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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Development camp thoughts; The Nate Prosser debate; Zucker re-signed

Posted by: Michael Russo under Vikings, Wild off-season news Updated: July 15, 2014 - 1:50 PM

UPDATE: Jason Zucker was indeed close. He has agreed to a two-year deal. The first year is a two-way, meaning he can be assigned to Iowa and make a minor-league salary and the second year is one-way, meaning he would be paid his NHL salary at either location. Zucker, 22, has 12 points in 47 career NHL games and scored an overtime winner two postseasons ago against Chicago. He underwent what was described as minor knee surgery last February. There were complications, however, and he never played again last season. 

Considering the hoopla going on with the MLB All-Star Game, it was quite an impressive turnout when 4,100 fans showed up at Xcel Energy Center for last night’s scrimmage to wrap up the Wild’s development camp.

It’s amazing how much the Wild, particularly Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir, packs into camp between practices, skill and skating work, off-ice workouts, lessons like cooking and (smartness with) social media and fun away from the rink, like paintball, trips to Lake Minnetonka and dinners.

Not shockingly, the prospects are exhausted by week’s end, so imagine the invitees who take part in multiple camps. For instance, Gophers forward Vinni Lettieri, who scored a goal in Green’s 5-3 win over White, took part in the Wild’s camp immediately after taking part in the Rangers’ camp.

There were a number of quality efforts in the two scrimmages.

-- The Wild’s defensemen were real good. Gustav Olofsson, a second-round pick in 2013 who should play for Iowa to at least start next season, was sensational last night. His footwork and ability to get pucks out of trouble in the defensive zone is pretty special.

Jonas Brodin-esque.

Louie Belpedio, a third-round pick last month, is pretty smooth. Smart defensively, moves the puck, is pretty swift in traffic with his stickwork. Christian Folin, signed out of college last year, is just solid. Matt Dumba, the Wild’s 2012 first-rounder, has a bomb and plays at full-speed all the time. And Guillaume Gelinas, the Q’s best defenseman last year and signed as a free agent July 1, really stood out with a couple goals – including one last night. He’s got skill and loves jumping up in the play. He’s certainly king of the backcheck, but he has got the wheels to recover.

I thought invitees Zach Palmquist and Alex Gudbranson stood out. Gudbranson is the younger brother of Florida’s Erik Gudbranson, the third pick in the 2010 draft.

-- Alex Tuch, taken 18th overall last month, scored a nice goal last night and he’s big, strong with a bigtime shot.

-- Reid Duke, one of the Wild’s three sixth-rounders last month, scored twice last night and certainly plays with edge. One of his unique goal celebrations included slashing fellow sixth-rounder Chase Lang, then getting into a tussle with him. Duke played on a struggling Lethbridge team last year but still managed 40 points and is expected to have a bigger role there this year.

-- Alex Iafallo, the pride of UMD, scored the winner last night on a sweet penalty-shot goal.

-- The guy who really stood out last night was Zack Mitchell. He showed exceptional patience and a slick wraparound move to score one goal and he was all over the place. Mitchell had 83 points in 67 games for OHL Guelph last year and was signed as a free agent in March. He’ll play for Iowa to start this season.

-- Michael Keranen, who tied for the Finnish Elite League scoring lead last season and voted by the players as the best player in the league, is a terrific playmaker. He helped set up Adam Gilmour’s beauty of a goal last night and showed why the Wild signed him as a European free agent in early June. He’ll be given a good look in training camp. Originally, it looked like if he didn’t make the Wild that he would return to Finland. But it looks like he would now be Iowa bound to start if he doesn’t make the Wild.

Obviously, a lot depends on the injury situation coming out of camp and whether he plays his way onto the team and somebody plays his way off.

-- BY the way, that’s the same thing with the Jordan Schroeder signing. He’ll come in motivated to make the team and try to prove himself. He’ll have to earn his way on. But if you look at the depth chart, all the bubble players may be at the mercy of the health and play by guys in front of him. We all know how fast and skilled Schroeder is. Wild will want him to really add some grit to his game in September.

-- Free-agent goalies Michael Shibrowski and Brandon Whitney looked pretty good in the scrimmages. Draft pick Kaapo Kahkonen struggled pretty visibly in both scrimmages, but he is 17 and has had to make three round-trip flights from Finland in the past six weeks. But he’s pretty raw.

