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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Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner, coming back from a leg injury, was just supposed to skate on his own today before the team practiced. But he felt so good after doing so that he joined the Wild and took part in practice.
And that means there is a chance Stoner could return to action Tuesday against Toronto. “We’ll see how it goes as far as tomorrow,” coach Mike Yeo said.
His return would be big. Because Keith Ballard, who has missed two games with an upper body injury, was put on injured reserve Tuesday.
Here are other items from today’s practice:
--A Toronto writer at practice today, doing a story on Josh Harding, asked Yeo if he felt goalie Josh Harding should be considered for the Canadian Olympic team.
“I do,” Yeo said. “Absolutely, I do. You look at numbers, you look at stats, you look at wins, he’s certainly made a case for himself. You want players to put themselves in a position where they’re opening eyes and getting attention from other people. I think he deserves that.”
Harding is first in the league in goals-against (1.22) and tied for first with two shutouts. He is second with a .947 save percentage and seventh in wins.
Harding, who is battling multiple sclerosis, is not talking about that condition this year. Indeed, his play has pushed that issue to the back burner, something Yeo emphasized today.
“The thing about him is, if it wasn’t for all the questions I get on a day-to-day basis, I’d probably forget about it, to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “What impressed me about him? Last year it was always there, because we had to learn so much about it with the doctors. We had to have so much communication with him and with the trainers, just how to deal with it. This year it’s almost been a non-issue. He just comes to the rink and he’s just another player. He’s gone out and played at such a high level you almost forget it’s there. We’ll never forget what he has to deal with. But, at the same time, it’s impressive the way he comes to the rink. We don’t talk about it, and he doesn’t want us talking about it.”
--As expected, Mike Rupp, who has yet to play this season after having off-season knee surgery, will put in a conditioning stint with Iowa Wild. “He’ll play there Wednesday and Friday,” Yeo said. “And we’ll get him back here.”
Again, the news of the day:
-- Judging by today’s potential lines for Friday’s game against Montreal, Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu will be split for the first time under coach Mike Yeo. This is an attempt to get more 5-on-5 scoring throughout the lineup and create three scoring lines. Parise and Koivu have each registered four even-strength points in 13 games.
-- Charlie Coyle will return Friday after missing 11 games from a sprained knee.
-- Keith Ballard will likely return Friday
-- Jonas Brodin practiced today and is questionable Friday. The Wild doesn’t want to put him in a bad spot with his broken cheekbone. He says he felt good today, so we will find out Thursday if he’s back on his regular pair with Ryan Suter. Today he skated with Matt Dumba, who will be a healthy scratch Friday. Brodin is sporting a full face shield as opposed to the cage. He didn’t like the cage. His face is looking better than it was when originally clocked by that puck.
-- No goalie decision for Friday, but if Josh Harding is healthy, it’d be surprising if he doesn’t return to the cage (eight goals in nine games vs. Niklas Backstrom’s 3.42 goals-against average and .871 save percentage in six appearances.
-- Stephane Veilleux is on waivers and will be assigned to Iowa if he clears Thursday.
-- Dany Heatley and Justin Fontaine were rotating in and out of the Parise-Coyle line today and the fourth line. Just the fact that Heatley’s in conversation for the fourth line is glaring.
-- Just an fyi: Rachel Blount will be covering the Wild for us Thursday, Friday vs. Montreal, Saturday and Sunday morning. I'm in a wedding out of town and will return to cover Zach Parise's first game against New Jersey on Sunday.
-- If you didn't get to read, here's my fun profile on Zenon Konopka and his wine label/bunny rabbit. Good pics, too.
Here are the lines and D pairs again. The big thing is the Wild’s not going with the conventional top-3 lines. Koivu is not on the "third line" if I didn’t make that clear on original blog. The Koivu/Coyle lines should be 1/2 or 2/1 in ice time still. The way things have gone all season, Koivu's and Kyle Brodziak's lines always lead in ice time. The "second line" centered by Mikael Granlund is usually third in ice time.
Matt Cooke-Granlund-Jason Pominville
Fontaine/Heatley-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell
Mike Rupp is being rotated into line rushes every other rotation.
Defense pairs are
Marco Scandella-Nate Prosser
I'll be interested to see how the heck Yeo works the power plays, particularly after they expire. If he goes with the first/second units the way they've been, he's got forwards sprinkled from every line on both units.
Here is Mike Yeo:
New lines: Potential line combinations. Try some stuff out. See how it works.
Parise/Koivu: We’re trying some stuff. We know that those guys are very good together and dangerous together. We want to see if they can click with some other guys and strengthen our whole group. Obviously both guys are great players and both guys are threats any time they’re on the ice no matter who they’re with.
