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.

Also find Russo on Facebook.

Email Michael to talk about hockey.

Justin Fontaine agrees to two-year contract with Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo under Rookies, Wild news, Wild off-season news, Wild player moves 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.

Report: Thomas Vanek connected in federal gambling investigation

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 21, 2014 - 8:31 PM

WHEC-TV in Rochester, N.Y. is reporting (and has video) that recently-signed Wild winger and former Buffalo Sabre and Rochester Amerk Thomas Vanek was in federal court today in upstate New York as part of an ongoing gambling investigation.

According to the station, Vanek's appearance stems from the June arrest of three owners/managers of the Marina Restaurant and Bar in Charlotte, N.Y. on gambling and money laundering charges. The three men were allegedly conducting an illegal gambling business out of the bar since January 2012 (see above links and this article).

The TV station reports, "Vanek is not charged with any crime and he voluntarily came to the federal court building with his lawyer."

In a statement sent to me by Vanek's agent Steve Bartlett, Vanek said, "Representatives of the U.S. Federal Government have asked for my cooperation in an investigation.  I am not the subject of any investigation or prosecution.  I will fully cooperate with the U.S. Federal authorities in their investigation or in any proceedings arising out of it."

Bartlett said Vanek is a witness in a federal case and, "No further comment on the matter will be made at this time."

I contacted NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly and he said, "We are looking into it, but have no comment at this time."

In a statement, the Wild said, “We are aware of Thomas Vanek's cooperation with a federal investigation and have no further comment at this time. We direct you to Thomas' earlier statement ... "

Vanek, 30, played for Rochester in 2004-05 and played nine seasons for the Sabres before being traded last season to the Islanders, then the Canadiens. On July 1, the former Gophers star signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Wild. His 277 career goals rank eighth in the NHL since the start of the 2005-06 season. His 113 power-play goals rank third over that span.

Vanek lives fulltime in the Twin Cities.

--------------------------------

In other news, former Wild defenseman Nate Prosser has agreed to a one-year, two-way deal with the St. Louis Blues. Prosser, 28, the Elk River native and former Colorado College product, played 126 games for the Wild over parts of five seasons.

I'll be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN (100.3-FM) on Tuesday from 9-noon. Lots of Wild, Vikes, Wolves, Twins, Gophers talk.

Guests: Singer/songwriter Eric Hutchinson, actor/comedian Erik Stolhanske, Wild defenseman Christian Folin, Minnesota United FC midfielder Jamie Watson, Minnesota Daily Gophers beat writer Jack Satzinger and Fox Sports North's Tom Hanneman. Joe Anderson and Cities97's Paul Fletcher will also join for parts of the show.

Wild re-signs goalie John Curry, won't re-sign Nate Prosser

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 17, 2014 - 4:43 PM

The Wild has brought back goalie John Curry, the Shorewood native who backed up several games late in the season, including in the postseason. In fact, symbolizing just how chaotic the Wild's goalie situation was last season right to the end, Curry was suited up and congratulating teammates after its Game 7 Round 1 win at Colorado ... after he started the game watching from a suite in a business suit.

Darcy Kuemper started, left the game in the third with a concussion and Curry rushed to the locker room to back up Ilya Bryzgalov in overtime.

Today, Curry, 30, signed a one-year, two-way contract, and the plan is he'll spend next season with AHL Iowa with Johan Gustafssson. Obviously, he'll again provide NHL insurance, too.

Curry spent much of last season bouncing between ECHL Orlando and Iowa and eventually signed an NHL contract to provide insurance in February because of Josh Harding's medical situation and Niklas Backstrom abdominal and hip issues. Soon after Curry signing, Bryzgalov was acquired and Backstrom was shut down for good.

Curry could again end up in Orlando at times next season if Kuemper spends any time in Iowa.

But, there's a good chance the Wild starts next season with three goalies on the NHL roster -- Backstrom, Harding and Kuemper (big question heading into camp is which of those three will be the opening-night starter and who will be Nos. 2 and 3), so the Wild needed a fifth goalie in the system to play with Gustafsson.

Curry made 43 saves in a 4-2 win vs. St. Louis on April 10 to claim his first NHL win since Nov. 11, 2008. The former Boston University goalie played in four NHL games with the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2008-10.

Here is a feature I wrote on Curry before the St. Louis start

Here is the game story I wrote after Curry's first NHL win in 5 1/2 years

Here is the story I wrote when Curry went from business suit to celebratory pile in Game 7

In other news, I hear the Wild has decided not to re-sign defenseman Nate Prosser to a one-way contract.

Prosser will now look to move on elsewhere. I wrote about the internal debate the Wild was having on Prosser on the previous blog, so if you didn't read that, check it out. Good luck to Prosser, though. He's certainly one of the good guys.

