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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Very eventful morning down at Xcel Energy Center. Paramedics actually had to come out there twice, both Nashville related.
Pete Weber, the legendary NHL play-by-play man and only TV voice in Predators history, had a heart attack this morning and was taken to a local hospital from the arena.
Weber underwent a heart procedure and immediately felt the pressure leave his heart. I just visited him and thank God, he is resting comfortably in ICU. As I jokingly told him, I was worried I caused this because I did his radio show in Nashville last night.
Pete is as good a person as there is. I got to spend a weekend last June with he and his lovely wife, Claudia, at the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association conference in Salsbury, N.C. It was an awesome time, and Claudia is on her way to St. Paul now. Weber will remain in St. Paul through the weekend.
Weber thanks the doctors, paramedics and his ICU nurses.
"They did everything they could to calm me. I was more scared than anything," said Weber. "I thank everybody for their well wishes."
The second incident had to do with a scary scene in which GM David Poile, while standing in the tunnel between the visitor’s locker room and the bench, was struck by a deflected puck in the face.
He was immediately cut open and hit the deck. Nashville’s training staff and both Wild athletic therapists, Don Fuller and John Worley, treated Poile as paramedics were called.
Poile, under his own power, slowly walked himself from the trainer’s table to a stretcher so he could be taken by ambulance to local hospital for an examination. He looked groggy, had cotton in his nose and a puffed-up eye. He will remain there overnight for evaluation and observation. He took a lot of stitches, I'm told, and they're worried about a concussion and other facial damage. Remember, he is the U.S. GM too for the Olympics and is supposed to fly to Sochi on Sunday, so we'll see if that can happen.
"He's in the hockey world. He'll be ready to rock," Preds forward Eric Nystrom said.
According to a few Predators players, Shea Weber and Roman Josi were passing from board to board and a puck skipped on the ice, deflected off Josi’s blade and ricocheted into an unsuspecting Poile.
“Just looking at it, it was above the eye, so hopefully there’s no damage to the eye,” Predators coach Barry Trotz said. “That’s the first thing you worry about, but it was a rocket that came across. That’s the danger of being in that tunnel. That’s why I always get nervous when you have kids or have staff from upstairs that want to stand in the tunnel. It seems like it’s real easy and safe, but it’s not. It was a hard, rocket pass that came across that skipped and hit him pretty flush, so we hope that everything’s fine there.”
Wild players are wearing white tonight. Polar Vertex Night, I guess.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Carter Hutton tonight.
Johan Gustafsson has been recalled to back up Kuemper because Niklas Backstrom is day-to-day with the same abdominal soreness that didn’t allow him to start in Los Angeles on Jan. 7 and travel to Dallas on Jan. 21.
The Wild has lucked out lately because there have been no back-to-backs since before the Christmas break. There are
five six after the Olympic break, so GM Chuck Fletcher may have to address the goaltending issue if Josh Harding won’t be able to return and Backstrom is going to be plagued by this nagging injury the rest of the way.
The hope from the team is that the Olympic break will be able to help Backstrom get to 100 percent.
If the Wild is comfortable going with Kuemper the rest of the way as No. 1 – and he’s given them every reason to think he can continue to get the workload – I wonder if Fletcher still looks to acquire an experienced goalie on a two-way contract as insurance. It’d be hard to get one on a one-way contract because if all of a sudden Backstrom is OK and Harding can come back, suddenly you’re overrun with goalies on a max 23-man roster.
This is nothing new to the Wild. The Wild’s goaltending situation has been, for lack of a better term, day-to-day all year starting with Backstrom straining his knee in Nashville the third game of the season.
“I know last year was a condensed schedule, but this year has felt every bit the same,” said Yeo, and he’s right because of the Olympics (Wild played 48 games in 99 days last year; this year it played the same amount of games in a league-low 101 days if I remember correctly). “Even though [Backstrom] hasn’t been the starting goalie, there’s also for that backup goalie a heavy workload. He’s got to make sure his game’s staying sharp in practice.”
