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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Fontaine injury opens door for another forward; Wild's goalie conundrum

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice, Wild training camp Updated: October 1, 2014 - 4:39 PM

The Wild, 2-1-1 in the preseason, plays its second-to-last exhibition game Thursday night in St. Louis.

There is NO bigger game going on involving ANY local team Thursday night, so make sure you keep your eyes ONLY on the @russostrib Twitter network and listen to 107.9-FM. The Wild game has been moved from KFAN to KOOL 108 for NO reason WHATSOEVER.

The big piece of news that came out of today’s practice is right wing Justin Fontaine will miss a couple weeks and definitely the Oct. 9 opener with a lower-body injury. It explains why the poor guy, who was walking a bit gingerly off the ice today, looked so glum. Coach Mike Yeo said “hopefully it’ll be less than that, but that’s what we’re preparing for right now.”

“Nothing serious that we wouldn’t expect him to be completely fine afterward. It’s just going to take a little time,” Yeo said.

Fontaine’s injury opens another roster spot out of camp up front. Barring injury, here’s the lines as of now:

Parise-Granlund-Pominville

Vanek-Koivu-Coyle

Cooke-Haula-Niederreiter

XXXXXX-Brodziak-XXXXXX

XXXXXX

As you can see by my three XXXXXX’s, there’s potentially three forward spots available and five guys now vying for them: Jason Zucker, Cody Almond, Brett Sutter, Michael Keranen and Stephane Veilleux.

I’m expecting all five to play in Thursday’s game. On the trip: Those five, Niederreiter, Haula, Coyle, Brodziak, Ballard, Dumba, Bickel, Folin and Scandella.

I’ll toss the full lineup on here after 4 p.m. The Wild is delaying the announcement because as previously reported, it plans to recall some players previously sent down for the Blues game. From that list, the Wild is three forwards and one defenseman short for the game.

The Wild recalled forwards Tyler Graovac, Zack Phillips and Joel Rechlicz and defensemen Jon Blum and Justin Falk. One defenseman of the seven coming will likely be scratched unless Yeo chooses to play Bickel at forward again. Then, another forward would be scratched.

By the way, Jordan Schroeder cleared waivers and was assigned to Iowa.

I think Zucker has had a good camp, or at least much better than last year. Keranen is interesting. He is very, very skilled, but do you want him playing on the fourth line if he’s not on the power play? And right now, I don’t see how there’s room for him on the power play.

We all know what Veilleux brings by now, and Yeo made it sound today like it’s Almond vs. Sutter (Darryl’s kid) for the other spot.

“Both guys [are] pretty similar to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “That’s been a good competition there, both guys showing that they’re willing to play the body, both guys have factored in on the penalty kill, both guys have made some plays with the puck in the offensive zone when they’ve gotten it. So I think for them, the better the understanding that they have of what we’re looking for – we’re looking for somebody to come in and not be a top guy on the power play. Our top two lines are pretty set, our power play is pretty set, but we need penalty killers, we need physical guys, we need momentum players and we need guys that are very responsible defensively. That, in the end, is probably what it’s going to come down to.”
 

I talked to Zucker, Almond and Sutter today, and you can read their quotes in Thursday’s paper.

Thursday’s game will be a final chance for those five listed above and maybe defensemen Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and Stu Bickel to make final impressions. As I have written before, technically, the Wild could keep all three and will only keep BOTH Dumba and Folin if BOTH are inside the top-6 (meaning Ballard as the seventh, barring injury).

That’s because Yeo, and earlier this week GM Chuck Fletcher, said that Saturday’s final exhibition game against St. Louis at home will feature “very close to if not” the lineup the Wild plans to play opening night.

“Not to say that game [Thursday in St. Louis] is going to be the deciding factor, but if you want to compare it to school, that’s going to be the final exam and probably the grades in that one are going to count a little bit more than the ones from the start of the year,” Yeo said. “We will evaluate everything as a whole, but what we’re looking for is the progress.”

I love that quote.

Niklas Backstrom, by the way, will play in St. Louis with Ilya Bryzgalov backing him up. Darcy Kuemper will play in Saturday’s preseason finale.

Yeo said the Wild planned to meet after practice to discuss the three-goalie situation. However, I’m not sure that happened because GM Chuck Fletcher only recently got back from the Board of Governors meeting in New York.

Also, I’m not positive Fletcher wants to have that conversation yet because so much can happen in these final two games.

I mean, I don't mean to be the reminder of bad news, but the Wild seems to always get goalies hurt in St. Louis.

