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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As reported on the previous blog here, goalie Josh Harding has been medically cleared to return and was placed on waivers today at 11 a.m. CT by the Wild.
The Wild will find out at 11 a.m. Tuesday if he clears waivers. If Harding does, he’ll be assigned to AHL Iowa.
I gave my opinion on the previous blog as to what I think happens, but part of me is still wavering because on second thought, if you’re a team with goaltending issues, maybe you take the gamble despite the multiple sclerosis uncertainty. After all, Harding was the best goalie statistically in the NHL when he had to be pulled from the lineup last year.
Harding’s salary is $2.1 million with a $1.9 million cap hit, so that isn’t that big a risk.
An update on the previous blog guesstimates, if Harding is claimed Tuesday, a team would carry a $1.48 million cap hit the rest of the year (that’s prorated because we’re six weeks into the season).
If he clears and is assigned to Iowa, the Wild would carry a prorated portion of $975,000 while on loan. That would be a cap hit of $760,000 or roughly $5,200 a day. Now that he is off suspension, for today, the Wild carries his full cap hit, which is $10,000 per day.
Salary-wise, he is owed $1.65 million the rest of the year even if he plays in Iowa. The Wild has plenty of cap space, so this decision wasn’t motivated by cap or financial reasons.
General Manager Chuck Fletcher has landed in Toronto for today’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, so I was able to speak to him by phone.
Fletcher said he met with Harding face-to-face last night and explained to him the team’s reasoning. He said he left it with Harding that the two would talk again Tuesday if he clears waivers, but Harding gave him no indication that he wouldn’t report to Iowa (Harding has declined comment on the situation through the Wild PR department.
“His focus and goal is to get back and be a quality NHL goaltender again, so it’s another step for him,” Fletcher said. “I think that’s where his focus is right now. I don’t assume there will be any issue.”
Asked why he went the waiver route as opposed to sending Harding to Iowa on a two-week conditioning stint, Fletcher said, “The reality is he hasn’t played in a game since Dec. 31. He missed training camp and the first month-and-a-half this season, and that’s a lot of time for any player to miss. Our main goal now is to help him successfully regain his form of last season, and assuming he clears waivers, we felt this move would best help facilitate that. There’s really no sense in putting a timetable on how long it’ll take him to get ready. This move allows us to just give him the time that he needs to get his game back.
“A two-week conditioning stint, that to me made no sense. He needs to play games. Let’s just get him to Iowa and get him going and not have any artificial timetable attached to it. Things change so quickly as we’ve seen the past several seasons with any situation, never mind our goaltending situation. So our thought right now is let’s just get him down, get him a part of the group and let him get a chance to get his game going, so when we do need him, he’s ready to go. We’ll see how things play out.”
If the Wild loses Harding, the Wild’s only other goalies available down there are John Curry and Johan Gustafsson. Fletcher said if the Wild loses him, it’ll create a different set of circumstances that the team will have to look at, like maybe Ilya Bryzgalov as insurance.
But, Fletcher said, “We didn’t have interest in carrying three goalies on a 23-man roster, particularly with the mumps or whatever the heck it is ripping through us. We’ve had two situations now with [Christian] Folin and [Marco] Scandella where they haven’t had to go on IR, so roster flexibility played a part in this. This is the best move, to get him playing without any artificial timetable attached to it.”
Harding, 30, was drafted by the Wild in the second round in 2002. He is 60-59-11 all-time with a 2.45 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and 10 shutouts.
As for practice for the Wild (which has won three in a row heading into a three-game road trip to Philly, Tampa Bay and Florida), coach Mike Yeo said Erik Haula sustained a charleyhorse last night and he expects him to be able to practice Wednesday and play in Philadelphia on Thursday.
He also hopes defenseman Jonas Brodin will be back for Thursday. He was in this morning and the Wild got him out pretty quickly. His jaw is pretty swollen still, Yeo said. “He is progressing. The way he skates, the way he plays the game. I don’t think he’ll need too much [practice] time before he’s able to come in and help us.”
If Brodin can’t play Thursday, the Wild would likely recall a defenseman again because Yeo prefers Stu Bickel at forward.
Yeo said he has no update on Matt Cooke’s status. “Just not progressing as quickly as we had hoped,” Yeo said. He has missed nine games.
I'll be on KFAN in studio at 9 am Tuesday. Also, no practice Tuesday, so I'll blog after I hear about Harding at 11ish.
