Christmas in July, Wild sign Parise and Suter

The Wild have just signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts.

Let’s let that soak in, for just a moment.

The Wild, who for the past few seasons have been stuck in the rut of the Doug Risebrough era, have finally arrived as the big-time contender that Chuck Fletcher promised when he took over the reins. They beat out perennial contenders like the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, not to mention their former teams, the New Jersey Devils and Nashville Predators – neither of whom are slouches, themselves.

Wow. Just wow.

Regardless of whether or not you think this makes the Wild an immediate contender, there’s no doubt whatsoever that this makes the Wild immediately better.

Parise gives the Wild a game-breaker and a player that a) has the drive and desire to win and b) makes those around him better. For those of you living under a rock the last few days, Parise has scored 30-plus goals five times in his seven season NHL career (one, of which, was ended by injury and the other was his rookie year). He’s also never scored less than 60 points outside of those seasons as well. Other than the one season where he injured his knee, he has never played less than 81 games in a season. Not only that, but he’s also scored 43 points in 61 playoff games – something that tends to hold some weight in the NHL these days.

So, suffice it to say, Parise coming home to Minnesota is a windfall for the Wild. That, alone, would have been a banner day for the team, but Chuck Fletcher wasn’t done there.

Oh, no. He decided that he wasn’t satisfied with just Parise. He decided that he wanted defenseman Ryan Suter, as well.

Suter gives the Wild a player that can play 25-plus minutes per night, he can play in every situation and he immediately replaces the shutdown hole left by the trade of Nick Schultz. He’s steady and he can put points up, as well, scoring at least 30-plus points in his last five seasons and 35-plus in his last four. He plays against teams top lines and he is the type of defenseman that can make a difference on both ends of the ice.

So, you’ll forgive me if my fan side (which I tend to squash in deference to somewhat balanced analysis) is doing backflips right now.

This isn’t just a good signing for the Wild, this is a great one; not only on the ice, but off the ice as well. The Wild desperately needed to make this type of splash, not just to improve their roster, but to energize a fan base whose interest has been waning after years of middling finishes.

We’ll have more here soon, and we’ll take a look at the wild’s updated line combinations here next, but for right now let’s just say this is a big day in the State of Hockey.

In Which Free Agency Frenzy Begins

Christmas in July is officially upon us. The Wild are expected to be unbelievably busy this off season, going for their home run (Parise and/or Suter) and also filling out their depth.

Some deals have already gone down, which I’ll talk about in a bit, but I want to first address something that happened this morning that has drawn the Wild a bit of ridicule.

The Minnesota Wild reported on their Twitter account that they put in offers on both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. This immediately led to the typical outcry on Twitter of people both lauding the move and ridiculing it but, in my mind, this is a brilliant move by the Wild.

Why, you may ask?

The Wild don’t have much to pitch both Suter and Parise. They’ve missed the playoffs for the past few seasons, they’ve been stuck in a rebuild for, seemingly, that entire time and they’ve got some gaping holes in their organization because of the draft mismanagement of the previous managerial regime. They’ve got a dearth of youngsters that are coming in that they’re hoping will work out, but there’s nothing concrete. So they can pitch the players on the perspective of future success. But what else do they have?

The fans.

The Wild’s fans are some of the most knowledgeable and passionate of any franchise in the NHL. Even when attendance is waning during the team’s down years, the building is still packed. The Wild’s players are revered around the Twin Cities and that’s exactly why the Wild’s decision to offer up the information that they put in offers to both is a great idea.

Why?

All they have to do is point to Twitter to show the players the reactions of the fans. Could they pitch it without? Absolutely. Both Suter and Parise have played at the Xcel Energy Center. They’ve experienced the Wild’s fans firsthand. Both also played in the WCHA and have experienced the phenomenon that is hockey in Minnesota. But now they can point to Twitter and say, “See? This is the response you’re getting. This is what you will mean to this franchise.”