Heck, Backstrom, the all-time leader in Wild victories, became an NHL goalie because Josh Harding strained his groin in a preseason game at St. Louis. Heck, Backstrom because the Wild’s everyday goalie because Manny Fernandez injured his knee at St. Louis. Heck, the Wild signed Jose Theodore in 2010 because Harding tore his ACL and MCL in his preseason debut … at St. Louis. HECK, Ilya Bryzgalov got his opportunity to become the Wild’s No. 1 because David Backes ran Darcy Kuemper and gave him a concussion last year AT ST. LOUIS!!!!

Get what I’m saying? It’s kind of why I decided not to ask Bryzgalov today if he would ever consider a two-way contract with the Wild and maybe start off in Iowa. Heck, it’s why Fletcher has also not yet asked him that question.

This is the Wild, the organization that epitomizes goaltending instability. In four days, a lot can change. The most important thing is right now, Kuemper is playing great, Backstrom looks healthy and good. And, frankly, so does Bryzgalov.

But, as Yeo said today about whether the Wild could keep three goalies, “It’s not a perfect situation by any means. I don’t know that’s where we would be steering toward, but I’m not going to say that it won’t happen.”

I honestly think he’ll have to be released from his tryout If Kuemper and Backstrom are healthy after these exhibition games. I don’t think the Wild wants to use three of its 23 roster spots on goalies, and remember, three goalies could eventually become four because Harding is expected back after a minimum of two months.

Remember, the Wild could always release Bryzgalov from his tryout and sign him back eventually if something were to happen (if he isn’t signed elsewhere).

Bryzgalov’s attitude continues to be refreshing. He said again today that he’s just enjoying being around the team and helping them get through camp. And I have said many times: At least these teammates genuinely like the guy: “He puts a smile on everyone’s face. He’s a funny guy,” said Jason Pominville.

By the way, Bryzgalov on taking those selfies with the fans the other night during play while sitting on the bench: “You know, I’ve got to do that. Fans came to have some fun. I’ve got to respect it. There were lots of kids out there, and I must do it for the kids. When you see lots of kids, they excited, and they want to take the picture, it’s nice. They came here to support us and cheering for us, and we have to give them back something.”

On tossing his toque on the ice for Pominville’s hat trick, Bryzgalov said, “You know, I was excited for Pommer. It’s not everyday you score a hat trick, and I celebrated.”

Back to Thursday’s game, the Wild has designed this game as a final test of sorts because it’s at St. Louis, the big, bad Blues.

“That’s an important game for a lot of guys tomorrow,” Yeo said. “We want to see who can go in and who can play in a tough building and who can play against a very good hockey team and show that they’re able to perform in those conditions.

“Also we’ve got some guys who maybe wouldn’t get the same opportunity on the power play and who wouldn’t get the same amount of ice time as they would normally if all of our vets were in the lineup, and we’ll give them some opportunity to feel good about their game and to be leaders for our group.”

Yeo on Dumba: “I’ve been impressed with both guys and I’m referring to Folin and Dumba. Both guys have shown that they bring intangibles, they bring qualities that are unique and that’s what we’re looking for. If we’re looking for a big, solid, heavy defender, then we’ve got one and if we’re looking for more of a puck-moving, skating, offensive-minded guy then we have another option. For those guys, the more that you can do in addition to those things, the better chance they have.”

Yeo on Folin, who got a game last year and practiced with the Wild for a few weeks: “I think from a comfort level, being here, being around teammates and getting used to our teammates I think so. … I do think that he’s benefited from that. Both guys have had that opportunity. Dumba started at the beginning of the year with us last year. I don’t think these guys are coming in and feeling completely overwhelmed with the newness of the systems and the teammates and certainly that helps.”

Charlie Coyle has had a good camp, but the Wild wants more offensively. It’ll be interesting if he doesn’t show it down the stretch of camp here because Yeo is very happy with Niederreiter and maybe is thinking of moving him up to that second line.

“I’ve seen all the things you would expect from him as far as the work ethic,” Yeo said of Coyle. “He’s playing the game hard, he’s playing the game as a big body. I do know that there’s a little more that he can get to as far as the offensive part of his game is not clicking quite at the level we know
it can get to. Part of it is working into a line with Tomas and Mikko there’s a bit of a feeling out process there. But overall I’m not disappointed by any means with his camp. He’s come in in phenomenal shape, and he’s working. But you can just tell with timing and execution that there’s another level he can get to.”
 

Conversely, Yeo on Niederreiter: “I’ve been very pleased with his camp. He looks very motivated, he
looks great on the ice. We still treat Nino like a young player so we keep pushing him every day. It’s got to be about the next day. But up to this point, I’ve been very pleased.”
 