So Yeo hopes the Olympics give him the rest he needs to get healthy because “we’re going to need him. With the amount of back-to-back games and amount of games we’re playing in a short period of time and just even sometimes to put a veteran guy in and a guy that’s been in those type of situations, certainly we’re going to need him.”
The Wild closes the Olympic break before most teams in the league and some teams start earlier than the Wild. The Wild also plays three games in the first nine days after the break, so the games in hand teams have on the Wild? They’ll catch up. That’s why tonight’s game is so important. The Wild needs the two points to continue to have a cushion on the teams behind them.
Nashville has a game at home against Anaheim on Saturday, so the Preds shouldn’t look past tonight’s game. The danger for the Wild is they could with five guys (maybe four if Mikko Koivu is ruled out) going to the Olympics and most every other player headed to the beach Friday and Saturday.
The Preds are playing well and have pushed themselves back into the playoff hunt, so Yeo expects Nashville’s best tonight and warned the Wild to beware of looking past tonight for the break.
After tonight, Yeo said he’ll tell the players to turn off their brains and forget about hockey for a little while. In fact, the Wild’s strength coach, Kirk Olson, will tell players to not do anything exercise-wise for four days and then give them a program to start up again before the players must report back for practice Feb. 19 at 2 p.m.
Players have all been weighed in so they have a baseline for what they should be once they report again. The team will then have a mini-training camp before its schedule resumes Feb. 27 in Edmonton.
But tonight, Yeo said, “We cannot have any letdowns.”
What else? Stephane Veilleux has cleared waivers and been assigned to Iowa. Marco Scandella is walking well on his sprained right knee and says he got lucky.
Also, I threw the Chad Rau trade on the blog yesterday and didn’t give you any foundation for understanding it because it was so minor. After getting a Twitter freak out, I realize now I probably should have explained the move.
First of all, minor-league trades are made every day in the NHL. Heck, Iowa made two yesterday. The only reason why this got a press release here in Minnesota is because Rau is on an NHL deal.
This is a trade that will never impact the Wild. The Wild runs two organizations and this was a move for Iowa.
Rau has been scratched more than a dozen times this year because Iowa has been forced to rotate veterans. Veterans are deemed to be any player that has more than 260 pro games I believe. You can only dress six in the AHL. Iowa has seven, so every night, one of the vets has to be scratched. That’s why David Steckel wanted out at the start of the year. Back then, Iowa had eight and two were scratched per night.
So, this was not fair to Rau, this wasn’t fair to Iowa. It’s a stupid rule when every night one “vet” has to see four ECHLers who aren’t as good as him play in Iowa’s lineup because one of them are not allowed to play.
Rau hasn’t been called up in two years. It’s not his fault the Wild is deeper today than it was when he got callups a few years ago and has players like Granlund, Niederreiter, Coyle, Zucker, Haula above him in the depth chart.
So in order to give Rau a chance to play every day and get a contract next year, the Wild traded him. They were doing him a favor. This was no slight of a beloved hometown boy, as some of my Twitter followers seemed to take it as.
This was a minor-league trade, so chillax. Like I said, I realize now I should have given you the context of the trade yesterday.
That’s it for me. I’ll be on Fox Sports North during tonight’s pregame show and first intermission.
Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning tonight at the X.
Good afternoon from the arena’s press room. Reminder, the fourth of five Star Tribune Chalk Talks with former Lightning assistant coach Wes Walz and I will take place before tonight’s game. If you want to attend the event and game, please go to wild.com/chalktalk.
If you didn't see my Mikael Granlund piece today, here is a link.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Ben Bishop tonight.
Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon will play for the first time in 15 games and be reunited with old defense partner Marco Scandella. Nate Prosser remains in the lineup and will be paired with veteran Keith Ballard, and Clayton Stoner will be scratched.
Two changes to the fourth line: Stephane Veilleux, scratched the previous five games, will replace Mike Rupp and Torrey Mitchell, scratched for the first time this season Saturday in Calgary, will slide into the right-wing spot as Justin Fontaine sits.