-- Draft pick Alexandre Belanger, a goalie, didn’t play last night because of soreness. Same with invitee Olivier Archambault. Brooks Bertsch of St. Cloud State didn’t play again after getting rocked with an open-ice hit by Hunter Warner (keep your head up with this tough player on the ice) in Friday’s scrimmage. Mario Lucia didn’t play yesterday because he had to return to class at Notre Dame. Louie Nanne also didn’t take part in camp because he’s in class at RPI.

-- Things will really start to quiet down now. The Wild still plans to sign another goalie to a two-way deal to play in Iowa or go up and down between Iowa and Orlando of the ECHL.

It also wants to sign another defenseman preferably to a two-way deal. Nate Prosser is starting to get nibbles from other teams and I do think the Wild is still debating internally whether or not to sign Prosser, the good soldier who proved mightily valuable last season when the Wild sustained blue-line injuries to Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner.

As the Wild showed last season, it’s very easy to think you’re deep on the blue line and then lose two or three players at once. The Wild likes its blue-line depth, but that depth doesn’t include a lot of players with NHL experience (Jon Blum and Stu Bickel are really the only ones as of now).

Prosser proved last year you can easily throw him in and feel comfortable. The question is whether the Wild would be willing to sign Prosser to a one-way contract. That’s what he still wants if he’s going to re-sign in Minnesota. At some point soon, if Prosser is offered a concrete two-way from someone, he may need to pounce though. As I mentioned the other day, there’s only so many so-called “veterans” teams can sign that can play in the minors if those players don’t make the big club. And those “veteran” roster spots are quickly filling up on AHL rosters.

The debate internally, I think, is the Wild is still trying to make a trade for a defenseman before training camp. So if you sign Prosser to a one-way and then acquire another one-way contract, you could be blocking out kids like Christian Folin or Matt Dumba or maybe even have to put a one-way like Prosser in the minors (if he were not to be claimed off waivers).

So stay tuned on all this. Hopefully everything works out for Prosser. One of the nicest players I have ever covered and my feature on him here was still one of my favorite stories I wrote last season.

-- Restricted free agents Darcy Kuemper, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker remain unsigned. Qualifying offers tendered last month expire today at 4 p.m. CT. That really means little though.

A qualifying offer is just the mandatory offer that a team has to make in order to maintain rights to a player.  At 4 p.m. today, the qualifying offer is technically no longer on the table, so a team could theoretically lower the offer or cut the AHL salary back for example. Teams don’t typically do that because it just makes negotiating more of a chore and potentially uglier.

I would assume Zucker is close. I also would be shocked if Fontaine gets to his Aug. 1 arbitration date. I think both sides pretty much agree on what the number will be on a one- or two-year deal. By the way, if it does get to arb, I wouldn’t expect a lot of hoopla surrounding Fontaine … since his arb date has been scheduled the same day as PK Subban!

But it won’t get to arb.

As for Kuemper and Niederreiter, I think it takes awhile. Both are pretty complicated situations.

Kuemper came in last year and saved the Wild’s bacon until he started to struggle and then get hurt. My guess is his agent also feels he has a lot of leverage with the Wild’s uncertain goalie situation regarding the health of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Also, if you remember history, the Wild had a lot of trouble even getting an entry-level deal done with Kuemper the first go-around. So stay tuned here because it would not shock me if we’re still talking about an unsigned Kuemper next month.

In terms of Niederreiter, it’s also not easy to do comparables here. How do you project out exactly what he will be the next few years when he came to Minnesota without any shred of real stats because he was buried on the fourth line on Long Island and then spent all of 2013 in the minors? He showed glimpses of what he could be last season with 14 goals while playing basically every role, from left wing to right, to top line, second line and checking line.

He was also the Game 7 hero (bad word to use in sports, I know) against Colorado, scoring two goals on pure snipes, including the OT winner and setting up Spurgeon’s tying goal in the waning minutes of the third period.

As GM Chuck Fletcher told me last week, his preference would be to sign Niederreiter to a two- to four-year deal, although my guess is at the end of the day, it’ll be a two-year bridge contract. This way, Niederreiter gives himself the ability to pile up numbers the next two years and then tries to hit a homer on his next contract.

-- I’ll be filling in for Paul Allen next Tuesday and Wednesday from 9-noon on KFAN. Folin, who is heading back to Boston to train, may be one of my guests. I’ll try to talk a little hockey both days, but in the dog days of summer, it’ll be pretty hard to justify all-hockey shows. So there will be a lot of Vikings, Twins talk, etc. I’m also going to my first-ever Minnesota United FC game Saturday, so I’m sure we’ll have a futbol guest or two.

