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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Expansive Wild update: GM on Nino, Kuemper, extending contracts and trading for a defenseman

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 10, 2014 - 11:55 AM

BE PREPARED -- This is a loooooooooooooooong blog with a LOT of INFO to digest. Just your typical 2,606-word offseason update:

On Wednesday afternoon, I headed down to Xcel Energy Center to watch the first day of development camp. Not shockingly, the four guys who really stood out to me were Matt Dumba, Christian Folin, Kurtis Gabriel and Gustav Olofsson, but it was my first chance to see Alex Tuch, Louie Belpedio and others, and they clearly have talent. Defensemen Dylan Labbe and Carson Soucy also stood out and Adam Gilmour, the Boston College forward, had a real strong day. By the way, former Wild speedster Richard Park is a guest coach during camp.

Here’s the article that ran in Wednesday’s paper on Folin and Dumba and the internal battle they’ll likely have in training camp to make the team. Camp commences Sept. 18 after the Sept. 12-16 prospect tournament in Traverse City, Michigan. I didn’t mention Gabriel as a roster hopeful in the article just because he may start in the minors to get development. But no doubt he could see games next season.

“I’m not putting anything by this kid,” assistant GM Brent Flahr said. “He’s probably one of the most determined kids I’ve ever met. He knows he’s probably going to go down and play, but he’ll cause some havoc in exhibition games. He works so hard and he wants to get there. He’s got things to learn. He knows that, but second half you never know.”

Remember, if you want to see the 42 prospects and invitees in action, the Wild is having two scrimmages that are open to the public: Friday at 2 p.m. at Braemar Ice Arena in Edina and Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center.

Also Wednesday, I had a chance to chat with coach Mike Yeo about his staff, the team and the travel for the upcoming season. I also had a chance to talk for a while with General Manager Chuck Fletcher to get a roster update. Among the topics: An update on the five unsigned restricted free agents; Fletcher’s desire to potentially extend the contracts of some of the team’s youngsters who have expiring deals next summer; his desire to perhaps still add a defenseman, maybe through the trade market; The goalie situation.

Here’s a synopsis:

1. If you didn’t see the previous blog, Andrew Brunette will be an assistant coach with the Wild next season and will likely join Yeo and assistants Rick Wilson and Darryl Sydor on the bench. Together with the trainers, it’ll be a tight squeeze! Bruno will again be in charge of the power play and the hope is that if he’s on the bench and able to tinker things right there as opposed to the press box, it’ll be a big help to a power play that finished 16th the past two seasons.

2. The Wild has five unsigned restricted free agents: Nino Niederreiter, Darcy Kuemper, Justin Fontaine (he has filed for arbitration, so worse comes to worse, he’ll get a one- or two-year deal that way), Jason Zucker and Jon Blum. Typically, this stuff just takes care of itself by the end of this month and it’s not like the Wild’s cap-strapped by any stretch of the imagination.

Fletcher said the team has just recently started the process toward eventually re-signing each one. As I mentioned before, Zucker is a Group I restricted free agents, so he really doesn’t have many rights. My guess is he eventually signs a one-year deal.

I asked specifically about Kuemper and Niederreiter, and not only because they’re the two most significant. The Wild had a real tough negotiation with Kuemper’s agent when it first signed him to an entry-level contract, and I’ve got to imagine this won’t be a simple negotiation either. Kuemper saved the Wild’s hide last season, so I’m not sure the comparables are going to be easy on a new deal. And Niederreiter’s agent obviously doesn’t mess around. Just look at his exit from the Islanders. But Niederreiter also knows he has found a home in Minnesota and his Europe-based agent did meet with Fletcher last year in Anaheim just to begin the relationship.

As for Kuemper, Fletcher said the Wild’s had one conversation with the goalie’s agent “and I think the conversation went well. We’ll probably hopefully talk again sometime this week. We really haven’t gotten that involved with any of them at this point. It comes to focus now. UFA-season (unrestricted free agent) is basically over. Now you get into the RFA’s. It’s just been a little slower developing on the RFA front. I’m not worried about any of them. We’ll work on them. They all take different amounts of time, but they’re all restricted. We just have to get fair deals. If it takes all summer, that’s fine. If it takes a week or two, that’s fine.”

As for Niederreiter, I asked how the Wild decides whether it wants to sign him to a long-term deal or a short-term bridge deal, which seems to me to make the most sense. Niederreiter hasn’t broken out yet. He looks like he could be on the brink, but he hasn’t. So a bridge deal would be good for both sides. If Niederreiter signs a two-year deal and erupts the next two years, he could hit a homer in two summers. If he doesn’t, the Wild saves itself the mistake of overpaying him now.

