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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Posts about Wild training camp

Jason Zucker, Jake Dowell reassigned to Iowa; Fontaine, Dumba among those staying

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 29, 2013 - 9:50 AM

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)

Forwards

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)

Defensemen

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Keith Ballard-Matt Dumba

Clayton Stoner-Nate Prosser

Goalies

Niklas Backstrom

Josh Harding

Injured: Mike Rupp (knee)

More later

Wild loses finale after Harding leaves game with illness; Dumba staying for now

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 28, 2013 - 11:29 AM

Saturday morning update: Jake Dowell and Tyler Cuma cleared waivers. Dowell remains on the roster for now. Cuma is in Iowa. No roster moves expected today. Wild has the day off. Injury updates and news will come Sunday prior to the Wild bussing to Duluth.

The Wild fell in its preseason finale Friday night in St. Louis when the big, bad Blues stormed back from a 1-0 deficit by scoring four third-period goals on the fourth goalie on the Wild’s depth chart, Johan Gustafsson.

The Blues, after falling behind on Jared Spurgeon’s power-play goal midway through the first, turned up the dial in the second half of the second period and never let up, so there was not much Gustafsson could do as the Wild was on its heels all period.

Gustafsson was in the game because Josh Harding reported to the trainers during the second intermission that he wasn’t feeling well. Coach Mike Yeo hadn’t talked to Harding postgame yet and said “hopefully he’s just not feeling well.”

Turns out Niklas Backstrom was supposed to start tonight, but he was feeling sore, so the Wild decided not to risk any injury and that’s why it didn’t bring him. Yeo said there’s “nothing remotely wrong” with Backstrom, so not to worry.

Harding by the way stopped all 15 shots he saw through two periods. He gave up two goals in 145 minutes in the preseason (0.83 GAA) and had a .962 save percentage. I tried to talk to him postgame as he headed to the bus, but he must not have wanted to chat.

--Late in tonight’s game, forward Torrey Mitchell was tripped up behind the play in one of corners by defenseman Roman Polak. The Wild claimed it was a slewfoot. I never got a look and there were no in-house replays. Mitchell was down on the ice for awhile, but he finally got up and skated to the bench and into the locker room by his own power. So hopefully he’s OK, but Yeo didn’t have a report yet. Mitchell’s had a real good camp.

--If he isn’t hurt, the Wild has one more roster move to make (the Wild has Saturday off, so it may come before it heads to Duluth on Sunday). Read my main article in Saturday’s paper because GM Chuck Fletcher said people shouldn’t go crazy by whatever that final move will be. Fletcher said the opening night lineup is not who’s “making the team.” It’s who is playing opening night.

So if Yeo decides he wants to go with an all-skill fourth line like he did tonight with Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, maybe Jake Dowell is reassigned. If he feels he needs some beef in the lineup and wants to play Zenon Konopka or Dowell vs. the Kings on Thursday, maybe one of the entry-level guys like Zucker and Granlund has to temporarily go down.

But Fletcher said, especially with Des Moines so close and so many players on contracts that allow them to go up and down, the Wild may shuttle players back and forth for some time depending on what players Yeo wants to play on a certain night.

There’s definitely some intriguing elements of an all-skill line like Zucker-Granlund-Niederreiter. They were threats often early and seemed to catch St. Louis off guard with speed. But against a Blues as big and strong as St. Louis, you need some ruggedness and Yeo was curious to see how the kids would handle the Blues’ heavier, grittier men.

Yeo felt Zucker played with more energy today and like the unconventional kid’s fourth line in the first half of the game. Like the whole team, not so much late.

I did ask Fletcher about Zucker today and Fletcher said, “[Zucker] knows he can play better than what he is, and I have no doubt he will get his game back in order. “There’s a possibility he plays games in the NHL and AHL this year. It’s going to be up to him. But there’s no doubt he’s going to be a really good player in this league.

“He’s too good a player not to find his stride here at some point.”

--One player who did play well tonight is Matt Dumba. He had a real good first half of his game and he was one of the rare players Yeo liked late. He’s staying. The Wild is in no rush to make a decision on him, especially when it has a nine-game window to make a decision between Dumba staying in Minnesota or going back to Red Deer.

The question is how much does he play and how does he handle the NHL game.

“We’re comfortable carrying eight defensemen if needed,” Fletcher said. “It’s pretty tough to make a definitive call on [Dumba] based on a few preseason games. We’ll get into the season and see how much he plays, how often, how well and the answer will be obvious to everybody.”

--Jonas Brodin played left D tonight. Normally he plays right D (difficult for a left-shot D), and he didn’t look overly comfortable. Good thing Ryan Suter will come back and save the day as his partner and he can move back to right D. Suter had the night off.

