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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Fun practices, lawn games, bonding, a pig roast! It's all over as the Wild packed up its golf clubs and lake attire and returned to the Twin Cities this afternoon to gear up for Thursday's season opener at the X against the Los Angeles Kings.
"It’s time for sure," coach Mike Yeo said after the Wild practiced in front of a few thousands fans here today at AMSOIL Arena, which has a FIREPLACE overlooking the stands (I've already hired a contractor to install one in the wall behind press box seat 45 in the middle of the Wild press box at the X).
"This has been a great trip, but bottom line, we have to make sure we’re ready for Thursday now."
Today was a hard practice, lots of battles and tactical stuff. Tuesday will be more execution, running through routes, handling pucks and making sure players are up to speed for the opener.
As a reminder, I will host a live chat at 2 p.m. Thursday on www.startribune.com/wild, so please join and come armed with questions.
If you missed today's NHL preview coverage, please also go to www.startribune.com/wild for my Eastern Conference, Western Conference and playoff predictions OR purchase a Star Tribune.
Here are the articles:
Mikko Koivu shows his human side when talking about his newborn daughter and the coming season
The NHL is realigned and raring to go tonight with three games; Wild's ecstatic to be in the Central but would have to get through Chicago and St. Louis in the new divisional playoff format.
Here's a look at the NHL's offseason changes, from players changing teams to the coaching carousel to the playoff format.
Some highlights of today:
-- Fans were excited to see the Wild on the ice today and even gave the team a nice ovation after practice ended.
“We were all saying, we’ve never ever gotten applauded for a practice,” defenseman Ryan Suter said.
-- Yeo on the Duluth turnout (many kids) at practice on a Tuesday morning: “I didn’t know that today was a holiday. No school here today (laughing). I think it’s awesome. The turnout here, this trip has been great. That’s why we came back.”
-- Zenon Konopka’s got his first shiner of the hockey season and it wasn’t from a fight, since he didn’t get into any scraps in the preseason. Blindfolded, he apparently connected head-first with assistant coach Darryl Sydor in a lawn game or team-building thingamajig.
-- Injured Mike Rupp skated before the team the past few days and will start the season on injured reserve after offseason knee surgery. He says it’s getting stronger and he plans to skate with the team the next few days.
“I need to start doing different things that I can’t do by myself out there,” Rupp said. “I feel in my head it won’t be too long.”
-- Mikko Koivu joined the team after spending Sunday and Monday with his fiancée and newborn daughter. He looked good with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
-- Speaking of Pominville, he got a text after practice letting the former Buffalo Sabres captain know that Thomas Vanek is the new Sabres’ home captain and Steve Ott the new Sabres’ road captain.
Said Pominville: “I think it’s weird. They’ve done [the rotating thing] in the past. I don’t know if it’s their way of doing it. It just feels a little weird to have a couple guys. Usually you want that one guy.”
I got some funny tweets on Twitter from Wild fans saying this now cinches the fact the Wild signs Vanek next summer, since you know, the Wild seem to love themselves some former captains (Parise, Pominville).
-- Speaking of Pominville Part Deux: The Wild and Pominville, 30, have been talking about a contract extension since before camp began. It obviously hasn’t been signed yet and the season starts Thursday.
I hear the Pominville camp is looking for a long-term deal north of $5 million per – something the Wild has been trying to crack down, especially since the team wants to make certain in a few years it can afford to re-sign potential key entry-level expiring guys like Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin and because next summer, it would like to potentially pursue a top free agent, maybe one who used to star at the University of Minnesota.
Pominville is still hopeful he can sign an extension by Thursday and would “prefer” not negotiating during the season.
“I don’t want to really talk during the season,” Pominville said today. “I don’t want it to be a distraction for me and the way I play, and then you’re always thinking. If you know they’re talking and things aren’t going the way you want it to go, then you’re thinking, ‘Oh, are they not wanting to sign me anymore?’ I don’t really want to have that distraction, so hopefully it can get done before [the seaspn]. If not, there’s still a lot of time.”