Needed Coyle back to make move?: It’s not like we’ve been sitting here waiting to make that move. We’ve been real happy with both guys. With Charlie here, there’s more guys in play. We’re looking at 5-on-5 production and how can we have at least three lines that are a real threat to score. That was the basis for what you saw today
Heatley/Fontaine, how will you decide who's up with Coyle line, who's down with Konopla line: Who’s playing the best? It’s pretty much that simple and that’s the same for everybody. We’ve got more competition, more guys, another healthy guy that we feel is a threat to contribute on the offensive side of things and that gives us the freedom to shuffle things a little bit more.
Start with dany there?: I don’t know.
Mikko: Part of the idea of switching them too is those guys, we’re playing against Chicago, who are they going to throw on the ice against them? They’re going to get their top matchup, they’re going to get Toews, who’s one of the top defensive guys in the league. With Charlie out the way we’ve had our lines, it’s been a little easy for teams to match up against us. There’s a big difference in this league playing against top defensive pairings, playing against top defensive forwards. Now we’d like to think that we’re spread a little bit more where you might have to pick your poison.
Mikko: He can easily have five or six more points right now. He’s been doing a lot of great things. This is not by any means an indication that we’re not happy with him or his game and likewise for anybody through the lineup. This is something that we all said right from the beginning of the year, right, that we wanted to see more line combinations, so let’s not turn it into that just because we’re trying a new line that we’re not happy with the way things are going.
Nino/Cooke?: I think if you look at every line right now the way we’ve got it, we’ve got skill on each line, we’ve got a big body, we’ve got a guy that should get to the net. We’ve got a little bit of everything on every line. If we’re going to make a switch with Mikko – not to say that Cookie is not a skill guy, but Nino is a guy that should be a top offensive threat. He’s a guy with hands, … with a shot, … can skate, handle the puck, is strong on the puck. When we’re looking at Mikko, we’re trying to really identify what he needs to be successful because again, he’s still going to be playing against the best players out there and he needs to have the right pieces around him.
Brodin regular pair tomorrow? We’ll see, we’ll see. We have a lot of healthy defensemen and we want to make sure that when we get him back, we get him back for good. I don’t want to put him in a bad spot. He looked good today and that’s a good first step and we’ll see how it goes tomorrow.
Ballard? He looked good. I’d be surprised if he’s not ready to go by Friday.
Granlund/Brodziak? One thing with Charlie being out is we saw Granny emerge a little bit. We kind of only slotted one position available between him and Charlie at the start of the year, but the way that he’s been going lately, he’s proven that he can be a dangerous guy playing at the center-ice position because of his speed, … the way that he distributes the puck, … the way he’s been able to carry the puck and make plays through the middle of the ice. We want to give a chance to continue to develop that. Again, it’s probably going to be fluid for a little while here. I hope that these lines stay together for the next month, but I’m not sure that that’s going to happen. We’ve got moving pieces. We’ve got a guy like Brodzy who can move back to center, guys like Charlie and Granny who can both move to wing and guys like Zach who can still play with Mikko or Pommer and likewise. To sit here and say these is going to be our lines for the long-term, we’re trying something. We’ll see how it goes.
What’s it say that heatley’s even an option for the fourth line? I don’t even want to turn it into a story. We’ve got a lot of good players and you know what, he’s also an option for a very good line. This is not about individual players right now. We think on every line we’re going to have a good mix of skill and guys who are going to be hard around the net and guys that should be able to complement each other.
Dumba? No decision right now. If he played his best game, we were not going to overreact one way and if he played his worst game, we were going to overreact one way. We were just going to judge this as a whole and we’ll keep going day-by-day and see what happens.
Fair to say Dumba scratched Friday? Yeah.
Practice Schedule? This is good for us. … We haven’t had the quality practice time in the last couple weeks and that’s big for our group, for how we play the game, but also for individuals feeling good going into every game. You saw we had a hard practice today. It was good tempo, guys were skating, guys were making plays, but there was certainly a focus on making sure that guys were leaving the ice tired today.
Goalie decision? No
Coach Mike Yeo says Josh Harding is feeling better today, but the Wild won't bring him to Chicago as not to risk his "lower-body strain" that flared up during Thursday's 3-1 win over Carolina.
The Wild has recalled Johan Gustafsson to make the trip and back up Niklas Backstrom Saturday. Remember, Backstrom was injured moments before Game 1 of the playoffs last year when he sustained a sports hernia that knocked him out of the first round and required surgery.
Backstrom isn't 100 percent yet, but he says he has to "find a way" Saturday night.
