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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Jonas Brodin, known already as a poised, cerebral defenseman, is as quick and efficient off the ice as he is on it.
How quickly did Brodin’s six-year, $25 million extension with the Wild materialize?
“We started talking two weeks ago probably. We talked before last night’s game and then we talked again after the game. And then … I signed the paper,” Brodin said.
OK. If all negotiations were that simple, eh?
Brodin said the extension made for a pretty fun ride home with his teammates after Saturday’s 3-0 win over the Avs.
Get used to seeing the 21-year-old Swede. One of the NHL’s most mobile blue liners is signed on through 2020-21.
“I’m really excited,” Brodin said. “I really like the organization, my teammates, the whole staff. I believe we can win. I’m really happy right now. I’m really confident my game will continue to develop.”
General Manager Chuck Fletcher said, “Clearly he’s a very important player on our team right now and we figure his importance certainly isn’t going to decrease over the years (laughing). If anything he’s going to continue to evolve and get better. He’s hopefully going to be one of our cornerstone players here for the next decade.
“To have him signed through 2021 is great. He’s a real big part of our present and our future. It came together very quickly. I give Brodin’s agent Peter Wallen and [assistant GM] Brent [Flahr] a lot of credit. They worked hard at it. Both sides agreed that this term would make sense for both the player and the team, and we were able to come to an agreement really quickly, which was nice.”
As Fletcher has said for some time, he wants to get ahead of next year’s restricted free agent crop. Excluding the minor-leaguers whose deals are up, the Wild’s pending RFA’s are Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Marco Scandella, Erik Haula and Christian Folin. He’ll try to stagger all of their next contract terms so they don’t all expire again at the same time.
Fletcher said he has reached out to most, specifically confirming Granlund and Coyle.
“The first thing you want to determine is what type of term they’re looking for,” Fletcher said. “Some guys prefer a shorter term and some players like the security, so if we can get an agreement on the right term for the player, everything else will usually follow suit. In the case of Brodin, the top young defensemen market is fairly well defined. Once we were able to agree on the term, it came together pretty quickly. Some markets aren’t as clearly defined as that market.
“But Brodin’s a little different in the sense that he has already emerged. I don’t think there’s any question as to the role he plays on our team. He just turned 21 and he’s played very well to date, but we only expect that he’ll continue to improve and become a much better player than he is today. In this case it came together quickly because there wasn’t a lot of difference of opinion as to how he fits now and where we see him going.
“In some cases, like specifically Brodin, there was a desire to talk now and try to pursue something and in other cases people want to see how things play out in the early part of the year. We’ve got to respect that, but we wanted to get a sense where people are at and exchange ideas. I could see one or two of them even happening next summer. There’s no urgency here. We want to make sure we get the right deal for the player and the team. I’m sure with that approach we’ll be able to chip away and get a couple of the guys signed, but I don’t expect we’ll get everybody signed right away. That’s just not realistic.”
Asked if he felt that seeing Brodin sign may trigger Granlund and Coyle to want to be locked up sooner rather than later, Fletcher said, “Yeah, potentially. Every negotiation is a little different, but there’s been communication with their camps. We’ll see. I don’t mind talking during the season as long as it doesn’t become a distraction. We’re open to finding solutions now. If we can’t easily reach agreements at this point, it’s not a big deal to wait until after the season either. They’re all good, young players, but Brodin was a guy we’re happy to commit to long-term. He’s a huge part of our team now and I think we all agree he’s only going to get better. Certain parts of his game will continue to evolve and mature. He just turned 21. That’s the scary thing. You think about the role he has on our team and the things he has already accomplished, and he’s just turned 21.”
As I wrote in Monday’s paper, we’re only two games into the season, so this is a real small sample size. But my goodness, the Wild’s top four defensemen of Ryan Suter, Brodin, Scandella and Jared Spurgeon have been just marvelous.
Suter is honestly ridiculous. I’m not sure all the things he does well can be seen on TV. You just have to watch him in person nightly. It’s pretty special, and all things considered with what he has had to go through the past month with the loss of his dad and the fact he didn’t skate the week before camp and only played two preseason games, it’s pretty impressive how great he was in Games 1 and 2.
We’ll let Fletcher pick up from here: “Spurgy’s Spurgy. It’s remarkable how consistent he is and Marco’s just a horse. And Brodin’s even quicker than last year, which is amazing. He’s certainly stronger and more confident offensively. Those four guys have been great since Day One of camp, which is important because we have two rookies (Folin and Matt Dumba) there. The rookies have been fine, but if one or two of your top four aren’t going, that’s where you can get into trouble. So thankfully, our top 4’s been not even just solid but very good.”