So you still hope it gets done by Thursday (I don’t hear well or comprehend)? “Hopefully something gets done and they keep talking and we can work it out. If not, we’ll see where it goes from there.”
How close are you guys (one source of mine says they’re not too far apart)? “It’s tough to say. Tough to say because they’ve talked on and off. They can go on a stretch where they talk four or five hours and get it done in a day or so or if you’re in no hurry, it can go a couple weeks without talking. We’ll see where it leads us, but we’re hopeful.”
The NHL has experimented all preseason with hybrid icing after league GM's recommended the rule change back in June. After a survey among NHL Players' Association members (i.e. the players) this past weekend, hybrid icing has finally been approved in the NHL.
The NHL was the only league that had a full-on race for the puck.
As Wild fans know, former Wild defenseman Kurtis Foster sustained a horrific injury in March 2008 in San Jose when he was hit from behind accidently by now-Wild winger Torrey Mitchell as Foster went back to touch up an icing.
Foster broke his femur and it sent his career into flux. In a class move, former Wild GM Doug Risebrough re-signed Foster even though Risebrough knew Foster wouldn't be close to ready by the next season. But it gave Foster motivation to rehab and he indeed worked his way back to play the final six games of the 2008-09 season.
Foster's injury led to a slight rule change -- a two-minute minor if a player going back to beat out an icing hit his opponent with the sole purpose of not going after the puck.
But Foster, now playing in the KHL, had long campaigned for no-touch or hybrid icing, particularly after Carolina's Joni Pitkanen broke his ankle in several places late last season. If you remember, an angry Foster sent me a flurry of comments he asked me to tweet and write at the time.
Well, Pitkanen's season is over for Carolina and his career is in jeopardy. I texted Foster a little bit ago, but it's late out in wherever he is over the ocean. When I hear back, I'll add his thoughts.
Here is the press release:
NHL TO IMPLEMENT HYBRID ICING FOR 2013-14 SEASON
NEW YORK/TORONTO (September 30, 2013) -- The National Hockey League
Players’ Association (NHLPA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) announced today that
Hybrid Icing will be implemented for the commencement of the 2013-14 regular season. The
Hybrid Icing rule had been tested during the 2013-14 preseason.
“After testing hybrid icing during the preseason games, the players participated in a
survey and a majority of teams supported this rule change in an effort to make the game
safer,” said Mathieu Schneider, NHLPA Special Assistant to the Executive Director. “We are
hopeful that the implementation of the hybrid icing rule, which is a middle ground between the
old rule and no-touch icing, will help minimize the incidence of Player injuries on icing plays.”
The Icing Rule now reads Rule 81.1 – Icing:
For the purpose of this rule, the center red line will divide the ice into halves.
Should any player of a team, equal or superior in numerical strength (power-play)
to the opposing team, shoot, bat or deflect the puck from his own half of the ice
beyond the goal line of the opposing team, play shall be stopped. For the purpose
of deflected pucks, this only applies when the puck was originally propelled down
the ice by the offending team.
For the purpose of this rule, the point of last contact with the puck by the team in
possession shall be used to determine whether icing has occurred or not. As such,
the team in possession must “gain the line” in order for the icing to be nullified.
“Gaining the line” shall mean that the puck, while on the player’s stick (not the
player’s skate) must make contact with the center red line in order to nullify a
For the purpose of interpretation of the rule, there are two judgments required for
"icing the puck". The Linesman must first determine that the puck will cross the
goal line. Once the Linesman determines that the puck will cross the goal line, icing
is completed upon the determination as to which player (attacking or defending)
would first touch the puck. This decision by the Linesman will be made the instant
the first player reaches the end zone face-off dots with the player's skate being the
determining factor. Should the puck be shot down the ice in such a manner that it
travels around the boards and/or back towards the end zone face-off dots, the
same procedure shall be in effect in that the Linesman shall determine within a
similar distance as to who will have touched the puck first.
For clarification, the determining factor is which player would first touch the puck,
not which player would first reach the end zone face-off dots.
