Niklas Backstrom


Hockey’s on the Horizon; Catching up w/ Bruno, Burnzie, Steph, etc…

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Training camp is less than two weeks away, and amazingly, two weeks from tomorrow (Tuesday) will be the Wild’s first exhibition game in St. Louis on just the third day of training camp.

Something tells me that first lineup coach Todd Richards uses won’t be a true indication of the Wild’s actual Opening Night lineup. Just a guess. We might see a whole lot of Jaime Sifers and Jamie Fraser. Heck, the Wild might have to summon Eero Elo from the Finnish wilderness for that Blues tilt.

Yep, hockey’s just around the corner. Went down to watch a bunch of NHLers/Wild players skate this morning in the camp put on by the Octagon player rep agency. The Wild players there this morning included in no particular order Brent Burns, Owen Nolan, John Scott, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Josh Harding and Andrew Brunette. In the coming days, other Wild players expected to skate there include Derek Boogaard (just wasn’t there today), Nick Schultz (in Chicago busy firing the NHLPA Executive Director), Greg Zanon, Niklas Backstrom, Mikko Koivu and others.

Other NHLers there this morning include Florida’s Keith Ballard, Tampa Bay’s Mike Lundin, Pittsburgh’s Alex Goligoski, the Isles’ Tim Jackman, Chicago’s Dustin Byfuglien, Pittsburgh’s Wyatt Smith, Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie, Montreal’s Andrew Conboy, Ben Clymer and Erik Rasmussen, among others. Mark Parrish is also skating there, but he was at the doctor today because his wife is pregnant with the couple’s second child. Parrish’s only NHL option right now could be the Islanders, but Parrish might be forced to choose between Europe and retiring.

There were also a bunch of college or high school kids there, including Josh Birkholz (Gophers), Max Gardiner (Minnetonka High, Gophers recruit), Zach Budish (Edina, incoming Gopher), Anders Lee (Edina, Notre Dame recruit), Nick Bjugstad (Blaine, Gophers recruit), Nick Mattson (Indiana, USHL; UND), Travis Boyd (U-17 US team, Gophers recruit), Seth Ambroz (Gophers recruit), Christian Isackson (St.Thomas Academy, Gophers recruit) and Nick Jensen (Green Bay, USHL; St. Cloud State recruit).

Oh!!! And Tampa Bay’s Stephane Veilleux, whose hair color resembles the Gophers’ colors I suppose, was there. I talked with Veilleux for awhile, and he had a fun summer, going to Wimbledon and visiting good chum and former Wild roommate Mikko Koivu in Finland. I’ll write more about Veilleux when the Wild visits Tampa in November, but he wanted me to thank the fans and tell you how much he’ll miss playing here. He said he badly wanted to stay but understands it’s a business.

He confirmed to me what I wrote a few days ago — he turned down a two-year deal from San Jose to take one from Tampa. He said it was an agonizing decision because he said Sharks coach Todd McLellan, who used to coach him in Houston, called him two minutes after free agency began. But in the end, Veilleux was told he’d have a chance to play on the second line in Tampa. He feels he owes it to himself to give that a try. He says if you look at his history here, like when he played with Marian Gaborik every training camp during exhibition games, he was able to put up points. But the second the season started, Jacques Lemaire put him back to where the coach felt comfortable with Veilleux — on the checking line.

Veilleux says if he can have the same type of camp he normally had in Minnesota, he feels he can prove to Tampa Bay he can play with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis on the left side of that No. 2 line. If you look at Tampa’s top-six, there’s a definite left-wing slot open, so we’ll see if Veilleux can pull it off. Of course, one would think former linemate Wes Walz, a Tampa Bay assistant, knows Veilleux better than most anybody, and I’m betting coach Rick Tocchet eventually has Veilleux on that checking line where he’s proven he can be effective.