The Wild has activated goalie Josh Harding off non-roster injury status and suspension today and placed him on waivers for the purposes of getting to AHL Iowa.
Harding hasn't played since Dec. 31 (multiple sclerosis last season, then broken foot sustained in an off-ice incident days before training camp), so assistant GM Brent Flahr said a conditioning stint didn't make sense because Harding is going to need a lot of time to practice and play -- more than the maximum on a stint.
I reported a few days ago that GM Chuck Fletcher told me he was considering the waiver route.
Keeping three goalies on a 23-man roster wasn't an option, Flahr said.
Frankly, that wasn't a healthy scenario either, in my opinion. The last thing the Wild needs is Darcy Kuemper looking over his shoulder at Harding, who isn't close to returning. When Harding's game is ready, the Wild will assess its goalie situation then, so this is not necessarily the end of the line for Harding in Minnesota.
I cannot imagine Harding is claimed off waivers. Not only is his health an uncertainty and not only hasn't he played in almost 11 months, the other 29 teams don't have the experience of how to deal with his MS.
I obviously could be wrong, but Harding's treatment and the protocols in place behind the scenes is something the Wild has a firm grasp of but other teams don't. In other words, this is not a normal circumstance where a team just simply picks up an injured player. There needs to be a little expertise on how to deal with him, but we'll see.
Harding is in the final year of a contract worth $2.1 million. If he clears, a prorated portion of $975,000 ($1.9 million cap hit minus $925,000) would count against the cap, but the Wild has plenty of space. Harding would be paid a prorated portion of his $2.1 million in the minors if he clears.
Harding, the NHL's Masterton winner two seasons ago and the Wild's Masterton nominee last season, was leading the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage at the time of his medication alteration last winter.
Days before breaking his foot, Harding sat down with the Star Tribune for an interview at his home. In the story, Harding discussed how great he felt on and off the ice and how he was looking forward to this season.
“It’s one of those summers where everything clicked and I feel even better than I did last summer and feel like I’m in better shape,” said Harding at the time. “With the year of knowledge of what I’m dealing with, with a different mind-set and different mentality about what I did this offseason, I think it’s definitely going to help out tremendously.
“I just feel … great. Physically, mentally, knowing everything that’s been working for me, I believe I’m going to show I’m capable of playing a full season. I just feel … great.”
Last year, Harding was in the midst of a sensational season, reeling off 18 victories by Dec. 17 before missing a road trip for what even doctors felt would be a minor adjustment to his treatment.
That season, one in which Harding had a 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, would be stopped in its tracks. He returned to start two games, including one where he clearly wasn’t right and the Wild blew a three-goal lead to the Islanders. He didn’t play again after Jan. 1 – the second season in a row he missed significant time due to the debilitating illness.
It’s clear Harding had a relapse.
“Without going into big details, one plus one equals two. The changing of the medication, the changing of the treatment over the Christmas break, things happened and things happened quick,” Harding said in September.
But Harding had been feeling great since the springtime and came close to returning in the playoffs. Conditioning was the only reason why he couldn’t. Even Harding has said the only thing that has kept him from being an everyday No. 1 is health. Even before being diagnosed with MS, Harding was often derailed by injuries, whether it being to his knee or hip.
Asked what his biggest objective was this season, Harding didn’t hesitate: “To stay healthy the entire season and be available for every game and give the team whatever they need from me and try my best and have fun while I do it.”
That changed a few days later when he broke his foot.
The Wild has activated left wing Zach Parise off injured reserve, an indication he will return today when the Wild hosts the Winnipeg Jets at 4 p.m. Defenseman Jonas Brodin was placed on IR to make room on the roster.
Parise, the Wild's leading scorer with 10 points, has missed five games with a concussion.
Coach Mike Yeo will be available before the game, but he said last night there's a good chance Niklas Backstrom makes his first home start since January. Backstrom stopped 25 shots in a win at home against Buffalo on Thursday after replacing Darcy Kuemper.
For today's Wild coverage, please go to www.startribune.com/wild. There's the game story, a notebook, preview box for today's game and my Sunday column on the cap recapture punishment the Wild may one day be facing if Parise and/or Ryan Suter retire prematurely.
The Wild will get defenseman Jared Spurgeon back in the lineup tonight against the Buffalo Sabres, and it’s a good thing because first-pair defenseman Jonas Brodin and second-pair defenseman Marco Scandella have come up ill and may be out for awhile.