If the race for the puck is too close to determine by the time the first Player reaches
the end zone face-off dots, icing shall be called.
The puck striking or deflecting off an official does not automatically nullify a potential icing.
Good day from beautiful Duluth and the terrific AMSOIL Arena, where there's quite a few banners hanging from the rafters -- Tommy Kurvers, some guy named Brett Hull, a national championship banner from 2011.
There's also a picture of this guy -- the great UMD goalie of all-time and longtime Wild goalie coach, Bob Mason.
Just an fyi: I will be hosting a live online chat on www.startribune.com/wild on Thursday at 2 p.m.
Today was Justin Fontaine Day at AMSOIL. The former Bulldogs national champ returned here as a bona fide NHLer and the local press was waiting with open arms.
Being a 25-year-old rookie and newbie inside the Wild dressing room, you can tell Fontaine is just a tad uncomfortable with all the attention he's getting.
"It's always good coming back to your college town," Fontaine said sheepishly.
His teammates got a kick out of the building manager blaring the arena's horn when Fontaine scored a shootout goal toward the end of practice. They threatened to fine him.
"That was a nice touch," coach Mike Yeo said of the loud noise that echoed through the college barn.
Fontaine will make his NHL debut on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings as a left winger on the fourth line with Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell.
"Coming back would be nice, but the idea that you're coming back and you just survived final cuts to stay with an NHL team, I think it's got to be really exciting for him now," Yeo said.
Fontaine had two solid years in Houston and worked hard off the ice to get his body in tip-top shape. Yeo was asked why it took so long for Fontaine to arrive after signing as a free agent in 2011.
"Part of it is paying your dues and developing in the minors," Yeo said. "This is the best league in the world. Obviously he had a great college career, but like most players, there are other things you have to learn to make that next step. You've got to give him a lot of credit because he's improved in all the areas he needed to improve on and he's now ready to make that step."
Yeo likes Fontaine's versatility and noted that even though he was a top-line player in college, but there are only so many of those in the NHL. He said if a player wants to be really smart, he "would get good at all aspects of the game so they can fill in on any role."
Yeo likes that Fontaine can move up in the lineup if there's an injury or an underperformer.
Captain Mikko Koivu remained in the Twin Cities with his fiancee and newborn daughter. He will join the Wild tonight in Duluth for practice Tuesday. Kyle Brodziak was lost for part of practice today because he fell to the ice and then conveniently took a puck to the forehead. He bled badly but was stitched up and back out on the ice in a jiffy.
The Wild's currently golfing after a light practice today. Yeo plans to get right back at it Tuesday with a hard practice to gear up for Thursday's opener against Los Angeles.
Last time we were in Duluth, Josh Harding hurt his ankle if I remember correctly at the team-building exercise the day before. Jim Mill, the Wild's assistant to the GM and now Iowa GM (was Houston), had to tend goal. Yeo noted the upgrade today in goal with Harding and Nik Backstrom on the ice but said, "mind you, it hurt the confidence of our shooters today" that Mill wasn't out there.
One other funny line. Zach Parise, with a gigantic smile, was asked his memories of Duluth: "I remember all they had to do was get one point off us for the  MacNaughton Cup and we swept 'em. It was awesome."
WILD PREGAME FESTIVITIES THURSDAY
The Wild will host pre-game parties at Xcel Energy Center
before its games on Thursday, Oct. 3 and Saturday,
Oct. 5. Fans are encouraged to attend the free events
from 4:30-6:30 p.m. outside Gate 2. The parties will
include live music by Five Man Advantage, NHL Alumni
autographs, face painters, food and drink featuring the
Budweiser Ice Bar, a Hockey Lodge retail booth, a KFAN
100.3 FM booth and the University of Minnesota Drum
Line. Additionally, on Thursday only, FOX Sports North
will have a promotional booth, while KFAN’s Dan Barriero
will broadcast live from 3-6:30 p.m.
