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 practice

Ryan Suter suspended; Wild trades for Devan Dubnyk; Yeo on his job; Parise, Suter, Yeo on the slumping Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: January 14, 2015 - 6:51 PM

UPDATED WITH DUBNYK TRADE/SUTER SUSPENSION

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The Wild has acquired Arizona goalie Devan Dubnyk for a third-round pick. He's in the last year of his contract with an 800K cap hit, so this is a short-term fix. At one point this year, Dubnyk was competing with Mike Smith for the starting job. He is 9-5-2 with a 2.72 goals against average and .916 save percentage this year.

The 6-foot-6 longtime Edmonton goalie is 70-81-24 all-time with a 2.88 goals-against average, .910 save percentage and nine shutouts. Hey, it's probably better than what they have.

Dubnyk, known as a terrific teammate, had a disastrous year last year. He lost his starting job in Edmonton, was traded twice and ended up in the minors. Arizona took a risk on him that working with goalie coach Sean Burke would revive Dubnyk's career and he has outplayed Smith. Burke has said Dubnyk has improved his patience and positioning and his confidence is back.

Some move had to be done at some point. Wild has given up the fourth-least shots in the league and has the worst save percentage. GM Chuck Fletcher via text said the Wild's unsure yet if Dubnyk debuts tomorrow. It'll depend when he arrives in Buffalo. He will carry three goalies when all three are healthy.

This is the type of move I expected at some point -- a short-term patchwork Band-Aid. It makes no sense to me to give up a boatload of assets for a goalie when there's no assurance a goalie 1) can save this season; 2) may not be the answer long-term. The Wild has to figure out the long-term answer in goal and to make some knee-jerk decision now when there may be better options down the road is the prudent thing to do. Again, look at the standings. Look at the Wild's game right now. A goalie alone isn't saving the day.

I haven't talked to Fletcher yet other than an exchange of quick texts, but my guess is he felt incumbent on 1) giving this roster hope on a nightly basis with a goalie; it is so clear this team melts down after deflating goals and there have been a ton of them lately and you just can't enter every game not feeling confident about your goaltending; 2) wanted to deliver Yeo a goalie so the guy whose job we all assume is on the line, has a chance to win.

Also, Matt Dumba has been recalled.

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Ryan Suter had a 4 p.m. phone hearing for his elbow to the head of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Steve Downie last night and he was just handed a two-game suspension. As Suter said Sunday, "When it rains it pours, and it's pouring." He also said, "Every day's a bad day right now."

Suter loses $81,058.72 in salary.

Downie practiced today, so he looks to be fine as of now and often times that would play an influence in the league’s decision into how to discipline. Didn't here.

The Wild hoped the NHL, like it did with Marco Scandella earlier this season on an illegal check to the head, would let Suter off the hook with a fine. This was his first time ever being remotely in trouble and anybody who watches Suter play knows he’s a squeaky clean player.

“I only looked at it once,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We have the hearing this evening. But what I saw when I looked at it initially is that he’s not looking at the player at all. First off if you know the player, you know that’s not his intention at all. He’s not in any way a dirty player. It’s hard for you to quote this, but he’s looking at the player and I think he’s, …”

Humorously, Yeo then juts out his right elbow like a chicken wing and accidentally nailed NHL.com reporter Joe Yerdon’s recorder. Yeo apologized, then said with a laugh, “See how easily it happens?”

Yeo continued, “I think he puts his elbow up just to box the guy out and we’ve had other things that have been our other focus this morning, but that was my initial thought.”

Video from the NHL on the suspension:

 

Yeo was hoping for a fine because “I know that’s not his intention, that’s not the type of player that he is. I know that he felt bad about it even during the game (sent an apology through Sidney Crosby). As much as anything else, we need him in the lineup.”

Suter is minus-7 the past two games (actually minus-6 because when I watched the game over today, he was not on the ice for the last goal and was given a minus; Nate Prosser was on the ice) and minus-22 the past 20 games (minus-21, really, like that makes it better). The league is taking away the one minus, so he's minus-6 his last two games and minus-21 the past 20 games.

Yeo said last night that this is inside Suter’s head now, that he’s frustrated with the way he’s been on for many goals lately and the two of them have met.

Yeo said, “Listen, it’s almost a byproduct of our game. Everything is compounding right now. Many of the mistakes that we’re making, you can see, it’s almost like we’re trying to compensate or recoup something that we’ve given up before and I think that’s what’s going on. We’re not a team that gives up breakaways, let alone a couple in a game. We’re not a team that gives up odd-man rushes. That’s not the way that we play the game. But what’s happening is we end up doing a little bit more to help the cause and we end up overextending ourselves. … That’s where we have to tighten up.”

Suter said earlier today, "I’ve never gone through anything like this. Innocent plays are ending up in the back of our net. I’m sure you’ve seen my minuses (plus-minus). I’ve never, ever, experienced that in my life. To be minus-3 in a night, it would happen maybe once a year. Now it seems like it’s an every night occurrence. We just have to bear down defensively.’’

