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

Matt Cullen moving on from Minnesota; Keith Ballard coming to Minnesota

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: July 4, 2013 - 6:34 PM
The Wild’s about to lose one Minnesotan, but it will gain another.
Wild center Matt Cullen will become a free agent when the market opens at 11 a.m. CT Friday. The veteran had a conversation with Chuck Fletcher last night where the general manager informed him he could not extend a contract offer.
However, defenseman Keith Ballard, the Baudette native and former University of Minnesota star, has agreed to terms with the hometown Wild. Ballard, 30, was bought out of the final two years of his contract by the Vancouver Canucks this morning. It's a two-year, $3 million deal -- much less than the Tom Gilbert $4 million cap hit. The buyout is why Ballard could agree early. The signing won't be official until Friday.
"It is exciting in the sense that I’ve enjoyed playing here on a visiting team," said Ballard, saying he got interest from a half-dozen teams. "I love the building, I’ve got great memories playing here in the three years in college and playing in front of these fans. And I know the support that the team gets. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be nice to be closer to family and friends, but at the same time, this isn’t a big homecoming celebration.
"There’s a lot of work to be done to reestablish my career. It’s an important year for me. I’m not overly wrapped up in that side of it. I’m just focused on putting all my efforts into having a good year and helping the team do well."
Ballard, a left-shot D will play the right side in Minnesota. In 545 career games with Phoenix, Florida and Minnesota, the two-time Gophers national champ has scored 36 goals and 165 points.
In 193 games with the Wild, Cullen scored 33 goals and 101 points. He scored an additional 11 goals in the shootout.
Cullen is coming off a strong season, still has the legs of a 20-something and has won a Cup in Carolina. He has scored 202 goals and 562 points in 1,073 games in 15 seasons with Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, the Rangers, Ottawa and Minnesota.
The Wild never made Cullen an offer.
“Chuck said all along he wasn’t going to do that unless he could make a legitimate offer,” Cullen said. “That’s a pretty classy move. He called me last night and we talked a little while and he said it’s a tough call to make, but he just can’t find the room to make an offer. So that was it.
“It was a sad night in the Cullen household last night. We were pretty disappointed, but understanding of the situation.”
Cullen, the former Moorhead High standout and St. Cloud State Huskies center, said he leaves Minnesota with good memories.
“I really enjoyed my time there,” Cullen said. “It was more than I would have ever imagined as far as playing at home and raising my kids there and being part of the organization and watching the organization grow from where it was three years ago to where it is now. I just leave with a lot of positive memories. It was a great experience for me. It was a lot of fun. Obviously, I would have liked to have won more games, but last year was one of the most enjoyable seasons playing hockey, and to go on that note, not many guys play pro hockey in their home state.
“Now it’s time to move on.”
Cullen said he doesn’t know if he’ll sign exactly Friday, but there’s been “plenty of interest.”
“It’s kind of interesting because all along in the back of my mind I expected it would eventually work out with Minnesota,” Cullen said. “Now it’s a completely different mindset, and I took last night to regroup and gather my thoughts and emotions and start thinking about the future here.
“For me, the priority is going to a place where I have a chance to win along with the family situation.
“Chuck was great though. He could have made this a lot more difficult than he did, but I got the strong impression that he tried awful hard, but it’s just one of those things. It’s a tough cap situation.”
It’s unclear if the Wild will look for a No. 2 center in free agency or just hand the baton in camp to Charlie Coyle or Mikael Granlund.
As for Ballard, I talked to him earlier as you saw on the previous blog, and he said Minnesota is an option.
It's an option now.
“I did need a change, so to me, the buyout is a good thing,” Ballard said. “In my meetings at the end of the year with management in Vancouver, we all agreed that however it worked out, I needed a change. It’s a funny feeling. In a lot of ways I’m very excited, but it’s disappointing that it got to this. I’m so excited for the opportunity and what’s going to come this next season.
“There’ been so much adversity in Vancouver the last few years, and I’ve gone through a lot. If anything my belief in myself has gotten better. Not right away. There was some up and down there, but it’s a fact, I know I can play at a high level in a long time.”
On playing in Vancouver, Ballard said, "It was a battle to find the right fit. I had a few injuries. It was a different role than I was accustomed to. There were a lot of different situations that took place. There weren’t one or two things that went wrong. At the same time, I really, truly loved my time in Vancouver. The guys I played with, it was a great group. It’s bittersweet right now. I’m really excited to be moving on and getting a fresh start, but it’s hard leaving people you were close to and a city and a fan base that I really enjoyed playing in front of."