We’ll have to wait and see whether or not the gambit works out, but if it does, it could be the home run that the Wild desperately needs.

Wild Desperate for Free Agency Home Run

As I just mentioned, the Wild needs a home run in free agency.

Last season, they needed a home run with a coach and took a flyer on Mike Yeo, who proved to be exactly the coach that the team needed.

A few seasons prior, the Wild also needed a home run in free agency, and they got what appeared to be that with Matt Cullen, Martin Havlat and Greg Zanon.

Now they’re in a similar situation and there’s nothing to indicate that they might not be hitting a similar home run this season.

Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher has come through in the clutch for the franchise when he’s needed to. He moved Brent Burns (who, for all intents and purposes, seemed to be on the way out in Minnesota anyway) and Havlat for some big pieces last season. He brought in Guillaume Latendresse who, despite having moved on from Minnesota, became a quick fan favorite.

Will Fletch hit a homerun today, though? I doubt it.

This isn’t to say that he’s not going to, but on July 1? With the amount of offers that these players are likely receiving, I highly doubt that a decision will be made today unless there’s one obvious choice.

At the end of the day, Parise and/or Suter may very well end up in Minnesota, but it could lead to a restless night for Wild fans, as the likelihood it is settled today looks slim.

Wild Sign a Pair

So far in free agency, the Wild have already made a couple of moves, signing forwards Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell to contracts.

First, let’s look at Konopka. He adds toughness to a Minnesota team that already has Darroll Powe,Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Kassian up front. With Konopka, who signed for two-years and a $925K AAV over that time, that is a scary line up of hitters.

He’s not going to score a ton of goals, and the Wild don’t expect him to. He’s going to protect the Wild’s best players, along with Kassian (who was signed earlier in the week to a one-way deal).

On the surface, Konopka seems to be a solid fit for the team’s fourth line and will provide the Wild that toughness that they wanted.

Next, let’s take a look at Torrey Mitchell.

Mitchell is fast, he’s physical and he can chip in a bit offensively – something that seems to be becoming the “mold” for the Wild’s third-line forwards.

Signed for three years and a total of $1.9M, Mitchell will be a solid fit on the third line with the likes of Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak – again, a line that I wouldn’t willingly drop my head against if I’m the Wild’s opponents.

Keep it tuned here, as we’ll be back with updates periodically, but that’s all for now.

Wild Scratch Koivu’s 7-Year Itch; Sign Center to Blockbuster Extension

The last remaining drama of the Minnesota Wild’s off season is over.

The Wild have signed their franchise player, captain Mikko Koivu to a seven-year contract worth $6.75 million per season, plus a bunch of signing bonuses that add up to be about the GNP of a third-world country and a full no-trade clause.

I’ll be completely honest with my assessment here—I love this deal with the exception of the term.

As many of you know, I’m not a huge long-term contract type of guy. I would have preferred to see the Wild sign Koivu for four or five years as opposed to the seven that he got.

That being said, you won’t hear me complain one bit.

Here’s the deal. The Wild were going to have to pay to keep Koivu around.

Yes, he wanted to be here. Yes, he was convinced that the Wild are headed in the right direction. But the Wild still were going to have to pay.

But the thing is that this deal isn’t actually as outlandish as many are portraying it as.

Yes, Koivu has a larger cap hit than Pavel Datsyuk, Nicklas Backstrom, Jonathan Toews and Henrik Sedin. Yes, his stats may not necessarily define him as a “superstar” type player but, then again, neither have Toews’.

In fact, Koivu has put up better numbers than Toews over the last few seasons with less talent surrounding him—something that likely was at the forefront of these discussions when comparables were involved.

What Koivu brings to the squad, however, is so much more than just numbers-based value.

The fact of the matter is that the Wild would be lost without their captain. Koivu is the cornerstone of their team at even strength, on the penalty kill and on the powerplay.

