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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Digesting Wild signings of Cullen, Nystrom; Where's roster sit now?

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: July 1, 2010 - 10:09 PM

It's 9:28 at night as I begin writing this, and I feel like I've been sitting in this same chair since 9:28 this morning. I basically have.

I'll be on 1500 ESPN Radio on Friday morning at 9:05 a.m. (shameless)

I can only imagine the panic on the streets today when Jokinen and Koivu and Martin and that player and this player, etc., etc., were falling off the board and the Wild was so eerily silent, it almost seemed like a Chris Simon press release would cross through the webosphere.

As I told Matt Cullen, he has no clue how much he held the health of several Wild fans in the palm of his hands. If Cullen, the player the Wild targeted from 11 o'clock and 3 seconds, according to GM Chuck Fletcher, signed elsewhere, the Wild would have had to throw the moon, keys to the Xcel Energy Center and maybe an ownership stake in the team at Matt Lombardi.

Lombardi, I hear, has been asking for major term at between 3.8 million and 4.5 million a year.

Remember, I tried to do my best to give you a sense of the Wild's plan in Thursday's paper. Cullen was the guy they wanted all along, and I advised patience, patience. But judging from my emails, man, some people were ready to tiptoe off the ledge. 

The Wild was almost as thrilled to land Cullen as he was to come here. As you can read in my story in Friday's paper and hopefully could tell by my twitter and earlier blog today, the Minnesota native was basically out of breath when I spoke to him on the phone seconds after he made his decision to turn down about 10 other teams and come to the Wild.

Why did the Wild choose Cullen? He does a number of things well. He can skate, he can contribute some offense, he can kill penalties, he can play the point on the power play, he's played in 63 playoff games and won a Cup, he can play center and wing and he's an all-around good guy.

The last few words might seem like roll-your-eyes verbiage, but that sounded like one of the chief reasons GM Chuck Fletcher went after Cullen, heart-and-soul checker Eric Nystrom and depth forward/tough hombre Brad Staubitz last week.

In his end-of-the-year "autopsy," Fletcher said it was decided that the Wild needed to “improve the character of our group, the work ethic of our group and the leadership in the room, and we feel very strong we’ve done that.”

Fletcher has intimated this feeling before, but he was never this direct. That's an indictment in a half of last year's "group." Obviously Fletcher wanted to make significant changes to the group starting in the middle of last season. You can read the tea leaves there. I won't do it for you, but it's obvious.

As for Nystrom, it's a lot of money for a fourth liner, maybe third. But again, Fletcher had his reasons here. As I said in the story, Nystrom's long been known as a character guy who's a tremendous teammate, stands up for teammates, finishes checks (117 hits) and goes to the net. He still feels he has better offensive upside than his 11 goals last year.

Still, he got a veeeerrry healthy contract.

I think Fletcher was willing to commit such a, uh, uh, commitment (I'm tired) because he's right in the prime of his career at age 27. Also, the Wild felt it needs to get more physical and faster for the team to master coach Todd Richards' system, and that's what a lot of these moves were about -- losing Derek Boogaard, John Scott and Owen Nolan and adding Cullen, Nystrom and Staubitz.

Now you may ask where's the scoring coming from? First, as I've written for months, this was a weak free-agent class. The Wild couldn't afford from a cap standpoint to get in on Kovalchuk. It has no interest in Frolov. You can't just create free agents.

Second, I'd say more important than scoring is for the Wild to figure out a way to be better defensively. I don't feel like looking up the exact number right now, but the Wild scored the same amount of goals last season as 2008-09 and I think gave up 42 more. The Wild needs to dramatically chop that down.

Third, it prays Pierre-Marc Bouchard will come back at some point. Now, who knows what type of player Bouchard will be initially, but this is a 20-goal, 70-point guy, so they're relying on it helping. And again, they have to rely on this. He's got a $4.08 million cap hit. He's on the roster.

As for now, barring trades in the back burner, this could be it as far as free agency. The Wild did call on some defensemen today, including Paul Martin. But Martin signed with Pittsburgh.

Fletcher says he's comfortable with his six defensemen (Burns, Schultz, Barker, Zidlicky, Zanon, Stoner). Of course, he said that last year, too, and then he slid in a sneaky Shane Hnidy signing, so maybe if there's a bargain defenseman in the coming days, he signs somebody.

I would. I'm a believer in Stoner, but how can't you be worried about his history of injuries? So I'd sign one more defenseman with NHL experience.

But clearly Fletcher would also love to give a crack at the roster to Nate Prosser or Marco Scandella.

As for forwards, it's interesting. There's a logjam now if healthy, which is a good thing, but if healthy out of camp, it'll be a lot harder for Casey Wellman to crack the lineup unless the Wild trades James Sheppard or sends him to Houston.

The way my depth chart stands now, if Bouchard's healthy, Cal Clutterbuck perhaps starts on the fourth line?

Wild Depth Chart (again, my opinion, it's not like I got a peek into Richards' office)

Forwards
 
Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Pierre-Marc Bouchard*
 
Guillaume Latendresse-Matt Cullen-Martin Havlat
 
Chuck Kobasew-Kyle Brodziak-Antti Miettinen
 
Eric Nystrom-James Sheppard-Cal Clutterbuck
 
Brad Staubitz
 
Vying for spots: Casey Wellman, Cody Almond, Colton Gillies
 
*Assuming Bouchard is healthy.
 
Defenseman
 
Greg Zanon-Marek Zidlicky
 
Nick Schultz-Brent Burns
 
Clayton Stoner-Cam Barker
 
Vying for spots: Nate Prosser, Marco Scandella, Tyler Cuma, Justin Falk
 
Goalies
 
Niklas Backstrom
 
Josh Harding
 
Salary cap
 
$54,202,693 against $59.4 million cap (not including Harding's eventual roughly $1.3 million and one more player to the roster)
 
Nighty night
 

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