The two have the same symptoms that sidelined defensemen Keith Ballard (eight games) and Christian Folin (five games) earlier this season. As I reported last week, Ballard was diagnosed with the mumps.
“They’re ill and similar symptoms to what we had some other guys out with,” coach Mike Yeo said of Brodin and Scandella. “We don’t know for sure that’s what it is, similar symptoms.”
Those symptoms, according to Ballard, are awful flu-like symptoms – achy, fever, zero energy and swollen glands in the neck area.
Scandella and Brodin both noticeably struggled at times Tuesday in New Jersey – the Wild’s fourth consecutive loss. Yeo said Scandella has been sick since Montreal, where I remember him coughing up a storm while we were talking to him. In New Jersey after the morning skate, I even commented to him about marks on his neck (looked like a jersey burn), which was also swollen.
According to webmd, “Mumps is spread by mucus or droplets from the nose or throat of an infected person, usually when a person coughs or sneezes. Surfaces of items (for example, toys) can also spread the virus if someone who is sick touches them without washing the hands, and someone else then touches the same surface and then rubs the eyes, mouth, nose, etc.
Yeo said linesman Steve Miller missed the Devils game that night with similar symptoms, and from looking at his game logs, Miller did two St. Louis Blues games Oct. 23 and Nov. 4.
According to sources, referee Eric Furlatt was also out this season with the same symptoms. I haven't looked up all of Furlatt's recent game logs yet, but he did do Wild at L.A., Blues at L.A. and Wild at Anaheim earlier this season and also apparently recently worked with Miller. See below for more detail on that.
I bring this up because the Blues have had a string of illnesses this season and many of those players had positive mumps tests, according to sources. Anaheim’s Corey Perry and Francois Beauchemin have also been diagnosed with the mumps. This has even affected some reporters.
“This came from somewhere else, but it’s a possibility that it’s inside our locker room now,” Yeo said. “Whatever we’ve got to do to clean it up and make sure nobody gets this and certainly keep these guys away from anybody. Problem is you start to wonder and start to worry, is this sitting inside anybody else waiting to come out, too?”
Wild athletic therapist Don Fuller has been in contact with the league. I have contacted the league to see if they’re looking into this stuff and I haven’t heard back yet. Folin and Ballard were on antibiotics when they were sick, and the Wild disinfected their equipment and had players use different water bottles and towels. So far, it appears as if only defensemen have been infected, and they do sit next to each other in the locker room and on the bench.
Yeo said all the sick players have reported the same thing – it feels like you’re coming down with something, and it either goes away or boom, your neck swells up.
It appears as if somebody’s locker room is a petri dish. The Wild’s illnesses began after an Oct. 17 trip to Anaheim and Oct. 19 trip to Los Angeles. The Blues also played in L.A. Oct. 16 and in Anaheim Oct. 19.
The Ducks played in St. Louis on Oct. 30.
Also, the Wild played a preseason game at St. Louis on Oct. 2 and the Blues played in Minnesota on Oct. 4.
So some have suggested it could have even started in St. Louis or Minnesota and maybe those teams brought it with them to California in October.
Ballard told me last week, “I’ve asked my mom and she said I had the vaccine [as a kid], so it makes no sense. So that’s the hard part [team doctors] are trying to wrap their heads around. How would I have gotten it?”
Yeo said the Wild’s lineup is up in the air because with defense pairs tonight of:
… the Wild may want to have the security of a seventh defenseman and play Stu Bickel up front. This way they can move him back to D if there are issues. But on the other hand, you lose two puck movers in Brodin and Scandella, Yeo may not want to do that.
The lines in the skate were
Zach Parise is getting close, Yeo said, “but we just have to make sure we’re following protocol. Make sure he’s getting proper rest and recovery. We desperately want him back in the lineup, but we have to make sure when he comes back he’s staying in the lineup.”
What does Yeo expect from Schroeder in his Wild debut?
“We’re not scoring goals.”
On Thomas Vanek’s struggles, Yeo said, “Pressure builds. It was well-documented and I don’t think there are any secrets about it that he was brought here to help us [score goals]. Whenever we’ve struggled, we’ve struggled because we’ve had a tough time scoring goals, and that’s why he was brought here.”
The Wild has to help Vanek, said Yeo.
On the all-Gopher line, Yeo said, “We kid about it, but we don’t just roll the dice and see what comes up here. It may appear that way sometimes,” he said, jokingly.