That's it for me. In next Sunday's column, I'll write more about the strategies with the pending RFA's and how this stuff comes together.
On Monday, Rachel Blount is covering practice for me from a daily point of view so I can sit down with a player after practice for a piece that will likely appear this week or next Sunday.
Again, the Wild next plays in Anaheim on Friday. The team will practice Monday and Tuesday in St. Paul, then head to So. Cal after practice Tuesday for a little fun in the sun before hitting the ice again Thursday in Anaheim for practice.
The Wild is looking to get ahead of next year's large restricted free agent crop.
Today, the team signed mobile defenseman Jonas Brodin to a six-year, $25 million extension.
“We are very excited to get Jonas Brodin signed through the 2020-21 season,” said GM Chuck Fletcher. “He is one of the premier young defensemen in the NHL and has played a huge role on our team since entering the league as a 19-year-old. We’re confident that his game will continue to evolve in all areas and he will be a valuable part of our core for years to come.”
The 21-year-old 10th overall pick in 2011 broke into the NHL two years ago as a 19-year-old. He led all rookies in time on ice (23:12), 1:38 more than any other rookie, and was named to the NHL's all-rookie team. He finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
He scored two goals and nine assists and was plus-3 in 2013. Last season, he scored eight goals and 11 assists.
He is off to an outstanding start this season. He has been a rock defensively, has an assist, five shots and is plus-5.
Fletcher has said since June that once the Wild got restricted free agents Nino Niederreiter and Darcy Kuemper re-signed entering this season, he wanted to begin working on next year's RFA's.
Brodin is the first to be signed. Standard deal. No no-trade or no-move. Last week, Fletcher said he had begun talks with all of them. The others are Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Marco Scandella and Christian Folin.
Justin Fontaine, the 26-year-old Wild forward, will avoid a Friday arbitration hearing and sign a new two-year deal with the Wild this afternoon. The deal is expected to be worth $1 million annually ($950,000 in Year 1 and $1.05 million in Year 2).
Fontaine, the former University of Minnesota Duluth national champion, tied for fourth on the Wild and tied for 12th among NHL rookies last season with 13 goals. That goal total was third-highest ever by a Wild rookie. He had 21 points in 66 games and his plus-6 was tied for second all-time by a Wild rookie.
On Jan. 9 at Phoenix, he recorded his first career hat trick.
Fontaine is one of three remaining restricted free agents left to be signed by the Wild. The other two are the biggees, winger Nino Niederreiter and goalie Darcy Kuemper.
Kuemper, by all indications, could take awhile. It was difficult to get Kuemper signed to his initial entry-level deal and Kuemper had a quality rookie season, helping save the Wild's hide when Josh Harding was lost to complications with multiple sclerosis and Niklas Backstrom to another abdominal injury.
The Wild will again be relying on the uncertainty of Backstrom and Harding this season, which certainly seems to give Kuemper leverage in negotiations toward a new deal. Kuemper went 12-8-4 last season with a 2.43 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. He sustained a concussion at St. Louis when run by David Backes and was lost to another head injury in Game 7 of the first round when he was hit behind the net and his head hit teammate Ryan Suter.
Niederreiter could take awhile, too, but these things usually get done. Training camp doesn't start until Sept. 18, so there's plenty of time. Niederreiter scored 14 goals, 36 points and was plus-12 in 81 games last season. He was also the Game 7 hero against Colorado, scoring two goals (including the overtime winner) and assisting on Jared Spurgeon's late tying goal in the third period.
GM Chuck Fletcher told me earlier this month his goal is to sign Niederreiter to a two- to four-year deal.
Speaking of Fletcher, I am filling in for Dan Barreiro on KFAN (100.3-FM) today from 3-6 p.m. CT. The Wild GM will join be at 3:35.
Also on the show will be Lou Nanne, the Star Tribune's Lavelle E. Neal III, Paul Charchian and A.J. Mansour.
The Wild's on the verge of bringing back a familiar face.
Cody Almond, a fifth-round pick by the Wild in 2007, played the past two seasons in Geneva of the Swiss Hockey League.
But Almond is expected to re-sign with the Wild in the next few days, I have confirmed. The news was first reported by the Tribune deGeneve. Almond's decision to again chase his dream of becoming an NHL regular comes a few weeks after he signed a five-year contract to remain with his Swiss team.
This move comes two summers after the Wild couldn't reach a contract agreement with Almond, who was then an up-and-down minor leaguer who opted for a big contract in Switzerland.
At the time, it seemed a bit of an impatient move on Almond's part because he was just 22 and about to earn waiver rights, which would have given him a real good chance at making the following season's team.