“We’ve told his agent we’re open to either,” Fletcher said. “In some ways, the easiest thing to do is do a two-year deal and that way however he develops you can react and nobody gets too far ahead or too far behind. The problem sometimes with longer-term deals is one side could be wrong. So shorter-term deals are usually easier until you know the career path of the player. But we’re open to any scenario, and we’ve expressed that. We’ll see how it goes, but as long as the numbers make sense, we’re prepared to do anything within reason. Probably anything between two to four years would be the most logical. I think beyond four is incredibly hard to figure out and one year doesn’t seem to make any sense.”

3. After the Wild re-signs its restricted free agents, Fletcher would like to maybe visit extending the contracts of some of next summer’s restricted free agents. Players with expiring contracts after next season include Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella. He said he doesn’t mind negotiating into the season if they have some negotiating momentum, either. “We’ll just see how the market plays out this summer for some other players, address our RFA’s first and then have conversations with some of [next summer’s potential RFA’s] and see who has interest first of all,” Fletcher said.

4. Next season’s roster. The Wild hasn’t yet replaced Clayton Stoner. Fletcher said he’s “comfortable starting the season with what we have now, but if we can get a defenseman that is an upgrade, we’ll definitely look at that. But the [free-agent] market’s a little thin right now, so we’re talking to some teams to see if there might be a [trade] fit there or something that makes sense. But it just seems like everything’s slowed down completely. There was so much activity around the draft and the first few days of free agency and a lot of teams have their prospect camps right now, so there just doesn’t seem to be a lot happening anywhere. But we’ll keep looking at it. We’re not going to do anything just for the sake of doing it. We’re not just going to sign a defenseman to say we signed a defenseman. I like our group. We do have some depth right now, so we can certainly let things play out.”

Fletcher said there are still some free agents available with experience, but it depends on the price point and the term. “If we can do something better in the trade market, we’ll definitely consider that. But the trade market involves giving up an asset, too, so we’ll just be patient here. We have lots of flexibility, which is great, and I think we have some good depth. I’m open to a lot of different ideas, but I think we’re more than OK there. We have the same top-4 that we had last year and we were a great defensive team. Folin could be there and we still have Jon Blum, who played really well when he played and Keith Ballard, when he’s healthy, has been good, and we have no reason to think he won’t be healthy. After that, you want to make sure you have enough depth (Wild has added big, tough Stu Bickel), but Olofsson and Dumba are going to be pretty good players for us. So, do we need a two-way guy, do we need a one-way guy? That’s the question.”

Also, there’s a lot of unsigned players right now, and some of these guys that were in the league last year are going to have to very soon make the decision whether to accept two-way contracts. Why? Because there’s a maximum amount of veterans that can play in the AHL and that is fast filling up, so if these guys don’t quickly accept two-way contracts, they’re going to quickly find themselves in Europe next season.

So, there is a chance that if Fletcher holds firm, he can get a bargain on a two-way (Michael Del Zotto?). As of now, the Iowa Wild can fit one more so-called “veteran” (other than a goalie, I believe).

Again, to see the updated Wild depth chart after the Cody Almond signing, see this blog (Almond signing was finally approved by the NHL last year; the league just had to review Almond’s out clause on his Swiss contract to make sure everything was kosher).

5. The goaltending situation remains the same. Flahr and/or Iowa GM Jim Mill will look to sign one more goalie soon to a two-way deal to play with Johan Gustafsson in Iowa. As for the NHL gigs, according to Fletcher, Niklas Backstrom continues to feel great, Josh Harding is having a good summer and Kuemper is feeling well after his concussions late in the regular season and the one in the playoffs. There’s a good chance the Wild will carry three goalies out of camp and let them battle it out for 1, 2 and 3 in camp. By carrying three goalies on a 23-man roster, the Wild would have to carry one less forward or defenseman. At Kuemper’s age though, if he’s not the No. 1, I can’t imagine the Wild will just let him ride caddy and not play games. Since he can be sent to the minors without waivers, if the Wild’s healthy in goal and he’s not the No. 1, there could be times he spends time in Iowa. As I have written before, this is a pretty inflexible situation. The Wild has three goalies on one-way contracts, so it’s not like it can just simply sign more goalies to one-way deals. That’s why the team wasn’t in on guys like Jonas Hiller and Ryan Miller.

