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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Justin Fontaine likely to debut Friday; Lineup shuffle in the works

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: October 14, 2014 - 1:53 PM

The Wild had a long, workmanlike practice today at Xcel Energy Center and is about to take off from MSP for Orange County, where it will spend the next few days prior to Friday's game at Anaheim.

Good afternoon from MSP myself. The team will have an off-ice workout Wednesday, a golf outing and team dinner before ramping back up at practice Thurday in Anaheim.

Justin Fontaine looks like he will make his season debut Friday night on the right side of the Thomas Vanek-Mikko Koivu line.

Coach Mike Yeo is looking to keep his real quality Nos. 1 and 3 lines intact, especially that solid Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Charlie Coyle line. Ryan Carter said today that line reminds him of a certain Anaheim young line that helped lead the Ducks to a Cup in 2007. The names on that line -- Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner -- became eventual stars (at least two of them), and that's not what Carter's saying. He's saying the makeup, the role and the age is very similar.

Carter centered the fourth line today with Jason Zucker and Matt Cooke. Kyle Brodziak was switching in and out.

I think Carter will indeed center that line Friday and Yeo talked more today about just how much Carter knows his role and is playing it well.

Last week, I mentioned how I thought Fontaine would slide into the second line because the best that line has looked so far came with Fontaine there in training camp and the Pittsburgh exhibition game.

I started to wonder if initially Yeo would start Zucker there just because of the goal with Vanek and Koivu in the second Colorado win, but Yeo said today, "I saw some things earlier in training camp. Unfortunately Fonzie got hurt and we want to give it a little more of a go, but what we like about Fonzie is his whole life he’s sort of been in that role. You could see what he has done at various levels, the way he has had the ability to play with top players and had the ability to put up points. What I like is the way he thinks the game. That gives him a chance to read off of those two guys and make the plays that he needs to make. We saw a couple instances of that in practice, whether it was darting to a hole or making a play into space with those guys. Very hopeful that works out."

Fontaine also played the No. 2 power play with those two in practice instead of Niederreiter or Coyle. Yeo said that may not be a full-time thing, that he wanted to give them more time to skate together.

BUT, it sure sounds like that's what he's thinking to start.

"We’re trying to find the right mix there," Yeo said. "I wanted to give him a good opportunity to go in practice today. Both those guys – Nino and Charlie – had a chance to factor in on the power play, but I grabbed them before that I wanted them to really have a good focus on their penalty killing today. Nino’s really been doing a great job and I’ve been using him a lot and Charlie, I would like to get him more involved in it as well. It’s not just a power-play practice when we’re working that stuff. We’re working our penalty kill too and I just like that we’re much closer to a place where our penalty killers are penalty killers and our power-play guys are power-play guys. There’s not much crossover. The guys that go out on the penalty kill, that’s their baby and they have pride in that, and I think we’ve seen that so far and likewise on the power play."

Keith Ballard was paired with Matt Dumba today and Nate Prosser played the left alongside Christian Folin. Folin had been playing the left, but that's really not fair to a young guy to put him on his off side when he's rarely done it before. The irony is Prosser in previous years was always the healthy scratch when the Wild needed a left-shot D because Yeo didn't feel he could play that side.

Regardless, it's pretty clear the plan is for Ballard and Dumba to play one game together this weekend and Prosser and Folin the other. Subject to change, of course, but the Wild doesn't want its extra D sitting around for three weeks not playing and when the two rookies played together in Denver, they only logged 9 and 10 minutes, respectively.

Same thing for Niklas Backstrom. Again, subject to change, Yeo is heavily considering playing him in Los Angeles on Sunday. Remember, it was at LA last year that Kuemper came out of nowhere in January to sub for an ailing Backstrom and won in a shootout during a game the Wild was severely outshot.

