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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Wild GM Chuck Fletcher held his end-of-the-year availability today, and I got him alone after on a few other subjects. We also got a smattering of players.
Here are the Fletcher highlights:
-- Fletcher made it abundantly clear that Mike Yeo is the coach of this team. Fletcher and Yeo will meet in the next couple days to iron out his contract.
-- Besides the entire coaching staff, the entire medical training staff, equipment staff, members of the scouting staff and front office also are in the last year of their deals. Fletcher explained that since this was his fifth year, he kept everybody in the last year of their deals for consistency so after the year he could evaluate everybody and everything. He did say that after he re-signs Yeo, the two will have a conversation about everybody and there could be some “tweaks.” One person who is staying? Brent Flahr, the Wild’s assistant GM, who ran the draft table the past four drafts. He has agreed to a new multi-year extension.
-- Fletcher told me as of now, he is not planning to use his last amnesty buyout. As I’ve told you before, I don’t even really see a candidate. Some have said Kyle Brodziak, who has a year left on his contract at $2.83 million. Unless there’s some major cap issue, amnestying Brodziak is unlikely because he can simply be traded around the draft or after July 1 if Fletcher so determines. Remember, even last year, nobody was interested in Devin Setoguchi at the draft. Suddenly, after teams missed out on some players after free agency began, Fletcher started to get calls for Setoguchi and ended up trading him to Winnipeg for a second. And, the Wild’s not using its compliance buyout on Mikko Koivu.
-- Speaking of Koivu and the fact he has four years left on his contract at $6.75 million cap hits per, I asked Fletcher about him today. He had one goal and six assists in the playoffs after being so good down the stretch of the regular season.
“Contracts are contracts, and that creates expectations. I get that,” Fletcher said. “He’s not a prolific goal scorer, so he’s never going to make everybody happy, but he can still make plays, was outstanding defensively, played hard minutes and won big draws.
“You look at Granlund and Haula, they’re a couple small guys who can scoot, but we need a big guy that can shut down Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf, Jamie Benn. Mikko, Granny, Haulzy, that’s pretty good balance with two smaller guys who can scoot and a big guy.”
I asked Fletcher if Koivu’s role needs to change then and he said, “It’s an open book. Mike [Yeo] did a good job this year establishing that things are fluid and that he’ll adjust and react by matchups or situations or who’s going well. We want to get three lines that can all contribute with a versatile fourth line. We want to be a two power-play unit, three-penalty kill unit team. Mikko is a big part of that.”
-- On June 9, the Wild will hold its organizational meetings where the staff really starts to tackle next year’s roster. The restricted free agents that need to be re-signed this summer are Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine, Darcy Kuemper and Jason Zucker. He has told all his unrestricted free agents (Ilya Bryzgalov, Matt Moulson, Cody McCormick, Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser, Dany Heatley, etc.) that he’ll be in touch after these meetings. My guess said the Wild would be interested in re-signing Stoner and maybe McCormick and Prosser, who are valuable in their roles. I do see Christian Folin taking over Prosser’s role though. McCormick was real good down the stretch for the Wild and personally I think Stoner is a no-brainer, but Fletcher said there’s no rush and he wants to evaluate everything and especially cap space. Because Jonas Brodin, Erik Haula and Niederreiter hit some bonuses, the Wild will hit an overage penalty again next season, so the Wild’s cap ceiling will actually be less than most other teams. The ceiling is projected at $69-70 million.
-- After the staff, the next priority is tackling the goalie situation. Basically, Fletcher said, “Stay tuned.” As I’ve said often, until the Wild figures out the situations to Niklas Backstrom (he not only had abdominal surgery, but he also had hip surgery recently) and Josh Harding (MS), it can’t just re-sign Bryzgalov (helped get 17 of 20 points in a 10-start stretch late) or another goalie.
Asked his plan, Fletcher said, “I wish I could sit here and tell you we had the answer right now. The doctors will play a part in this, the salary cap will play a part in this and we’ll try to make the best decisions we can.
“There’s a realistic chance we need to have three goaltenders next year.”
Fletcher said he has no reason to believe Backstrom won’t be healthy by training camp. As for Harding, who didn’t play since Dec. 31, Fletcher said, “As difficult as it is for us, it’s more difficult for him. He’s got a real battle ahead of him, and he’s handled it the best he can. I’ve been told that there’s a very reasonable chance that he’ll be healthy and be able to play next year. You never know. It’s a vicious illness. We’ll deal with it day to day and we’ll go from there.
“Josh is a young guy and he showed this year that despite what he’s battling, he can play at a high level. We’ll go through this summer. We’ll see how things progress and training camp will be training camp.”