Fontaine missed practice Monday with a stomach bug, and since there was no practice Sunday, coach Mike Yeo felt Fontaine wouldn’t be 100 percent. So the team will give him a practice Wednesday and maybe Fontaine will return in Thursday’s game against Nashville – the final break before the 20-day Olympic break.
Remember, the Wild will not practice from Feb. 7-18. NHL practices can resume at 2 p.m. CT Feb. 19 and the Wild will resume practicing at its new practice facility whenever there’s an Xcel Energy Center conflict – Braemar Arena in Edina.
Also, Feb. 23, the Wild will hold a free, open-to-the-public outdoors practice at 11:15 a.m. at Roseville’s John Rose OVAL.
Spurgeon is excited to get back into the lineup tonight. When the Wild returned to Minnesota yesterday, those custom-molded shot blockers were sitting waiting for players. Spurgeon tried his the past few days and will give it a try tonight. He wore others during last year’s playoffs and found he would slip anytime he made a turn. These are molded and the strap comes higher, so they don’t hit the ice during crossovers.
I haven’t noticed if any other players will try them yet, but often times, players get into such a routine, more than likely if players wear them in games, they’ll want to get a string of practices with them on. So that could come during the Olympic break skates.
Spurgeon broke his foot during the Jan. 2 game against Buffalo. He lasted until the end of the game, skating 27 minutes and being plus-3.
“It didn’t really bother me until I took my skate off,” Spurgeon said. “It hurt when it happened and I left it on to make sure it didn’t swell up. After the game, we checked it out. Unfortunately it was worse than we thought. The next couple days I could barely walk on it, but I think the adrenaline of the game and how well we were playing that game, that kept me in it.”
Yeo said, “We’re anxious to see where his game’s at. If he can step in and be close to the level that he was at before he got hurt, we’re a lot stronger for it.”
Yeo talked to Stoner this morning to let him know “we’re not unhappy with him, we’re not disappointed in his game. Bally’s really been playing well, Pross has really been playing well. With Marco, Brods and Suts, we had to make a decision, so that’s where we’re at.”
Yeo said Prosser has taken advantage of his opportunity. From Nov. 27-Dec. 22, Prosser was scratched 13 consecutive games. He has now played 19 consecutive games, and in 14 games assuming Spurgeon’s role, he is plus-7 with two game-winning goals and two assists.
But Yeo made clear this is the lineup for tonight and there’s no guarantees he doesn’t switch it up Thursday, so Prosser must keep his foot on the gas.
On the fourth line change, Yeo said at home, he has the last change, and he likes the makeup of a Veilleux-Erik Haula-Mitchell line because Tampa Bay’s a tight-checking, fast team and this should be a “skating game.”
By the way, Tampa Bay’s top line right now is Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Martin St. Louis. Palat edged Johnson and Kuemper for Rookie of the Month today.
Palat had 16 points in January, Johnson had 14. Kuemper led all rookies with six wins and had a 2.15 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.
Tonight, the Wild must be better with the puck. In Calgary, the Wild constantly threw pucks away, especially some of the kids. Jason Zucker throwing a puck up the gut led to the first goal. In Colorado, Matt Cooke’s turnover led to the Avs’ first goal.
Yeo said the Wild watched a lot of video on that yesterday.
“You can’t control the game if you can’t control the puck and I thought we were very poor with the puck,” Yeo said. “It led to too many chances against, it led to the first goal against, not only in Calgary, but also in Colorado. We have to be better with the puck, hanging onto it, being strong on it. We talk about how we want to be a puck possession team. Well, if you get the puck and just throw it away to the other team, then obviously that’s not going to work out for you.”
Captain Mikko Koivu again skated and shot pucks on his own before today’s skate. He is wrestling with the decision as to whether to captain Finland in the Olympics.
If he’s medically cleared, it’ll be up to Koivu as to whether he feels he can play at a high enough level in Sochi to participate.