Here’s a smattering of other little tidbits:

– I shot the breeze with a number of NHLers this morning about NHLPA Executive Director Paul Kelly getting fired. TSN’s Darren Dreger has done a superb job covering this from the outset and he’s in Chicago, so I direct you to tsn.ca/nhl for his coverage. We’ve been hearing a clamoring of discontent for months, and it became clear this summer that Kelly was in trouble when General Counsel Ian Penny had his contract extended without Kelly’s knowledge. But there’s got to be a lot more to this than Kelly allegedly being chummier with the Commissioner’s office than the players would like. This will all come out I’m sure as the Executive Board — guys like Chris Chelios, Shawn Horcoff and Andrew Ference — and 30 player reps communicate the reasons to the membership. But since Kelly’s dismissal and reasons for it didn’t have to go to vote to all 600 or so players, I can tell you there are some very confused and concerned members.

Regardless, the players I talked to are very concerned about what they were calling the “circus” internally at the NHLPA. I’ll have a lot more on this once my daily hockey coverage begins again, but this really should be something all fans pay attention to because it appears as if the union’s gearing up for a fight with the league in the next CBA negotiations.

– Brent Burns looks like his old self. No signs of concussion or shoulder problems, smiling again, chirping opponents like that stinkin’ Pierre-Marc Bouchard and just being a presence every time he skated this morning.

– Andrew Brunette looked very good this morning, and he’s only four months from reconstructive knee surgery. He certainly had no problem schooling some of the high school kids with a couple sick passes in traffic during one shift. Brunette said physically he feels good, but now it’s just a matter of feeling comfortable on the knee and getting over the mental hurdles of stops and starts and turning. “Just knowing I can do it,” Brunette said.

– As I’m sure most of you know because the Wild’s roster has shown the change for weeks, but goalie Josh Harding is changing his number to No. 37. Trivia question for the comment section: Who’s the only Wild player to ever wear No. 37? You’ve got to have an encyclopedia Wild mind to get this answer.

The winner gets to start paying for Russo’s Rants. Congratulations. :)

What else? What else? Let me go to my twitter real quick; I tweeted while I was in the chair waiting for my oral surgeon because I knew I would forget some things.

Oh, Owen Nolan’s goatee is one thick straight line down to below his chin. If he was walking toward you at night and you didn’t know whom he was, you’d hide your pet poodle because you’d be afraid he’d kick it.

Didn’t you miss me? That … is … it … for … now.

Lots more puck talk to come, but at a later date.

Nearly 24 hours from free agency; Wild depth chart as of now; USA Olympic orientation camp roster; Mill named assistant to the GM

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

I’ll be back on later this evening with a more in-depth free-agent primer, but I figured I’d jump on and say hello now.

I know there are all these Vincent Lecavalier rumors to Minnesota floating around the blogosphere, but I can tell you that yesterday morning, as good a source as you can possibly have from one of the two teams told me that “Vinny’s staying — 100 percent,” meaning he will not be traded before his July 1 no-trade kicks in.

I suppose if some deal knocked the Lightning’s socks off in the next 24 hours, that could change. But let’s be honest — it’s very doubtful the Wild has those assets to suddenly make the Lightning change its mind.

Essentially, as I mentioned on the blog last week, one owner wants to move Lecavalier; one does not. And both owners have veto power of any trade, so it would take a major philosophical altercation by that one owner today to put Lecavalier in another zip code.

Also, Lecavalier’s cap hit might be $7.7+ million in the next 11 years, but he makes $10 million in real dollars in the next seven. I just don’t see the Wild being willing take on that type of commitment in this economy.

It will be interesting to see if there are trades tomorrow. Remember, you can go 5 percent over the cap starting July 1 until training camp, so as often is the case, trades are agreed to at the draft and executed on July 1 (Manny Fernandez to Bruins, Marek Zidlicky to Wild, although that had to wait simply because that’s when Zidlicky’s no-trade expired).

The Senators have to trade Dany Heatley by midnight if they’re going to escape paying him that $4 million bonus.

Also talked to two sources yesterday — one exec, one agent — and both said they’d be shocked if Josh Harding isn’t traded in the near future. He’s got arbitration rights, and the agent thought he’d be owed a fairly significant raise just because of his goals against and save percentage last season.