Nate Prosser played top pair with Brodin tonight and looked good. There were a lot of scouts here and it looks like it’ll be another year of Prosser being the extra guy. At some point, for the sake of Prosser’s career, the Wild should probably look to move him. But as of now, Fletcher doesn’t want to delete any blue-liners until he’s sure Dumba can play in the NHL.

Pairs right now are:

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Ballard (night off tonight)-Dumba

Or, if Dumba sits on certain nights, most likely:

Stoner-Ballard (if Dumba sits)

--Yeo on tonight’s game: “I thought even the second half of the second period, they turned it up to another level and it set us back. Puck execution was the biggest problem. We weren’t executing the right way, allowed them to have long shifts in our zone, allowed them to build momentum and I think that gave them the feeling going into the third period that if they continue to do that, the right thing would happen and we never did anything to stop that.”

--On lesson from this: “To be honest with you, I think it’s good for our whole team. I think this is better for us than it would have been to win this game. We’ve had a good camp, but if it was all rosy and all success, I would have been concerned about that. The fact that this is a reminder of the things you need to do and the way we need to play, I think that should help us more.”

--Wild finished the preseason 4-2. Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise set up the Spurgeon goal. But the two of them and Jason Pominville were on for the first three third-period goals, and Koivu and Pominville were actually on for the fourth, too. Pominville also seemed to survive a hit from behind in the head from David Backes tonight. Backes also clocked Matt Cooke at game’s end. Cooke said he was ok and his own visor got him in the face. This was after Cooke came out of the box for getting into it with Polak after his alleged slewfoot on Mitchell. Cooke also nailed Jay Bouwmeester with a clean hit in the second. Chris Stewart lost his mind on Cooke and earned a 4-minute roughing penalty. The Wild didn’t register a shot during two ugly, I believe, shotless power plays that probably gave power-play consultant Andrew Brunette indigestion.

-- I felt Justin Fontaine had a welcome to the NHL game. Probably eye opening, but he also made some nice plays out there, too. Yeo felt this was Dany Heatley’s best game.

“I was happy about playing this team twice in a row,” Yeo said. “I knew we were either going to play two good games or we were going to get spanked like we did tonight. It’s a good reminder.

“We have a good feel where everybody’s at and now we’ll use this week to get ready.”

Again, day off Saturday. Sunday morning the Wild practices at the X before heading to Duluth for a team dinner. Monday, practice, golf and team dinner. Tuesday, the Wild practices at AMSOIL Arena at 10 a.m. and it’s free and open to the public.

Opening Night is Thursday!

OK, I’m exhausted, need to do Wild Minute (that usually takes me 60 Minutes) and get out of here so I can get some shut-eye for an early flight back to Minnesota.

Likely no blog Saturday with the team off. Injury news and cut may come Sunday.

Wild bringing skilled lineup to St. Louis; Dowell on waivers, Steckel released

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 27, 2013 - 3:04 PM

UPDATED

Mike Yeo said yesterday he planned to go with a "skilled lineup" tonight in St. Louis, and that he is.

In an intimidating arena against a big team, no Zenon Konopka or Jake Dowell. Ryan Suter and Keith Ballard also get the night off. Same with Niklas Backstrom

Yeo is trying to get a lot of answers tonight in what could be the final audition for one of the youngsters in the lineup.

Josh Harding gets the start. Johan Gustafsson has been recalled to back up as Backstrom stayed home.

Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville

Dany Heatley-Charlie Coyle-Justin Fontaine

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell

Jason Zucker-Mikael Granlund-Nino Niederreiter

D are:

Jonas Brodin (playing left side for first time I can remember)-Nate Prosser

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Clayton Stoner-Matt Dumba

Yeo said he plans to juggle the lines a lot less tonight, but it will be interesting to see if any of the skilled forwards on the fourth line get an opportunity to slot up.

The Wild has also placed Dowell and Tyler Cuma on waivers. Dowell wouldn't need to be reassigned to Iowa right away if he clears. It just gives the Wild roster flexibility -- perhaps to even keep all the kids or eventually sign Steckel.

Steckel has been released from his tryout. As of now, Steckel plans to sign an AHL deal and play in Iowa as he waits for an opportunity with the Wild or elsewhere. The Wild informed Steckel of the situation yesterday. There's just no room with Konopka here and the kids playing well. So Steckel will return to Columbus, where he lives, for a few days. If no NHL job comes up, he'll report to Iowa.

Again, just because Dowell is on waivers doesn't mean all the kids make it. Dowell is still with the team and it's hard to imagine the Wild would permanently have one of its prospects be the 13th (extra) forward.