“If he’s medically cleared and there’s no risk of injuring it further, to me, I would want him to go,” Yeo said. “Given the time he’s been off, it would almost be like a little training camp coming back for when we get out of the break. You can’t replicate the games. The level he’d be playing at over there, if he could get in and get those games, I think he should be much stronger coming out of break.”
I couldn’t agree more. Somebody tweeted me yesterday he should have his captaincy strip if he doesn’t play this week and ends up playing in the Olympics.
That’s absurd. If he is medically cleared and is able to play, it would be huge for the Wild if during the break Koivu is practicing and playing. If he doesn’t play during the break, when the Wild opens up Feb. 27 in Edmonton with the first of back-to-back games, Koivu could be playing his first game in almost two months. There’d be rust and fatigue for awhile because, as Wes Walz always says, it is not easy for big guys to come back and play at a top level initially after a long layoff.
So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens here. Again, Finland doesn’t need to turn into a roster until 24 hours before its first game. It opens against Austria on Feb. 13.
Talk to you later.
Afternoon from one of my favorite arenas, the Saddledome in Calgary, where tonight on Hockey Night in Canada, another classic Flames-Wild tilt will take place.
It’s my first time here since the arena was under water following the Bow River flooding last June.
Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, named an alternate captain for the U.S. Olympic team for the second time yesterday, will be Scott Oake’s guest on HNIC’s After Hours following the game. If you have questions you want Scott to ask, tweet him at @scottoake.
Since Jay Feaster was fired and President of Hockey Ops Brian Burke took over on an interim basis, the man has tried to add “truculence” to the Calgary lineup. The big addition was Kevin Westgarth, who decided to play center for a shift to open a game last month in Vancouver. All heck broke loose after the opening faceoff, John Tortorella tried to storm the Flames’ room to get at coach Bob Hartley between periods and Torts hasn’t coached since.
I jokingly warned Mike Yeo not to start his fourth line tonight.
But because of the heavies in Calgary’s lineup, Mike Rupp will play his fourth consecutive game.
Jason Zucker, scratched for Rupp the past three games, will return though and skate on a line with hometown “kid” Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle. The trio had success a few games last month.
Zucker was the odd man after Zach Parise returned, and Yeo said it was about “fit.” I asked Yeo more specifically today why Zucker was scratched and he gave his most specific answer, which was an indictment of both the team and Zucker.
He said he gave Zucker the one game against Chicago on the fourth line and indicated Zucker needs to play in a top-6 role to be effective (he had one near costly turnover after a play on the wall in the second period). But then Yeo added, “We’ve seen a different game from our team and from him playing against some of these heavy teams on the road, so that’s we used the different lineup.”
So, to be clearer, Yeo has felt the Wild’s game and Zucker’s game changes against tough teams on the road, so that’s why he felt compelled to start playing Rupp at San Jose, at Anaheim, at Colorado and now at Calgary.
Zucker said he has to his best to play mistake-free hockey to keep from being an up-and-down player. Personally, I think that's a hard demand for any player to ask of himself. Zucker had some great games last month, especially in Nashville. He just has to do his best to relax, clear his head and play his game.
With Zucker back in and Rupp remaining in, Torrey Mitchell, whom I hear came close to being scratched in Colorado, will sit for the first time this season. Mitchell has one goal in 53 games.
Jared Spurgeon’s return is on hold. Yeo said Spurgeon told him yesterday that he’s just not ready, which is completely understandable. He has missed 13 games with a broken foot. Yesterday was his first real practice, so to me, that would have been the definition of rushing him back into the lineup.
I’d guess Tuesday against Tampa Bay is a likelihood.
“We would have had a tough decision tonight [as for who to take out] if he was coming into the lineup,” Yeo said. “Guys have elevated their game. Stony’s (Clayton Stoner) playing a physical game, Bally’s (Keith Ballard) taken his game to another level and Pross (Nate Prosser), we’ve seen what he’s come in and done.”