Here’s a look at the depth chart as it currently sits assuming all the UFA’s go to free agency, so have some fun today, check out the free agent lists and you fill in the holes:

LW                              C                                RW

———                Koivu                          Bouchard

Brunette                Sheppard                   Nolan

Miettinen              Belanger                    Clutterbuck

Boogaard              Brodziak                     Weller

Potential candidates: Pouliot, Gillies, Irmen, Kalus

***I see the Wild pursuing a center, which would bump down the center spots and maybe put Brodziak on the right side and Weller in the press box; If they don’t sign a No. 2 center, maybe Bouchard or Pouliot gets that chance, which opens up a top-two line RW spot.

LD                         RD 

Johnsson              Burns

Schultz                  Zidlicky

Scott                      ———-

*** I see the Wild bringing in two NHL defensemen, meaning Scott could be the extra.

Goalies

Backstrom

Harding

***Harding is trade bait, and then the Wild would sign a cheaper backup goalie, and they grow on trees.

Kudos to editor/sportswriter Mark Wollemann for stepping in for me yesterday. The day off was very much appreciated.

Update: Negotiations are ongoing right now with Chicago and Pittsburgh regarding Martin Havlat and Ruslan Fedotenko, but if they are not re-signed, the Wild may pursue.

Update: USA Hockey announced the roster for August’s Olympic orientation camp. Here is the release.

The roster includes several Minnesotans or players with Minnesota ties: Tom Gilbert, Erik Johnson, Paul Martin, David Backes, Dustin Byfuglien, Phil Kessel, Jamie Langenbrunner, Ryan Malone, Kyle Okposo, T.J. Oshie and Zach Parise. 

Update: Wild at least having talks still with Stephane Veilleux.

Update: Wild has hired Jim Mill (not Nill) assistant to the GM and GM of the Aeros.

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Gaborik buy house in Vancouver? Salcer has “no knowledge of that”

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

(updated with Fletcher quotes)

Good Tuesday evening. Coming to you live from clear, crisp Vermont, where I will spend the night before heading up to Montreal in the morning.

By the way, very exciting day today. Know what happened on this very day 27 years ago?

Mrs. Joanne Boogaard gave birth to a strapping young lad that would ultimately become one of the NHL’s most intimidating 6-foot-7 and three-quarters-tall enforcers.

I talked with agent Ron Salcer after I landed this afternoon, and he said while the door’s not closed on the Wild with pending free agent Marian Gaborik, July 1 is “very enticing” and it’ll be awfully tough to get Gaborik to relinquish the rare opportunity of getting to speak to 29 other teams.

But Salcer said he’s had one conversation with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher but wouldn’t discuss if an offer’s been made. As I wrote last week, I’m pretty sure the Wild plans to offer Gaborik a five-year deal in the $7 million range. He turned down a 10-year, $78.5 million deal last fall because he didn’t want to commit to 10 years in Minnesota when he wasn’t comfortable with the direction of the team on and off the ice. That’s from well-placed sources.

Everything’s changed since with Jacques Lemaire and Doug Risebrough gone, which actually does intrigue Gaborik. However, with free agency eight days away, if Gaborik decides to stay here, as I’ve said over and over again on here, I would be beyond shocked.

Plus, as you can see at this link, the Vancouver Province’s Jason Botchford is reporting that Gaborik’s bought a house in Vancouver. I’ve talked to Jason and he’s citing unidentified sources but feels like he’s very much confirmed this. I haven’t been able to confirm and Salcer said he has no knowledge.

IF true, IF there’s been contact made with Gaborik and he has some sort of inside information that he’s going to sign with Vancouver that he is comfortable enough to buy a home there, it should be a very interesting couple weeks. Teams are not permitted to contact pending free agents until 11 a.m. CDT July 1. That is tampering — plain and simple.

And if you remember, the Wild accused the Canucks of tampering last year with Pavol Demitra before he signed a two-year, $8 million deal with Vancouver.

It was confirmed that Demitra was in Vancouver looking for homes well in advance of free agency, and his former agent is now the Canucks’ GM, Mike Gillis. The league looked into the situation at the Draft and eventually dropped the Wild’s charge around the time Demitra signed there.

If a team is ever found guilty of tampering, it can be fined lots of mula and draft picks.

Gaborik couldn’t be reached for comment, so I wasn’t able to ask him about the Province’s report.

But Salcer did speak to me.

Asked if Gaborik bought a home in Vancouver, Salcer said, “I have no knowledge of that at all. I know nothing about that. Nothing.”

