Wheeler becomes free agent

The Phoenix Coyotes released a statement today saying that former Gopher forward Blake Wheeler has rejected their offer and he will become a free agent.

Wheeler withdrew from school this summer after his junior year to pursue a pro career.

"We offered Blake a contract which was both commensurate with his draft position and far exceeded any guaranteed contract he can receive, under the current CBA, with any other team," Phoenix GM Don Maloney said. "He has decided, however, that becoming a free agent is in his best interest.

"We are very happy with the compensatory we will receive for Blake not signing, which will be the fifth pick in the second round. This is a very deep draft and we now have five picks in the first two rounds, which is very exciting."

Under terms of the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, any player who does not remain a college player through the graduation of his applicable class (in this case 2009), must submit a letter stating his intention to turn pro. Upon submission of that letter, the player loses his college eligibility and the drafting club has 30 days to sign the player. If the parties do not reach an agreement, the player becomes a free agent.

Wheeler submitted his letter on May 8 and his agent informed the Coyotes they were rejecting their offer on Wednesday.

Wheeler was a former fifth overall pick of Phoenix in 2004. He was drafted under the old CBA, which is why he could have made more by signing with Phoenix. Entry-level contracts are capped at a smaller value under the new CBA.

If he signed with Phoenix, Wheeler could have signed for $984,200 with a $295,260 signing bonus. Now, the max he can sign for is $875,000 with an $87,500 signing bonus.

His case is very unique case to college hockey, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Kristo, Fienhage head to combine

The NHL Combine will be held this week in Toronto and two Sioux recruits will be there.

Danny Kristo and Corey Fienhage, both ranked in the top 40 in the final draft rankings by Central Scouting, will be doing exercise testing and interviews with NHL teams.

Roseau’s Aaron Ness, a Minnesota recruit, also will be there.

There isn’t nearly as much coverage of the NHL Combine as there is of the NFL Combine, but you usually can find a couple of stories on TSN.ca. So browse that site if you’re trying to find some info about what’s going on in Toronto.

The draft is coming up quickly: June 20-21 in Ottawa.

NHL ratings up

Are some of the game’s dynamic, young stars helping bring the NHL back?

Ratings are up big time in the playoffs this season.

The conference finals were the most-watched since 2002. They were up 77 percent. Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals was the most-watched Cup Finals game on cable since 2002. That game was up 157 percent from the previous season.

Game 1 also was the second-most watched program ever on Versus behind Lance Armstrong’s final ride in the Tour de France.

There are constant rumors about the NHL returning to ESPN. Maybe these rising ratings will interest executives at ESPN more about getting the NHL back.

Sioux hockey season ends

Andy Schneider and the Portland Pirates were knocked out of the AHL playoffs late last week. To my knowledge, Schneider was the last former/future Sioux player left playing for his team this season.

The Pirates held a 3-0 lead late in the second period in Game 6 against Wilkes Barre-Scranton, but gave up a goal with 12 seconds remaining in the second, two more in the third and one in overtime to lose 4-3.

In Game 7, Wilkes Barre-Scranton scored with 31 seconds remaining in the game to win 3-2.

The Wilkes Barre-Scranton Penguins will try to fare better than their NHL counterpart has so far in their own finals. They play the Chicago Wolves.

Schneider will be a free agent in the offseason.

If I missed someone and there still is a former Sioux player in action, let me know.

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Kaip signs with Thrashers

Last season’s captain, Rylan Kaip, signed with the Atlanta Thrashers today.

Kaip, a senior, was a ninth-round pick in the 2003 draft by the Thrashers. He had attended their prospect camp the last couple of summers.

It has got to be a great day for Kaip, who thought his hockey career was over three years ago. Kaip suffered from post concussion syndrome as a rookie and his headaches weren’t going away. Unable to concentrate in class or on the ice, he began researching other careers.

But it’s time to pursue a hockey career for Kaip.

He finished his four-year career at UND with 39 points in 144 games and a 2-0 record when dropping the gloves. He was one of UND’s top penalty killers last season.

Clarke may go No. 1 overall in Q draft

There’s a story in today’s Moncton Times & Transcript that says Sioux recruit Garrett Clarke may be taken No. 1 overall in the QMJHL draft by the Moncton Wildcats.

If that’s the case, a battle may be brewing between UND and a major junior team — similar to the one for Jonathan Toews.

If a player signs on with a major junior team, he is no longer eligible for college hockey.

Major junior teams usually don’t pick a player that high unless they are confident he’ll come to their team. Toews became the first No. 1 overall pick in the WHL draft to spurn the league for college hockey.

When Clarke made his commitment to UND in January, his father, Tim, said that the family wanted to make the commitment early to let the Q teams know that Garrett is going the college route.

In today’s story, the Clarkes say that they are still committed to going to the Fargo Force of the USHL and UND after that. But they are getting offers from Q teams and he acknowledges that things could change in two months.

Right now, Moncton’s head coach says that Clarke’s family advisor has told them he’s "definitely going to pursue U.S. college hockey."

Another interesting twist — Moncton is Clarke’s hometown. He grew up there and moved to the United States only a few years ago. Last season, he played for Russell Stover AAA under coach Jason Herter, a former Sioux.

Where will he be next year?

It appears that we could have a showdown between two Sioux coaching staffs (UND’s and the Fargo Force’s of Dean Blais, Chad Johnson and Herter) and a major junior team for Clarke’s services.

