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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Free agency opens at 11: What will the Wild do?

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 1, 2010 - 9:17 AM

Good morning from Free Agency Central!!!! I do love this day. I could hardly sleep, then popped up at about 6 a.m. to get a walk in and guzzle down a pot or two of coffee. Plus, ...

It's the most exciting day of the year. Money is spent wisely and judiciously. No bad contracts ever happen on this day. No regrets a few years down the road. Today's the first stop to an eventual Stanley Cup for 30 NHL teams  

First of all, for any breaking news or updates or cynical jokes, the place to be is www.twitter.com/russostrib. You're not cool if you're not there. In all seriousness, it's just the nature of the beast these days, but news for the Wild often breaks on my twitter account a little before the blog. Plus, the best part of twitter is you can download it to your mobile device and your fussy boss would never be on to us.

First a little rehash of the articles/blogs before I get into what I think the Wild does and offer you a little advice at the end of the blog:

Guillaume Latendresse signs a two-year deal

Wild needs a center, and homegrown Cullen fits the bill

Wild free agency options

If you want to read my opinion on the Latendresse signing, click the link above or just scroll to the blog below this one. I think it's a good deal. Even though I know it was Latendresse's preference to sign long-term, I think this was the right deal for both parties. The Wild doesn't risk a one-year wonder and Latendresse gets more than a one-year deal. He proves over the next two years that he's the player we all watched last year, Jackpot!

Before I move on to what I think the Wild will do during free agency, unless something unexpected happens this morning, the Wild's moving on without Derek Boogaard, Owen Nolan, John Scott, Andrew Ebbett, Robbie Earl and Shane Hnidy. Who knows? Maybe the Wild revisits things a few days into free agency if some of these guys are unsigned and things transpire that make the team suddenly have interest again, but that usually rarely happens.

I'd think Nolan -- aka Buster, aka Cowboy -- eventually ends up in Washington, San Jose, L.A. or Anaheim. Remember, two of the teams he was willing to go to at the trade deadline last season were Washington and San Jose, and he's got a long history and mutual respect with Kings GM Dean Lombardi. And Anaheim's situated in, well, California  

As for Boogs, he'll get his job somewhere. The man sells jerseys, so I'd think any team that needs help at the gate would look his direction. And of course, there is Detroit, which says it's looking for an enforcer. He's got a friendship with Pavel Datsyuk, but Red Wings coach Mike Babcock does strike me as somebody who likes to roll four lines, so I just don't see Boogaard actually being in the cards.

Scott could end up in Edmonton or anywhere else that a big, tough hombre of a defenseman is needed. Earl's looking for a one-way contract after showing last season he can play regularly in the NHL, as is Ebbett. In fact, Ebbett's the type of guy maybe the Wild revisits at some point for a little depth. Hnidy, he may have to wait a little bit. Teams are going younger, and there's a lot of affordable defensemen on the market.

Onward: If you read my article today, I talked to a ton of free agents the last few days -- some that didn't want to be quoted and three that were fine with it -- Matt Cullen, Paul Martin and Olli Jokinen.

First, Cullen: Four years ago, Doug Risebrough called Cullen and Mark Parrish in the opening minutes of free agency. But as the money went up for Cullen, the Rangers kind of took over and Risebrough, who loved Parrish's personality during their phone conversation, switched gears and pursued him aggressively.

I'd think Cullen will get a phone call from the Wild again on the opening moments of free agency. In fact, if the Wild had offered Cullen Parrish's five-year deal four years ago, my suspicion is he'd be on the Wild today. The sad irony of that is the Wild's still paying Parrish and he hasn't played for them in two years.

Frankly, I'd like Cullen in the room because he's a good guy and good quote and he'd up the comedy level around the Minnesota Wild. Cullen's buddies with the Broken Lizard dudes (Super Troopers, Beerfest and the much anticipated Freeloaders, which is loosely based on the life of my man Adam Duritz -- frontman of the Counting Crows, who are in town Sunday, so tell your friends).

Cullen's also a good player and what the Wild needs and is very, very open to playing here. He should also be more affordable than Matt Lombardi.

I know a lot of readers have been confused as to why I haven't been listing Lombardi as a "person of interest." While I'm sure the Wild will make a call this morning, Lombardi could very well get upwards of $4 million on a long-term deal in this weak market. Sorry, but that's where giant mistakes are made. Once the money and term gets up there, the Wild will move onward from Lombardi, me thinks.

And I think Cullen's the guy they want.

As for Jokinen, I think this is a good way to go on a one-year deal. Here's the problem I see. Jokinen knows he may have to take a one- or two-year deal somewhere, but I think he'd be foolish to do that on Day One. And quite frankly, I don't think the Wild would do that on Day One. So if the Wild waits for Jokinen, misses out on Cullen because of it and then misses out on Jokinen, uh-oh cheerios.

They better pray Mikko Koivu and Saku Koivu have a heart-to-heart.

If the Wild signs Cullen today, I went into the archives and found about six features I've written on him during the time I either covered him in Florida or since I've been in Minnesota. I'll toss on the one I wrote during the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006 later if he signs.

This excerpt though was from my Cup-winning game story: Former Moorhead High and St. Cloud State star Matt Cullen played inspired hockey. He was flying from the start, using his speed to set up teammates and create chances for himself.

