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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Good afternoon from the Rexall Place, a building that has housed some of the greats -- Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Greenlay.
The Wild practiced this afternoon and plays an actal game against the Oilers on Thursday night -- the first of back-to-back games. The Wild plays in Vancouver on Friday. The Wild has won 12 of its past 14 in this arena and has won 18 times here -- its most in any arena.
These are no longer division foes .
John Curry was called up as goalie insurance in case Niklas Backstrom didn't handle today's practice well. He looked good on the ice, and coach Mike Yeo planned to talk with Backstrom afterward to see how healthy he is. If he's healthy, Yeo indicated that Backstrom could start Thursday's game against the Oilers.
He's 25-4-1 all-time against Edmonton with a 1.91 goals-against average and .928 save percentage and at Rexall Place, he's 8-3-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
The rationale behind maybe starting Backstrom over Darcy Kuemper is his success in this arena (although he's been pulled here three or four times, I believe) and mostly that Friday's game in Vancouver is huge. A win over the Canucks, who had lost seven in a row before the break, could put a whole world of hurt on their playoff chances. So maybe you save Kuemper for that game.
The Canucks are 10th in the West and a point out of a wildcard spot.
The other option is start Kuemper, who had started 12 in a row before the break and is 8-2-2 in his past 13, back-to-back, which he's done in his pro and junior career. We shall see Thursday.
Captain Mikko Koivu rotated in and out of lines during today's practice. Yeo didn't rule him out for the game vs. Edmonton, but he did say back-to-back games may be tough after ankle surgery Jan. 6. So that made it sounds like Thursday is doubtful but Friday is possible.
"I thought he looked good," Yeo said. "He continues to progress. I don’t want to say that he’s in or he’s out for tomorrow. Obviously back to back games might be tough for him. So that said, I don’t want to say that he’s in, I don’t want to say that he’s out. But those are the things that we’d have to consider along with making sure that he’s 100 percent. I know speaking to him today, he’s not quite there yet so we’ll see after today."
Marco Scandella won't play because of his sprained knee. Two practices is too quick. Jason Zucker isn't on the trip because of his leg injury, so he was placed on injured reserve with Scandella and Stephane Veilleux was called up.
The lines today:
Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Dany Heatley-Charlie Coyle-Justin Fontaine
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Nino Niederreiter
Stephane Veilleux-Erik Haula-Torrey Mitchell
Mike Rupp, the extra
Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin-Nate Prosser
Clayton Stoner-Keith Ballard
Steven Kampfer, the extra
In a trade today, the Wild sent Iowa defenseman Brian Connelly to the Chicago Blackhawks for former Badger Brad Winchester. Winchester will report to Iowa initially, but this was definitely a trade made for depth moves and Winchester will likely see games with the Wild.
Remember, after next Wednesday's trade deadline, the roster is unlimited as long as you don't go over the cap. Winchester, a former college teammate of Heatley and pro teammate of Brodziak, is a tough customer and adds some ruggedness (6-5, 230) to a smaller Wild lineup. He's got 390 games of NHL experience in seven seasons with Edmonton, Dallas, St. Louis, Anaheim and San Jose. He's also played 24 NHL playoff games, including scoring an overtime winner for the Oilers in 2006 against Detroit in the first round when they went to the Cup Finals.
He has 68 career points and 552 penalty minutes in NHL regular seasons.
"I think it’s great, and depth of a different type of player for us," Yeo said. "He’s a hard-nosed guy, he’s a guy that’s not fun to play against and he’s got that experience, so definitely a good move for us."
Wild center Mikael Granlund, who won a bronze medal at the Olympics, was named to the Olympic All-Star team after Canada's gold-medal win over Sweden today.
Granlund led Finland with seven points and 20 shots and all Finnish forwards in ice time at 18 minutes, 15 seconds a game. Here is the rest of the Olympic awards.
If you didn't read my Sunday Insider on the Wild's goaltending situation heading into the March 5 trade deadline, here that is.
The Wild held an outdoor practice this morning at the John Rose OVAL in Roseville. Afterward, defenseman Marco Scandella skated with strength and conditioning coach Kirk Olson. We'll find out Monday if Scandella practices with the team.
My guess is the Wild will recall a couple players later today. With Jason Zucker hurt and Mikko Koivu up in the air, my guess is Erik Haula is one. Another will likely be a defenseman.
Nino Niederreiter is back in town and may practice Monday. I believe Granlund, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were due back today.
Talk to you Monday and I'll update the blog later if the callups are announced.
The Wild, five points up in the playoff race with Phoenix and Dallas, resumes its schedule Thursday in Edmonton. It'll practice at the X Monday and Tuesday and in Edmonton on Wednesday.
I'll be on Rosen's Sports Sunday tonight on Channel 4. I'll be on "Hockey This Morning" on Sirius/XM NHL Network Radio Monday at 8:25 a.m. and on KFAN with Dan Barreiro at 5:15 p.m. Monday.
As the Olympics enter the medal round, the NHL starts back up today.