Tom Gilbert buyout process will begin with Wild; Ryan Suter a First-Team All-Star

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: July 3, 2013 - 12:53 PM
The Wild has placed Tom Gilbert on unconditional waivers. That is the first necessary step to buy out the remaining one year of the veteran defenseman’s contract.
When Gilbert clears Thursday, the Wild plans to use one of its two allowable compliance buyouts on the 30-year-old native of Bloomington.
“Due to the NHL salary cap decreasing this season, we needed to make this difficult decision to give the team more flexibility,” said GM Chuck Fletcher in a statement. “We thank Tom for his time with the Wild and wish him the best going forward."
Gilbert will receive $1 million in each of the next two seasons (two-thirds of his $3 million salary), but it will free up an additional $4 million of salary cap space this summer for the Wild. This will be the second time Fletcher has bought out a player. Two years ago, he bought out Cam Barker.
The Wild won't necessarily just run to free agent Matt Cullen and re-sign him now. The move is designed to give Minnesota more flexibility this offseason. One can assume the Wild will now need to add a defenseman or two this offseason.
Gilbert would be free to sign with any team other than Minnesota once free agency opens at 11 a.m. CT Friday.
The Wild has already begun making calls on potential replacements. Starting at 11:01 p.m. CT last night, free agents were free to receive calls from other teams.
Fletcher said after Sunday’s draft that he expects there could be bargains in free agency because so many players could lose the game of musical chairs with so little money in the system. Fletcher also believes some players may be willing to take two-way contracts (smaller salary in the minors) or accept pro tryouts.
Gilbert, acquired from Edmonton at the trade deadline two seasons ago for veteran defenseman Nick Schultz, scored three goals and 18 points in 63 games for his hometown Wild.
While this is a move that likely would not have occurred if the Wild didn’t need the cap space, Gilbert did struggle at times last season. He was minus-11 and had to endure a few healthy scratches and decreased ice time. Prior to the season, Gilbert and center Kyle Brodziak, who also had a rough season, each were hit with a type of pneumonia. While neither used the sickness as an excuse, both players lost a lot of weight and Gilbert himself was actually hospitalized.

In other news, Ryan Suter was named to the NHL's First All-Star Team. He led the NHL in average ice time (27:16), playing over 30 minutes 10 times. He was second amongst defensemen in assists (28) and third in points (32).

The news comes a few days after his partner, Jonas Brodin, was named to the NHL's All-Rookie Team.

As you can see below, Alex Ovechkin made First and Second Team at different positions. First time this has ever happened and one reason why there was such a delay in the announcement.