The Wild’s offense not only runs through Koivu, but their forecheck and backcheck does as well.

As Fletcher said on his conference call, “To define Mikko by his statistics is to miss the point of what he’s all about.”

That is one-hundred percent true.

Of course, there are certain expectations that the Wild and their fans will likely have from Koivu that have to do with numbers.

He’s been the team’s best player over the last two years and has made huge steps in his development each year—something that will be expected to continue.

But, it’s not all sunshine and roses for the Wild after this signing.

The team is now faced with the stark reality that, with Koivu’s new contract in tow, Minnesota has just under $9 million in cap space heading into the 2011-12 season and just 17 players under contract.

Looking at their expiring contracts for next season, there are likely only two players that they’re going to want to look at retaining, both of whom are restricted free agents, but either way Chuck Fletcher will have to work some of his magic to improve the Wild—something that he’s quite familiar with from last season.

When it comes down to it, the Wild did what needed to be done to keep Koivu.

His camp wanted seven years, they gave him seven years. His camp wanted $7 million per year, they gave him $6.75 million per year. What’s more is that they got this contract done before the season started, not allowing the distraction of contract talks to loom over what will likely already be a difficult season for the team.

Keeping that in mind, it’s easy to see why the negotiations between the two sides were as amicable as they were all the way through.

Just like his brother, Mikko Koivu is a captain through and through and, apart from being one heck of a hockey player, is one-hundred percent pure class.

Updated: Wild Signs Cullen, Nystrom

I’ll have more to come later, but I just wanted to toss this up really quick that the Wild have signed center Matt Cullen to a three-year deal, worth an average of $3.5 million per-year and with a modified no-trade clause and forward Eric Nystrom to a three-year deal, worth an average of $1.4 million per-year.

Update:

Day one of the official off season is in the books and, boy, was it a doozy for the Wild.

Two players, two needs filled and the general manager already saying that the team might be done? Man, that’s got to be a good day at the office.

Before I get into the players the Wild signed, let’s look at that last statement—the Wild might be done with free agency.

First of all, the all-seeing, all-knowing Mike Russo said that Fletcher was comfortable with the six defensemen that the team has.

That means that he’s also comfortable with either Nate Prosser or Marco Scandella being the team’s number seven d-men.

So, let’s look at this.

Fletcher is comfortable with their number six defenseman being an injury-prone rookie and the other option being either a rookie defenseman with three NHL games under his belt or another with none?

I don’t buy it—at least not for someone who is as in depth about his planning as Fletcher.

Here’s the deal. Stoner definitely deserves a shot to show what he’s got, especially with his impressive cup of coffee with the team last season.

But Prosser and Scandella? You can’t tell me that they’d be better served playing 25-35 games in the NHL than playing a full schedule in the AHL.

So what does that add up to?

Maybe a restricted free agent allowed to go to free agency, maybe a veteran defenseman. Who knows. But the fact is that it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the Wild aren’t done.

But, enough with my ramblings about the status of their free agency period—on to the signings at hand.

First and foremost, there’s Matt Cullen.

This was the player that the Wild wanted heading into free agency and they certainly got him.

He’s fast, he’s gritty, he’s skilled—in other words, he’s everything that the team wanted from Andrew Ebbett, only with more offensive upside.

The 33-year old center from Virginia, Minnesota has scored 15-plus goals five times in his career and has scored 40-plus points seven times, including the last five seasons.

He plays a solid two-way game, he can play the point on the power play and he’s played in 63-plus playoff games and won the Stanley Cup, which is something that no one else on the Wild’s roster can claim.

What’s even better is that he can win face offs.

Following Cullen was gritty forward, Eric Nystrom.

Nystrom is young (27) and he’s a character player that can hit. Fletcher has stressed that he wants the team to get younger, faster and stronger and Nystrom did just that.

I’m a little concerned with the amount of money that the Wild spent on Nystrom, but as Russo said Nystrom is in the prime of his career, which is why Fletcher was likely willing to commit the term and money that he did with Nystrom.