Following today's moves to send Jason Zucker and Jake Dowell to Iowa, here is the Wild's anticipated 22-man opening roster and lineup Thursday night vs. Los Angeles (this is barring transactions; the fact the Wild sent Jake Dowell down, too, opens the door to perhaps a waiver pickup Monday):
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville
Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Mikael Granlund
Justin Fontaine-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell
Injured: Mike Rupp (knee)
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon
Keith Ballard-Matt Dumba
Extras: Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser
Fontaine will make his NHL debut; Yeo said there's a good chance of Dumba as well.
Fontaine is very excited to make the team, and both Fontaine and Dumba say they're not taking anything for granted. They know nothing is cemented in stone. Dumba said he's well aware he can still be returned to Red Deer before he plays in a 10th game without the first year of his contract being burned.
Zucker tweeted: @Jason_Zucker16: Nobody to blame but myself.. Have to be better and will be better! See you soon Minnesota! #JustWait #MNWild
As for Zucker, I'm shocked at frankly the shock out there. It's been clear the last four days that he was on thin ice. He got hurt at the wrong time in camp and was outperformed by Nino Niederreiter for the second-line left wing spot -- for now. He can be back at anytime.
As for Mikael Granlund, he had a great camp, looks faster, grittier and stronger. If you have two shooters on the second power-play unit in Coyle and Niederreiter, Granlund makes sense because he's a puck distributor. Zucker is another shooter. The Wild also has concerns with Zucker's defensive game, and although he scored a playoff OT winner in Game 3, he didn't produce down the stretch of last season. This is all in the Wild's mind.
Again though, he will play games here this season. He's 21 years old. The AHL is a developmental league and most the great players in this league have played in the AHL. He hasn't even had to spend a full year in the minors (55 games), so chill.
Here are Mike Yeo's thoughts on today's moves, particularly sending Zucker down:
Zucker conversation: Obviously everybody’s goal is to be here, so you’d be pretty concerned if a player was happy or didn’t show some disappointment. As far as Zuck, it really comes down to we’re not prepared to put him on the fourth line right now and we’re not prepared to have him be a healthy scratch. What you saw on the ice today was us gearing up for Game 1 and we’re really not focused on anything beyond that.
Nino and Granlund: He earned it, as far as I’m concerned, the games that he played. We like what he can add to the [Coyle-Heatley line]. Playing against a team like L.A., we’ve got a bigger body. You’ve got a guy that can shoot, a guy that can skate, a guy that can handle the puck. He played like a top-6 forward in training camp and we’re giving him that opportunity up there. Granny had a good camp, too. We spent the entire camp really looking at him as a centerman. We feel we can get a lot out of him as a winger, too. He had a good camp. He showed that he’s battled harder, he’s showed that he’s faster, defensively he did a very good job for us, and we feel he can be a good complement to the [Cooke-Brodziak] line. You have two guys with size and two guys that play a strong, hard game, so we feel putting a guy there with Granny’s ability to distribute the puck, it could complement that line plus give Granny a bigger role.
Message to Zucker: Just make sure you’re on top of his game because we don’t know when it’s going to be. We know that he’s there and to be perfectly honest, I like the idea that everybody on our team knows that he’s there. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make sure that you’re ready to go knowing that there’s a guy like that waiting in the wings.
Fontaine: He seems like he’s the kind of guy that you can move in different parts of your lineup. He plays an intelligent game, he can play well with the puck, he can execute, he can make some plays, but at the same time, he can play well positionally. It makes him the kind of guy you can put in different parts of the lineup. Plus, he’s the kind of guy that I don’t think we’re going to have a ton of concern right now playing him on the fourth line or third line. He’s at a point in his development where we don’t have to really stress about making sure he gets too much. The next step for him is playing at the NHL level and developing there
Interchangeable parts: Or Granny can go up, or Granny can play center. It even gives us some flexibility even in the game. Having Granny in the lineup is also big for our power play. It gives us flexibility through the course of the game and night to night to throw out different look.
Dowell: The message was pretty clear. We’re being honest with it that our focus is sort of for this game -- getting ready for this week and then thing can change in hurry.