Asked if he’s had conversations with Gillis, Salcer said, “None.”

Chuck Fletcher wouldn’t comment on the Gaborik situation, other than to say he feels it important to keep everything close to the vest at this point.

“There’s nothing I can comment on with the whole Gaborik situation,” Fletcher said. “I’m just going to work through things and we’ll see how it plays out.”

However, he continues to have trade talks with several teams and is hoping to make a move or two in advance of or at the Draft itself. He continues to be entrenched in Dany Heatley talks, which besides the assets, would cost any team a $4 million signing bonus July 1 and then a $4 million salary during the season.

Ottawa GM Bryan Murray has made clear that if the Sens pay that signing bonus, he’s staying there this season. So something should happen at the Draft.

But Fletcher’s involved in a number of things. He’s still definitely dangling Josh Harding. By the way, Niklas Backstrom’s no-trade doesn’t kick in until July 1, but Fletcher says he’s not entertaining trading him: ”No. I haven’t. I mean, no. Nik’s our goalie. Nik’s our goalie for next year.”  

Fletcher’s keeping everything close to the vest.

“There’s always lots and lots of talk and things tend to happen at the Draft itself or a day or two before,” said Fletcher, who arrived in Montreal on Tuesday. “It’s certainly playing to form. You just don’t know. Everybody is talking to everybody, so you never know how serious things are.

“What I’m finding is you talk to a team one week and the next week things may have changed. So there’s things certainly I’m focused on and we’re having lots of conversations.”

Wild looking to wheel and deal; Harding wants to be No. 1

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

(corrected)

Thought I’d start a fresh blog, so here be it:

Here are the weekend stories starting with Fletcher’s looking to wheel and deal 

AND

Josh Harding being open to a trade because he wants to be a No. 1

I’ll come on here later and blog some more. I’m hoping to talk to Chuck Fletcher today, but I can’t make any clearer that trading for Dany Heatley won’t be easy because of the amount of assets he’d have to give up. Plus, Heatley would have to waive his no-trade clause to come here and of the list of 10 or so teams he gave Ottawa, it’s unclear as to whether Minnesota’s on that list.

Also, I know 100 percent, Ottawa IS NOT interested in Josh Harding. Bryan Murray made his goalie trade when he acquired Pascal Leclaire at last season’s trade deadline.

Also, I keep getting emails and see comments on the stories about the idea of trading Niklas Backstrom. Remember, he’s got a two-year no-trade clause, then if he reaches certain criteria, that no-trade clause continues.

Lastly, here’s an interesting link on the Habs’ web site examining the Draft. The Wild has had more man games from draft picks than any team in the league since 2000. Of course, there’s lots of ways this can be analyzed; as an expansion team, the Wild had no other choice, plus Doug Risebrough’s philosophy of just sticking kids of the team.

That is a thing of the past, by the way. Chuck Fletcher has made extremely clear kids can be on the team, but they will have to MAKE the team. For instance, because Colton Gillies was on the roster for more than 40 games, his seven-year free agency clock started. However, if he plays in the minors next season (good possibility), that DOES NOT count toward free agency but his entry-level contract.

I bolded the above graph because it is now correct. I had it way wrong initially. 

Because James Sheppard has played 160 games, he can’t play in the minors without clearing waivers.

Anyway, hopefully I’ll be back on later. I’ll be mostly out of pocket Tuesday unless there’s hard news. I’m leaving for the Draft, but purposely taking the long way to Montreal.

Thomas wins Vezina, Backstrom finishes third; Koivu just misses being Selke finalist

Thursday, June 18th, 2009

Boston’s Tim Thomas won the Vezina as the NHL’s best goaltender.

“I’ve been more worried about getting my name on a roster than I’ve been about winning a Vezina Trophy,” Thomas said during his speech.

Thomas won the award, as voted by the GM’s, in a landslide with 22 first-place votes. Backstrom finished third behind Thomas and Steve Mason with one first-place vote, eight second-place votes and two third-place votes.

Mikko Koivu tied Detroit’s Henrik Zetterberg for fourth in Selke voting (best defensive forward) with one first-place vote, three second-place votes, 13 third-place votes, 17 fourth-place votes and seven fifth-place votes. Antti Miettinen finished 50th in Selke voting and Eric Belanger 64th.