As GM Chuck Fletcher said last week (read that blog), he's still in the market for a defenseman, and probably by trade. By not signing Prosser, my guess is Fletcher is trying to maintain roster flexibility so he could do so eventually.

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.

Wild signs Jordan Schroeder, re-signs Jon Blum

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 12, 2014 - 10:54 AM

Late blog on this news, so hopefully you caught it in today's paper or last night on Twitter, BUT if you still don't know, the Wild signed former Gophers forward Jordan Schroeder, the pride of St. Thomas Academy, to a two-year, two-way deal last night and re-signed defenseman Jon Blum to a one-year, two-way deal. That leaves Nino Niederreiter, Darcy Kuemper, Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker as the so-far unsigned restricted free agents.

Remember, two-way deals mean they have separate NHL and AHL salaries. In their cases, both would have to clear through waivers to get to Iowa.

Back in 2009, there was a debate among many Wild fans as to which local product the Wild should take in the first round -- Schroeder or Nick Leddy. Remember, back then when GM Chuck Fletcher took over, the Wild had a history of possessing few hometown kids and few college players much to the chagrin of many Wild fans (A LOT has changed since).

The Wild ended up trading down four spots and taking Leddy at 16th overall. Schroeder went six picks later to the Vancouver Canucks.

Of course, less than a year later, Leddy was dealt to Chicago and now five years later Schroeder is ironically property of the Wild.

These days, Schroeder is 23 and wasn't tendered a qualifying offer by the Canucks last month. That made him an unrestricted free agent.

In 56 NHL games, the 5-foot-9 forward scored six goals and 15 points, collecting six points in 25 games last season. In 192 AHL games, Schroeder has scored 47 goals and 115 points. In two years with the Gophers, Schroeder scored 22 goals and 73 points in 72 games, was the WCHA Rookie of the Year in 2009 and he was one of the Minnesotans that won gold at the 2010 world juniors.

Frankly, last year, the Iowa Wild was terrible. In reaction, the Wild has completely overhauled the Baby Wild for next season and has tried to specifically add skill, grit and in a byproduct more depth for the big Wild.

Every single Iowa player who had an expiring contract there has been let go (excluding Blum, who finished the season with the NHL Wild and could make the team next season and Zucker, who will soon re-sign with the Wild and split games last season with the NHL Wild and Baby Wild before he sustained a season-ending knee injury).

Since free agency, potentially Iowa-bound players signed include Schroeder, Michael Keranen (Wild will really give this guy a good look in camp), Brett Sutter, Stu Bickel, Guillaume Gelinas and Joel Rechlicz. Also, Brady Brassart and Zack Mitchell were signed in the springtime and guys like Matt Dumba, Gustav Olofsson and Kurtis Gabriel are officially turning pro.

Theoretically, if Cody Almond is beat out in training camp by one of the aforementioned forwards, he can be assigned to Iowa. Teams typically don't like to send down guys on one-way contracts because, in the case of Almond, you'd have to pay a player $550,000 to play in the minors. But, the Wild has done that before, including last year with Jake Dowell.

The Wild still is expected to sign another goalie to a two-way contract soon to play with Johan Gustafsson.

Also, Schroeder is not yet deemed an AHL "vet," so the Wild can still sign one so-called "veteran" to a two-way for Iowa. I believe the Wild would still like to add another defenseman with NHL experience to play in Iowa or at least battle for a roster spot with guys like Blum, Dumba and Christian Folin.

As for Blum, he tallied an assist in 15 games for the Wild last season and I thought was real good down the stretch. He didn't play a single playoff game, however, because Clayton Stoner returned from injury in time for Game 1 against Colorado.

Blum, 25, who was taken 23rd overall by the Predators in 2007, has played 106 NHL games between Nashville and Minnesota.

WILD DEPTH CHART

Here’s a look at how the Wild is shaping up to look like next season. This will change throughout the summer as the Wild add and delete players.

Remember, at some point, the Wild’s expected to acquire a physical defenseman to replace Clayton Stoner.

The depth chart is my opinion. Obviously, lines change, roles change, etc. There are interchangeable parts, and as I mentioned, I’d expect at least another defenseman.

In parentheses, each player’s cap hits with some assistance from the web site, www.capgeek.com. The restricted free agents will get signed eventually.

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 (RFA)          Kyle Brodziak (2.83 M)    Justin Fontaine (RFA)

 

Cody Almond (550K)

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

Vying for spots: Folin, Blum, Stu Bickel (600K), Matt Dumba (894,167), 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).

  

Total cap hit roughly: $54,837,758.

 

Available cap space: $13.46 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 $13.46 million excludes the re-signing of restricted free agents and Blum. Also, always take the available cap space number and subtract a few million because GM Chuck Fletcher will always try to leave space for injury callups and in-season acquisitions.

 

 

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