But Almond is turning 25 later this month and by all accounts has developed into a pretty solid player. Over parts of three seasons, the Calgary native played 25 games for the Wild, scoring two goals in limited minutes on the fourth line. He's a big, left-shot center who can skate, hit, play with an edge and play wing, too. Last year, he broke out offensively with Geneva, scoring 18 goals and 34 points in 44 games with 75 penalty minutes.
For Almond to spurn a five-year deal with Geneva means he will likely be armed with a one-way contract from the Wild. That will give him an inside chance of making the team. Coach Mike Yeo knows him well from his time in Houston. Basically, he provides depth.
I added on a few Cody Almond articles from yesteryear. One is when he traveled almost 9,000 miles to play eight games in 10 nights -- four for Houston, four for Minnesota.
The other was in 2011 when Charles Barkley and Michael Strahan crashed the Wild's rookie dinner in Chicago.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
January 30, 2011 Sunday
MICHAEL RUSSO'S SUNDAY INSIDER;
The kids are all right;
Two sports superstars dropped in on the Wild's "rookie dinner," dispensing some advice with a little hazing mixed in.
BYLINE: MICHAEL RUSSO; STAFF WRITER, STAR TRIBUNE (Mpls.-St. Paul)
SECTION: SPORTS; Pg. 10C
LENGTH: 964 words
No matter what Cody Almond accomplishes in his hockey career, the Wild rookie always will consider singing for Charles Barkley and Michael Strahan "icing on the cake."
Last Sunday at the Chicago Cut Steakhouse, Barkley, the former NBA great-turned-TNT commentator, and Strahan, the former New York Giants star defensive end-turned-Fox commentator, were dining at the same restaurant where the Wild was having its rookie dinner.
Wild center John Madden used to live in the same neighborhood as Strahan when Madden played for the Devils and Strahan for the Giants, so next thing you know, "Sir Charles" and the NFL's single-season sacks record-holder entered the room to, as defenseman Nick Schultz said, "hold court for two hours."
Barkley and Strahan told stories, especially about past rookie dinners during their careers. Rookie dinners are a pro sports tradition where the rookies buy the team dinner.
"Suddenly, Charles started getting all these crazy ideas in his head. I was just like, 'Oh man, here we go,'" rookie defenseman Jared Spurgeon said.
Yup, the rookie hazing of Spurgeon, Cody Almond and Clayton Stoner began.
"We gave a speech, told a joke, did three skits and sang a song," Almond said, laughing. "All the boys were howling pretty good and [Barkley and Strahan] were loving it, too," Almond said.
Spurgeon, who made his NHL debut on his 21st birthday Nov. 29, sang Travis McCoy's "Billionaire," where Spurgeon wants to be "on the cover of Forbes magazine, smiling next to Oprah and the Queen."
Guess the teammates' reaction on that one. "It was the first song that popped in my head, and the lyrics are pretty easy," Spurgeon said.
Almond, 21, did a scene from "Step Brothers" where Will Ferrell sings Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About" -- the scene where John C. Reilly tells him, "You've got to know, that's a voice of an angel ... a combination of Fergie and Jesus."
"I got a positive reaction from it," Almond said.
Stoner, Spurgeon said, couldn't think of a song so "he just told some joke."
For Spurgeon, the thrill of meeting Barkley and Strahan just adds one more unforeseen experience during a dream few months.
"At the start of the year, I was never expecting to be at my first NHL rookie party," he said. "It was just great to hang out with the guys, laugh, tell jokes, eat some good food and meet Charles Barkley and Michael Strahan."
Spurgeon shelled out $5,000 for his share of the check. "It was the most expensive meal I've ever paid for and probably ever will," Spurgeon said, laughing. "I'll be eating microwaveable dinners for the next little while to save up some money."
Almond "got off the hook" and didn't have to contribute to the dinner bill because he didn't play during his four-game call-up. He said Barkley and Strahan jabbed each other over Barkley's Taco Bell commercials and Strahan's Subway commercials.
"They're two of the funniest guys I've ever met in my life. Strahan kept calling Bruno [Andrew Brunette] the 'White Oprah,'" Almond said, in hysterics.
The two former athletes also gave Wild players sound advice, telling them to cherish team dinners like that one.
Barkley told the players that they have "hit the lottery" and "have the best jobs in the world and to appreciate what you've got every day, always have fun coming to the rink in the morning and really take advantage of it because your careers are short and when it's over, you're going to miss it every day," Almond said.
Barkley spent much of his career reminding everyone that, "I am not a role model."