But Yeo said, “Granny needs workers with him. He’s got to get back to his game. He needs to get back to a driving, speed game. I feel like he’s been a lot more east west and the speed of his game hasn’t been a factor because of that. We’re going try to get him guys that can drive the net, guys that’ll open up ice for him and help him score off the rush.
“We’ve got to get Haulzy’s game going. Put him with two guys who can create and generate off the rush and make plays in the offensive zone. Two guys with a lot of speed should help Thomas, too.”
Darcy Kuemper vs. Jhonas Enroth (1-7-1, 3.63 goals-against average and .901 save percentage).
In the past 99 games, the Sabres have won 12 times in regulation. This is a team that hasn’t scored a first-period goal in 13 games. They have been outscored 60-21. The Wild hasn’t led in 240 minutes.
Wild’s PP is 2 for 44 (30th): PP Changes: Zucker-Koivu-Pominville-Spurgeon-Suter; Vanek-Granlund-Nino-Schroeder/Fontaine-Dumba. Sabres PP is 3 for 53.
Sabres helped turn the Wild’s season around last year. Let’s see if they can do it again.
My concerns: The Wild’s blue line, yucky right now without Scandella and Brodin. And with so much anxiety, if the Wild does happen to fall behind early tonight, the tension in the crowd and on that bench will be palpable. Big game, to say the least, for a Nov. 13 game considering the next game is at Dallas, where the Wild has won once in the past NINETEEN (I think) visits.
Late last night, I had a conversation with Kurt Kleinendorst, who lost his job Sunday night as head coach of the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines. See this blog for that news.
Following a loss to Chicago that put Iowa’s record at 2-10, Kleinendorst met with Wild director of minor-league operations Jim Mill and was informed of the team’s decision that he was being dismissed as coach. It left a sour end to Kleinendort’s 29th wedding anniversary to wife, Deon.
After finishing last in the AHL’s Western Conference last year, this was Kleinendorst’s 25th year as a hockey coach and it was by far his toughest.
Kleinendorst said he’s disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated and relieved that it’s over. He says the Wild had little choice but to let him go. Whatever he tried the past two years didn’t work with a group that wasn’t responding to him in Iowa, so now it’s his friend John Torchetti’s chance to retake the reins of a struggling team that lacks confidence right now.
Here is a Q and A with the 53-year-old who now will enjoy eight months of paid vacation:
On getting fired: “It’s interesting. I’ve never been through it. You watch your peers go through it and you feel for them because it’s not fun obviously. These are high-profile positions. At the end of the day I do appreciate that [GM Chuck Fletcher] gave me an opportunity in the first place.”
Were you surprised? “Oh no, Jim and I, we go back, and anybody that knows me, would agree that I can self-evaluate. He and I have actually been having dialogue for some time because it’s been such a struggle. Since Day One, it’s been a struggle. You can’t let something like this go on too long. I understand that. The last thing any organization wants is for their young kids to be developing in a losing environment because it’s not healthy. We tried and tried and tried. We tried pretty much everything. At the end of the day, what options are left? This is what’s left, so I get it. I totally get it. I understand. I’m disappointed, but I understand why they felt they needed to do what they needed to do. I’m completely on board with it. It’s just disappointing because generally at some point you’d expect you’d get your players to kick a little bit, and it just didn't happen and that bothers me."
Why not? Looking at your career, this hasn’t happened to you at any level? Are the kids not the right kids? “I’ve been with these guys every day. I’ve got a good idea of why, but I’m going to keep that to myself. I will say this though: This needed to be done. Now Chuck is going to know it was either the guy behind the bench or it was the players out on the ice. What is it? So at the end of the day, Jimmy, Chuck, they’re in a good situation because they will be able to determine if it was the guy behind the bench or just maybe we’re not as good in Iowa as we think we are. It’s got to be one or the other. I totally understand that. I think the time was right-you just could not let this continue to fester.”
Can Torch jumpstart this team? “Torch and I go way back. I was in Raleigh when he was that taxicab driver (see previous blog for context). I love Torch. He’s a friend. I think he’s the right guy to come in and do what Chuck and Jim need him to do, plus he’s got a relationship with some of these players already from Houston, so I think that will be helpful. He’s a no-nonsense guy most of the time. I’m a no-nonsense guy most of the time with less bite and I think this group needs that extra bite. I think they need a guy that is going to be a miserable jerk, and I think Torch can be that guy – and trust me, that’s no disrespect to Torch. He's a solid person. You have to be who you are. The year that we won the [Calder] Cup [in Binghamton], I had a group of guys that connected with me. They wanted to play for me. They appreciated to be coached the way I coach. My Calder Cup year we did have a group that responded to my approach. That's how you win. Not every team is the right fit for every coach and vice versa. This group, I think they need 90 percent jerk. Maybe that's what they deserve and that’s what he’s going to give them. I will always be true to myself and stick to what I believe in.