BUT, Yeo said, "When I talked about trying to get everybody in, [Backstrom's] part of that equation too. It’s too early to predict what’s going to happen right now. We were considering heavily putting him in last weekend, but Kuemps really didn’t give us a chance. Just going forward here, we are very conscious of trying to get him in. The schedule’s pretty light right now, but there will be a time where it will pick up and we’re going to need both goaltenders going and we just have to make sure he’s prepared for that."

Stu Bickel cleared waivers and was assigned to Iowa.

Also, if you remember back at the draft, Richard Park interviewed with GM Chuck Fletcher for a player development role. In almost a tryout basis, Park then worked development camp as a coach. Today, in a move that was coming for some time, Park was officially hired as a player development coach to work in Iowa.

Park, 38 (5/27/76), recorded 241 points (102-139=241) and 266 penalty minutes (PIM) in 738 career NHL games during 14 seasons with Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Vancouver and the New York Islanders. The forward skated in 40 career NHL playoff games, including 18 with the Wild in 2002-03 when the team advanced to the Western Conference Finals. The native of Seoul, South Korea, tallied 74 points (37-37=74) in 217 games during three seasons with Minnesota (2001-04).
 
 Park retired as a player after spending the last two seasons playing for Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland (2012-14). He was originally selected by Pittsburgh in the second round (50th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.

Wild practice: A little fun during a long wait

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: October 13, 2014 - 1:43 PM

With five days until its next game, the Wild turned Monday's practice into a spirited session of pond hockey for pros. The team spent much of the workout playing three-on-three on a compressed rink, with the nets parked just outside the blue lines. There was plenty of laughter and one-upsmanship, along with some complaining about the calls being made by assistant-coach-turned-ref Darryl Sydor.

Team Green celebrated its victory with some chest bumps and a group hug. Coach Mike Yeo said the unusual early-season break mandated a creative approach to practice time this week, one that allows the team to throttle down for a couple of days while keeping it on its toes for Friday's game at Anaheim. The Wild leaves for California on Tuesday afternoon, with Friday's game followed by a Sunday matinee at Los Angeles.

Yeo said there was a lot of "hidden work'' in Monday's practice, along with an off-ice workout. The Wild also made a roster move, putting forward Stu Bickel on waivers to make room for Justin Fontaine. Fontaine said he is fully recovered from a gluteus strain, and Yeo said there was a good chance he would play on the road trip. The coach expects to mix others into the lineup as well to ensure everyone on the roster is getting the playing time they need to be at their best.

"I'm not afraid to make changes,'' Yeo said. "This is a weekend where we have to see guys get in. If they don’t play this weekend, we're looking at three weeks into the season where guys haven’t played a game.

"This is a long season. To sit here and say we're just satisfied with where we are and what we've done, that’s not going to be the case. We've got to keep trying to work to get better. Whoever is in the lineup and wherever they're playing, they have to be ready to go.

"We don’t want guys on our roster sitting around for three weeks without playing a game. These guys, we're going to need them down the road. We've got to make sure we give them a chance to make sure they're ready to have a good season. That doesn't mean we're going to be going game after game just rotating things here, but certainly, we have to eye this weekend as an opportunity for us to make sure guys get into the lineup.''

In other practice news Monday:

--Kuemper was named the NHL's second star of the week after making 46 saves in his back-to-back shutouts of Colorado to open the season. Yeo--who seemed uncomfortable with the praise heaped on his team for its two victories--said he was happy for Kuemper but wanted him and the rest of the team to look forward. The goalie echoed that opinion.

"It's exciting to get mentioned like that,'' he said. "But I was fortunate our team played so well. I just benefited from that. It's exciting, and we'll move forward from that now. ... Just our preparation, we can't let that level drop. We've just got to stay on top of it and start looking forward to the next game.''

--Yeo said he isn't certain what Fontaine's role will be, but he does want to see him increase his scoring this season. "We weren’t playing him in skilled roles a lot of the time (last season), or in more of a scoring role. But that said, I think I'd like to see him take another step in that department this year.''   