Interestante. Talk to you Thursday. I am covering the morning skate here Thursday, then hustling to the airport for my flight to St. Louis. So, I’ll try to blog either before my flight or from the air prior to the game.

Pominville's hat trick leads Wild to preseason win; Bryzgalov takes selfies with fans

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage, Wild training camp Updated: September 30, 2014 - 11:11 AM

Tuesday update: Jon Blum, Justin Falk and Joel Rechlicz cleared waivers, officially assigned to Iowa.

Ilya Bryzgalov, always the character, was a riot tonight during the Wild's 4-1 exhibition victory over the Pittsburgh.

Bryzgalov, who had a sensational attitude all camp even though he's on a tryout and will likely be released from that tryout unless something unexpected happens with Darcy Kuemper or Niklas Backstrom, took selfies with fans during the third period through the glass as he sat on the Wild bench.

In fact, a line began to form during play and finally the ushers had to put an end to it.

Here are some pics from Twitter:


Then, after Jason Pominville's empty-net goal -- the third in the third period by Pominville for the natural hat trick -- Bryzgalov threw his toque on the ice as part of the celebration.

“What’s he think he’s a model?” joked equipment manager Tony DaCosta, who stood next to him. “Then he starts waving them all down! Then he throws his [toque] on the ice when Pommer gets his hat trick. That's our last one!”

Tonight's game was dreadful at times to watch, so naturally, my first question to coach Mike Yeo in the postgame presser was about Bryz.

"No comment. No comment," Yeo said, laughing, when asked about the selfies and throwing his toque on the ice.

Man, Bryzgalov can be refreshing to cover sometimes. I ran into him at a restaurant in Pittsburgh the other night and had a tremendous conversation about real-life world stuff. The more I cover him, the more I truly think he is pretty misunderstood. A lot of people have asked me if he'd take a two-way, but I can't imagine him riding the AHL buses and regional jets.

And after tonight's 32-save effort by Kuemper in a game his teammates were pretty bad, I don't think there's any concern from management to put him on the team. In fact, after the game, Yeo went on and on about how good Kuemper is at controlling rebounds and making plays die by freezing pucks. That key strength could be his inside track toward being the eventual No. 1.

Yeo said he doesn't mind stoppages in the D-zone because the Wild's such a good faceoff team.

And Backstrom is on the team, so since there's only one goal and preferably two spots for goalies, Bryzgalov is likely what he thought he would be -- Kuemper/Backstrom insurance.

Onto the game:

With the score tied 1-1 entering the third period, the fourth line of Stephane Veilleux, Cody Almond and Zack Phillips had a good momentum shift early in the period for what honestly was the first sustained pressure by the Wild in the entire game.

Then, finally the Wild got going.

Zach Parise, who scored a first-period power-play goal from Mikael Granlund and Matt Dumba, dropped a pass for Pominville. He unloaded the tee-up by Jeff Zatkoff at 8:39 of the period. Four minutes later, after a tremendous shift by Parise in every zone, Pominville gobbled up Jonas Brodin’s shot off the back wall and scored on a wraparound. Finally, Pominville took Granlund’s pass for the natural hat trick empty-netter.

Parise on the game: It wasn’t great. Special teams was good again. It was solid, but I thought 5-on-5 wasn’t very good. They did a good job. They were in our face a lot in the neutral zone, but we were doing a lot of swinging, we were trying to hit stretch plays and a lot of turn our back through the neutral zone and because of that we spent a lot of time in our zone.”

On Pominville and his line: “Great preseason. We all need to be a lot better. Our line needs to be a lot better and play a little more consistent. I think right now we’re to some extent still playing summer hockey, a lot of stick checking and you’ll see flashes of playing normal hockey, but we need to do that a little more often.”

The Thomas Vanek-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line wasn’t very good, at least not nearly as good as they were in Pittsburgh last Thursday. Vanek didn’t have a great debut. He actually had a breakaway but tried to drop a pass that went right to a defender.

The third line of Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Jordan Schroeder? Yeo said they weren’t great all game and Schroeder was placed on waivers Tuesday for the purpose of sending to Iowa. Phillips was also reassigned, although Yeo said while he’s not ready yet to make the Wild, he’s much improved and this was the best game he has seen Phillips, the 2011 first-rounder, play. Yeo said he has come to camp in much better shape, which has made him move better on the ice. Both of those – fitness and skating – has been his professional downfall so far, but it seems like he got the message this summer.

The Wild’s roster is now at 30 (Brandon Whitney was returned to his QMJHL team today). Technically, with Josh Harding suspended, it’s at 29. Technically, with Gustav Olofsson expected to be reassigned to Iowa once he’s healthy, it’s at 28. Remember, 23 can make the team.