Nystrom comes to the Wild having scored a career high 11 goals and 18 points last season for Calgary.

Now I don’t mean to be cynical about the signing, but I’m really not crazy about it.

The good news is that both Fletcher and Nystrom feel like he hasn’t quite tapped into his offensive potential, of which he obviously has some (he scored 32 points in 38 games for the Michigan Wolverines in his last season of college hockey).

So where do he signings of Cullen and Nystrom leave the Wild?

Well, the Wild have about $3.5 million in cap room left, without the eventual re-signing of Josh Harding.

In other words, they very well could be done.

So, with those signings, this is what the Wild’s depth chart could look like:

Andrew Brunette/Mikko Koivu/Pierre-Marc Bouchard (if healthy)
Guillaume Latendresse/Matt Cullen/Martin Havlat
Chuck Kobasew/Kyle Brodziak/Antti Miettinen
Eric Nystrom/James Sheppard/Cal Clutterbuck

Extras: Casey Wellman, Cody Almond, Colton Gillies

Greg Zanon/Marek Zidlicky
Brent Burns/Nick Schultz
Cam Barker/Clayton Stoner

Extras: Nate Prosser, Marco Scandella

Niklas Backstrom
Josh Harding

When you look at it, this is a team that is looking more and more like they could be competitive this season.

HockeyPrimetime Live: Free Agency Frenzy

It’s almost here!  Christmas in July for hockey fans.

Join myself, Justin Bourne, Denis Gorman and all the other usual suspects for a live blog today, starting at 10 a.m. Central time.

The Minnesota Wild Season in Review Part 5 of 5: Looking Ahead

Well, it’s taken a lot longer than I’d expected, but here we are—part five of my five part season in review.

I’ve looked at the season on a whole, the forwards, the defense, the goaltenders, the management and now it’s time to take a look ahead to what this off season could bring.

The Wild have a long shopping list for this off season and not a whole lot of money to shop with. They currently have 17 players under contract and have restricted free agents Guillaume Latendresse and Josh Harding yet to sign.

Their shopping list will likely include another defenseman and at least one more forward, but likely two, just to be safe.

So, let’s look at what the team needs, shall we?

The first need that the team will try to address, for sure, will be another stay-at-home, shutdown defenseman. With six defensemen under contract and approximately $16.6 million allotted to these defensemen it’s hard to believe that the Wild will go out and spend on a top-flight free agent blueliner.

What I can see, however, is the Wild spending anywhere between one and two million on a defenseman that is reliable, but not flashy—someone that they can pair with their more aggressive, offensive defensemen.

The problem is that there aren’t too many players available with that description for that price tag.

Possible Targets: Milan Jurcina, Brett Lebda, Kurtis Foster

Another need that the team desperately needs is a second line center.

The Wild do already have someone within their organization that they are hoping will fit this bill in Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

The big question about Butch, however, is his health. While he has been cleared to begin light exercising, Bouchard is still experiencing many post-concussion symptoms.

With that being the case, I would expect the Wild to pursue a center looking to spend between two and four million on him.

With the impending departure of Mike Modano from Dallas, there are a few that are hoping for a nostalgic end to the former North Star’s career. In my opinion, that would be a huge mistake for the Wild.

While Modano would be a significant upgrade from James Sheppard, the fact remains that he’s 41 years old and his production has decreased significantly over the past few seasons.

What they do need, however, is a gritty, skilled center to play on their second line between Latendresse and Martin Havlat.

Possible Targets: Matthew Lombardi, Mike Comrie, Brendan Morrison, Chris Higgins

Another player that the Wild will likely look towards is a gritty forward to replace the likes of Andrew Ebbett, Owen Nolan and Derek Boogaard, all of whom will likely leave in free agency.

This is one thing that there are a lot of in this year’s free agent market.

