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Michael Russo gives you complete coverage of the Minnesota Wild and the NHL

Wild takes Wisconsin center Luke Kunin with 15th pick

The Wild took Wisconsin forward Luke Kunin with the 15th overall pick in the NHL draft tonight in Buffalo.

Don Granato said all Wild fans need to know about Kunin is he captained a U.S. Under-18 team that had Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL draft, and Matthew Tkachuk, the No. 6 pick, on it.

“I call him ‘Little J.J. Watt,’” Granato, Kunin’s coach with the U.S. National Team Development Program, said, referring to the Houston Texans workhorse defensive end. “Luke just works. He loves working. He’s as determined as you get.”

 “He’s not only got a great shot. A lot of guys have great shots if there’s time,” said Granato, who coached Kunin for two years and now is on Wisconsin’s staff as his brother Tony Granato’s associate coach. “He doesn’t need a lot of time. He’s got a quick, short, compact release.”

Granato made him captain as a “testament to his leadership. He would take charge both vocally and take initiative when our team needed it as a youth 17 players. Unwavered. He’ll speak up to his teammates and call them out. But he’s respected by everybody because his actions speak, game to game.”

Said Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr: "Luke is a versatile two way forward that can play center and wing. He has a tremendous work ethic, great speed, and an NHL shot. He's been a leader everywhere he's played."

Kunin graduated early from high school to play for the Badgers, scoring 19 goals for an eight-win team. He had 32 points in 34 games.

The Chesterfield, Mo., native is known as a goal-scorer.  He played for the U.S. Under-18 program in 2014-15, and played youth hockey in the St. Louis area with other 2016 draft picks Tkachuk, Clayton Keller and Logan Brown.

Kunin was ranked 11th among North American skaters by Central Scouting.

About Luke Kunin

Draft status: First round, 15th overall, by the Wild

Position: Center or wing. Shoots right

Height, weight: 6-0, 195

Hometown: Chesterfield, Mo.

Age: 18 (born Dec. 4, 1997)

Team: University of Wisconsin

At Wisconsin: Had 19 goals and 13 assists in 34 games for Badgers, who won only eight games.

High school: Spent his final prep year playing for the U.S. national development program’s under-18 team. Had 27 goals and 42 assists in 61 games. Captained the U.S U18 team to a gold medal at the world championships in 2015. Also won a title at the Four Nations Tournament in 2014 while with the under-17 team. Had 20 goals and 19 assists in 52 game for the U17s in 2013-14.

Vanek's contract bought out by Wild to create salary cap space

After months of speculation, the Wild plans to move on without veteran winger Thomas Vanek.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher informed Vanek's camp of the decision today to buy out the final year of his contract. Vanek will become a free agent next Friday.

"I'm very disappointed, especially with the new staff and Coach [Bruce] Boudreau's style, I think it would fit my game a lot better, but at the end of the day, that's the business we signed up for," Vanek said. "But overall in my two years, I'm grateful I got the chance to play for the Wild. It was a dream of mine.

"Before I was a free agent, I had a couple offers. But I wanted to come here and see if we can make it work. It just never panned out the way we both envisioned, and now here we are."

This was a business decision. The Wild had $9 million in salary cap space. Buying out Vanek provides the Wild another $5 million cushion to do other business like potential trades during draft weekend or free agency.

"In order to give our team more salary cap flexibility we needed to make this difficult decision," Fletcher said. “We thank Thomas for his time with the Minnesota Wild and wish him the best going forward.”

Asked if he regretted the decision to sign in Minnesota, Vanek laughed.

"It's always easy to look back, but at the end, no, I don't. I really don't," Vanek, who hails from Austria, said. "I wanted to play here. Even though I'm not from here, I call this place home. Minnesota's close to my heart. This is something I wanted to do and I wanted to try out. I had my doubts. Is it the right fit, the right system? But it was a dream of mine to come back to the State of Hockey and to fulfill that, but obviously it finished not the way I was hoping it to."

Vanek, 32, who scored 21 goals and 52 points during his first season with the Wild, scored a career-low 18 goals in 74 games last season. His 41 points were the lowest of any non-lockout season. He got off to a great start, scoring 10 goals and nine assists in the first 22 games. But he scored seven goals and 10 assists in his final 44 games.

He missed four of the last five regular-season games and the playoffs with broken and displaced ribs, he said.

The Wild had roughly $64 million committed to 15 players next season. There are 23 players on a roster and next year’s salary cap has been slated at $73 million. That only left about $9 million to sign unrestricted free agents, promote from within and re-sign some of its own, including restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba and maybe Darcy Kuemper.

Buying out Vanek costs $2.5 million in each of the next two years in real dollars, but his $6.5 million cap hit will be reduced to $1.5 million this year and $2.5 million next year.

Vanek is looking forward to free agency.

"As long as I can believe in myself, like I do, I've been working hard already and I feel good. I think I can score 25, 30 goals in the right situation," Vanek said. "As disappointing as this is, especially in the family front -- my boys aren't going to be too happy we're moving again; they'll get new jerseys, so they'll be excited there (laughs).

"Right now the focus is to have [agent] Steve [Bartlett] go to work and find the right fit."