Wild puts Bickel on waivers; NHL honors Kuemper

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: October 13, 2014 - 11:10 AM

The Wild placed defenseman/right wing Stu Bickel on waivers this morning. I had a feeling a roster move would be made today. With no games 'til Friday, keeping this many players is just wasting cap space and money. Plus, at some point, the Wild had to activate Justin Fontaine off injured reserve. 

Fontaine has recovered from a strained glute. 

The hope is Bickel will slide through waivers because the team values his versatility and toughness. We'll see tomorrow if other teams do as well. 

Bickel was made expendable especially by the recent signing of Ryan Carter, who brings grit and toughness to the fourth line. And with two rookie defensemen making up the third pair, the Wild's not going to make its first waiver move defensemen Keith Ballard or Nate Prosser. 

Kuemper honored

Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper, who opened the season with back-to-back shutouts of Colorado, is the NHL's Second Star of the week. He had 46 saves in the two games.

Tomas Plekanec of Montreal is the First Star after getting four goals as the Habs started 3-0.

Sidney Crosby of the Penguins was the Third Star. He has six points, including three goals, in two games.

Brodin, Fletcher on defenseman's contract extension; Fletcher raves about top-4 D

Posted by: Michael Russo under Rookies, Wild news Updated: October 12, 2014 - 3:09 PM

Jonas Brodin, known already as a poised, cerebral defenseman, is as quick and efficient off the ice as he is on it.

How quickly did Brodin’s six-year, $25 million extension with the Wild materialize?

“We started talking two weeks ago probably. We talked before last night’s game and then we talked again after the game. And then … I signed the paper,” Brodin said.

OK. If all negotiations were that simple, eh?

Brodin said the extension made for a pretty fun ride home with his teammates after Saturday’s 3-0 win over the Avs.

Get used to seeing the 21-year-old Swede. One of the NHL’s most mobile blue liners is signed on through 2020-21.

“I’m really excited,” Brodin said. “I really like the organization, my teammates, the whole staff. I believe we can win. I’m really happy right now. I’m really confident my game will continue to develop.”

General Manager Chuck Fletcher said, “Clearly he’s a very important player on our team right now and we figure his importance certainly isn’t going to decrease over the years (laughing). If anything he’s going to continue to evolve and get better. He’s hopefully going to be one of our cornerstone players here for the next decade.

“To have him signed through 2021 is great. He’s a real big part of our present and our future. It came together very quickly. I give Brodin’s agent Peter Wallen and [assistant GM] Brent [Flahr] a lot of credit. They worked hard at it. Both sides agreed that this term would make sense for both the player and the team, and we were able to come to an agreement really quickly, which was nice.”

As Fletcher has said for some time, he wants to get ahead of next year’s restricted free agent crop. Excluding the minor-leaguers whose deals are up, the Wild’s pending RFA’s are Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Marco Scandella, Erik Haula and Christian Folin. He’ll try to stagger all of their next contract terms so they don’t all expire again at the same time.

Fletcher said he has reached out to most, specifically confirming Granlund and Coyle.

“The first thing you want to determine is what type of term they’re looking for,” Fletcher said. “Some guys prefer a shorter term and some players like the security, so if we can get an agreement on the right term for the player, everything else will usually follow suit. In the case of Brodin, the top young defensemen market is fairly well defined. Once we were able to agree on the term, it came together pretty quickly. Some markets aren’t as clearly defined as that market.

“But Brodin’s a little different in the sense that he has already emerged. I don’t think there’s any question as to the role he plays on our team. He just turned 21 and he’s played very well to date, but we only expect that he’ll continue to improve and become a much better player than he is today. In this case it came together quickly because there wasn’t a lot of difference of opinion as to how he fits now and where we see him going.