-- Next summer, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Erik Haula and Marco Scandella are set to become restricted free agents.
Later this summer, after the Wild tackles the unrestricted free-agent market, Fletcher may look to extend some of next summer’s restricted free agents in advance. He would love to stagger the terms so their contracts no longer expire at the same time.
“You better have an eye on three to five years down the road,” Fletcher said. “Cap space is not malleable. Once you use it, it’s gone. We have to make sure we preserve enough of it to keep the kids we want to keep, and I think that’ll have a major impact in what we do this summer.”
What’s that mean? It could affect going after Thomas Vanek or others. Plus, some of these kids look like they’ll develop into top-6 forwards.
“A lot of young players stepped up and showed they can handle the big stage,” Fletcher said.
Plus, the Wild has so many kids not even here yet, like Zucker, Matt Dumba, Gustov Olofsson, Tyler Graovac, Kurtis Gabriel, etc.
If the Wild doesn’t acquire a so-called finisher externally, Fletcher said, “We think we have some kids that can finish that area already here.” Fletcher noted that these kids are 21 or 22 and typically there’s a statistical upswing when until you’re 24 or 25, so for instance, the ceiling for guys like Niederreiter should be more than 14 goals and Coyle more than 12.
All the kids, from Niederreiter to Coyle to Mikael Granlund, said their goal is to get better this offseason.
-- Not shockingly, Coyle downplayed the fact he played with two separated shoulders. One happened in Game 4 in the first round, one happened in Game 3 this round. He said all players played banged-up and would do what he did.
Fletcher said guys like Koivu were banged up and Moulson had an oblique and groin injury that hampered him all postseason, but he didn’t want to make any excuses.
Similarly, I talked to Jason Pominville. He had two goals and was second on the team with nine points. He didn’t want to use the excuse that he was banged up.
“Everyone’s banged up,” Pominville said. “If I’m playing, I’m fine to go, I’m not going to use any of those excuses. But it’s always tough. If you lose a game and you miss a chance or two, you always wonder, ‘Could I have been the difference tonight?’ I would have liked to have had one or two more goals here or there.”
Pominville is very excited about the prospects of this team because of the major strides the youngsters made this season.
--Fletcher is excited by the step the Wild took this year and the culture created.
In his five years, “We’ve been able to bring in certain types of players. Talent’s very important, but we put an emphasis on character. We have a group of players that play hard. Our best players, our highest-paid players have a top-end work ethic. They want to win. They are not selfish, and that set the tone for our group.”
But Fletcher said the Wild’s in the toughest division in the league and it’s such a fine line between not only making the playoffs but advancing through.
“We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re just going to show up and make the playoffs and pick up where we left off,” he said. In other words, it’ll take a lot of hard work again next season just to get in, and then once in, anything can happen.
Obviously, it's the offseason. Other than the eventual re-signing of Yeo and staff news, there won't be a ton of news until the middle of next month. So don't be surprised if things quiet down, meaning I'll be taking some time to decompress, too.
As always, follow me on Twitter at @russostrib. I'll also be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN Tuesday and Wednesday, so I'm sure I'll have some hockey guests on there.
Like I said the other day, I hope you enjoyed the Star Tribune coverage of the Wild this season. Talk to you in September (kidding).
Mike Yeo had his end-of-the-year presser this afternoon here at Xcel Energy Center. It came on the day the Wild could have been prepping for Game 7 in Chicago had it beaten the Blackhawks on Tuesday.
“There’s a lot of what-ifs and there’s a bit of an empty feeling that there was more hanging there for us,” said Yeo, who admitted he’s still “bitter” because he wishes there was a hockey game tonight. “But what I want [the players] to take out of it is the belief that we can beat anybody. We have an end result in mind here, and that’s to win the Stanley Cup. And we’ve been building toward that and we should believe that’s an attainable goal for us.”
Hello from the arena’s press room, where I’m wrapping up from the day.
I wrote about Yeo’s presser in Friday’s newspaper and Michael Rand was here producing a video, so you’ll get to hear from Yeo himself on www.startribune.com/wild.
On Friday, GM Chuck Fletcher will hold his end-of-the-year availability, so we’ll have a chance to pepper him with questions about next year’s roster, his thoughts on this season and next and maybe find out some injury information. The players were getting physicals today, so Yeo didn’t want to divulge anything yet.
Yeo, who will begin decompressing next week by going fishing (his second passion), will meet with Fletcher next week regarding a new contract. Don’t be surprised if it takes a few days at least.