The roster as of now:

Forwards (17): Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Cody Almond, Justin Fontaine, Jason Zucker, Stephane Veilleux, Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Cooke, Thomas Vanek, Brett Sutter, Jason Pominville, Michael Keranen, Curt Gogol, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund.

Defensemen (9): Keith Ballard, Stu Bickel, Christian Folin, Marco Scandella, Ryan Suter, Gustav Olofsson, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba.

Goalies (4): Ilya Bryzgalov (tryout), Niklas Backstrom, Darcy Kuemper, Josh Harding.

Matt Dumba flashed some stuff again. He’s a risk-taker and plays with flair and pizzazz. He has got guts and had an assist for a third straight game.

“I feel like I’m doing a lot of good things right now,” Dumba said afterward. “My skating, just everything, is all coming together and feels really good. I’m really on top of my game right now. I’m happy with the summer I had and happy the way I came in. I just have to continue doing that. That’s what it’s about being a pro, that consistency. If I can just keep doing that over the next couple weeks, I think if all goes as planned, hopefully I stay here.”

Frankly, not a couple weeks. A couple days. The final roster is on the horizon.

On Dumba, Yeo said he saw “a lot of good” tonight. “There’s a couple plays I’m not thrilled with, but at the same time, we understand that he’s trying to make our team and he’s not going just make our team by being a safe player all night long, too. He has the ability to create some things and do some things that are definitely at the NHL level and there’s some parts as far as game awareness and understanding the situation that he still has to work on, but it’s easy to sit here and nitpick on a guy like that, but we had a lot of guys that were making mistakes tonight, so overall I thought he was good.”

Pominville on Dumba: “He’s a good skater, moves the puck well. He can shoot. He defends well, too, I think a lot of times he’s aggressive and he’ll create things offensively by being aggressive. It’s fun having a guy out there, you know he’s going to move the puck and he’s going to join and create things offensively. He brings a lot to the table. Obviously he’s still young, but he has a bright future with us.”

On the game, Yeo said after I pointed out that the first two periods were hard to watch: “Third period was very tough to watch in spurts, too. That’s preseason. You end up being pleased with some players, disappointed with some players, but at the same time you’ve got to make sure you don’t overreact or get too excited when things are going well, too.”

The three players Yeo raved about were Kuemper, Parise and defenseman Marco Scandella, who “was a horse all over the ice.”

Pominville, after a tough game I felt in Pittsburgh last week, had a second straight good game. Yeo raved about the job Parise is doing in these preseason games. His work ethic is ridiculous when you consider he’s a vet and vets often mail in the preseason or at a minimum are in do-not-get-hurt mode.

“Go watch that goal, Pommer’s second goal again, and watch Zach that shift,” Yeo said. “It was a great play by Pommer to bury it, but Zach, he knows he’s here, his position’s not really in doubt with us (Yeo said that sarcastically obviously), but he does the right thing in D zone, then he wins a battle, then he wins a race, then he’s the first forechecker, then he continues to stay on the hunt. He was just relentless that shift.”

On Scandella, Yeo said, “He’s walking tall right now. He’s playing the game that way. He’s standing his ground. He’s playing hard in front of the net. He’s a big, strong guy and we need our big, strong guys to play big games.” He compared it to the late-season conversations he had last year to challenge Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle, saying it has nothing to do with fighting, it’s about them playing big games.

Yeo said of Scandella: “He took a huge step last year in his game and up to this point in camp he’s been in another level from that.”

That’s it for me. The Wild has the day off Tuesday, which means I can work ahead. I’ll update the blog once it’s known whether Jon Blum, Justin Falk and Joel Rechlicz clear waivers. Again, when those guys clear, Schroeder will go on waivers for 24 hours before he is officially assigned to Iowa.

The Wild is 2-1-1 in the preseason now with two games left against St. Louis -- Thursday in St. Louis and Saturday at home. Opening night will be here before you know it.

Again, if you want a good taste of what Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher are thinking about the blue line right now, see the previous blog. That also has a link to the new podcast with myself and the Denver Post’s Adrian Dater.

Have a good Tuesday folks.

Fletcher, Yeo on Wild's roster cuts, Dumba, Folin, Bickel, Graovac, team toughness and more

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate, Wild training camp Updated: September 29, 2014 - 1:32 PM

The Wild’s roster is becoming a bit clearer after today’s roster moves to assign defensemen Jon Blum, Justin Falk and Guillaume Gelinas and forwards Joel Rechlicz, Tyler Graovac and Brett Bulmer to AHL Iowa. This blog is a tad long with a lot of, uh, words, but try to read them at your leisure because it provides a good template right now for what GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo are thinking.