They just didn’t connect to you? “It bothers me. It’s not often that I have a group that isn't willing to push for me. It does come down to the willingness to do what you’re being challenged to do. We challenged and we challenged and we challenged, and most every player will tell you, we put our time in, we did everything we thought would help this group click, and it just didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen. You get to a point where you have a big cloud over the locker room, and the only way you’re going to get rid of that cloud is by winning, by making a trade or by getting rid of a coach. And in this league and at this time of the year, it’s not the easiest thing to trade players. And you don’t want to be trading assets for the sake of the American League anyway, you really don’t.”
How tough was it with the Wild’s top-end prospects being in the NHL most of your tenure and guys shuttling back and forth because of injuries? “The NHL, we all know, is the best league in the world, but the hardest league to coach is the AHL in my opinion. No. 1 you’ve got a bunch of guys that don’t want to be here and a bunch of them who don’t think they should be here. That's an interesting dynamic in itself. You’ve got guys at all different developmental levels. You’ve got your veteran guys that get it, you’ve got your middle of the road guys that some get it and some don't but think they do, and you’ve got your young, developing guys that are just happy to be in the locker room. I mean, it’s a tough, tough league to coach, and that’s what makes it such a great challenge. But there are some good pieces here for sure. Justin Falk, Brett Sutter, Stephane Veilleux played their hearts out for me and are the veteran depth guys that every NHL team needs: Mark Hagel, Zack Mitchell are all in. Listen, when you’re winning, you’re not going to find out anything about anybody-not when things are going well. Anybody can be a good boy and a positive person and be uplifting when things are going your way. It’s when things aren’t going your way when we’re really going to find out about ourselves. Justin Falk is an unbelievable character. Brett Sutter is an unbelievable character. Stephane Veilleux is an unbelievable character. These are guys, that fought for me and their teammates every day, and as a coach, I respect that and appreciate that.
“You’ve got a third of your group, your core leaders, you've got your middle third and then you've got your bottom third. Your bottom third is generally your young kids, the middle third are the group of guys that could go either way. What we weren’t able to get to was, we had a really strong upper group, but we just couldn’t get the middle group to come up and join them, and because of that, you can’t get the bottom third to get pulled to the middle. But Falky, Sutter, Steph, I can’t express enough how much I appreciate them for what they did. Justin has come far. He's the one guy that I will walk away feeling the best about. In some very difficult circumstances, he's a guy that stepped up, did everything I asked of him. He wanted to be part of the solution and was a guy who was pulling for me, trying to make it work, and his game grew the most. Isn’t that how it is supposed to work? Listen, put in the time, work hard and grow. Crazy how that works. He’s taken a big step in getting back to the NHL. And Sutsy, you wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”
Can Torch turn this around though? “They’re bringing in the right guy. Don’t expect him to flip it in a day. The guys are just not in a good place right now. It’s more than likely going to take a little time.”
What’s next for you? “I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I feel bad that this didn’t work out. If there could have been a comedy of errors in a bad way, it would have been the start to this season- nothing went our way. It was almost like it was never meant to be-if you believe in such things. I have a daughter who is a grad assistant coach in Vermont at Castleton College so I’m going to go out and spend some time with her. We’ve got a place out in Park City I will get out there.
“When I left on Sunday, I was disappointed and embarrassed. I always feel that your teams are a reflection of you, and this team was by no means a reflection of me. It was difficult to get this group to buy in to what I needed them to do and I own that. I won't pass that off on anyone. I was disappointed, and in the end embarrassed for the way we were playing, but I was also relieved that it was over. It was like we had tried everything and it wasn’t happening-it happens. Time to move on from a bad experience. Plenty of good coaches have been let go and come back to have success. [Devils GM Lou Lamoriello] taught me to be a good self-evaluator and I believe I do. I know everything that needed to be done and what I could control was done.
“I’m going to take some time. I won't come back to coaching until my belly’s burning and I'm excited to get behind the bench again. My belly’s not burning right now. Hockey is a great game and coaching’s such a great profession. I’ve got something to offer. We'll just have to wait and see where that will be.”
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