He assisted on goals by Aaron Ward in the first period and Frantisek Kaberle in the second, before Justin Williams secured the victory with an empty-net goal with 61 seconds left.

"I spent some time alone today and reflected on the work I've put in, and I dreamed about holding that thing," said Cullen, a 29-year-old Virginia, Minn., native. "I pictured it all day, I mean, all day.
"I've played for eight years now and never even been close. So I came to the rink determined to make the most of it."

Again though, I don't want to get your hopes overly up here. This is no guarantee. Cullen's going to get a lot of interest, and the Wild can't just break the bank with him. I know fans don't have to think like this, but GM's do: The plan is for Mikael Granlund to make the move to the NHL maybe as early as next year. That'd be a 3-year deal. Mikko Koivu could sign a long-term extension later this summer. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who has three years left on his deal at 4.25, 4.25 and 4.3 million, hopefully will be back. The Wild hopes Casey Wellman's a player. Maybe Cody Almond. The Wild's got Kyle Brodziak and James Sheppard, and I think still has aspirations of trading for a top centerman.

So if the Wild signs a center for too much money and too long a term today, I know it sounds funny now, but a year from now they could have too many centers. So it's not as simple as: The Wild wants Cullen, he wants the Wild, sign him up.

It's more complicated, so even though I think it has a better chance than ever of happening, it wouldn't surprise me if it didn't.

On to Paul Martin, just a good guy and he's very excited for his first shot at UFA today. I know everybody's clamoring for the Wild to sign the solid local defenseman, but same thing, it's not that simple. The Wild has bigger priorities and he could command $4.5 to $5 million a year. Now, the Wild's got $10 million of cap space, about $8.5 million if you include Josh Harding's eventual re-signing. And since the Wild will likely stay $1 or $2 million below the cap, the only way it can sign Martin is if it trades a defenseman later today or before the summer.

That is an absolute must as far as I can tell. Plus, the Wild doesn't just need a center and a defenseman. I'd think they'd sign at least one winger during free agency for the fourth line. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe even they try to sign a winger for the top two lines.

Also, if you think Martin's just going to come to the Wild if they call, you're wrong. There's a lot of factors involved. He's 29 and there's a lot of teams that could pursue him today. Just because the hometown team comes after a hometown guy doesn't mean the hometown team will get the hometown guy. This hometown guy at least made that very clear to me yesterday.

So, when you factor in how expensive the Wild blue line is already, I just think this is a longshot -- unless the Wild's got something cooking on one of its defensemen, which is definitely a possibility. GM Chuck Fletcher has had a lot of trade talks regarding a few of his blue-liners, so maybe he's got something in the can he can eventually pull the trigger on.

I still think the Wild signs a more affordable defenseman a few days into free agency or even today.

Martin was telling me that he wants to be really methodical and patient with his decision, you know, the way players and teams aren't typically on July 1. In other words, he wouldn't mind even taking a day before signing. I told him, "Good luck with that." Wait until he gets into agent Ben Hankinson's office this afternoon and is pressured by a GM into a quick, rash decision.

That's how it works unfortunately in the NHL free-agent frenzy. It's not like the NBA where teams can court players and players can do smart research for a week. If a GM wants a top defenseman and there's only Martin, Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver anyway, I hear), Sergei Gonchar and Anton Volchenkov, he's going to tell Martin you've got 15 minutes to make a decision or I've got to go "to that guy right this second."

So I'd think as much as Martin would love time to make a sound, smart decision for his long-term future, he'll be pressured into picking a team today.

Lastly, just some advice, be patient today. There are lulls. Who knows? The Wild could sign a third- or fourth-line forward early and something big may not break until later in the day or even tomorrow or the next day. Things don't happen in order today.

Remember, last year, there was furor on the streets with that awful, Wild-going-cheap-again signing of Greg Zanon six hours before Martin Havlat got done. Wild fans emailed me with threats of canceling their tickets. Now Zanon's one of the most popular, affordable Wild players on the team.

And go back and read the blog comments after the Guillaume Latendresse trade, incidentally. The venom was unbelievable about that trade, so much so, that I wrote this as part of my Nov. 24 blog in an attempt to calm the masses down:

As for Latendresse, I've talked to more people today that believe that he's got the ability to be a John LeClair-type power forward. Habs fans are certainly praying their favorite team didn't just trade LeClair all over again. ...

Anyway, my original point, this is a no-risk trade. Pouliot wasn't working out here. Maybe Latendresse, who also needed a change to reignite his career, does work out.

The fun part of being a sports fan is reacting to trades, but I'll reserve evaluation until I watch Latendresse play for some time. I've read some of the comments and emails, and I'd suggest you do the same. You can't judge a trade for a long time.

I've told this story on here before, and Chuck Fletcher would probably remember this because he was Florida's assistant GM at the time, but I remember when Tom Fitzgerald was traded to Colorado for Mark Parrish. Florida fans went crazy: "How can you trade Fitzie for some unknown?"

After Parrish scored 50 goals in two years as a Panther, Florida fans went crazy when the Panthers used Parrish as the mainstay in a package for a couple of guys named Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen.

That trade's probably one of the best in NHL history. Trade's can't be judged the day of a move, especially when you're talking about a couple of youngsters with untapped talent.

 

Patience. Patience, my peeps.

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