The Gustafsson recall is nothing against Darcy Kuemper, who gave up three goals on seven shots in Toronto last week. Kuemper's been on a yo-yo and it's his turn to start Sunday for Iowa against Grand Rapids. So since the callup is for a backup role here, Kuemper stays in Iowa to play and Gustafsson is called up.
It's as simple as that. He also apparently isn't quite 100 percent from something that happened in last night's game.
Gustafsson was pulled in last night's game for Iowa but gave up only one goal in roughly his first 120 minutes of the season there. He is 2-0 with a 1.99 GAA and .935 SP and one shutout for Iowa
Keith Ballard, who has missed five games with a head injury, practiced today and is "feeling better than yesterday." He will not fly to Chicago and acknowledged that he had concussion-like symptoms and whiplash.
Charlie Coyle practiced today and looked good. He is not on the trip and is doubtful for Monday, too, against Chicago. With practices scheduled Thursday and Friday, perhaps Friday's game against Montreal is a target.
Jonas Brodin wound up not skating today because Yeo said why push it since it's not like he'll be back in a few days. Right now it's just a matter of the swelling going down so he can look down and see the puck. Maybe Friday is a target, too. Monday is unlikely.
Mike Rupp also practiced today again. I'll toss Rupp quotes on his comeback in Sunday's paper. I talked to him yesterday.
Big test for the Wild Saturday as its faces Chicago for the first time since the playoffs. The Wild felt like it was chasing the puck for much of that series. This year the Wild's been a team its opponent is typically chasing. So we'll see how it goes against Chicago.
Same lines in Chicago as the Wild finished vs. Carolina. Dany Heatley on Kyle Brodziak's line, Nino Niederreiter on Mikael Granlund's line.
By the way, Wild will wear its road whites Monday in the second end of the home-and-home against the Hawks.
Talk to you Saturday after the morning skates in Chicago.
Second-line center Charlie Coyle will miss 3-4 weeks with a sprained knee, the Wild announced tonight. The injury occurred with 8:54 left in the second period Saturday against Anaheim when Coyle was checked in the neutral zone by the Ducks' Andrew Cogliano.
This is a huge blow for Coyle and the 0-0-2 Wild. Coyle won the second-line center position early in an outstanding training camp, one in which he scored three goals in five exhibition games.
"It's not an ideal situation, but I'm fortunate it's nothing worse than it is," Coyle said. "I'm going to keep a positive mindset and I'm looking forward to recovering and doing everything I can to be healthy again."
In response to the Coyle injury, one week after Jason Zucker was the final cut in training camp, the 2010 second-round pick was recalled from AHL Iowa before even playing his first game.
Zucker, the speedster left wing, scored four goals in 20 games last season and an overtime winner in the playoffs.
Coach Mike Yeo says it's too early to determine the plans going forward and the Wild felt it was time to give Zucker a shot, but my guess:
Mikael Granlund will move to second-line center with Zucker on the left and either Dany Heatley or Nino Niederreiter on the right. Kyle Brodziak will center Matt Cooke and either Niederreiter or Heatley.
Perhaps we'll learn more at Monday morning's practice. The team practices in the Twin Cities before flying to Nashville for Tuesday's game.
Following today's moves to send Jason Zucker and Jake Dowell to Iowa, here is the Wild's anticipated 22-man opening roster and lineup Thursday night vs. Los Angeles (this is barring transactions; the fact the Wild sent Jake Dowell down, too, opens the door to perhaps a waiver pickup Monday):
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville
Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Mikael Granlund
Justin Fontaine-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell
Injured: Mike Rupp (knee)
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon
Keith Ballard-Matt Dumba
Extras: Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser
Fontaine will make his NHL debut; Yeo said there's a good chance of Dumba as well.
Fontaine is very excited to make the team, and both Fontaine and Dumba say they're not taking anything for granted. They know nothing is cemented in stone. Dumba said he's well aware he can still be returned to Red Deer before he plays in a 10th game without the first year of his contract being burned.
Zucker tweeted: @Jason_Zucker16: Nobody to blame but myself.. Have to be better and will be better! See you soon Minnesota! #JustWait #MNWild
As for Zucker, I'm shocked at frankly the shock out there. It's been clear the last four days that he was on thin ice. He got hurt at the wrong time in camp and was outperformed by Nino Niederreiter for the second-line left wing spot -- for now. He can be back at anytime.
As for Mikael Granlund, he had a great camp, looks faster, grittier and stronger. If you have two shooters on the second power-play unit in Coyle and Niederreiter, Granlund makes sense because he's a puck distributor. Zucker is another shooter. The Wild also has concerns with Zucker's defensive game, and although he scored a playoff OT winner in Game 3, he didn't produce down the stretch of last season. This is all in the Wild's mind.