“In some cases, like specifically Brodin, there was a desire to talk now and try to pursue something and in other cases people want to see how things play out in the early part of the year. We’ve got to respect that, but we wanted to get a sense where people are at and exchange ideas. I could see one or two of them even happening next summer. There’s no urgency here. We want to make sure we get the right deal for the player and the team. I’m sure with that approach we’ll be able to chip away and get a couple of the guys signed, but I don’t expect we’ll get everybody signed right away. That’s just not realistic.”

Asked if he felt that seeing Brodin sign may trigger Granlund and Coyle to want to be locked up sooner rather than later, Fletcher said, “Yeah, potentially. Every negotiation is a little different, but there’s been communication with their camps. We’ll see. I don’t mind talking during the season as long as it doesn’t become a distraction. We’re open to finding solutions now. If we can’t easily reach agreements at this point, it’s not a big deal to wait until after the season either. They’re all good, young players, but Brodin was a guy we’re happy to commit to long-term. He’s a huge part of our team now and I think we all agree he’s only going to get better. Certain parts of his game will continue to evolve and mature. He just turned 21. That’s the scary thing. You think about the role he has on our team and the things he has already accomplished, and he’s just turned 21.”

As I wrote in Monday’s paper, we’re only two games into the season, so this is a real small sample size. But my goodness, the Wild’s top four defensemen of Ryan Suter, Brodin, Scandella and Jared Spurgeon have been just marvelous.

Fletcher concurred.

Suter is honestly ridiculous. I’m not sure all the things he does well can be seen on TV. You just have to watch him in person nightly. It’s pretty special, and all things considered with what he has had to go through the past month with the loss of his dad and the fact he didn’t skate the week before camp and only played two preseason games, it’s pretty impressive how great he was in Games 1 and 2.

We’ll let Fletcher pick up from here: “Spurgy’s Spurgy. It’s remarkable how consistent he is and Marco’s just a horse. And Brodin’s even quicker than last year, which is amazing. He’s certainly stronger and more confident offensively. Those four guys have been great since Day One of camp, which is important because we have two rookies (Folin and Matt Dumba) there. The rookies have been fine, but if one or two of your top four aren’t going, that’s where you can get into trouble. So thankfully, our top 4’s been not even just solid but very good.”

That's it for me. In next Sunday's column, I'll write more about the strategies with the pending RFA's and how this stuff comes together.

On Monday, Rachel Blount is covering practice for me from a daily point of view so I can sit down with a player after practice for a piece that will likely appear this week or next Sunday.

Again, the Wild next plays in Anaheim on Friday. The team will practice Monday and Tuesday in St. Paul, then head to So. Cal after practice Tuesday for a little fun in the sun before hitting the ice again Thursday in Anaheim for practice.

Wild signs defenseman Jonas Brodin to a 6-year extension

Posted by: Michael Russo under Rookies, Wild news Updated: October 12, 2014 - 11:35 AM

The Wild is looking to get ahead of next year's large restricted free agent crop.

Today, the team signed mobile defenseman Jonas Brodin to a six-year, $25 million extension.

“We are very excited to get Jonas Brodin signed through the 2020-21 season,” said GM Chuck Fletcher. “He is one of the premier young defensemen in the NHL and has played a huge role on our team since entering the league as a 19-year-old. We’re confident that his game will continue to evolve in all areas and he will be a valuable part of our core for years to come.”

The 21-year-old 10th overall pick in 2011 broke into the NHL two years ago as a 19-year-old. He led all rookies in time on ice (23:12), 1:38 more than any other rookie, and was named to the NHL's all-rookie team. He finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.

He scored two goals and nine assists and was plus-3 in 2013. Last season, he scored eight goals and 11 assists.

He is off to an outstanding start this season. He has been a rock defensively, has an assist, five shots and is plus-5.

Fletcher has said since June that once the Wild got restricted free agents Nino Niederreiter and Darcy Kuemper re-signed entering this season, he wanted to begin working on next year's RFA's.

Brodin is the first to be signed. Standard deal. No no-trade or no-move. Last week, Fletcher said he had begun talks with all of them. The others are Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Marco Scandella and Christian Folin.

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