2012-2013 NHL First All-Star Team


G Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets 38 21 11 6 2.00 .932 4

GP Mins. G A Pts

D P.K. Subban, Montreal Canadiens 42 23:14 11 27 38

D Ryan Suter, Minnesota Wild 48 27:16 4 28 32

C Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins 36 21:06 15 41 56

RW Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals 48 20:53 32 24 56

LW Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins 48 18:01 22 30 52

2012-2013 NHL Second All-Star Team


G Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers 43 24 16 3 2.05 .926 2

GP Mins. G A Pts

D Francois Beauchemin, Anaheim Ducks 48 23:27 6 18 24

D Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins 35 25:38 5 33 38

C Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks 47 19:20 23 25 48

RW Martin St. Louis, Tampa Bay Lightning 48 21:59 17 43 60

LW Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals 48 20:53 32 24 56

Assessing Clutterbuck-Niederreiter trade; Flahr on Wild's draft selections

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: June 30, 2013 - 10:25 PM
I’ll write more on this in Tuesday’s newspaper in a Wild Insider regarding a look at the rest of the summer, but it’s clear the Wild’s not done. Do the math, and there are still holes. Jared Spurgeon isn’t re-signed, although GM Chuck Fletcher tonight progress has been made. Matt Cullen isn’t re-signed, although I still have serious doubts he’ll be back. Tom Gilbert hasn’t been bought out yet. That is likely coming provided the Wild wants that $4 million of cap space to make some moves this summer. The Wild would then be thin on the back end and will likely look to upgrade there. Fletcher thinks he can get some bargains later in the summer, maybe with guys that can't find jobs that would take two-way deals or tryouts. And it sure sounds like Fletcher has other things cooking right now from a trade perspective.
I will post an updated depth chart on Monday. I will also be on KFAN at 9:55 a.m. Monday and am filling in for Common from 12-3 on Tuesday.
For scouting reports and thoughts about the draft from assistant GM Brent Flahr, see below.
As for the Clutterbuck trade, I ran into Ray Ferraro and Pierre McGuire in the hallway a few hours ago. This is the way they summed it up:
Ferraro: “Niederreiter’s upside is a lot bigger. I mean, to me, this is a no-brainer. They traded Cal Clutterbuck for a first-round pick. They got the fifth overall pick, a potential goal scorer, for a bowling ball. I don’t mean that as disrespect to Cal. But they traded a goal scorer for a guy that hits.”
McGuire: “I have no problem with Cal Clutterbuck. He’s a useful player. He played junior with Tavares, so there’s chemistry there. But Nino Niederreiter, his upside is gigantic. You’re not talking about an eight-to-12 goal scorer. You’re talking about a guy who can score 20 to 30. Tremendous talent. Clearly there was an issue between he and the Islanders. I mean, I was there for the playoffs and he wasn’t even part of the equation.”
Writers I talked to tonight like the New York Post’s Larry Brooks also agree this was a no-brainer try by the Wild. Brooks said sure Niederreiter may flame out, but the talent is obvious and he thinks he’s going to be a player.
Clutterbuck was only 25 and obviously physical, but the way the Wild is currently set up, there was going to have to be a time where they move him. The hope is that a guy like Brett Bulmer, who is physical, bigger and plays with a mean streak, will eventually take his role. Obviously, Bulmer still has some development to do after a tough first full year pro.
But Clutterbuck, on the Wild, did not look like he would turn out to be the 20-goal scorer I always thought he would become at least. The physicality also seemed to lessen, and I think with a player as physical as Clutterbuck, you have to start to worry if he’s going to wear down and break down.
But as you know from how often I quote Clutterbuck, I’m a fan and I think he’ll be an effective player on the aggressive, fast Islanders. And he gets to play with John Tavares, his Oshawa linemate, again, so maybe he’ll put up points.
I asked Fletcher about losing the physicality, and Fletcher said, “I think we’re a pretty physical team, and we have a lot of grit in our bottom six and a lot of size and the player we added in Niederreiter, if he’s able to make our team, is a big man. He’s 210 pounds and plays in the hard areas. So I’m not worried about physicality. Goal scoring is always something you want to focus on.”
The Wild hopes Niederreiter, who has scored everywhere but the NHL, can develop into a natural goal scorer and power winger. He is only 20. He only has two goals and an assist in 64 NHL games, but he was playing on the fourth line on Long Island. That was why the relationship became rocky. Ask anyone in the New York media, and the belief is Niederreiter was only up in 2011-12 so the Islanders could get to the cap floor. Finally, he asked to be traded, and the Islanders responded by not even bringing the kid to camp.
