Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold recently told Sports Headliners the story of how luck impacted the drafting of Kirill Kaprizov in 2015. The rookie sensation is a finalist for the 2021 NHL Calder Memorial Trophy honoring the league’s best first-year player and he has the potential to become the most decorated performer in Wild franchise history.
Six years ago Chuck Fletcher was the Wild’s GM and his scout in western Russian couldn’t get out of the region on a flight because of smoky skies. With planes neither going out nor coming in, the scout had time to attend local games he wouldn’t have otherwise watched. Leipold said that’s when the scout saw Kaprizov, while other NHL teams didn’t. Although the Wild never scouted him again in person the franchise decided to take a “flyer” on the young forward in the fifth round of the 2015 NHL Draft.
“We would have liked to have had him come on our team a couple of years earlier but that didn’t work out that way,” Leipold said during a phone interview. “We’re so excited about his future and the things that he can do for our team and our market.”
The 24-year-old Kaprizov captivated the State of Hockey this year with his offensive skill set and electric play, providing Minnesota with long sought scoring while energizing a jaded fan base in search of a hero. He led the Wild and NHL rookies with 51 points in 55 games last season. The 5-foot-11, 201-pound forward also led the team and league rookies in goals, even-strength goals (19), power-play goals (8) and shots on goal (157).
Leipold owned the Nashville Predators prior to buying the Wild franchise. In 23 years of ownership this is the most excited he’s been about a player. “I’ve never seen a player with that kind of vision,” Leipold said.
Kaprizov has impressed with his personality, too. He laughs and smiles a lot, and despite his considerable physical talents is humble. “We’ve got a great kid here,” Leipold said. “I think he’s going to be able to handle the stardom that he is going to get. Our objective is to sign him as long as we can.”
By NHL policy Kaprizov is entitled to a new contract this offseason, although he can’t go to another team like two other forwards of importance to Minnesota, Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek. Those two are official NHL restricted free agents, with the Wild unlikely to lose control of them.
“There’s no way that we aren’t going to get them (all three players) signed,” Leipold said. “I think the question is how long will the term be. We’re shooting for the longer the better. We’d like to lock these guys in.”
The Wild had an impressive regular season record going 35-16-5 and although the club had another first round exit from the playoffs, there is a vision about the franchise’s future that sees this team as special. “I really like our position,” Leipold said. “I’ve never felt as positive about any team moving forward as I do about this one.”
Leipold looks at his team and is enthusiastic about the mix of young and veteran players. That group includes 33-year-old goalie Cam Talbot who helped turn around the team after GM Bill Guerin added him to the roster as a free agent last October.
The club’s No. 1 priority during the offseason will be re-signing the three players referenced above but after that the to-do list will include looking for a proven center. Other than the goalie position, NHL teams covet a terrific center. “I say that’s probably pretty high on the shopping list that Billy has, but they don’t come easily and they don’t come cheap,” Leipold said.
It might require the Wild giving up a key player like Fiala to bring a high profile center to Minnesota. That could make passionate Wild fans wince but it’s also the cost of doing business.
Because of the pandemic and restrictions on fans attending games, NHL teams have lost a lot of money. Leipold declined to say how much red ink his franchise has absorbed but emphasized it’s a mega number. Still his position is that the Wild will“look at all the options, whatever it takes to make us a better team.”
The financial losses are mitigated by the $20 million expansion fee that each NHL team is receiving from Seattle. What will be painful, though, is giving up a quality player in the expansion draft. “They’re gonna take a player and they’re gonna get a great player because we are deep,” Leipold said.
Leipold wouldn’t speculate who the Wild will leave unprotected in the expansion draft. Could it be a talent like defenseman Matt Dumba? “Matt Dumba is a great player,” Leipold said. “He’s got a cannon of a shot. We’d like to keep him on our team if we could.”
It will be interesting to see who will be on the roster next season, with a lot of talk about 36-year-old forward Zach Parise. He wasn’t allowed to suit up for three playoff games (a healthy scratch). Leipold is taking a diplomatic approach about the aging star who he signed in 2012 to a 13-year $98 million deal. “I love Zach. I am not going to get into Zach. His work ethic is incredible. I am a Zach fan, but Billy will deicide what players are on the team and (coach) Dean (Evason) decides who plays. …”
The Wild roster last season could well have included center Marco Rossi who was chosen as the ninth player in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft. Instead the talented Rossi was hit hard by COVID and sidelined. “We knew that he was one of the few players in the draft last year that would have been ready to play this year,” Leipold said.
Rossi’s playmaking could mean he is the Wild’s center of the future but first he faces recovery from COVID. He needs to build strength and stamina, but is known for his work ethic. “We think that will happen,” Leipold said. “It won’t be easy but he’ll make it happen.”