The opening night roster will hopefully become clearer before the Wild heads to Duluth on Sunday.

Cuma has been cleared to return from a knee injury. He is in Iowa already. Brett Bulmer is still getting healthy and will officially be reassigned to Iowa when that occurs.

Follow on @russostrib tonight.

Wild Thursday practice: Zucker on notice

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: September 26, 2013 - 3:23 PM

Rachel Blount here, sitting in for Russo. After stating his disappointment with the play of Jason Zucker in Wednesday's victory over St. Louis, Wild coach Mike Yeo didn't back off of his assessment. And it doesn't help Zucker's cause that Yeo also continued to rave about Mikael Granlund, who impressed the coach in Thursday's practice.

Both young forwards could play in Friday's preseason finale at St. Louis. Yeo stopped short of characterizing it as a head-to-head competition between Zucker and Granlund for a roster spot, but it feels that way.

Wednesday, Zucker got limited ice time, most of it on the fourth line. Granlund sat out a second game with a minor injury but looked strong and sharp in Thursday's practice, particularly during special-teams work.

Yeo said after practice that he had not talked to Zucker yet, but he planned to let him know what he wants to see from him. "He's got to get more engaged,'' Yeo said. "I thought he was losing races to pucks, and that shouldn't happen with his speed. He just really wasn't much of a factor in the game. He's got to be more involved. That's not an easy thing to do against a team like St. Louis, but you've got to be a factor out there.''

The rematch against St. Louis, Yeo said, will be a big game for both Zucker and Granlund, as well as for a few other players. Two more players will be cut before the season begins a week from today on Thursday, Oct. 3.

Zucker clearly knows the stakes. "I've got nobody to blame but myself,'' he said.

Granlund will definitely play Friday, Yeo said. Regarding those final cuts, he said, "I seriously don't know where we're going yet.'' But he noted again his happiness with how Granlund has performed during camp and was especially pleased to see how well Granlund worked with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter on the power play in Thursday's workout.

"It's a good dynamic with the three of those guys,'' Yeo said. "They're working well. You've got big bodies, guys that are good around the net, and you've got a puck distributor (Granlund) who sees the ice really well and can shoot it, too, if there's a lot of room. It was fun watching them.''

Yeo also was glad to see a stout performance from Niklas Backstrom in goal Wednesday. Goalie coach Bob Mason said both Backstrom and Josh Harding are showing no lingering effects from their health issues of last season, and he is pleased with what he's seen from them in camp. More on that in Friday's paper.

Wild wins again: Yeo heaps praise on Coyle, "wasn't crazy" about Zucker

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 25, 2013 - 11:07 PM

Charlie Coyle continued his fantastic preseason with a breakaway goal – the eventual winning goal – and Torrey Mitchell and Matt Cooke scored goals, as well, Wednesday night as the Wild defeated the St. Louis Blues 3-1 in preseason action.

Other than the Derek Roy-Chris Stewart line and eventually Brenden Morrow, Wednesday’s St. Louis lineup was very emblematic of what should be their regular-season lineup. So was Minnesota, which improved to 4-1 in the preseason.

Niklas Backstrom looked real, real good tonight with 33 saves and Nino Niederreiter got shafted out of a goal – so to speak – when he scored a water-bottle popping power-play goal in the third. But the referees didn’t see the water bottle pop (the crowd did) and neither did the goal judge on the balcony under the corner rafters on that side.

For some bizarre reason, there’s no video review in the preseason even when there were cameras, an overhead and one of the two usual video review judges manning the booth and seeing it was a goal clear as day on replay.

Doesn’t matter though. Coach Mike Yeo and the brass know it was in and Yeo again praised Niederreiter after the game. He also praised Justin Fontaine.

He “wasn’t crazy” about Jason Zucker’s game (says El Nino and Fonzy “took advantage of their opportunities more”), and he saw 13 shifts and 10:23 of ice time, and mostly on the fourth line.

I felt Zucker would be a lock to make this roster before camp. Heck, I felt that way this morning.

I’m not so sure anymore. I can’t figure out if Yeo is trying to prod Zucker and motivate him or if he’s in serious trouble here.

Yeo wasn’t happy with Zucker’s first period in Columbus the other night and didn’t like his game tonight. If Mikael Granlund has a strong game when he returns to the lineup in Friday’s preseason finale, could he take that spot next to Coyle or play the fourth line?

Before getting hurt, Granlund was having a strong camp. Not only does he look faster, he was making plays, blocking shots and being reliable defensively.

Prior to tonight’s game, Yeo warned his players that he’d be juggling lines like a madman, and he certainly did that in the second.