Fletcher says the Wild had interest in drafting him in 2010, but he went fifth and the Wild chose ninth, where it took Mikael Granlund. The Wild also has Charlie Coyle (28th overall), meaning it has three players from that 2010 first round now.
Read the story in the paper for the coverage and quotes, and again, I’ll provide a follow Tuesday.
Here is Flahr on Niederreiter: “He was a bigtime prospect who deserved to be drafted where he was. He’s 20 years old. He stepped into the league and he wasn’t ready. Last year he was a very good in the American Hockey League and led their team in scoring in the first half. Obviously he was a little frustrated and I don’t all the details behind that. I think they asked for a change in scenery.
“He’s a big body, can really shoot the puck and plays a power game, but he’s also a goal scorer. He projects out to be a top-6 forward with size and scoring ability, which is what we’re looking for. We had to pay a price in Clutter, who was a popular guy and physical impact. But to get a potential scoring winger, they’re hard to come by.”
Flahr says he has a natural ability that can’t be taught and he should challenge for a spot. Niederreiter gives the Wild another Olympic participant (Switzerland).
On the draft, Flahr was very happy (of course, I’ve never met a head scout that wasn’t happy after a draft).
The Wild drafted seven players – six skaters. All were 6-1 and over. The Wild want to add size and competitiveness.
Here is Flahr on the kids:
Gustav Olofsson (46th overall)
Position: D
Ht./wt.: 6-2, 185
Age: 18 (Dec. 1, 1994)
Born: Boras, Sweden
Team: Green Bay (USHL)
2012-13 stats: 63 games, 2 goals, 23 points, 59 penalty minutes
Flahr: “He’s a kid we targeted. He’s a kid that really shot up our draft board throughout the year. He basically played high school hockey in Colorado last year, which is a real low level, and stepped in the USHL, and right from the first tournament of the year, he looked like a player and just get better and better. His mobility, instincts for the game, moving the puck and going back into tight situations. Some of the reads he makes, we were very impressed. His dad is a huge man. He’s already a big kid and he has lots of room to fill out. We’re excited for his future.”
Kurtis Gabriel (80th overall)
Position: RW
Ht./wt.: 6-3, 189
Age: 20 (April 20, 1993)
Born: Newmarket, Ont.
Team: Owen Sound (OHL)
2012-13 stats: 67 games, 13 goals, 28 points, 100 penalty minutes
Flahr: “Late bloomer (undrafted last two years). He has a huge impact in games because of his physicality. He’s a kid that plays in straight lines. He hits like a train and he likes to drop the gloves. He’s a real character kid and a kid that has really come on and made himself a player.”
Dylan Labbe (107th overall)
Position: D
Ht./wt.: 6-1, 180
Age: 18 (Jan. 9, 1995)
Born: St-George, Quebec
Team: Shawinigan (QMJHL)
2012-13 stats: 61 games, 7 goals, 28 points, 57 penalty minutes
Flahr: “Was a kid, he played a team that was decimated after their Memorial Cup, so they had no players. He stepped in as basically a first-year guy and logged 35-plus minutes a night as a kid that’s not very physically strong. But a very intelligent player, really smart with the puck, plays the game with a lot of poise. He’s going to have get physically stronger, but he’s going to have a huge role on his team again next year. He actually made the Canadian Under-18 team at the end of the year, but he was hurt in the exhibition game.”
Carson Soucy (137th overall)
Position: D
Ht./wt.: 6-4, 191
Age: 18 (July 27, 1994)
Born: Viking, Alb.
Team: Spruce Grove (AJHL)
2012-13 stats: 35 games, 5 goals, 15 points, 71 penalty minutes
Flahr: “Tier-2 Alberta. Going to Duluth next year. Big kid, 6-4, good mobility and really moves the puck well. Obviously he’s a couple years down the road, but with his size and range and ability to play the game, our guys were excited.”
Avery Peterson (167th overall)
Position: C
Ht./wt.: 6-2, 193
Age: 18 (June 20, 1995)
Born: Grand Rapids, Minn.
Team: Grand Rapids High
2012-13 stats: 23 games, 23 goals, 54 points, 2 penalty minutes
Flahr: Local kid. He’s got to grow into his body, but he was a quality, quality high school player. Good two-way player, good-sized kid, good skater. He’ll have to spend some time in the gym getting stronger. He’ll need some time at the NCAA level.”
Nolan De Jong (197th overall)
Position: D
Ht./wt.: 6-1, 165
Age: 18 (April 25, 1995)
Born: Victoria, B.C.
Team: Victoria (BCHL)
2012-13 stats: 51 games, 5 goals, 24 points, 16 penalty minutes
Flahr: “Mobile defender. Rated highly earlier in the year because of his mobility. He’s a physically weak kid, but good size. Going to Michigan next year. Our guys feel he has a chance to play down the road.”
Alexandre Belanger (200th overall)
Position: G
Ht./wt.: 6-0, 170
Age: 17 (August 19, 1995)
Born: Sherbrooke, Que.
Team: Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL)
2012-13 stats: 44 games, 3.46 GAA, .875 SP
Flahr: “Had a strong playoffs against a good Quebec team from being a backup goalie for most of the year.”