Martin Skoula finished 28th in Lady Byng (most gentlemanly) voting with one first-place vote. Andrew Brunette finished 39th in Lady Byng with a third-place vote and two fifths.

In First Team, Second Team All-Star voting, for centers, Mikko Koivu finished seventh in the NHL. For goalies, Backstrom finished fourth behind First Team All-Star Tim Thomas, Second Team All-Star Steve Mason and Roberto Luongo. Backstrom got 14 second-place votes and 18 third-place votes.

For results of the awards, go to NHL.com. 

Backstrom’s hip feeling good as new, excited about Richards’ system; Constantine, staff returning

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009

Just got off the phone with Niklas Backstrom, who infuriated me because he was sitting by the pool at the Palms.

Tough life, pal. Me, I just walked the Stone Arch Bridge. Nice, but not the same.

Backstrom’s jacked to be in Vegas, where I gave him some advice on must-see’s, like the “Love” Beatles’ Cirque du Soleil show at the Mirage. He’s a Beatles fan, as his girlfriend, Heidi. I gave him some other advice, too.

He’ll be up for the Vezina (Best Goalie) on Thursday night’s NHL Awards Show, which can be seen on VERSUS at 6:30 p.m. He’s a finalist with Boston’s Tim Thomas and Columbus’ Steve Mason. At the Show with Bax offering him support so to speak will be Heidi, Wild goalie coach Bob Mason, GM Chuck Fletcher and P.R. guru Ryan Stanzel — yes the same Stanzel who constructs the famed R.S.S. Feed on the Wild’s web site.

I talked to Backstrom about a variety of things that you’ll see in future sports sections, but here’s a few quotes I’ll offer up now.

On Vegas, Awards Show: “I haven’t been here before. Just to be part of it, it’s going to be one of the biggest days of your career personally. You never know if you ever get the chance to do it again. It really kicks in when you get here and you see all the guys – you know all these stars – and posters all over the city. I’ve never seen the Awards Show before. I don’t know how big it is. But when you get here, you start to feel it’s a pretty big thing.”

What do you think of Vegas: “I cant complain about the weather.”

How’s the surgically-repaired hip: “I feel really good actually. I’m going to see the doctor on Monday. I fly from here to Vail. I’m excited to see him there because it feels so good. I’ve never looked so forward to a doctors appointment before. Hopefully I’ll get permission to go full.

Nervous about being on camera and the Vezina? “Every athlete, you want to win. But when you go to a normal hockey game, you feel more that you want to win. It’s a great honor just to be here. You look at all the goalies, there’s only three who will be here tomorrow, but you look around the league, you could easily take 20, 30 goalies. So for sure it’s a great honor to even be here. Just looking back to where I have come from. Couple years ago, I played in Europe, and now you’re here up for such an award. I don’t want to say it’s enough. You want to be the best everyday and all the time. But it’s really good even to be here.”

Richards says the D will be running wild. Does that concern you? ”My job is going to be the same – stop the puck. If we win, it doesn’t matter how you play. That’s the only thing you’re concerned about – to win. If you’ve got a system that all the players believe in, and everybody really jumps into that, then every system is good. You look the way hockey is played now, you look at the good teams who were in the Final, even if they play some offensive hockey, I think everything starts from the defense. Even if it would be fun to have the 80s and 90s Edmonton Oilers here and score six, seven goals, I don’t think it’s possible in today’s NHL. So I think you can have a good offense, but everything still starts from the defense. Like I said, it doesn’t matter how we play, the only thing that matters is that we win.

You could be facing a few more odd-man rushes, but are you willing to give that up if it means you won’t have to be holding onto tie or one-goal games anymore? “It’s part of hockey. You have to live with that. You can’t worry about it. You have to make sure you’re ready for whatever happens. Goalies, we have to be there, we have to help the guys if that’s the case. On the other hand, if we play more offense, score more goals, maybe every now and then our goalies can make a mistake and we have a chance to win. So there’s some good and some bad things with every style. The only thing that matters is that you play good hockey. Then that gives you a chance to win.”

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