Wild captain Mikko Koivu has been cleared to practice when the Wild's non-Olympians report at 2 p.m. at Braemar Arena in Edina. I'm sure he'll be eased back in as this will be his first time on the ice with teammates since breaking an ankle Jan. 4 against Washington.
Also, with Ryan Suter in Russia and Marco Scandella working his way back from a sprained MCL, I assume Jon Blum has been recalled so the Wild can have six defensemen in practice this week.
Jake Dowell is also up from Iowa to add numbers to the forward group. You might remember my story on Dowell's family's battles. Jake's father, John, died Thursday because of Huntington's disease and Jake was with his family in Eau Claire. The funeral was on Sunday.
Neither Erik Haula nor Stephane Veilleux have been recalled again. We'll see if Haula eventually gets the call back once the Wild gets into real practices. I think the plan has been for Haula to keep playing for Iowa so he gets games.
Coach Mike Yeo said before the break that with the team short numbers with Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Suter in Russia and Scandella hurt, the Wild will almost have three teams of five players initially as the team works to get the players back into game-like condition. The goal is to get the players in shape, while also getting in some skill work and system work. But obviously, it'll be odd until the Olympians are back.
I believe Niederreiter will return to the States before Granlund, Parise and Suter. Parise said before the tournament that there were two NHL charters bringing players back, and those who were eliminated earlier in the tournament would come back early. Then, typically, a team like the Wild would give Niederreiter a few extra days off.
Niederreiter and the Swiss lost to Latvia on Tuesday. In four games, Niederreiter had no points, was plus-2, 10 shots and led Swiss forwards in average ice time at 17 minutes, 5 seconds a game. If you watched the tournament, Niederreiter played very well, but he didn't produce offensively for the offensively-challenged team. He was robbed often.
As far as I can tell, the Wild will have 17 players on the ice today -- 11 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies.
Forwards: Brodziak, Cooke, Coyle, Fontaine, Heatley, Koivu, Mitchell, Pominville, Dowell, Rupp and I assume Zucker, unless his "minor procedure" will keep him off the ice.
Defensemen: Ballard, Blum, Brodin, Prosser, Spurgeon and Stoner.
Goalies: Backstrom and Kuemper.
If you missed it, Mikael Granlund had a heck of a game in Finland's 3-1 victory over Russia in the Olympic quarterfinals. He set up Teemu Selanne after a great hustling play for the second goal and then scored the third goal with a terrific whipping backhand inside the post.
Granlund's having a scintillating tournament. In four games, he leads the Finns with three goals and 19 shots. His role has been elevated dramatically due to Finland's injuries and he's playing alongside his hero Selanne, who played in his first of six Olympics before Granlund was even born.
The U.S. plays the Czechs at 11 a.m. on USA Network, while Canada plays the Latvians at 11 a.m. on MSNBC.
Sweden, who shut out Slovenia today, will play the winner of Finland-Russia in the semis Friday, while the winner of U.S-Czechs and Canada-Latvia plays in the other semifinal game Friday.
The bronze medal game is Saturday, while the gold-medal game is Sunday.
The Wild has torn up goalie John Curry’s two-way American Hockey League contract with the Iowa Wild and signed the former Breck School product to a two-way NHL contract.
This will allow the Wild to be able to call up Curry in case he’s needed after the Olympic break. By rule, he is officially on waivers today in order to be reassigned back to Iowa.
Because of the Wild’s chaotic goalie situation this season due to health issues with Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom, Johan Gustafsson, who’s in his first year as a North American pro, has been on the Wild’s active roster six separate occasions and has backed up nine games.
He has yet to make his NHL debut, so signing Curry is a way the Wild can avoid the yo-yo for a developing young goalie and bring up Curry if it needs to after the Olympic break.
“To have Gus just up here backing up, it’s just not right for his development and leaves Iowa really shorthanded, too,” GM Chuck Fletcher said. “John’s a little older and has a little more experience, so it’s just another option for us. It’s not a reflection on Gus at all. There have been times we’ve had [Darcy] Kuemper and Gus up here and John’s been the only goalie down there, so this is recognizing the reality of our situation and protecting us with another NHL contract.”
Basically, Curry’s an insurance policy beyond Kuemper, who started 12 consecutive games before the break, and Backstrom, who was suffering from abdominal soreness before the break. Since Jan. 7, Backstrom missed two games and had to back up rather than start Jan. 7 in L.A. because of the issue.
Fletcher said the Wild will know more Wednesday once every non-Olympic player reports for practice, but he anticipates that Backstrom is “fine.”
As for Harding, who has started two games since Dec. 17 and none since Dec. 31, Fletcher said there’s no real change to his status and he will not be practicing this week.
“Once we get into practicing here, hopefully we can provide a better update,” Fletcher said. “There’s no real change with Josh.”
Fletcher knows Curry well. When he was assistant GM in Pittsburgh, Fletcher signed Curry out of Boston University.
“He has lots of experience. He’s earned it. He’s just played very well down there, so he deserves an NHL deal and there’s no downside to signing him and having him available to you,” Fletcher said.