In Evason’s first full season as coach, he proved he deserved the job. Leipold hired Guerin in 2019 and he’s brought changes that turned the team in a better direction including making Evason coach. The pandemic has prevented Leipold from getting to know Evason. “(But) as long as he (Guerin) tells me he’s happy with Dean, I don’t need to pull the onion back anymore. If he’s happy I am happy. And I am happy with Billy so I think I am in a very fortunate situation.”
Danielle Hunter is the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive MVP. His value to the club is comparable to quarterback Kirk Cousins and running back Dalvin Cook.
But unlike Cousins and Cook, Hunter’s contract prompts concern about him remaining in Minnesota. The 26-year-old edge rusher is among the NFL’s best at what he does, but his contract doesn’t compare with peers at the position.
Could Hunter be a no-show at mandatory Viking practices this summer? Maybe, but it’s a smart bet the franchise does a redo on the $72 million contract that binds him to Minnesota through 2023. Head coach Mike Zimmer said today he hasn’t heard from Hunter who is absent from this week’s voluntary team activities.
Ownership, led by Zygi and Mark Wilf, have shown a commitment to win and spend money in support of facilities and players. They are passionate fans who want a Super Bowl team and have invested in U.S. Bank Stadium and Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, while improving contracts of players like Cook and wide receiver Adam Thielen.
After missing last season with a neck injury, Hunter must show he is healthy and ready to resume peak performance. In 2018 and 2019 the former third round draft choice had consecutive seasons averaging 14.5 sacks. He established himself as a Pro Bowl quality pass rusher, with the promise of high production for many years.
Hunter’s edge rushing peers include seven players who have deals worth over $100 million. That’s per a July 20, 2020 SI.com story reporting on Joey Bosa’s $135 million new deal that came weeks after a $125 million contract for Myles Garrett. Hunter’s past performance exceeds players earning much more and he is more than a bargain—he’s a steal—with his current earnings.
NFL clubs are pushing their budgets on defensive ends because they can single handedly turn a game—or even a season—with a few crucial plays like sacking the quarterback or causing a fumble. In Hunter the Vikings have a talent who became the youngest player in NFL history to achieve 50 career sacks. He is also outstanding in defending the run.
The Wilfs aren’t likely to let a disgruntled Hunter force his way out of town. A revised and highly compensated new deal appears all but certain this year or next, unless an injury dictates otherwise.
The current issue of Sports Illustrated offers a feature on Prince’s love of basketball including hosting a party after the 1994 NBA All-Star game in Minneapolis. At Paisley Park the flamboyant entertainer descended from the ceiling. “Something out of a movie,” Alonzo Mourning said in the article.
Target Center opened in 1990 and underwent extensive remodeling a few years ago but it doesn’t compare favorably with many of the “palaces” in the NBA. It could be potential new Minnesota Timberwolves owners will in a few years push for a new building, likely with the threat of relocating to another city.
In the late 1980s the Minnesota North Stars wanted about $11 million from the Minnesota Sports Facilities Commission to upgrade Met Center but it was a failed attempt. The franchise, under new ownership, relocated to Dallas in 1993. Long ago the Lakers left Minneapolis for Los Angeles because of lagging attendance and a facility issue.
Unruly fan behavior in the NBA has been making news of late. Anyone remember when what seemed like every Sunday in the 1960s someone threw a light bulb onto the floor at Boston Garden during national telecasts?
Gophers basketball coach Ben Johnson and staff remain in all-out recruiting mode to finalize next season’s roster that right now will struggle to compete in the Big Ten. Johnson is trying to shape a roster now and in future years with state of Minnesota players.
June and July are prime recruiting months for Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck and staff. Expect multiple verbal commits for the class of 2022 during the next several weeks. Minnesota’s class for next year, with five verbal commits, is currently ranked No. 35 nationally by 247Sports.
The Gophers’ subpar PAT and field goal kicking of last season will be much improved with the transfer of Kent State’s Matthew Trickett. As a sophomore in 2019 at Kent State he was first team All-MAC, and tied for the NCAA lead in field goals with 29. He had two game winning kicks. The Mid-American Conference cancelled its 2020 season due to the pandemic.
Congratulations to former Gopher defensive end Bob Stein who will be inducted into the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame December 7 in Las Vegas. Stein made All-American in 1967 and was a key contributor to Minnesota’s last Big Ten championship team. The St. Louis Park native was also an Academic All-American. University of Minnesota alum Mark Sheffert and the late Pat Fallon, the Minneapolis advertising whiz, advocated for Stein’s overdue recognition by the NFF.
With two PGA vice presidents of rules and competition retiring, it will be interesting to see how that could positively impact former Gopher and Viking Mark Dusbabek. The Faribault native has been a PGA rules official since 2006.
