got traded for the second time, it took me a little longer to find a place on the team. But the guys were great and I have nothing but good things to say about that organization. I
thought I was fitting in pretty well. Had a good run. And then once I got moved in the playoffs, it just kind of went away.”
 

On the Wild, “I wanted to join an organization that had a chance to win. That’s why I was willing to sign for three years and not worry about going higher. I have a lot of belief in myself that I can play for another seven, eight years at this level. So to play for an organization that’s willing to trade for guys, sign guys and wants to win, that’s important.”

On turning down the Islanders today, “I thought the line I played on there with Johnny Tavares and (Kyle) Okposo was the best line I’ve been on. But at the end of the day I made my decision to go to this and I’m not going to regret it. Definitely I’m not.”

--Thomas, did you wear a Wild hat at the Super Rinks in Blaine Saturday like Twitter said you did? “No, I don’t leave my house much.”

Well, the rumor exploded on Twitter, and Twitter never lies, Thomas: “You probably started that,” he said, laughing.

See, I’m off to a good start with Vanek.

--Yeo, who was dressed like he was about to head to the beach after the presser, met with Vanek on Sunday.

Your reaction- “Obviously we’re very pleased. When it comes to a day like this, I think that what you’re really trying to do is you look at the group that you have and you try to address needs. Thomas certainly fills some very big needs for us.”

Where do you see him in the lineup- “He’s not going to be third line. He’s not going to be fourth line and he’s not going to play defense, or center, or goalie. Obviously, I think what we’ve really done, especially over the last couple years here, is upgrade the skill of our top two lines. And with that, I think its important to have interchangeable parts. He’s played some right wing, but he’s played more on the left side. How we piece our lines together, we’re not sure on that for sure. In training camp we’re going to try a couple different scenarios and see how they play out. But again, we have the pieces where we can move them around and we have the pieces in the places where they belong. You do something like this and obviously it’s going to make your first and second lines stronger, but what you have to take into consideration is by doing this you’re also making your third line stronger and I think that’s what’s really important for us here.”

Fit beside lines- “When we talk about addressing needs, there’s a lot of things we do very well as a team; the way we defend, the structure that we play with. There’s no question that we do have some skill but we don’t score goals easily. And we’re going to continue to try and look to see what we can do as a group to try to improve that, but when you can add players, personnel-wise, that bring that kind of skill, bring that kind of creativity and that kind of ability, that’s going to increase the scoring. It’s not just about that player, it’s about what they do for the players they’re playing with as well. There’s been times where we play against a team and there’s some players that maybe need five or six chances to score a goal. There’s other players that might need two or three, and Thomas is certainly one of those guys who can capitalize on those opportunities.”

Sense MN has become a desired destination- “I think so. I think an awful lot of the credit has to go to the players that first off made the commitment to our organization and showed the belief in what we have going on here, but also the work that they’ve put in. I think that people are recognizing that we’re a team that’s on the rise with the players that we have, with the young players that we have and the leadership group that we have. A lot of it also goes to the job that Chuck has done and the knowledge and the awareness of everybody outside our organization that we have an owner that will do just about anything it takes to put a winner on. And you add in the fact that this is an amazing place to live with a tremendously passionate fan base, it’s not hard to figure out why a lot of people would want to come here.”

Need a finisher- “Yeah, obviosuyl you go back and you look at the things that have gone wrong when you lose and you look at a power play in a certain game where if you would have scored one more goal on that power play. You look at a couple missed opportunities. It’s hard when you don’t score. There’s many times where we force ourselves to play a near perfect game, and that becomes very difficult on a team.  Now our challenge is to make sure we continue to do the things well that we do because we added a great player, a very skilled player, a very talented player, but that said, I don’t think we can just sit here now and say that we’re going to be one of the top scoring teams in the league. We have to continue to be strong in the areas that we are and I’m hoping we just got stronger in an area where we needed to.”

So much happening in division- “I think what I’m feeling is the same thing that the rest of our division is feeling, and that they’re throwing us in that category too. I have a lot of respect for the league. I do believe that we play in the toughest division in the league. It’s going to be, you heard Chuck say it, it’s going to be tough for us to make the playoffs, and our players have to be aware of that, but at the same time we’re capable of an awful lot here. So we should look forward to that challenge. There’s positives in that. Obviously you have to play at a high level, you’ve got tough competition. But that said, I think we saw it at the end of the year, when you start playing at that level consistently, then you’re a team that can do an awful lot.”

--I talked to Keith Ballard for awhile today and he's rehabbing from sports hernia surgery. Ballard and Vanek had been in touch throughout the process. He answered questions about the Wild for Vanek and did some “arm-twisting."

“It was tough for him,” Ballard said. “He had the luxury of coming off a pretty significant [seven-year, $50 million] deal, and I don’t think he’s looking at this as his last contract either. Last week he told me he didn’t just want to come here because this is where he lives. He said several times he thinks we’re a legitimate contender and likes our team. That’s what you want.

“We have a really good team and we got better today.”

-- OK, that's it for me. I'm in the arena's dungeon of a press room all alone at 8 p.m. and I am scared. I'm starting to hear things creaking.

Thursday, I’m getting out of town for the weekend, so the depth chart I posted the other day, I’ll update it and put it on my blog Wednesday. And, maybe there will be more news Wednesday.

Here's the release on Rechlicz and the You Tube highlights:

    Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher today announced the National Hockey League (NHL) club has agreed to terms with forward Joel Rechlicz (pronounced REHK-lihj) on a one-year, two-way contract. Rechlicz, 27 (6/14/87), collected two points (1-1=2) and 87 penalty minutes (PIM) in 25 games with the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League (AHL) in 2013-14. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound native of Brookfield, Wis., has recorded one assist and 105 PIM in 26 career NHL games with the New York Islanders and Washington Capitals. He has notched six points (3-3=6) and 886 PIM in 187 career AHL matches with Albany, Bridgeport, Hershey and Portland. He ranked second in the AHL with 267 PIM in 2011-12 and was named Hershey’s AHL Man of the Year for his outstanding contributions to community and charitable organizations.

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