Musician Eric Hutchinson, who just was in town playing Oake on the Water at Maynard’s and then the Basilica Block Party, will be coming on one of the days. He’s a great guy and a sports fanatic – a self-proclaimed fantasy baseball and football expert. I’ll also try to get one other surprise, well-known musician on one of those days who’s also a sports fanatic and has a concert in town in the upcoming days.

Also, actor/comedian/SuperTrooper Erik Stolhanske may join me in studio one day. So, the shows will go beyond sports, which won't surprise anybody who knows me.

Wild signs Jordan Schroeder, re-signs Jon Blum

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 12, 2014 - 10:54 AM

Late blog on this news, so hopefully you caught it in today's paper or last night on Twitter, BUT if you still don't know, the Wild signed former Gophers forward Jordan Schroeder, the pride of St. Thomas Academy, to a two-year, two-way deal last night and re-signed defenseman Jon Blum to a one-year, two-way deal. That leaves Nino Niederreiter, Darcy Kuemper, Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker as the so-far unsigned restricted free agents.

Remember, two-way deals mean they have separate NHL and AHL salaries. In their cases, both would have to clear through waivers to get to Iowa.

Back in 2009, there was a debate among many Wild fans as to which local product the Wild should take in the first round -- Schroeder or Nick Leddy. Remember, back then when GM Chuck Fletcher took over, the Wild had a history of possessing few hometown kids and few college players much to the chagrin of many Wild fans (A LOT has changed since).

The Wild ended up trading down four spots and taking Leddy at 16th overall. Schroeder went six picks later to the Vancouver Canucks.

Of course, less than a year later, Leddy was dealt to Chicago and now five years later Schroeder is ironically property of the Wild.

These days, Schroeder is 23 and wasn't tendered a qualifying offer by the Canucks last month. That made him an unrestricted free agent.

In 56 NHL games, the 5-foot-9 forward scored six goals and 15 points, collecting six points in 25 games last season. In 192 AHL games, Schroeder has scored 47 goals and 115 points. In two years with the Gophers, Schroeder scored 22 goals and 73 points in 72 games, was the WCHA Rookie of the Year in 2009 and he was one of the Minnesotans that won gold at the 2010 world juniors.

Frankly, last year, the Iowa Wild was terrible. In reaction, the Wild has completely overhauled the Baby Wild for next season and has tried to specifically add skill, grit and in a byproduct more depth for the big Wild.

Every single Iowa player who had an expiring contract there has been let go (excluding Blum, who finished the season with the NHL Wild and could make the team next season and Zucker, who will soon re-sign with the Wild and split games last season with the NHL Wild and Baby Wild before he sustained a season-ending knee injury).

Since free agency, potentially Iowa-bound players signed include Schroeder, Michael Keranen (Wild will really give this guy a good look in camp), Brett Sutter, Stu Bickel, Guillaume Gelinas and Joel Rechlicz. Also, Brady Brassart and Zack Mitchell were signed in the springtime and guys like Matt Dumba, Gustav Olofsson and Kurtis Gabriel are officially turning pro.

Theoretically, if Cody Almond is beat out in training camp by one of the aforementioned forwards, he can be assigned to Iowa. Teams typically don't like to send down guys on one-way contracts because, in the case of Almond, you'd have to pay a player $550,000 to play in the minors. But, the Wild has done that before, including last year with Jake Dowell.

The Wild still is expected to sign another goalie to a two-way contract soon to play with Johan Gustafsson.

Also, Schroeder is not yet deemed an AHL "vet," so the Wild can still sign one so-called "veteran" to a two-way for Iowa. I believe the Wild would still like to add another defenseman with NHL experience to play in Iowa or at least battle for a roster spot with guys like Blum, Dumba and Christian Folin.

As for Blum, he tallied an assist in 15 games for the Wild last season and I thought was real good down the stretch. He didn't play a single playoff game, however, because Clayton Stoner returned from injury in time for Game 1 against Colorado.

Blum, 25, who was taken 23rd overall by the Predators in 2007, has played 106 NHL games between Nashville and Minnesota.

WILD DEPTH CHART

Here’s a look at how the Wild is shaping up to look like next season. This will change throughout the summer as the Wild add and delete players.

Remember, at some point, the Wild’s expected to acquire a physical defenseman to replace Clayton Stoner.

The depth chart is my opinion. Obviously, lines change, roles change, etc. There are interchangeable parts, and as I mentioned, I’d expect at least another defenseman.