They won’t have to pay a lot for these players, but these players are going to be invaluable to the Wild in the future and General Manager Chuck Fletcher knows this.

With the trade for Brad Staubitz, Fletcher has gotten some of this toughness but judging from how both the Ducks and the Penguins were built, and make no mistake that those teams had his finger prints all over them, he’s not done with this.

Possible Targets: Adam Burish, Raffi Torres, Colby Armstrong, Evgeny Artyukhin

Finally, I’d look for the Wild to take a shot at trying to acquire another top-six forward; probably a winger.

It won’t be any flashy signing like Ilya Kovalchuk, unless Fletcher can work some serious cap magic, but there is a definite need for a player that can score consistently to play alongside Andrew Brunette and Mikko Koivu on the team’s first line.

Again, I would expect the team to go after someone in the two to four million dollar range for this, as it’s going to need to make sense both economically as well as for the team on a whole.

Possible Targets: Marek Svatos, Alexander Frolov, Slava Kozlov, Alexei Ponikarovsky

Whatever the Wild does, there is going to be a sense of excitement surrounding the team come July 1.

It’s Christmas in July for NHL fans and fans in Minnesota are hoping that the Wild come out on top.

One RFA Down; Wild Sign Sheppard

In a move that was anticipated, but dreaded by many Wild fans, the Minnesota Wild have re-signed center James Sheppard to a one year contract worth $803,250 according to Mike Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

I’ll be honest. I see the rationale behind this, but I’m still not happy about it.

General Manager Chuck Fletcher told Russo that Sheppard’s spot on the roster will not be assured and that he will be given every opportunity to prove himself in training camp. Now, I know that I’ve been drinking Fletcher’s Kool Aid ever since he was hired, but I’m also willing to look past the Fletcher-tinted glasses and call a spade a spade.

Do I want Sheppard to succeed?

Absolutely. His emergence would only be a good thing for the Wild.

When Pierre-Marc Bouchard went down with an injury last season, he was expected to step up into the second line center role.

But, he didn’t.

Then, when Kyle Brodziak and Andrew Ebbett began to find chemistry with the team’s second line, Sheppard was expected to step up into a solid checking line center role.

But, he didn’t.

And finally, when Eric Belanger was traded to the Washington Capitals, he was expected to take advantage of the extra ice time he would be getting and start to emerge.

You guessed it. He didn’t.

Now, with the team short on centers, this could potentially be a low-risk, high-reward type deal.

Sheppard is going to be given the opportunity to succeed. He’s going to be given looks at camp and, for the first time in his career, his spot on the roster isn’t necessarily guaranteed.

That is what Fletcher is hoping lights a fire under the young player.

But, what Fletcher told Russo is a first for someone speaking of Sheppard in a Wild sweater:

“If somebody can come in and beat him in camp, then maybe that forces our hand if we’re offered a terrific opportunity to get a different asset and he’s the price we have to pay, we’ll look at it. We’re not saying we’re giving him anything other than for us not to qualify him would be a poor decision from a hockey management standpoint. I mean, why wouldn’t you protect that asset, why wouldn’t you give him every chance to become a hockey player? It’s up to him. If somebody can knock him out in camp, great, the more competition the better. And maybe he comes in and is the player that people hoped he would be. Why wouldn’t we give him that opportunity to compete? Maybe he’s inspired by that and takes a step. I think James is a good person, I think he honestly wants to be a hockey player and right now it’s about doing the rights things and committing himself to being that hockey player.”

What I like about this is that Fletcher is laying out the future for Sheppard.

You want a spot on the roster? You earn it.

You don’t earn a spot? Don’t expect to be around for long.

The bottom line is that he’s a 22-year old and he could very well be a “late bloomer,” so to speak.

He’s shown flashes here and there, but he’s never capitalized on them and, who knows—maybe this is what he needed to realize his potential.