Yeo said all three probably sense the return of Spurgeon and have lifted their game knowing one of them will come out.
“That’s probably part of it,” Yeo said. “They go into every game making sure they’re ready to go and making sure they have that urgency.”
I did a big feature last month about Prosser, but I may write about him again for Monday. His play has been that good and he had some good stuff to say today about his head-to-head duels with Jamie McGinn the other night in Denver.
Captain Mikko Koivu returned to Minnesota after practicing in Denver the other day. The team felt there was no sense bringing him to Calgary since he wasn’t going to play.
He has not practiced with the team since having surgery on his ankle Jan. 6, so I don’t see how on earth he’ll be able to play one of the final two games before the Olympics. That, too, would be the definition of rushing him back.
“I don’t want to say anything yet,” Yeo said. “I would call Tuesday a longshot right now and I don’t want to speculate at all beyond that.”
That’s it for now. I’ll be on Sportsnet 590 the Fan in Toronto at 5:10 p.m. CT.
Also, the fourth of five Star Tribune Chalk Talks with myself and Wes Walz is Tuesday before the Wild-Lightning game. If you would like to go to the event and the game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.
Afternoon from Denver. I intended to get this blog up a few hours ago, but after eight days away from the beat, it's been phone call after phone call just to catch up and figure out what's going on with the team behind the scenes, and, heck, even ironing down exactly what lines guys have played on.
I did catch up with Chuck Fletcher regarding the March 5 trade deadline and many different subjects, and a lot of that will be in my Sunday column.
A reminder: It's silly season right now with the rumors. In most cases, you don't need me to confirm or refute. You're all educated hockey fans. Ask yourself first, "Does this remotely make sense?" Most of the time, you'll know if it's baloney or not.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who will miss his 13th consecutive game tonight when the Wild visits the Colorado Avalanche, took part in the pregame skate this morning. It was his first time on the ice with teammates since blocking a shot and injuring a foot Jan. 2 against Buffalo.
That was the 4-1 victory that triggered a 9-3-1 month. Spurgeon was plus-3 that game, playing 27 minutes as Ryan Suter's partner.
The plan is for Spurgeon to practice fully with contact Friday in Calgary and coach Mike Yeo said this morning during his pregame availability (I didn't make it to the rink because of a flight delay) that there's a chance Spurgeon returns Saturday night in Calgary -- a special place in Spurgeon's heart because that's where he made his NHL debut on his 21st birthday three years ago if I remember correctly.
After tonight, there are three games before the Olympic break -- in Calgary, Tuesday vs. Tampa Bay and Thursday vs. Nashville. Wild actually begins the Olympic break two days earlier than many.
Spurgeon said today that he definitely wants to get back before the Olympics because otherwise, it'd be roughly two months between games for him and the league will have ramped up. So, Saturday certainly sounds close.
Then, it'll be interesting to see Yeo's decision-making with the lineup. Nate Prosser has played great in place of Spurgeon, so one would assume he has earned the right to stay in the lineup. If Prosser stays, it'll be Keith Ballard, who at least on my iPad seems to be playing better, or Clayton Stoner.
It sounds like Mikko Koivu will ramp it up soon. He hasn't skated with the team yet. If he doesn't soon, one has to wonder if he'll be able to play in either of those home games before the Olympics. Yeo said today he doesn't want to rush him back in.
Yeo is coming back with the same lineup tonight, meaning Jason Zucker sits and Mike Rupp stays.
Again, I didn't make the morning skate, but Yeo said it's a game-to-game decision and he feels with Rupp in the lineup, it allows guys like Stoner to worry about playing defense and not going toe to toe by being the lone tough guy.
"It’s like having your big brother with you," Yeo said of Rupp's insertion into the lineup the past two games. "You feel a little bit stronger."