In parentheses, each player’s cap hits with some assistance from the web site, www.capgeek.com. The restricted free agents will get signed eventually.

Forwards

 

Left wing                         Center                          Right wing

 

Zach Parise ($7.5+M)       Mikael Granlund (900K)  Jason Pominville (5.6M)

 

Thomas Vanek ($6.5M)   Mikko Koivu (6.75M)     Charlie Coyle (900K)

 

Matt Cooke (2.5M)            Erik Haula (900K)           Nino Niederreiter (RFA)

 

Jason Zucker (RFA)          Kyle Brodziak (2.83 M)    Justin Fontaine (RFA)

 

Cody Almond (550K)

Vying for spots: Zucker, Almond, Stephane Veilleux (587,500), Brett Sutter (600K), Michael Keranen (792,500), Jordan Schroeder, Joel Rechlicz (600K), Brett Bulmer (780K), Kurtis Gabriel (667K), Tyler Graovac (747,500), Zack Phillips ($863,333), Brady Brassart ($836,667), Raphael Bussieres ($759,167), Zack Mitchell (615K), Curt Gogol ($551,667).

Defensemen

 

Left Defense                     Right Defense

 

Ryan Suter (7.5+M)          Jared Spurgeon (2.66M)

 

Marco Scandella (1.025M) Jonas Brodin (1.4+M)

 

Keith Ballard (1.5M)          Christian Folin (925K)

 

Jon Blum

Vying for spots: Folin, Blum, Stu Bickel (600K), Matt Dumba (894,167), Gustav Olofsson (795K), Guillaume Gelinas ($596,667), Colton Jobke ($551,667).

Goalies

 

Niklas Backstrom (3.42M)

Josh Harding (1.9M)

Darcy Kuemper (RFA)

 

* Kuemper can be sent to the minors without waivers even if he receives a one-way deal.

 

Vying for spots: Johan Gustafsson (665K).

  

Total cap hit roughly: $54,837,758.

 

Available cap space: $13.46 million roughly (I based this on a $68.3 million salary-cap ceiling; NHL salary cap next season is $69 million, but the Wild will be charged a bonus overage of a little less than $700,000). Note, the $13.46 million excludes the re-signing of restricted free agents and Blum. Also, always take the available cap space number and subtract a few million because GM Chuck Fletcher will always try to leave space for injury callups and in-season acquisitions.

 

 

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.

New title for Wild's Andrew Brunette: Assistant coach

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 10, 2014 - 8:28 AM

I'm in the middle of writing a meaty Wild blog with a lot of info and updates, but I figured I would get this up now.

I tossed this briefly into Thursday’s newspaper, but former popular Wild forward Andrew Brunette has officially been named an assistant coach along with Rick Wilson, Darryl Sydor and Darby Hendrickson.

In the past two years, Brunette has held the role of hockey operations advisor, a role that saw him work with GM Chuck Fletcher, work with the coaches and even scout. Last year, he predominately worked with the coaches, particularly on the power play. Next season, Brunette will work solely with the coaches. He’ll be in charge of the power play, and in fact, will likely join head coach Mike Yeo, Wilson and Sydor on the bench as a third assistant.

Previously, Brunette was an eye in the sky with Hendrickson, but Yeo feels having Brunette on the bench during games will provide further value, particularly on the power play. The Wild’s power play ranked 16th in the NHL last season, converting 17.9 percent of the time. That’s exactly where the Wild finished in 2012-13 when Brunette wasn’t running the power play.

As we get closer to training camp or in camp, I’ll sit down with Yeo and Brunette to discuss the power play further, but Yeo said at the draft that the coaches are spending a portion of this offseason working on the power play and discussing everything from personnel to concepts to the way it’s run.

Obviously, the hope too is that Thomas Vanek’s addition will help. Vanek has scored the third-most power-play goals (113) in the NHL since the start of the 2005-06 season. Of course, ex-Wild/now-Duck Dany Heatley ranks fourth at 112. Ahead of Vanek in that time? Alex Ovechkin at 151 and Teemu Selanne at 115.

In Wild history, Brunette ranks third in goals (119), fourth in assists (202) and points (321) and second in power-plays goals (55).

I talked to Brunette a little about this at the draft, but I wasn't able to get him Wednesday. He, along with a number of Wild peeps, was heading to Finland to attend Wild captain Mikko Koivu's wedding. My invitation must have gotten lost in the mail!