Again though, he will play games here this season. He's 21 years old. The AHL is a developmental league and most the great players in this league have played in the AHL. He hasn't even had to spend a full year in the minors (55 games), so chill.
Here are Mike Yeo's thoughts on today's moves, particularly sending Zucker down:
Zucker conversation: Obviously everybody’s goal is to be here, so you’d be pretty concerned if a player was happy or didn’t show some disappointment. As far as Zuck, it really comes down to we’re not prepared to put him on the fourth line right now and we’re not prepared to have him be a healthy scratch. What you saw on the ice today was us gearing up for Game 1 and we’re really not focused on anything beyond that.
Nino and Granlund: He earned it, as far as I’m concerned, the games that he played. We like what he can add to the [Coyle-Heatley line]. Playing against a team like L.A., we’ve got a bigger body. You’ve got a guy that can shoot, a guy that can skate, a guy that can handle the puck. He played like a top-6 forward in training camp and we’re giving him that opportunity up there. Granny had a good camp, too. We spent the entire camp really looking at him as a centerman. We feel we can get a lot out of him as a winger, too. He had a good camp. He showed that he’s battled harder, he’s showed that he’s faster, defensively he did a very good job for us, and we feel he can be a good complement to the [Cooke-Brodziak] line. You have two guys with size and two guys that play a strong, hard game, so we feel putting a guy there with Granny’s ability to distribute the puck, it could complement that line plus give Granny a bigger role.
Message to Zucker: Just make sure you’re on top of his game because we don’t know when it’s going to be. We know that he’s there and to be perfectly honest, I like the idea that everybody on our team knows that he’s there. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make sure that you’re ready to go knowing that there’s a guy like that waiting in the wings.
Fontaine: He seems like he’s the kind of guy that you can move in different parts of your lineup. He plays an intelligent game, he can play well with the puck, he can execute, he can make some plays, but at the same time, he can play well positionally. It makes him the kind of guy you can put in different parts of the lineup. Plus, he’s the kind of guy that I don’t think we’re going to have a ton of concern right now playing him on the fourth line or third line. He’s at a point in his development where we don’t have to really stress about making sure he gets too much. The next step for him is playing at the NHL level and developing there
Interchangeable parts: Or Granny can go up, or Granny can play center. It even gives us some flexibility even in the game. Having Granny in the lineup is also big for our power play. It gives us flexibility through the course of the game and night to night to throw out different look.
Dowell: The message was pretty clear. We’re being honest with it that our focus is sort of for this game -- getting ready for this week and then thing can change in hurry.
Not carrying an extra forward to save salary cap/proximity of Iowa: But also it doesn’t help anybody to sit around and not play. So it's just a matter of Iowa is close and they're playing the same game, the same system, so let's just concentrate on the group that we're going in with. So to have anybody up here who's not going to play and just sit around and be an extra, it doesn't help the guys that are in the lineup and it doesn't help them.
Dumba NHL debut Thursday: I would say there's a good chance of that.
How will you use him: Again, this is a game one focus for us with this group. With the amount of young guys that we have, I think it just has to be something that we stay on top of night after night.
Prove himself being one of the best defenseman in St. Louis: He played his gap, his skating ability, makes him a tough guy to play against defensively. There's still some things that he can get a little better at with some teaching and some time here he'll continue to get better at that. What it comes down to is his ability to move the puck, his ability to get in the play. We're a team that needs to generate more from the offensive blue line and he's a guy that has the ability to.
What do you want to accomplish the next four days: Well, bigger picture things. Obviously there's tactical parts that we want to get into. We've got the team building trip which will be nice. Bottom line is our main focus is on pace, making sure that we're doing things at game speed, the speed that we want to play games at when we drop the puck on Thursday. Number two is the competitiveness. You saw a lot of battle in our practice today. Number three would be the detail and the habits. And number four would be the execution -- just making sure that we're sharp and crisp and we have a good feeling going into game one.
How fluid will the lineup be: Most of the time, you're not making a lot of changes to your lineup when things are going really well. So I hope that we play 82 in a row with the same lineup (laughing). But I don't think that that's going to happen. And even at that, we won't be afraid to change the lineup if we win. We won't be afraid to change the lineup if we lose because we've got moving parts. Because we've got guys that are capable of playing different positions and guys that are capable of pushing. So I think that's going to be interesting following the story line of that as things go on. Again, we don't know what it's going to look like in Game 5. We know what it will look like in Game 1.
How do you keep from getting stale next four days: We're going to back off a little tomorrow. Obviously today was a very tough practice and we're going to back off tomorrow so we can ramp it back up on Tuesday.
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