Blum, Falk and Rechlicz will officially be assigned Tuesday as long as they clear waivers at 11 a.m. Don’t be surprised if we see a couple of these guys (maybe Rechlicz and Blum) recalled to play in Thursday’s exhibition game at St. Louis.

The Wild’s roster is now 33. However, Gustav Olofsson is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. He will be reassigned once he’s healthy. So that puts the roster at 32. Josh Harding will start as a non-roster injured player, so it’s really at 31. And actually the Wild is still deciding what it plans to do with former Blackhawks draft pick Brandon Whitney (it may sign the goalie), but since he won’t be on the team, the roster’s kinda sorta at 30.

Twenty-three (23) players can make the opening night roster Oct. 9 against Colorado.

(Speaking of the Avs, the Denver Post’s Adrian Dater and I have started our own Podcast called, “Inside Hockey with Dater and Russo.” You can soon subscribe to it for free on iTunes (I’ll let you know when we get that up and running), but if you want to listen to the first one, click this link).

So, the roster looks like this (by jersey number):

Forwards (19): Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu, Jordan Schroeder, Zach Parise, Cody Almond, Justin Fontaine, Jason Zucker, Stephane Veilleux, Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Cooke, Thomas Vanek, Brett Sutter, Jason Pominville, Michael Keranen, Curt Gogol, Erik Haula, Zack Phillips, Mikael Granlund.

Defensemen (9): Keith Ballard, Stu Bickel, Christian Folin, Marco Scandella, Ryan Suter, Gustav Olofsson, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba.

Goalies (5): Ilya Bryzgalov (tryout), Niklas Backstrom, Darcy Kuemper, Josh Harding, Brandon Whitney (invitee).

Tonight’s lineup vs. the Penguins (game will be replayed on NHL Network at 11 p.m.):

Forwards

Parise-Granlund-Pominville

Vanek-Koivu-Coyle

Cooke-Brodziak-Schroeder

Veilleux-Almond-Phillips

Defensemen

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Folin

Bickel-Dumba

Goalies

Kuemper (scheduled for full 60)

Bryzgalov

Sidney Crosby won’t play tonight because of the death of his grandmother.

-------With Blum, Falk and Olofsson likely starting the season in Iowa, the blue line is getting very clear.

With Suter, Brodin, Scandella, Spurgeon and Ballard roster locks, there are two spots (maybe three) left (if the Wild keeps eight D).

Dumba, Folin and Bickel remain.

As I have mentioned all camp, the organization feels Bickel is valuable because he’s kind of a rover. He can play the blue line or wing and can be an extra depth guy. If Dumba and Folin are to stick, Fletcher and Yeo made very clear today that they both have to play. So for them to both stick, there either needs to be an injury (Ballard is banged up) or one of the roster locks would have to be a scratch. The only roster lock in that category would be Ballard.

Asked if Folin and Dumba could both make the team, Fletcher told me, “As long as guys are playing and developing, I’m fine with that. They’ve got to be playing. I don’t need to state the obvious, but things change quickly with injuries and situational play. Bickel, too, has had a very strong camp and those players have earned the right to be here. I said it to you last year, to me, the opening-day roster isn’t that big a deal. I think a lot more is made of it because two or three days into it, you’re already making changes. I think there’s going to be a constant battle for ice time all season long and players like Blum and Falk will factor into it again. They need to pick up their play, they need to get their game going, but we fully expect that they’ll factor into the equation at some point, too. Whether you’re here for the opening game or not, things will change. To me the bigger story is so far, both Folin and Dumba have been able to play at a pretty high level in camp, and that’s a good sign for our organization.”

Folin, Dumba and Bickel are all right-shot defensemen. Bickel will get a look tonight on the left side. Folin apparently has experience playing that side in the past, but Fletcher said, “You want to give younger players a chance to be comfortable so they can be successful,” so the Wild doesn’t want Folin or Dumba making the team on the right side.

Sooooo, that makes things clearer too. If Folin and Dumba both make it, the Wild would prefer them to play the right side. Sooooo, that means left-shot defenseman Jonas Brodin, who is so smooth he has played his off side since he got to Minnesota as a 19-year-old, would have to move to his left side if both Folin and Dumba makes the team. That would likely mean Spurgeon becomes Suter’s defense partner again, which could be why the Wild’s getting a look at Folin with Scandella tonight.

However, Yeo said we may see the defense pairs mixed and matched tonight, so maybe we see Dumba in that situation, too.

But Fletcher again made clear that he’s most concerned with the long-term development of Folin and Dumba, so if they’re both not going to play regularly to start the season, “I wouldn’t hesitate to put either one of them down [in Iowa] if they need to get more minutes. But they’ve played well and as of today deserve to be here.”