The St. Thomas team that rallied to win three games over the Memorial Day weekend and earned its way to the Division III Baseball World Series, plays an opening game against Adrian starting at 1:15 p.m. Friday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Minnesota United, whose regular season schedule started in April and continues into November, has a long break after playing last Saturday with the next match June 19.
The Twin Cities Dunkers, after months of Zoom meetings, resumes in-person breakfasts in July with likely upcoming programs to include Gophers football and the 3M Open.
No update yet on a new contract for Gophers baseball coach John Anderson (see Monday’s Sports Headliners).
Head coach John Anderson is in his 40th season leading the historic University of Minnesota baseball program and he wants to continue on. His current contract, though, ends June 30, and there has been quiet speculation for years that the athletic department could consider discontinuing baseball.
Anderson told Sports Headliners negotiations for a new contract have been developing for awhile and things could be settled by tomorrow. “We’re kind of trying to work to get something accomplished by June 1st,” Anderson said. “See what happens here. It’s not about money.”
Anderson didn’t detail what the issues are in negotiations. “I am probably eighth in the league in terms of compensation and the difference between where I am at and the top three in the league is pretty significant,” he said talking about Big Ten head baseball coaches. “But it’s not about money at this stage of the game. It’s more about having a contract that I feel comfortable continuing to invest the time and energy it takes to have a competitive Division I baseball program in the Big Ten, and language that I think is respectful of my tenure.”
The employment agreement Anderson signed with the University of Minnesota about five years ago called for an annual salary of at least $225,000. The agreement provided bonus compensation including $12,500 for winning a Big Ten title, $7,500 for the Big Ten tournament championship, $7,500 for making the NCAA Tournament and $5,000 for conference Coach of the Year.
Is there a possibility Anderson won’t return for the 2022 season? “I don’t think that’s my decision,” he answered. “My intention is to be back. It’s up to the department (and athletic director) Mark Coyle to decide if that’s going to happen or not.”
On May 16 Anderson turned 66 years old. There are many college coaches in various sports who are older and still have the will and energy to succeed. Anderson knows he has more to offer to the program he loves.
“I don’t want to be here just to be here,” he said. “I want to be here if I think I can make a difference in the success of our program and mentoring our kids and preparing them for the next 50 years of their lives. I’ll know when that time comes (to leave). I’ll pay attention to my energy level and what I have to offer and I’ll know when the time is right.”
The pandemic of 2020 and 2021 has crushed budgets of college athletic departments across the country including Minnesota where the maroon and gold ledger is bleeding red ink. Coyle cut three men’s sports last year in response to the financial crisis.
Baseball is the oldest sport at the U, dating back 133 seasons, but could the program be cut in the not so distant future to help department finances? Wisconsin eliminated its program about 30 years ago and other prominent universities don’t participate in baseball.
Anderson acknowledged these are both unprecedented and uncertain times. “I think everything is on the table based on the financial model and what happens going forward. So I don’t think you can say it’s not (possible, eliminating baseball).”
The program and Anderson are beloved by U alums and other Minnesotans. The Gophers have had just three coaches since 1948, including Dick Siebert who won three national championships. Anderson, a Minnesota native, was a pitcher for the “Chief” in 1974-1975 before sustaining an injury and becoming a student coach.
At 26, Anderson succeeded George Thomas as head coach following the 1981 season. He had been an assistant coach to Thomas.
Anderson entered this season as both the all-time winningest coach in program history and the Big Ten. His teams have won 11 Big Ten regular season titles and 10 conference tournament championships. At the start of this year, he was second in wins (1,325) among all active Division I baseball coaches.
Affectionately referred to as “14” because of his uniform number, Anderson has the admiration of countless individuals for not only his accomplishments but how he has impacted lives. He is admired, too, for the integrity with which he has run his program and the straight forward way he goes about his business. “We’re lucky to have him” is a quote so many people will offer about 14.
The 2021 Gopher baseball season ended yesterday. It was a season like no other for Anderson and his team, with Minnesota finishing with a 6-31 record.
This spring the Gophers went through a nearly three-week stretch where they didn’t play because of the virus. How much did the pandemic contribute to the atypical Minnesota record? “I don’t think it’s ever one thing,” Anderson said about the worst record in his career. “I think it’s a series of things. Obviously COVID is a contributor, significant contributor because it’s impacted the development of our team. …”
The Gophers came out of last season with a young team that Anderson and his staff hoped to develop, but practice was limited in the fall. This spring the team has faced both limited practice and game time, a “slew” of injuries to the pitching staff and other health issues with position players. “It’s just been one thing after another,” Anderson said.
With the pandemic easing and hopefully the U and Anderson soon agreeing on a new contract, history indicates better times are ahead for the program. “We gotta get busy to kind of reset our program, and hopefully have a normal year where we can start doing the things we’ve done historically,” the Minnesota icon said.