But he made quite an impression on Almond. "This is a great year for my development," said Almond, drafted in the fifth round in 2007. "I'm on the same page with all of management and the coaching staff. I'm going to keep developing and learning in the AHL. But next year is my year. Hopefully, next year I'll be there in Minnesota the whole season."
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
November 15, 2010 Monday
Prospect's callup turns into a travel whirlwind 2.36.2 news hed rej hed righerej righerej
BYLINE: MICHAEL RUSSO; STAFF WRITER, STAR TRIBUNE (Mpls.-St. Paul)
SECTION: SPORTS; Pg. 12C
LENGTH: 447 words
TAMPA, FLA. - Cody Almond slept in Sunday, waking up in Peoria, Ill., after 12 o'clock -- understandable considering the odyssey he's taken across North America the past 10 days.
On Monday -- providing he's not retrieved by the Wild again -- the Wild prospect will complete an exhausting schedule, flying from Chicago to Houston after playing Sunday in his fourth game in four nights, sixth in seven and eighth in 10.
That's even abnormal for an up-and-down minor-leaguer. The eight games consisted of four games with the Wild, four with the Houston Aeros.
"I'm ready to come up at any time, but it'll sure be nice to go home, get some clean clothes and sleep in my own bed for a change," Almond, 21, said.
Almond has been recalled and reassigned twice since Nov. 4, a whirlwind that's taken him from Houston to Minneapolis to Columbus to Vancouver (Abbotsford) to Minneapolis to Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale to Tampa to Chicago (Peoria) to, Monday morning, Houston.
That's 8,769 air miles.
"I'll tell you what, with the mileage, that might be a record," Aeros GM Jim Mill said. "It's excellent for career."
This season, Almond has played four games with the Wild totaling 24 minutes, 9 seconds, almost what the two-way center played Saturday alone in Peoria. The Wild decided it was best to return Almond to the Aeros after he played only 6 1/2 minutes at left wing Friday at Florida.
"There's positives and negatives to both," Almond said. "A lot of ice time [with Houston] will help me develop, but it also helps being called up just watching the guys and practicing up there and learning from the coaching staff."
Almond's 10 days traveling the continent was with very few clothes. When he found out he was being recalled, he was dropping off his girlfriend at the Houston airport. He didn't have time to return home and pack, so roommate Carson McMillan "threw a bunch of stuff in a bag for me" and rushed it to the airport.
"He's not the smartest packer," Almond said. "He didn't pack me [normal shoes]. All I have is flip-flops and dress shoes, and no coat. It's been a struggle, but I've made it work."
Almond has been wearing the same two suits, "and they've been under in the belly of the plane quite a few times, so I'm not looking too hot."
Afternoon from the friendly sky, where I’m taking a quick hop over to Chicago for Game 5 between the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday (8 p.m., CNBC, KFAN).
The Wild and Blackhawks mostly had the day off. The Wild had an optional but a good amount of players were around. The Blackhawks made coach Joel Quenneville, Marcus Kruger and Michal Handzus available, so slim pickings.
Coach Q said Andrew Shaw (lower body) is unlikely to play Game 5.
Similarly, coach Mike Yeo said Keith Ballard (upper body) and Matt Moulson (lower body) didn’t made the trip to Chicago. Ballard, two games after returning from two months off with a groin injury, was hit from behind by Blackhawks forward Brandon Bollig, who got away with a head shot in my opinion on Zach Parise in the final regular-season meeting.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety got him this time, suspending him for two games. Not sure if that helps the Wild or not.
Yeo said that Nate Prosser will likely slide back into the lineup. The other option is Jon Blum, who played well down the stretch for the Wild when Clayton Stoner and Ballard were both out at the same time.
The Wild improved to 5-0 at home with last night’s 4-2 victory to even up the series. It has outscored opponents 16-5 at home, holding Colorado and Chicago to an average of 19.6 shots per game. The Blackhawks are 5-0 at home, having outscored opponents 20-7.
The Wild is 1-5 on the road, having been outscored 26-17. As we learned last round against the Avs, even though the Wild held a third-period lead and nearly won Game 5, it took its foot off the gas and lost. That put the pressure back on Minnesota, and the Wild had to win Game 6 at home and Game 7 on the road in order to advance to its first second round in 11 years.
By winning two games at home, the Wild has turned the momentum in the series. The players and coach Mike Yeo know that can easily change with a road loss on Sunday night. On the other hand, if the Wild can sneak out a big ‘W’ at the United Center against a Blackhawks team that is clearly frustrated right now, the Wild will put itself in position to win the series at home Tuesday in front of its raucous crowd in an arena where it has been dominant all postseason.