A big reason for today’s roster moves was the Wild’s coaching staff wants to get to a more manageable one group in practice. This is also a good chance to sneak Falk, Blum and Rechlicz through waivers. Again, even if any of those players is recalled for Thursday’s game (assuming they clear Tuesday), that player would not have to be placed on waivers again to get back to Iowa.

Yeo again made clear that both Dumba and Folin cannot make the team unless they’re both inside the Wild’s top-6. Dumba and Folin won’t be the seventh or eighth defenseman.

“You’ve heard me say enough times that young players have to play,” Yeo said. “I don’t want these guys coming into the game analyzing and overthinking things. That’s part of the competition for them to being able to deal with that. We haven’t made any of those decisions yet, but if you want to read between the lines or just research from my previous my quotes, I’ve said that enough times, I don’t want anybody sitting in the press box that’s a young player. They need to play games, they need to develop.”

-------It was very clear today that the Wild felt Blum had a second consecutive sub-par camp. Yeo said, “This is not a final decision. But with that said, there are some other players who have done more that deserve to be here right now. This is a guy, I know he can play games for us. He’s got to get his game sharp, he’s got to make sure he’s ready because he’s done some good things for us, but it’s just not there right now.”

-------The Wild is thrilled with Graovac.

Cue Fletcher: “I would say [Carson] Soucy and [Dylan] Labbe are the most improved kids for the non-pro players, but I’d have to say Graovac is the most improved player in our organization. Nobody’s come further than he did. I just told him, he was never in competition for our fourth-line center spot. There was no way we were going to keep him and let him play limited minutes on the fourth line. We think he has a chance to be a good hockey player and the important thing now is for him to just go and be a big-minute player and have a big role in Iowa and to develop his game. He had a very good camp, but right now, he just has to play. He played well at the end of last season. If you look at his junior career, it started with very modest point totals early and then he really developed quickly as he got into his second and third seasons, so we’re anticipating the same thing in pro hockey. He has a chance to be a very good player for us. He understood. I had a great meeting with him. We want him to be the old clichéd big fish in a small pond instead of fighting for a few minutes here. He’ll get his chance. If he continues to develop over the season, maybe he puts himself in contention to be a callup guy. But for me, it’s much more about long-term with him.”

Added Yeo, “He’s got the right attitude just as far as his determination to get better as a player. You can always tell there are certain players that kind of look at you and you almost have the feeling that they feel that you don’t know what you’re talking about. But then there’s other players that take in everything that you say, and those are the ones that gets better. This is what he’s shown from the time that he’s become a pro.”

------Fletcher on Bulmer: “He’s a young guy. Bomber (Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir) said he’s had five separate injuries over the last three seasons. When you’re into your third pro season, it’s just a huge year. Third year pros are expected to be good players in the American League. The key for him is being healthy and getting a good role on that team and just building his confidence and building his game. He was a real longshot to make our team out of camp. But with his size and versatility, I think he’ll be a real important factor for us over the course of the season. For us, it’s just about getting him going and having him play. He’s just got to get his game to a high level, and if he does, I’m sure he’ll be a player that will factor in here at some point.”

-------Yeo said he didn’t yet know what his goalie situation will look like Thursday and Saturday at St. Louis and home vs. St. Louis – the last two preseason games. I assume the Wild will give Niklas Backstrom and Kuemper one more game each, but Yeo said not necessarily and he has liked Bryzgalov’s camp.

“The challenge for us is trying to identify who’s going to be starting with us, who’s going to be our starting goalie for Game 1 and make sure whoever that is that they have to right amount of games to be properly prepared.”

-------Yeo on the importance of Bickel and Rechlicz and team toughness: “Your players play a little bit bigger. There’s a part of the game that exists that is very real, your top players and the comfort level they have, the ability for them to go out and play their game when a guy like that is around. If you want to use the word protection or whatever it is, there’s just a different comfort level. That said, we do have a team that is tough. We showed last year there were a lot of times we didn’t go in with the toughest lineup, but we’ve got a bunch of guys who are going to compete hard and play a tough game in a different sense. No matter who’s in the lineup, we have to make sure we’re ready to play that way.”

-- Thursday’s game in St. Louis will be gigantic for many players (JASON ZUCKER, for one!) because Saturday’s finale will largely be the Wild’s final roster playing. Said Fletcher: “[Thursday] is going to be a critical, critical game for many players. It’s a great opportunity for us to evaluate players when you go into St. Louis because it’s a tough building, a tough team, a great team.”