Report: Havlat and Wild Close – UPDATED

UPDATE – It’s official.  Havlat to the Wild for 6 years, $30M total.  Also sounds like Chicago didn’t do themselves any favors bringing in Hossa.  Havlat’s tweets don’t sound happy towards Chicago’s management.

Per Mike Russo,

The Martin Havlat race is down to one team — the Minnesota Wild.  The Wild and Havlat’s agent have reportedly been working on the contract for hours now and it sounds like the contract, as it stands, is 6 years for $30M total.  If this is true, this is one heck of a negotiating job by Chuck Fletcher, because the Wild will have addressed two of their four needs, while spending under $7M.  In other words, leaving plenty of room to sign a second-line center AND another defenseman before the season starts.

While there are issues regarding Havlat’s durability, he played in 81 games last season and was an absolute revelation in the playoffs — at least until he ran into the shoulder of Niklas Kronwall.

I’m extremely excited about this, as I’ve always like Havlat and I hope that he finally has turned the corner in his injury issues and is ready to play in the State of Hockey!

Also, Russo reports that the Wild are pushing hard for Saku Koivu — No big surprise here, and I would expect the brothers to be playing together next season.

And So Ends the Marian Gaborik Era…

5 years, $7.5M per year.

Does anyone else think this is either going to make Glen Sather look like a genius or an idiot?

Truth be told, I’m glad to be rid of the distraction that has been Marian Gaborik.  From his frequent injury troubles, to his often inflated contract demands, Gaborik has been nothing but a thorn in the Wild’s side over the last few seasons and, I am glad to say, that he is now the New York Rangers’ problem.

Truth be told, this could work out very, very well for the Rags.  When at his best, Gaborik is a dynamic winger that can score with the best of them.  The Rangers witnessed that first hand.  When at his worst, however, Gaborik is oftentimes invisible in all three zones.  The biggest problem with the enigma that is Marian Gaborik?  He’s at his worst more often than not — or at least he was with Minnesota.

Don’t get me wrong.  Marian Gaborik is a fantastic player and has the potential to be a star in this league.  But $7.5M for one extremely good season?  I don’t buy it, not one bit.  If he’s healthy (and he claims he is), he’ll notch 75-85 points for the Rangers…And I doubt he’ll get much more.  Don’t get me wrong…That’s fantastic.  It’s certainly something that the Wild could use on their roster.  But the problem is that now, he has no excuses.  He’s had surgery on both of his hips — that should take care of his groin.  He’s no longer playing under Jacques Lemaire — he can no longer fall back on a defensive system as a crutch.  He’s got support around him — Chris Drury and company should help him shoulder the load.

Will Gaborik flourish or wilt?

I, personally, think that he’s a 80-85 point player, not the 100+ point player everyone seems to think he is.

But I’ve been proved wrong before.

Wild Sign Zanon

So I’ve returned, after a very long hiatus.  Believe me when I say, it was a much needed one too.  Nothing like a little distance to clear your mind, but there’s no time for waxing poetic…It’s free agent time!

The Wild kicked off their free agency day with a whisper, rather than a bang.

They have shown a propensity over the last couple weeks to bring in players that are familiar with new coach Todd Richards (who I am very optimistic about, by the way) and this is no different.

The Wild used their first signing of the day, bringing in defenseman Greg Zanon, previously of Nashville.  Zanon, 29, is a defensive defenseman through and through.  Zanon played all 82 games for Nashville last season and had 237 blocked shots and 153 hits.  In other words, he’ll be manning the fifth/sixth defensive slot and spending a lot of time on the penalty kill for Minnesota.

I like this signing for the simple reason that I like the way that Zanon plays the game.  He is definitely not a signing that we would have seen in the Risebrough/Lemaire era, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Zanon is a rough and tumble d-man, of which we already have John Scott, but Zanon also is a much better skater than Scott.

Like any signing, time will tell how good this really is, but right now I think it’s an optimistic first signing for the Chuck Fletcher-era team.

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