“Thinking back to Games 1 and 2, I said at that time, it’s not like we were that far off,” Yeo said. “We knew we could play a little bit better and I think we’ve picked our game up since then. Certainly when you look back to those two games, there were parts of it that were going well and then it was a big mistake that came back at us. I think we’ve cut down on our mistakes the last couple games and we have to make sure that we bring that in there. But with that, there’s been sort of a little bit more of an aggressive mindset in how we executed the last couple games and that’s allowed us to get on the attack a little bit more. It’s a fine line. We have to make sure that we’re playing smart, but we can’t be playing safe. We’ve got to take that attitude into their building.”
Big game, to say the least, which is why Yeo spent the afternoon reminding his team not to let its guard down. It’ll be a challenge, but the Wild has to somehow figure out a way to carry the same type of game it has played all playoffs long at home and carry it into the Windy City.
“It’s a huge game,” Dany Heatley said of Sunday. “But I don’t feel the vibe in here that we’re too confident or over-cocky right now. We know they’re a very good team, they play well in their rink. We’ll be prepared for that.”
The Wild continues to get tremendous play from its youngsters. From the Wild game notes, the five youngest forwards -- Wild rookies Erik Haula (23) and Justin Fontaine (26), playoff rookies Nino Niederreiter (21) and Mikael Granlund (22), and sophomore Charlie Coyle (22) – have combined for 13 goals (Granlund, 4), 27 points (Coyle/Granlund, 7), 81 hits (Niederreiter, 31) and 27 blocked shots (Granlund/Haula, 10).
“They’ve been great,” Heatley said. “Obviously a huge reason why we’re here. They've been great for us all year. Whatever role they’ve played, they’ve done a great job. Awesome to see the success there having in the playoffs. They’re all real good kids, they work really hard, and it’s been a lot of fun to be around them.
“I think everyone needs to step it up to win games in the playoffs. I thought towards the end of the year those guys got better as did our whole team. We went into the playoffs playing pretty well and those guys have taken it to another level.”
We always talk about the youngsters, but we rarely include Jared Spurgeon because he has been around for four years. But he is 24 and he has been dynamite since the first couple games of the playoffs. Look at the skill plays he made last night, having his head up to make the stretch pass to Coyle for the Niederreiter winner, the settling of Mikko Koivu’s pass and the patience to score the power-play goal.
“I think as we’ve asked our team to get better, he’s taken his game to another level,” Yeo said. “This is a guy that we have so much respect for as a coaching staff. Not just the way that he executes, the poise that he has, his ability to create offense with his execution, but he’s a very good defender. He’s got a great stick, he’s very smart, he’s a great skater and he’s sneaky strong. He’s a huge part of our team but again to see where his game is at right now obviously offensively this time of year especially playing against a team like this, you need some offense from your defensemen, you need to create some offense from secondary guys whether that’s from your defense or whether that’s from third or fourth line guys. If you’re going to have any success, guys like that are usually stepping up.”
And then there’s Niederreiter, who is coming of age this postseason.
It seemed to start in Game 6 last round.
“I remember that game that even his first period was sort of OK, but then something just flipped,” Yeo said. “He flipped a switch there, and it was just an opportunity for us to say OK, there it is, that's the blueprint for what we need night after night. It's been a work in progress, but certainly that game, for me, was one where obviously, he played a great game, had all of the heroics of the Game 7, but for me, a lot of that started in Game 6.”
In Game 7, on Spurgeon’s tying goal that he set up, Niederreiter gave Spurgeon a kiss on the helmet. Last night, after Ilya Bryzgalov made back-to-back huge saves in the third to rob Jeremy Morin and keep the lead at 4-2, Niederreiter similarly pecked Bryzgalov on the helmet.
Photo courtesy of Star Tribune photographer Carlos Gonzalez
“Yeah, that was such a big save. I was just so happy,” Niederreiter said, smiling. “It happened so quickly. Just being thankful I guess. I did that to Spurg when he scored the tying goal in Game 7. It’s silly but you appreciate stuff like that.”
The Wild leads the NHL with 16 goal scorers this postseason. Quite amazing for a team that lacked scoring depth during the regular season.
"Are you saying that we didn't see it during the year?" Yeo said, laughing, when I asked in probably a bewildered tone. "I feel like we're all improving. Everything's kind of cyclical, there's no question, but everybody's going out, everybody's contributing in the same way, but they're all doing it in their own way, too. The roles have been identified, guys have really bought into them, but just the team game, I think we've been very strong in that regard. Like we've asked of our guys, we've gotten better as a team, and that's what we want to keep doing here."
Talk to you after the morning skates Sunday. Enjoy your weekend.
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