Wild-Penguins lineups for Monday's preseason game; oodles of Wild updates

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice, Wild training camp Updated: September 28, 2014 - 1:58 PM

A couple light, fun practices at Xcel Energy Center today. The second practice, which comprised pretty much the NHL roster and a couple hopefuls, ended with a shootout competition.

After a goal, the player who scored threw his stick somewhere on the ice. The last player not to score would be tasked with picking up all the sticks, which were scattered on virtually every inch of the ice surface.

Matt Cooke -- the oldest skater on the team -- lost, making for a comedic scene when "Cookie" had to gather all the sticks. Just to make it a really challenging chore, a couple guys tossed all those extra sticks that rested on the bench onto the ice much to amusement of all the players and coaches, and management in the stands.

Oh, and maybe the media.

"It's my own fault," Cooke said, laughing, afterward. "I hit three posts. I beat the goalie every time, but I have nobody but myself to blame. I'm saving my goals for the season."

Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 1-1-1 Wild plays its fourth preseason game. Minnesota lost 3-2 in overtime Thursday in Pittsburgh.

The Pens are bringing a good lineup (see here), including Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, former Gopher Paul Martin and former Wild Pascal Dupuis.

The Wild's lineup is subject to change based on health (Parise had a maintenance day today and Vanek is still recovering from an upper-body injury), but:

Forwards

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Thomas Vanek (preseason home debut)-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Jordan Schroeder

Michael Keranen-Stephane Veilleux-Cody Almond-Zack Phillips

(It sounds like Keranen would be the guy to be scratched and play Thursday in St. Louis)

Defensemen

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella-Christian Folin

Stu Bickel-Matt Dumba

(Wild looks like it wants to see if Bickel can play the left side)

Goalies

Darcy Kuemper is slated to play the full 60

Ilya Bryzgalov will back up

This is a big game for guys like Schroeder, Veilleux, Almond.

We talked to coach Mike Yeo today a lot about Keranen and how he keeps getting better in camp, and Yeo volunteered that in the meeting he just emerged from, the brass and coaches were commenting that they weren't having enough of these "debates," that not enough bubble players have put themselves on the map to make the team, that it was the veterans who were unusually leading the way and showing the most urgency in camp.

Yeo wasn't talking about guys like Folin and Dumba. He was talking about the bubble guys, some of whom we have only seen play one game (maybe Justin Falk, maybe Brett Bulmer).

The first practice today was a practice that consisted of guys who will likely be Iowa-bound in a few days. Interestingly, Jason Zucker was in that practice.

Zucker won't play Monday and is said to be healthy. Yeo said nothing should be made of that, that he just wanted to get the veterans in that need games and just wanted to get guys in "that we have to answer questions on." Yeo said he told Zucker that he shouldn't be "panicking" and that he's having a good camp.

Incidentally, Yeo had to stop that mostly minor-league practice because he was not happy the way they were practicing.

Yeo talked a lot about Folin and Dumba today. Dumba was really impressive. Until I watched the game again, I didn't realize how good a job he did on the breakout and entry prior to Jared Spurgeon's winner. He basically made the play because Winnipeg cleared the zone with about 30 seconds left in the power play.

We asked Yeo if there's room for both on the team. Personally, I don't see how there is if the Wild's healthy, but Yeo didn't want to get into that yet.

"I don’t think it’s fair to them," Yeo said. "I know they're reading and analyzing everyday, not just their own play, but the play of everybody else. I just want them to concentrate on their game, show us what they can do and relax and have fun doing it. Both guys have earned the opportunity to be in the lineup [Monday]. We'll keep giving them the chance to show what they can do."

On the 3 for 4 power play Saturday with 10 shots, Yeo tried to downplay the hysteria: "We’re only in the preseason right now. So I just want to be careful. We were successful last night because we were running the right routes on our breakout, we were winning faceoffs, because we were shooting the puck. You see it with many, many teams that we you start to have success, you get a little cuter and forget about a lot of the things that you need to be doing. I want to make sure our guys understand it's easier right now than the regular season. Things tighten up. I'm very happy with what we've shown so far, but we're not even close to where we need to be at."

Talk to you Monday. Again, if you happened to miss my feature on J.P. and Zach Parise, here it is. It's a sad but hopefully inspiring story.

Postgame: Wild scores 3 power-play goals in win over Winnipeg; Dumba, Keranen impress

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage, Wild training camp Updated: September 27, 2014 - 10:54 PM

The Wild scored three power-play goals and registered 10 shots on four power-play attempts during Saturday’s 4-3 preseason win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Jared Spurgeon’s snipe with 4 minutes, 51 seconds provided the winner. Nino Niederreiter scored a goal and assist, Mikael Granlund scored a goal, Erik Haula scored on a penalty shot and Michael Keranen assisted on two goals.