As I mentioned, I'll post another blog soon with a little bit of this and a lot of that.

Wild signs center Cody Almond; Updated Wild depth chart

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild off-season news Updated: July 8, 2014 - 8:07 AM

As blogged about Monday, the Wild has signed center Cody Almond to a one-year, $550,000 contract. It will likely be announced at some point today.

It's a one-way deal, meaning the soon-to-be 25-year-old center has a real good shot at making next season's roster.

Almond, a fifth-round pick by the Wild in 2007, scored two goals for the Wild in 25 games over parts of three seasons before playing the past two seasons in Geneva, Switzerland. Last year, he broke out offensively, scoring 18 goals and 34 points in 44 games with 75 penalty minutes.

The Wild still owned Almond's NHL rights because he didn't sign as a restricted free agent in 2012, so if he wanted to again chase his NHL dream, he had to start off by returning to the Wild.

Almond is a 6-foot-2, 217-pound, left-shot center who can play wing. He hits, plays with an edge, skates well and is solid defensively. Coach Mike Yeo knows him well from their time together with the Houston Aeros. Basically, he provides depth and returns to the NHL a more mature, finished product.

Last month, Almond had signed a five-year deal to stay with Geneve Servette. Obviously, that changed.

Here is Monday's blog on Almond if you want to read a couple previous articles I wrote on Almond. Real nice kid.

I would think the restricted free agent signings start trickling in. But the Wild is still in the market for a big defenseman who can clear the front of the net and add a little physicality. If you look at the free agents available, they're not exactly stellar. So my sense is GM Chuck Fletcher is trying to make a trade.

Maybe it happens soon, maybe it doesn't. There's no real rush with training camp still more than two months away (Sept. 18).

UPDATED WILD DEPTH CHART

Here’s a look at how the Wild is shaping up to look like next season. This will change throughout the summer as the Wild add and delete players.

Remember, at some point, the Wild’s expected to acquire a physical defenseman to replace Clayton Stoner.

The depth chart is my opinion. Obviously, lines change, roles change, etc. There are interchangeable parts, and as I mentioned, I’d expect at least another defenseman.

In parentheses, each player’s cap hits with some assistance from the web site, www.capgeek.com. The restricted free agents will get signed eventually.

Forwards

 

Left wing                         Center                          Right wing

 

Zach Parise ($7.5+M)       Mikael Granlund (900K)  Jason Pominville (5.6M)

 

Thomas Vanek ($6.5M)   Mikko Koivu (6.75M)     Charlie Coyle (900K)

 

Matt Cooke (2.5M)            Erik Haula (900K)           Nino Niederreiter (RFA)

 

Jason Zucker (RFA)          Kyle Brodziak (2.83 M)    Justin Fontaine (RFA)

 

Cody Almond (550K)

Vying for spots: Zucker, Almond, Stephane Veilleux (587,500), Brett Sutter ($600K), Michael Keranen (792,500), Joel Rechlicz (600K), Brett Bulmer (780K), Kurtis Gabriel (667K), Tyler Graovac (747,500), Zack Phillips ($863,333), Brady Brassart ($836,667), Raphael Bussieres ($759,167), Zack Mitchell (615K), Curt Gogol ($551,667).

Defensemen

 

Left Defense                     Right Defense

 

Ryan Suter (7.5+M)          Jared Spurgeon (2.66M)

 

Marco Scandella (1.025M) Jonas Brodin (1.4+M)

 

Keith Ballard (1.5M)          Christian Folin (925K)

 

Jon Blum (RFA)

Vying for spots: Folin, Blum, Stu Bickel (600K), Matt Dumba (894,167), Gustav Olofsson (795K), Guillaime Gelinas ($596,667), Colton Jobke ($551,667).

Goalies

 

Niklas Backstrom (3.42M)

Josh Harding (1.9M)

Darcy Kuemper (RFA)

 

* Kuemper can be sent to the minors without waivers even if he receives a one-way deal.

 

Vying for spots: Johan Gustafsson (665K).

  

Total cap hit roughly: $54,837,758.

 

Available cap space: $13.46 million roughly (I based this on a $68.3 million salary-cap ceiling; NHL salary cap next season is $69 million, but the Wild will be charged a bonus overage of a little less than $700,000). Note, the $13.46 million excludes re-signing restricted free agents. Also, always take the available cap space number and subtract a few million because GM Chuck Fletcher will always try to leave space for injury callups and in-season acquisitions.

 

 

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