While Zach Parise may have started the game on his normal top line with Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville, the Wild workhorse also saw shifts with Coyle. Pominville saw shifts with Coyle and Dany Heatley.

Heatley saw shifts with Koivu. Niederreiter saw top-line action, second-line action and fourth-line action. Fontaine played on the second, third and fourth lines. Torrey Mitchell played on the third and fourth lines. Jason Zucker played the first two periods on the fourth line with Zenon Konopka.

“It was to get some familiarity with other players,” said Parise, who has said before that he likes to get used to playing with other linemates. “It was good, guys we hadn’t played with at all during camp, it made some different liens and I thought it went well.”

Yeo said his objective tonight was to see different players on different lines and get the guys who had only played one game – Parise, Koivu, Pominville, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin – ready for the season.

“I wish we had more time to get some of the young kids more ice time, but the bottom line is we have to focus on certain guys and makings sure they’re ready first,” Yeo said. “That’s why it’s important for a young kid to take advantage of every shift and every practice day.”

He said late in camp, the priority is on the core guys, so above quote, you can read between the lines there and Yeo is referring to Zucker.

Coyle again was real good. His goal was a thing of beauty, a home-run pass from Suter. Coyle skated in, hit the brakes, deked Brian Elliott out of his skates and tucked the puck into an open net.

“I just want to be careful because with a young kid, I don’t want to sit here and heap too much praise on him, but I can’t say anything negative about his camp,” Yeo said of Coyle. “He’s been outstanding. The challenge for him is to keep it going.”

Yeo brought up before camp when the media was asking if he was worried about sophomore slumps for Coyle and Brodin.

“When you know this kid’s personality, you know the way he trains, you know his motivation, I was pretty confident we wouldn’t see that from him,” Yeo said of Coyle. “He’s a consistent two-way player, plays well without the puck. He’s had a great preseason. … There’s no reason to feel anything but real happy with the way that he’s played.”

Niederreiter had a solid game. So did Mitchell, who scored a pretty shortie by racing into the offensive zone, finding Keith Ballard’s dump-in before Elliott could do anything with it and whipping it into an open net. Cooke snapped a goal off a nice Kyle Brodziak feed in the neutral zone.

Like I said, Backstrom looked good. Matt Dumba played well after a tough game in Columbus. Great game for Brodin, too.

Pominville had a bunch of chances. Koivu was robbed on one 5-on-3 goalmouth pass from Pominville.

Koivu’s fiancée, Helena, gave birth to their first child on Tuesday night, Sofie Elizabeth.

He didn’t get much sleep before the game, but a smiling Koivu said, “I better get used to that, right?”

Asked what it’s like being a papa, Koivu said, kiddingly, “Little bit confused, I still don’t know what to do. It’s a great feeling. I can’t really describe it. It’s still new and [I’m] nervous, but that’s natural. But Helena’s been doing a good job. For sure she knows what to do more than I do, but I’ll get there.”

Koivu is starting to get real confident with how the Wild’s playing. The Wild isn’t giving up a lot of chances, their D look good jumping into plays and offensively they’re generating chances.

Remember, tonight was really the first game where the team that could resemble opening night were together.

Yeo said again he wants to be a better adjustment team this year, and with that comes line juggling.

He said that “shouldn’t be a huge adjustment for us. We play a sound team game and everybody should be on the same page.”

Yeo admitted he’s got no clue right now “how we’re going to start the season or make up lines. We have more players, we have more depth, and with that, we’ve got more decisions.”

It’ll be interesting to see if the Wild’s willing to go with a young cast on the fourth line, whether that be a Fontaine, Granlund, Zucker or Niederreiter.

Like I said before, I’d be shocked at this point if Fontaine and Niederreiter don’t make it. The question is if Granlund and/or Zucker make it initially. For it to be both, the Wild would need to trade one of its fourth-liners like Konopka (who has been on the block) or put a one-way guy on waivers (Konopka or Jake Dowell). Usually teams spending $65 million loathe throwing an NHL salary in the minors.

Another story line from tonight is something I’ve alluded to all preseason. If Dumba makes the team, it looks like Clayton Stoner is the odd guy out with Nate Prosser.

Tonight the pairs were

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Ballard-Dumba

Scandella, by the way, had his best preseason game of the three he’s played.

That’s it for now. By the way, owner Craig Leipold had some of us ink-stained wretches in his suite for the game tonight. He did tell me he’s currently looking to put a new HD scoreboard in. No timetable yet.

I always get questions about that though.

Rachel Blount is covering practice technically Thursday as I’m getting together with a player after practice for a story next week. She’ll likely blog. I’ll likely tweet. Good night.

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