Before I get going on the game, please give my Sunday story a read.

J.P. Parise is going through the fight of his life with treatment for Stage 4 lung cancer. I talked with J.P. and his son, Zach, about what they’re going through. It’s a sad but, in a lot of ways, uplifting story. Let’s all keep J.P. and the Parise family in our thoughts and prayers. J.P., who was at tonight’s game, is a wonderful man and it meant a lot that the Parises were willing to share such a personal story with me.

As for the game, the Wild was impressive on the power play. It had a shooter’s mentality right from its four-shot first one, one that ended with a Granlund goal from the slot off passes from Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu.

The Wild did a great job working the half wall and using that man, whether it be Koivu, Granlund or Keranen, to draw defenders to them to free up open ice around the net. The Wild constantly moved the puck and got pucks to the net with traffic. Parise said systematically there have been no changes.

It was just a mindset tonight, he said, and maybe a sign of things to come.

5-on-5, Parise said, “Until almost 10 minutes left in the third, it seemed like a preseason game. I think we were pretty sloppy. We weren’t that great with the puck and we didn’t get a lot of good chances off the rush. To me, it seemed like a mindset. Once we kind of turned it on, almost got serious, we got a lot better. But up until then, we were swinging away from the puck and reaching for a lot of pucks, not really too much determination to get pucks back. It’s an easy fix, but we should start thinking about it now.”

I loved Granlund’s game tonight. Obviously there was the one play in the third in the slot where he tried to force a pass instead of shoot, but he was real good.

Ryan Suter was solid for his first game. Nothing to worry about with this guy.

Matt Dumba was very impressive. He made a tremendous play to set up Niederreiter’s goal and he was physical, which I think is a sign of confidence and feeling more comfortable. Remember, besides his big shot and playmaking, his trademark when drafted was physicality. We didn’t see a lot of that during his 13-game taste last season, but he looked good.

I’m on record that if he’s not getting power-play time here, I think he should go to Iowa and develop. But if he plays like he did tonight, he adds a big threat to that second unit on the point. He certainly showed Mike Yeo and the brass a lot tonight as he likely battles Christian Folin for that third-pair spot.

Keranen is an interesting one. Is there a place for him on this team if he’s healthy? Frankly, maybe not.

If Thomas Vanek is healthy and the Wild’s healthy coming out of camp, your first unit forwards are Parise, Granlund and Vanek with Pominville at the point. On the second unit, likely Niederreiter, Koivu and Coyle, and that’s skipping pretty good offensive players like Haula, Jason Zucker and Justin Fontaine.

So where does Keranen fit? One thing for sure, last year’s Finnish Elite League co-leader in points is super-skilled with great vision. Yeo didn’t like his first two periods. Yeo said Keranen, 24, showed him a different level in the third period, that he earned himself another game because of that, and in the next game, Yeo wants to see consistency for a full 60.

Yeo really liked Gustav Olofsson’s game tonight. He said he has stuff to learn, “but he’s got some NHL poise with the puck and vision.” Olofsson did suffer “a bit of an upper body injury at the end of the game,” Yeo said, and the team will reevaluate him Sunday.

If I remember, Olofsson was checked awkwardly and had trouble getting to his feet.

Niklas Backstrom gave up three goals on 17 shots. The first goal was off poor angle but a perfect shot. The second goal was a weird deflection. The third goal was with Adam Lowry camped in front and Yeo said the toughest thing for a goalie early in camp is tracking pucks through traffic. Yeo noted that Backstrom made a number of clutch saves in the second period.

Overall, I see a much different-looking goalie than we saw in camp last year. In practice, he just looks better.

Joel Rechlicz only played five shifts. Yeo said he brought a good vibe to the bench, joking that he likes to chat.

Great line by Yeo on the new scoreboard: “I always stare at the scoreboard after the other team scores. Bit of a clearer picture on the mistakes that we made (laughing).”

That’s it for me. I’ll talk to you after Sunday’s practice.

I had to trim this out of the notebook in Sunday’s paper, but,

There was a special scene on the ice after Saturday’s morning skate. Goalie Darcy Kuemper was part of a marriage proposal.

As the skate ended, goalie coach Bob Mason slipped an engagement ring into Kuemper’s glove. As he was leaving the ice, a man named Jack Baker -- a former neighbor of Mason -- asked for Kuemper’s autograph. Kuemper said he actually had something for Baker’s girlfriend, Alaina Olson (Esko, Minn.).

Kuemper handed over the ring and Baker, a Bloomington native, popped the question.

“She was shocked,” Kuemper said, laughing. “It was pretty cool to be a part of it.”

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