Curry, who turns 30 Feb. 27, has shuttled all year back and forth between Iowa and ECHL Orlando. He is 6-3-2 with Iowa in 12 games with a 1.95 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. In 2007 with BU, he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker and was named Hockey East Player of the Year.
In four NHL games for Pittsburgh over parts of two seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10, Curry is 2-2 with a 3.67 goals-against average and .867 save percentage.
I'll be on KFAN in-studio with Paul Allen on Tuesday morning at 9.
UPDATED Mikko Koivu will miss the Winter Olympics.
The Wild captain, who was expected to captain Finland, underwent surgery on a broken ankle Jan. 6 after being hit by a dump-in off the stick of Washington's Nicklas Backstrom two days before.
The normal course of recovery for this type of injury is six to eight weeks. Koivu underwent surgery in an attempt to accelerate his return to the Wild lineup. Monday will be five weeks from surgery.
Koivu has been skating daily, but he has yet to be cleared to participate in practice let alone games. Koivu, who has missed 15 games and has 35 points in 44 games, informed Finland GM Jari Kurri today.
"I just don’t feel healthy enough to feel that I can play at the level that I want," Koivu said, the pain in his eyes. "I really think it’s not fair for my teammates with Minnesota, with Team Finland, the management in Team Finland and most important it’s not fair for myself either. It’s been going on the last two weeks, but for sure the last week, just back and forth the emotions have been up and down. Had a good day, then following day it would be worse. Just the level that I’ve been skating by myself, I haven’t been practicing with my team that’s here, I just don’t think it’s fair to anyone to play for Team Finland."
Koivu will take some time off from skating but plans to resume before the team is allowed to practice again Feb. 19. His hope is still to be ready by the first game in Edmonton on Feb. 27, but that could be pushing it.
He made clear that doctors say his ankle is healing properly and the screws are keeping the bone steady.
"I knew that would happen with bones healing that you’re going to have a good day and it’s going to get the pressure and the next day it might be worse," Koivu said. "But even knowing that and going forward with it, it’s frustrating. It’s a different kind of pain, too, then for example if you hurt your knee. It’s kind of a little stiff and wears off and gets better the longer you skate. With this one, it’s the opposite. It’s good for 10, 15 minutes and then the pain just starts building up and the kind of pain you don’t enjoy skating and not even talking about playing the game the way I want to play the game, so it’s just different than any other injury that I’ve had."
This would have been Koivu's third Olympics. He won bronze with Finland in 2010 and a silver with Finland in 2006. His older brother, Saku, is also not participating in this Olympics.
He said doctors told him this was the "worst timing ever" to have this injury, that if it happened a week or two earlier or if the Olympics were a week or two later, he'd be there.
"It’s hard," Mikko Koivu said. "Obviously we’ve been having lots of success in the past and the feeling to represent your country especially in the Olympic Games, it’s something as an athlete that doesn’t happen very often and who knows if it’s going to happen again with the NHL.
"But I've got to think clearly and I just think it’s not fair to anyone for me going to play for Team Finland right now even if I wanted to go there bad and play for my country there. I've just got to move on and get better over here."
He said he felt a responsibility as captain of the Wild: "To be honest, I thought about it in both ways. I thought if I would be healthy and I could go and play, that would help me to come and play here. But at the same time, I want to make sure that I’m 100 percent healthy and be ready to go as good as I can be when the puck drops here after the Olympics. Those were the things. There’s lots of things that you have to go through before you make the call, but that was definitely one of them.”
Earlier this week, GM Chuck Fletcher made clear Koivu's Olympics were in jeopardy, telling me, "There’s a lot of healing and work that needs to be done to get him to that position. If we can get him there, great, but I think people need to understand how hard he’s working to get healthy and come back. But it is what it is. Your body’s only going to heal the way it’s going to heal. There’s no magic wand here. He’s skating on his own, but it’s a long way from skating on your own to playing in a high-end international Olympic game.
"It’s not like this is just going to turn here in the next day or two. Once you start practicing with the team and taking contact, how long ‘til you’re able to play in a game, are there any setbacks? There’s a whole host of issues you have to look at. My only thing is I don’t want to rush it and I want to make sure we err on the side of caution. If he’s ready, great, but I don’t want to be gambling with his health and nor does Mikko. I give him lot of credit to have that surgery. A lot of people would not have had that surgery, so he’s ing everything he can to accelerate this. But he can only do so much.”
The Wild will have four others representing their countries in the Olympics, the United States' Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, Switzerland's Nino Niederreiter and Finland's Mikael Granlund.
On Granlund, Koivu said, "I think he’s showed that in the past with the national team. He’s been playing very good each and every time he’s been part of Team Finland. So, I expect a lot from him. But obviously you don’t want to put any pressure on him either. It’s not about, obviously, one player. It’s about the team, which will always been that as Team Finland. But yeah, I hope nothing but the best for Granny and obviously for the whole team and I’m sure they’re going to do just fine.”
Finland also lost Tampa Bay's Valtteri Filppula with ironically a broken ankle yesterday. Brutal.
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