Fletcher, Backstrom talk about today's 3-year, $10.25 million deal

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: June 24, 2013 - 5:47 PM
Chuck Fletcher hopes Monday’s signing of Niklas Backstrom is the right move for the Wild short-term and long-term.
Short-term it gives the Wild a No. 1 goalie again. Long-term, it bides more time for Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson to develop in the minors.
Fletcher reminded that Kuemper, the former Canadian Hockey League Goalie of the Year, is only 23 with only 50+ games of pro experience, so the proper place for him to be is Iowa platooning with Gustafsson, who led Sweden to gold at world juniors in 2012.
“I like the way we’re set up in goal,” the Wild GM said Monday.
Good evening before Game 6. I wanted to toss up a quick Backstrom blog with quotes from today. Read the story in Tuesday’s paper please because there’s a lot of stuff in there on other pertinent things you’re wondering about.
I will also post a blog later tonight with some of that stuff, an updated depth chart and details about the show I’m hosting on KFAN on Tuesday from 9-noon. It’ll be a fun one.
Back to the news of the day: Fletcher wants Kuemper and Gustafsson to push Josh Harding and Harding to push Backstrom.
“Nik right now is slotted as our No. 1 until someone unseats him, whether it be Josh or Darcy Kuemper,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher admitted the Wild “ran Nik hard” last year. The team had little choice because Harding missed two months due to complications with multiple sclerosis. Fletcher said he met with Harding on Saturday for two hours and “he’s in a great spot mentally. Physically he never felt better.”
He’s a better spot now, Fletcher said, understanding what his regimen should be, what his body can take. “We’re going to need him to win games next year.”
Backstrom finished with the seventh-most minutes played in the league, and while he finished tied for first with 24 wins, his play suffered down the stretch and then he was ultimately hurt before Game 1 of the playoffs.
The Wild has talked to Backstrom about taking more practices off or maybe not spending an entire 40-minute morning skate on the ice. Backstrom said he loves playing, loves practicing “everyday” but understands he needs to start saving his energy for games. He says “that’s something I have to work on.”
Backstrom said it’s no secret how badly he wanted to stay in Minnesota. He took a cap friendly three-year, $10.25 million deal ($3.41+M a year; $2.5M in Year 1, $3.75M in Year 2, $4M in Year 3).
In an email this morning, he wrote me, “You can’t value happiness.”
On his game right now and his age (35), Backstrom said, “Age is a number. I don’t think you ever feel good about your game. It’s something you want to improve every time. I still have a lot of things I can improve and get better at.”
Coincidentally, Backstrom took the ice today for the first time since surgery to repair his sports hernia in May. He said he felt better than expected and that his lower core feels good.
“I’ve got a lot of calls out to GMs to try to find mutual fits. There could be some trades before the draft. We can’t bring the same team back.”
As far as re-signing Backstrom, Fletcher said, “We were working with a player and his agent who really wanted to be here as well,” so the team gave Backstrom the security he wanted and in return he gave the team a cap hit below what the Wild believes he would have received on the open market.
“It’s a win-win,” Fletcher said. “There really never was another option. You have to say there is, so you have some leverage. But clearly he was our first choice.”
It’s probably no coincidence though that the Backstrom signing came one day after Toronto acquired Jonathan Bernier, whom the Wild inquired about, from Los Angeles. The Wild asked about Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury but was told he’s going nowhere.
Ryan Miller appears on his way out of Buffalo, but his game has tailed off since the 2010 Olympics and has one year left on a deal that pays $6.25 million. Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo is 34 and has nine years left on a contract with a cap hit of $5.33 million.
St. Louis may be looking to trade Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott. But in the end, re-signing Backstrom was always the easiest and likeliest route.
“We’re familiar with Nik. He’s familiar with us,” Fletcher said. “He’s earned the trust of his teammates through his professionalism and his work ethic. Nobody is more prepared as a goaltender than Nik. I’ve never seen a goalie practice that hard.”
On Backstrom’s decline in April, Fletcher said there were likely myriad reasons, from perhaps the fact he was battling injury to fatigue from a “vicious” schedule to poor play in front of him.
“Hopefully this year the schedule will not be as compressed,” Fletcher said. “We’re expecting Josh to battle and to give us some quality starts [too].”
Fletcher said he needed to get this done early this week so he can move on to other things this week, like potential trades. He needed Backstrom to give the team a quality cap number. Still, as I’ll detail on tonight’s blog, as of now, the Wild only has about $2.8 million in space.
“The great thing about the cap world is you can’t pull the wool over anyone’s eyes,” Fletcher said of Backstrom understanding the Wild’s cap situation. “Everybody has the numbers and has a calculator. Nik’s goal isn’t to sign here for the most money he can. He wants to get a fair contract, but he also wants to be part of a team that’s going to win.”
I’ll be back later. Enjoy Game 6, and if you didn’t see my John Torchetti blog, look down below.

Backstrom agrees to multi-year deal

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: June 24, 2013 - 1:03 PM

The Wild has agreed to terms with its winningest goalie in franchise history.

Niklas Backstrom has agreed to a three-year deal worth $10.25 million ($3.42 million).

Backstrom, the Wild's goalie of seven years, won 24 games last year before sustaining a sports hernia before the playoffs. He has won 184 games.

Backstrom, 35, wanted term -- at least 3 years -- and he got it. The Wild wanted to make certain it came in less than $4 million -- what he probably would have gotten on the open market -- and it got that.

Backstrom loves Minnesota and wanted badly to return. The Wild maintained its priority was to sign Backstrom. The only options for a No. 1 goaltender would have been the trade market.

With limited cap space, the only true potential No. 1 if he gets to free agency is Mike Smith, and he's looking for a big payday.


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