Read the article here.

Random updates

A few random happenings….

Although recruit David Toews is ranked to go in the third or fourth round by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, ISS continues to rank him as a first-round pick. Here are May’s projections for the first-round of the NHL draft. Toews is at No. 27, followed by Roseau’s Aaron Ness.

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ESPN featured the cousin of UND’s Brad Malone, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Ryan Malone. They also talked to Ryan’s father, Greg, and Chuck Grillo, who runs the camp that both Brad and Ryan attend in the summer. Read that story here.

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The Fargo Forum’s Mike McFeely says that Fargo Force draft pick Shane McColgan is interested in going to UND….unless he opts for the WHL, where he was a first-round pick.

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The Winnipeg Sun ranked the top moments in Canadian hockey history. The World Juniors in Grand Forks is ranked fifth on the list.

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The IIHF ranked the Miracle on Ice as the top moment in hockey history. UND’s Dave Christian was a member of that team. The IIHF also named the all-century hockey team. It is:

F — Wayne Gretzky, CAN
F — Valeri Kharlamov, RUS
F — Sergei Makarov, RUS
D — Vyacheslav Fetisov, RUS
D — Borje Salming, SWE
G — Vladislav Tretiak, RUS

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The Chicago Blackhawks re-signed Roseau’s Dustin Byfuglien.

Last man standing: Andy Schneider

With the elimination of the Dallas Stars in the NHL playoffs tonight, we can award this year’s last man standing honor to Andy Schneider.

He is the final former/future Sioux player still playing hockey this season.

Schneider and the Portland Pirates are up 2-1 in their AHL semifinal series against Wilkes Barre-Scranton.

Technically, no former Sioux player had been playing for his team for a while (World Championships doesn’t count), but former UND players Dave Tippett and Rick Wilson are coaching the Stars.

Dallas was knocked out by Detroit tonight, setting up what should be a fantastic final between the two best teams in the NHL — the Wings and the Penguins.

Q&A with Brad Eidsness

Just like the last two summers, I’ll try to feature every recruit either in the newspaper or with a Q&A here. We’ll get it started with goalie recruit Brad Eidsness.

Eidsness was named the MVP of the AJHL (ironically beating out the Canadian Junior A Player of the Year, Joe Colborne). He finished with a league-leading .933 save percentage and a 2.12 goals-against average. His record: 29-4-4.

Q. How did you feel your season went overall?

BRAD EIDSNESS: It was a good season. We had a strong team and I had a good year as well. It was a lot of fun and I was able to do a lot of cool things like play in the World Junior A Challenge. I was out for the first month with mono, but I was able to rebound faster than expected.

Q. What was the highlight of the year?

BRAD EIDSNESS: It might have been playing for Canada West in the World Junior A Challenge. It was a good experience. There were a lot of good hockey players there and it was good to experience winning at a higher level. It maybe shows you a little bit more what it takes.

Q. You got to team up with Sioux recruit Andrew MacWilliam at the Junior A Challenge, right?

BRAD EIDSNESS: Yeah, I know him pretty well. He’s a big, tough, physical D-man. That’s his role. He hadn’t scored a goal all year, but at the AJHL All-Star weekend, he won the shootout competition. It was a timed event and he’d go and shoot and score. Everybody else was trying dekes. After he won, we were all giving him a hard time about it. We were just joking around, though. He’s a good guy.

Q. Are you looking forward to having a big, physical guy like that playing in front of you?

BRAD EIDSNESS: Yeah, I’m really looking forward to that. We had a real run-and-gun team this year. We played an exciting style of hockey. That meant I got to face a lot of quality shots. It will be nice to have a couple of defensive specialists on the team.

Q. Were you able to follow the Sioux much this season?

BRAD EIDSNESS: Yeah, I got updates every week from the coaching staff. It sounds like they had a real good season again there and it sounds like Lamoureux had quite a strong year as well.

Q. What are your thoughts about coming to UND this fall?

BRAD EIDSNESS: It’s really exciting coming in knowing that I have a chance to play during my first season. When Grieco left there, I knew I might get a chance to play a little more this season. It maybe helped motivate me a little bit more. That’s one of the reasons I’m coming down this summer — to get in the swing of things and be prepared right off the bat.

Q. So you will be in Grand Forks early?

BRAD EIDSNESS: Yeah, for sure. I want to be ready. If I get there in the summertime, it will maybe help lessen the gap between juniors and college. Freshmen go through a learning curve. I’m going to do a lot of work to try to lessen that.

Q. What are your expectations for the season?

BRAD EIDSNESS: I don’t think expectations are going to change for the team. They are always high. For me personally, I want to come in and hopefully take over the starting job… if that’s attainable. I think I’m definitely in the running.

Q. Are you happy you played an extra year of juniors?

BRAD EIDSNESS: I had an opportunity to go to a lot of programs as an 18-year-old. But I chose to go to North Dakota. In the end, I think (the second year of juniors) will be really beneficial for me. I grew a lot as a player and I’m more mature off the ice. I’m probably more ready for the things that are going to come at me. I was able to shore up a lot of areas and able to dominate at a level. The second year was really good for my confidence. I got to play a lot and got to see a lot of shots. It was a lot of fun and it helped prepare me. We liked to open it up and I was seeing 30-plus shots a night and saw a lot of good scoring chances. I think staying was a real good decision.