Not carrying an extra forward to save salary cap/proximity of Iowa: But also it doesn’t help anybody to sit around and not play. So it's just a matter of Iowa is close and they're playing the same game, the same system, so let's just concentrate on the group that we're going in with. So to have anybody up here who's not going to play and just sit around and be an extra, it doesn't help the guys that are in the lineup and it doesn't help them.
Dumba NHL debut Thursday: I would say there's a good chance of that.
How will you use him: Again, this is a game one focus for us with this group. With the amount of young guys that we have, I think it just has to be something that we stay on top of night after night.
Prove himself being one of the best defenseman in St. Louis: He played his gap, his skating ability, makes him a tough guy to play against defensively. There's still some things that he can get a little better at with some teaching and some time here he'll continue to get better at that. What it comes down to is his ability to move the puck, his ability to get in the play. We're a team that needs to generate more from the offensive blue line and he's a guy that has the ability to.
What do you want to accomplish the next four days: Well, bigger picture things. Obviously there's tactical parts that we want to get into. We've got the team building trip which will be nice. Bottom line is our main focus is on pace, making sure that we're doing things at game speed, the speed that we want to play games at when we drop the puck on Thursday. Number two is the competitiveness. You saw a lot of battle in our practice today. Number three would be the detail and the habits. And number four would be the execution -- just making sure that we're sharp and crisp and we have a good feeling going into game one.
How fluid will the lineup be: Most of the time, you're not making a lot of changes to your lineup when things are going really well. So I hope that we play 82 in a row with the same lineup (laughing). But I don't think that that's going to happen. And even at that, we won't be afraid to change the lineup if we win. We won't be afraid to change the lineup if we lose because we've got moving parts. Because we've got guys that are capable of playing different positions and guys that are capable of pushing. So I think that's going to be interesting following the story line of that as things go on. Again, we don't know what it's going to look like in Game 5. We know what it will look like in Game 1.
How do you keep from getting stale next four days: We're going to back off a little tomorrow. Obviously today was a very tough practice and we're going to back off tomorrow so we can ramp it back up on Tuesday.
The Wild has assigned Jason Zucker and Jake Dowell to Iowa of the American Hockey League, trimming its roster to 22 players this morning.
Obviously disappointed, Zucker left the Xcel Energy Center with his bag and sticks and declined to comment.
Again, as the Wild has said over and over this camp, in its mind, whoever didn't make the opening-night roster simply won't be in the lineup opening night vs. L.A. on Thursday. It's not, "not making the team."
With Iowa in such close proximity and so many players on contracts that allow the Wild to send them up and down freely, this could happen for some time.
Zucker will be back at some point. But against big, tough L.A., coach Mike Yeo must feel he needs rugged Zenon Konopka in the lineup, meaning one of the kids will be scratched.
Zucker would be that guy. He's admitted to feeling sore since his groin injury, Mikael Granlund has also had a quality camp and the second power play has two shooters in Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. Zucker is a shooter, Granlund a puck distributor.
We haven't talked to Yeo or GM Chuck Fletcher, but to send Dowell down and go below the maximum 23, the Wild is likely looking to save precious salary-cap space since Dowell would be the clear extra forward. This also would allow the Wild to sign David Steckel at any time if it wants.
So, as of now, UMD-Bulldog Justin Fontaine is on the team. Same with Granlund, Niederreiter and Matt Dumba.
And of course, Coyle.
By the way, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are practicing today here at the X, as well as Torrey Mitchell. The Wild heads to Duluth for two days after practice.
Opening Night roster as of now (must be submitted at 4 p.m. Monday)
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville
Dany Heatley-Charlie Coyle-Justin Fontaine
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell
Mikael Granlund-Zenon Konopka-Nino Niederreiter
(If it were me, I'd switch Fontaine and Niederreiter, but Fontaine's been on that line most of camp, so I'll put him there for now)
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon
Keith Ballard-Matt Dumba
Clayton Stoner-Nate Prosser
Injured: Mike Rupp (knee)
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