6. I mentioned this last month, but while it’s not yet finalized, the Wild will likely return to Duluth for a third straight preseason. Typically, the Wild heads there after its final exhibition game for a few days of practice and team-bonding, and the schedule certainly works again. The Wild hosts St. Louis in the preseason finale Oct. 4 and opens the regular season Oct. 9 against Colorado. The players seem to enjoy the refreshing getaway right before jumping into the grind and the team is treated real well by the folks at UMD. Yeo and the brass will meet in the next few days to maybe finalize that and map out the Wild’s travel schedule. There are some in-season oddities. For instance, between Game 2 in Denver and Game 3 in Anaheim, there are five off-days, which may be excruciating for everyone involved so soon after a full training camp. The team will obviously come home after Denver, but Yeo and his staff will try to figure out how best to use those five days so soon after camp. My guess is the team heads out to California a few days early, which is perfectly fine with the beat writer. My Las Vegas and/or Maui suggestion so far hasn’t been accepted by the Wild hierarchy.

7. I’m glad for Dany Heatley that he was able to latch onto Anaheim. He gets a lot of flak leaguewide, but from my personal experience, it was great covering him the past three years. He treated me great and always with humor and respect – even on those occasions where I probably ticked him off with things I wrote.

8. Steve Ott, whom the Wild at least talked with a few weeks ago, signed a two-year deal with St. Louis today. The Ott to Minnesota interest really never made sense to me. I just didn’t see the role unless Kyle Brodziak was traded (which is still a possibility). But if you look at the depth chart, why would Ott sign in Minnesota if it was all but certain he would be a fourth liner here? It just never made a whole lot of sense unless Ott was completely desperate for a job. Looks like St. Louis re-signed Ott because hard-hitting, very good forward Vladimir Sobotka is reportedly ready to bail for the KHL.

9. Pierre-Marc Bouchard reportedly signed to play next season in Switzerland.

10. Wild winger Stephane Veilleux, who won’t make it to his buddy Mikko Koivu’s wedding because his wife is readying to give birth to their second child, is scheduled to defend his Smashfest Ping-Pong title in Toronto later this month. Here is the press release from the NHLPA:

Smashfest: Dominic Moore & Many NHL Players to Participate

In Charity Ping-Pong Event on July 24th in Toronto

Third annual fundraiser hosted by Dominic Moore to feature NHL players showcasing their Ping-Pong talents while raising money for concussion research and the Katie Moore Foundation

TORONTO (July 9, 2014) – NHL player Dominic Moore, forward for the New York Rangers, is proud to announce the third annual Smashfest – a fan-inspired event designed to showcase NHL players’ ping-pong skills while raising money and awareness for two important causes: concussions and traumatic brain injuries; and rare cancer research and advocacy.

Tickets for the 2014 event are on sale to the public at www.Smashfest.ca.

“Ping-pong is the theme of the night, but it's really just a party. Smashfest brings NHL players and guests together in a festive, fun atmosphere while supporting two important causes – research for concussions and rare forms of cancer,” said Dominic Moore, Smashfest host and New York Rangers forward.

WHAT:          Smashfest: Charity Ping-Pong Challenge

WHERE:        Steam Whistle Brewery, Toronto

WHEN:          Thursday, July 24th, 6:30 PM ET

WHO:             Dominic Moore (Host), and current / former NHL players including Brian Boyle, Derick Brassard, Alex Burrows, Mike Cammalleri, Logan Couture, Michael Del Zotto, Justin Falk, T.J. Galiardi, Mike Johnson, Curtis Joseph, Kevin Klein, Chris Kreider, Nick Kypreos, Steve Mason, Shawn Matthias, Jeff O’Neill, Teddy Purcell, Zac Rinaldo, Tyler Seguin, Jeff Skinner, Cam Talbot, Chris Tanev, Stephane Veilleux, Kevin Weekes and Ryan Whitney are scheduled to participate, along with more "ping-pong free agents" to be named later!

Through this one-of-a-kind event, fans attending Smashfest will have the opportunity to square off at the ping-pong table against NHL players; the chance to meet and interact with some of their favourite hockey players and other celebrities; and will be able to bid on one-of-a-kind silent auction items and prizes, while helping raise money for charity.

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Los Angeles - J. Beckett 6:05 PM
Pittsburgh - V. Worley
San Francisco - Y. Petit 6:05 PM
Philadelphia - R. Hernandez
Texas - N. Martinez 6:05 PM
NY Yankees - C. Whitley
Boston - J. Peavy 6:07 PM
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Miami - J. Turner 6:10 PM
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Chicago Cubs - K. Hendricks
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