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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Thomas Vanek signs 3-year, $19.5 million deal with the Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 1, 2014 - 5:14 PM

#VanekWatch is officially over. Thomas Vanek is coming home.

The Austrian-born left winger, who led the Gophers to a national championship 11 years ago and has settled in the Twin Cities, has agreed to a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Wild less than two hours into free agency.

“About a year ago when I made my decision to go to free agency, this was definitely a team that I had in mind,” Vanek said. “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.”

He has a full no-move clause and left money and term on the table from other teams. He'll earn $5.5 million in 2014-15, $6.5 million in 2015-16 and $7.5 million in 2016-17. He'll wear No. 26.

“Thomas is an elite offensive talent who showed a strong desire to play in Minnesota,” said GM Chuck Fletcher. “We are excited to welcome him to our organization.”

Vanek, 30, the fifth overall pick in the 2003 draft with the Buffalo Sabres, saw his stock fall during a tough postseason for the Montreal Canadiens, but he brings with him a history of goal scoring.

Since the start of 2005-06, Vanek has scored the eighth-most goals in the NHL (277 goals in 663 games), third-most power-play goals (113), 556 points and is tied for 11th with 0.42 goals per game.

“He’s always a threat when he has the puck, and when he doesn’t have the puck, he always finds ways to get himself available,” Jason Pominville, his former Buffalo linemate, said to me by phone yesterday. “He would step in and help our power play right away. As a net-front presence, he’s always there with screens and always finds a way to get his stick on the puck.

“He’s so good at tipping pucks, it’s crazy.”

My guess: Coach Mike Yeo is aware of the Pominville/Vanek chemistry but will start camp with Parise-Granlund-Pominville because he liked that line down the stretch and Vanek-Koivu-Coyle.

Vanek scored 57 goals and 113 points in 83 games over two years for the Gophers. He led the team in scoring both years, was a WCHA Rookie of the Year and his 31 goals as a freshman is second in school history. In 2003, he was the Frozen Four MVP, beating Michigan in overtime and scoring the winning goal in the national championship game against New Hampshire.

"I've been a little bit nervous for the last week or so, knowing that it was a good possibility but also knowing there would be other good offers out there," said former Gophers teammate Keith Ballard. "Thomas said he would keep me in the loop and I tried to do a little arm-twisting here and there. I answered some questions for him, and I was just hoping something would work. I'm very excited."

Added Ballard: “It was tough for him. 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.”

Jarome Iginla has signed a three-year deal with Colorado.

In more Wild news, Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick returned to Buffalo. The Wild will still be looking to replace Clayton Stoner (Willie Mitchell?) and maybe McCormick. By signing Vanek, third line could be Cooke-Haula-Nino. That leaves Zucker, Brodziak, Fontaine as the other forwards, so if the Wild does sign another forward, there's a bit of a logjam and also leaving little room for new kids to make the team.

The Wild has signed Charlotte Checkers captain Brett Sutter to a two-way deal. He's LA Kings coach Darryl Sutter's son. Signing is for depth, could play games, but will likely start with Iowa. The center has played 54 games for Carolina and Calgary. Most his career has been spent in the minors.

The Wild has also signed defenseman Stu Bickel, the Chanhasssen native and former Gopher, as a depth defenseman to a one-year, two-way deal.

More later.

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