Unlike three years ago when Yeo was promoted from the franchise’s Houston farm team, this contract will require actual negotiations as opposed to Yeo’s first contract when he was handed a three-year term and salary on par with rookie coaches.
Kinda like when I walked into my first sports editor’s office (the great Fred Turner) when I got my first pro beat – the Florida Panthers – and he told me my salary and I said, “thank you very much” and walked out.
Like I said, I wrote a lot of Yeo’s comments in Friday’s paper, but he is happy with the strides the Wild has made but feels incomplete because the Wild didn’t reach its ultimate goal, one he believes was completely attainable this year.
Yeo feels he has grown as a coach, and along with the leadership group of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, created an identity of defensive structure and being a hard team to play against.
He joked that he’s shocked he hasn’t gone until the ice (which is still out at the arena) and broken the “darn” partition that caused the bad bounce.
“You heard that and you knew that the puck was going to be changing direction, and especially where it hit, it’s a good chance that when it does it’s coming out toward the front of the net,” he said. “I’ve watched it too many times over and over again.”
He doesn’t blame any Wild player on the ice, saying the players were getting into a puck support mindset because they figured it would be a rimaround to the left around the glass. They weren’t in a defensive posture, and by the time it popped out, there was very little reaction time beyond Suter doing his job and tying up Peter Regin.
Unfortunately, of all players to be coming, it was Patrick Kane, the biggest big-game moment player in the NHL. Nobody scores bigger playoff goals than that guy.
Still, Yeo knows the Wild didn’t lose because of a bad bounce. They lost because they didn’t capitalize on countless opportunities in Games 5 and 6, and that again will be the goal of this offseason. Players must work to improve individually, but Fletcher may have to continue to look externally for so-called finishers and Yeo said he and his staff will continue to “take a hard look at our game” to see areas the team can improve.
Yeo admitted expectations have risen and one area he wants the team to improve is its killer instincts. That means staying away from the ups and downs that so describe this team and in games going for the throat when it has the lead.
Why? Because the Wild, even though it’s in the toughest division in the NHL, wants home-ice advantage in the playoffs next year. Yeo thanked the fans for bringing it this postseason, saying they brought a new meaning to home-ice advantage, and that’s why it’s important for the Wild to achieve that in next year’s postseason.
Yeo said he’s not taking anything away from Chicago because in the end, the Wild didn’t win and the Blackhawks deserved to and “are very worthy of moving on,” that they know how to find ways to win even in games they are outplayed.
But he said what’s so hard is he believes the Wild could have won this series and moved on to bigger and better things.
“We could have [won the Cup] this year. That’s the hard part for me. I know it’s hard, but we could have,” Yeo said. “We were playing great hockey night in night out, consistent hockey. Never perfect, but it never is. We’re playing the best teams in the league.
“I believe that we’ve taken some real steps toward that goal, but I’m also realistic that it’s really hard. It’s really hard. We should look forward to that challenge. That’s what makes it so great. That’s why one team’s left standing at the end of the year, and they’re happy and everybody else is trying to get that way.”
Talk to you Friday.
Mike Yeo alluded to it last night, but in the coming days when the Wild has its end-of-the-year access, we're going to find out the rigors that some players were playing under.
One I can tell you for sure after digging a little today:
Charlie Coyle was playing with both a separated left shoulder and right shoulder, sources say. It was very noticeable to me in Chicago that he was playing hurt in Game 5, and last night, it was very apparent he was having trouble catching passes and stick-handling.
A few times, he went to the bench and grimaced visibly, so much so that I mentioned it on Twitter. Says everything about the talented kid, don't you think?
Yeo said after the game, "The way that our young kids performed, I’m very proud of them. ... You’ve got guys that are getting needles to numb the pain. They’re battling through an incredible amount so what you see out there is only scratching the surface of the way they’re paying the price, physically, mentally emotionally, like I said it’s hard to win."
We'll find out many others I'm sure, but Nate Prosser was also playing with a broken finger since the first round. As I've mentioned, I'm pretty sure we'll find out Jason Pominville was hurt, too.
Erik Haula tweeted that he is heading to Minsk to represent Finland in the world championships. Haula is the only Wild player participating, I'm told.
As for Yeo, there have been no conversations yet about a new contract, sources say, but GM Chuck Fletcher is expected to talk to him soon. Unless something goofy happens, I'd think after some negotiations, Yeo signs a multi-year extension soon.
I'll will be in studio with Barreiro from 5:30-6:30 tonight on KFAN.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly are in the house tonight to take in the Wild's first second-round home game in 11 years.