Zucker and Erik Haula will spend the Olympic break in Iowa playing. Technically, the Wild could send Darcy Kuemper there, too. Personally, I think that's a risk just because of Josh Harding's uncertain health situation. Kuemper is playing so well when the Wild needs him most, so to me at least, it'd be risky sending him to Iowa. Could you imagine if he got hurt? On the other hand, the other way of looking at it, it could give Kuemper the upper hand on other goalies if he's playing all Olympic break.
I'll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission. Later.
The Wild should expect a motivated Dallas Stars team tonight.
They’re 1-8-1 this month and this morning, Stars GM Jim Nill walked into the room and the doors closed behind him. My reporter’s instinct says that’s the sign of GM who addressed his slumping team during a meeting.
Wild beat the Stars 3-2 in overtime in St. Paul on Saturday. Coach Mike Yeo will go with the exact same lineup tonight, meaning Mike Rupp and Jon Blum will be scratched.
The Wild is 7-2 this month and Darcy Kuemper will be making his fifth consecutive start and sixth in eight games. Johan Gustafsson will back him up. The Wild still expects that Niklas Backstrom will rejoin the team for Wednesday’s practice.
Good afternoon from inside American Airlines Center. If you didn't see, I did a fun profile on Elk River's Nate Prosser in today's paper. Here is the link.
I talked to Matt Cooke today about Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and GM Bryan Murray meeting at league headquarters yesterday to reportedly present its forensics findings from an investigation into Melnyk’s contention that Cooke intentionally sliced defenseman Erik Karlsson’s Achilles’ tendon with his skate Feb. 13, 2013.
Here is Bruce Garrioch's story from the Ottawa Sun today.
A league source told me that whatever discussion the Sens’ brass had with the league, it won’t affect Cooke retroactively nor the Wild. Cooke played for Pittsburgh at the time of the incident.
Cooke told me of the alleged forensics presentation: “I think it’s really strange. It’s almost a full year ago that it happened. I’ve said this from the beginning and I still say it. It was a complete accident. It’s happened two or three times since with other guys (Toronto’s Dave Bolland severed a tendon from Vancouver’s Zack Kassian in November and a week after the Cooke-Karlsson incident, Winnipeg’s Zach Redmond had an artery in his thigh cut by teammate, former Wild Antti Miettinen, late in a practice at Carolina).”
On if he wishes Melnyk would just let it go, Cooke said, “I can’t control it. I learned a long time ago, all I can control is my actions and my words. I try to do that to the best that I can. Other people are going to have judgments. They’re entitled to their own opinions. I can’t tell this guy how to spend his money. He’s entitled to do what he wants.”
Tonight will be the Wild’s first game since Dallas captain Jamie Benn elbowed Cooke in the head 23 seconds into overtime Saturday. Here's the hit.
Benn wasn’t disciplined because the NHL considered it a protective maneuver. Here is the league video on "defensive contact to the head."
Cooke said he won’t be seeking retribution. “The most important thing tonight is two points. We need to put space between us and the teams behind us. This is a huge game. It’s a team in our division and behind us. We have to have the focus to go out and win the game. That’s the most important thing.”
I asked Cooke what he thinks of the NHL’s Player Safety Department saying there’s a permissible time to have “defensive contact to the head” and if he thinks it would have been considered a protective maneuver if the roles were reversed and Cooke was skating with the puck and elbowed Benn.
“I think what they’re trying to say it’s not premeditated and an unintentional protection of themselves,” Cooke said. “My only argument is that it’s still a hit to the head. They get probably 50 hits a night that they have to review. There’s an image for the league too that they want to try to uphold for fans and media and scrutiny. So you can’t suspend everything. As a player, you want to believe they’re doing their best to protect each and every one of us and you have to put your trust in that. Otherwise, it would eat you up inside.”
The whole protective maneuver in this case seems strange because replays clearly show Cooke was not going to check Benn.
“I went to go hit him and he had his head down skating through the neutral zone,” Cooke said. “So my conscience got the best of me and I stopped and he’s the one who ended up hitting me. That’s where I think it differs from the video they’ve shown of defensive hits to the head. I wasn’t hitting him. But it’s a fast game. Things happen.”
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