Bettman came by the press room to say hello, and here he is on a couple brief subjects.
He said the divisional rivalries in the first two rounds of the playoffs are "what we envisioned," especially in terms of engagement from the fans.
"Buildings are more than 100 percent full, our TV ratings nationally are up, our digital platforms and social media is up."
He pointed out that of the second-round rivalries -- Wild vs. Hawks, Ducks vs. Kings, Bruins vs. Habs and Rangers vs. Pens, nobody's traveling more than 400 miles.
On the 8:30 p.m. starts to make sure every game can be seen nationally, Bettman said, laughing, "You’re asking me because you’re worrying about your deadline, but in this digital era, deadlines have become largely irrelevant." (I'd disagree, but ...)
As far as the fans, Bettman said, "The fact of the matter is we’re trying to satisfy the greatest demand for all the fans throughout North America, so it’s a balancing act. We think we’re doing it as sensibly as possibly. We think it’s worked well. It’s been a fair balance."
On a stadium-series outdoor game in Minnesota (I reported today the Wild's getting one at Target Field probably next year; Wild wants Chicago, NHL wants it to be Dallas), Bettman said, "We know of the interest. You know I was here looking at venues. I have nothing to announce, but," he said with a sly smile, "we’re very focused."
Matt Cooke, suspended seven games for injuring Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie with a knee-on-knee hit Monday night, addressed the media this afternoon.
Cooke didn’t field questions but made an unwritten statement.
“First and foremost, I want to say that I’m disappointed and sorry that Tyson Barrie can’t play for the Colorado Avalanche tonight. I wish that he could. Unfortunately, it was not my intent to collide with him knee-on-knee. It was my intent to finish my check. Playoffs are a hard and physical time and it’s my job to be physical. I’ve led my team in hits in all three games and it’s an intense time. I’ve led my team this year in hits and in this series.
“Since March 20, 2011 (the elbow to Ryan McDonagh that resulted in a 17-game suspension), I’ve been a changed player. I’ve approached the game differently, I think differently about the game.
That The stats that I’ve collected over those three seasons prove that I’m a changed player and the plays that I make and the plays that I don’t make prove to that point as well. At the end of the day, this situation was not my intent.”
Cooke has until tomorrow night to decide if he will appeal his suspension to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Cooke didn’t respond when I asked if he would.
Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said this morning, “It doesn’t matter the number of games [Cooke received]. It doesn’t replace Tyson Barrie. We want to see Tyson on the ice tonight.”
Zach Parise wouldn’t discuss his opinion of Cooke’s suspension length nor the perceived inconsistency in the league’s decision-making process when it comes to suspensions (i.e. Bryan Bickell leading with his knee on Vladimir Sobotka last weekend and getting nothing):
“I don’t know what they look for. It’s not fair for me to comment on it, but I have got my opinion.”
On Cooke, Parise said, “You’ve got to know when he’s on the ice because he finishes his hits. So when you’re playing against him, if you’ve got your head down, he’s going to come after you and try and hit you. He’s one of those players where you just got to know where he is.”
Coach Mike Yeo is excited to finally drop the puck on Game 4 at an absurdly late 8:30 local time.
“It’s amazing a couple days between games in the playoffs feels like a week. Good day off, good practice yesterday, and now I can’t wait to hurry up and wait ‘til 8:30 tonight,” he joked.
As you know because you READ TODAY’S COVERAGE, Nino Niederreiter will take Cooke’s spot on the left side of the Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine line. Also, Kyle Brodziak, scratched Monday, will center Dany Heatley and Cody McCormick.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Semyon Varlamov. Kuemper made 22 saves in his first career shutout in his first career playoff start Monday.
“Honestly, I don’t think it would even matter who would be in net for them,” Roy said. “I think we had only four scoring chances all night long. They played really well. I mean, they tracked really well, they came back hard in the middle of the ice. They played with great urgency. I mean, they had a solid game. I have to give it to them. I don’t want to take anything from [Kuemper], but at the same time, I thought he had an easy game and I’m sure Bryzgalov could have done the exact same thing.”
On Cooke’s sentence, Yeo said, “We always definitely respect and accept what the decision is from the league, and with that, it’s just real important that we all put it behind us.”
On if Cooke will continue to provide a leadership role on team (he can practice and travel and be around all team functions, and he did skate today with the team), Yeo said, “For me, I’m focused on the game tonight, so to sit here and say that I spent the morning trying to make a plan for Matt Cooke, I haven’t. We’re playing Colorado tonight and I’m focused on the guys that are in the lineup. There will be time for some of those decisions.”
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