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Onward:

Justin Falk is sidelined with an upper-body injury. Jon Blum also took a shot to the face today. It was swollen pretty good and his teeth were hurting, but he said he’s fine. Christian Folin also took two big spills in practice, but he brushed it off and said he’ll be fine. But the Wild’s D is very banged up.

With Suter suspended, Jared Spurgeon practiced for parts today on the left side. He said it was very weird and it would be his first time playing that side as a pro.

The Wild’s D is a mess.

Yeo did a lot of one-on-one coaching today. A ton of it, actually. “A lot of work to be done,” he said. He often stopped drills to grab guys like Matt Cooke, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, etc. for one-on-one tutorials.

“We said this morning we wished we had an opportunity to have like three practices in a row or something like that where we could first off just to have one of those battle type of practices that kind of shakes things up a little bit,” Yeo said. “But just the tactical part of your game that has been eroding lately, it’s focus wise. There are so many other things that are in our minds right now. Because of that we’re doing things and we know that we’re supposed to do them but we’re not doing them with a purpose. We’re doing them because we know we’re supposed to and there’s a big difference there. That’s why a lot of the clips that you see, we’re doing things ok and we’re not in a bad position. But they’re still breaking us down and that’s why it’s getting back to doing things with a purpose, being more assertive in it.”

More team meetings today, that was very videocentric with some eye-opening examples of bad hockey.

“It’s not about trying to embarrass anybody or lift anybody up, it’s just recognition of where we’re at and what our game looks like and realizing that we need to get it back to what it needs to be,” Yeo said. “It’s not about roster. It’s about our play. Talent is one thing but we’ve got to play together and we’ve got to play with purpose in every little detail of our game. It’s not about blaming anybody or trying to find reasons why. This is just where we’re at and what I’m focused on is how we’re going to get out of it.”

Today was really about building the team’s game back up heading into tomorrow’s four-point game with the Sabres. I say that tongue and cheek, obviously, as Wild fans have started campaigning for a tanking on Twitter to get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. If you look at the standings, as bad as the Wild has been, it has a good amount of losing to go to catch teams like Buffalo or Edmonton.

The Sabres have lost a franchise-record eight in a row and have no regulation wins since Dec. 11!

They’re just not cooperating!!!

Niklas Backstrom or Dubnyk vs. Jhonas Enroth Thursday night as the Wild completes this terrible three-game trip. Fourteen combined consecutive losses for these two teams. Should be a doozy.

It’s spooky.

One year ago, the Wild was in the midst of a six-game losing streak entering its 43rd game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. Yeo’s job was in peril, the Wild’s goaltending was in turmoil.

One year later, the Wild is in the midst of a six-game losing streak entering its 43rd game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. Yeo’s job is in peril, the Wild’s goaltending is in turmoil.

“It doesn’t mean anything to me to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “I know that if we play a similar type of game tomorrow, we’ll have a similar type result. To me, just going back to the last point, Buffalo doesn’t mean anything to me right now. My focus is only on us and getting our game back. We can’t hope for any results until we start playing the type of game that’s going to get us them.”

Fletcher hasn’t been around the team a lot since Christmas because of obligations and scouting. In fact, right now he’s conducting the team’s scouting meetings in a warm place and a little to my surprise didn’t rocket to Buffalo to “save the day.”

I asked Yeo point blank to the side today how much assurance Fletcher has given him these days that his job is safe. Fletcher has given Yeo two votes of confidence via the Star Tribune as recently as late last week and I know for a fact he has talked with other national reporters the past few days and said the same thing.

Maybe Yeo is putting on a brave public face also because of the fact that he has 2 ½ years left of security on his deal, but last year Yeo seemed a lot more worried for his job than he does this year.

Yeo said he’s had a ton of communication lately with Fletcher (he didn’t say if he begged for a goalie or defenseman or two!) and that Fletcher’s been extremely supportive.

Yeo on his job: “To say that I’m not worried, of course I am. I’m a realist. I know what’s going on. I don’t read the papers right now and I’m definitely not on Twitter right now (laughs; see, he doesn’t see your #fireyeo’s, so just stop!). But I’m not going to sit around and mope and feel sorry for myself. I’ve got a job to do and now is when I have to do it better than ever.”

I asked him if he’s at least reading the blog, and he said he has taken a break :(

He said some members of the coaching fraternity have reached out to him: “I think everybody’s aware of what’s going on. But at the same time, I know there’s not a whole lot of sympathy for us right now. That’s the way the league works. It’s an eat or be eaten type of game. That’s why we can’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We know that nobody’s feeling sorry for us. Why should we? That’s not going to help us in any way. We have to find a way to get out of this and the only way is with a clear focus on the way that we need to play the game and a desperation and work ethic that can’t be matched.”

On Backstrom: “I’m not going to sit here and say that he played a great game, but if he gives up rebounds, then it’s our job to make sure we have the guys in front of the net too. It’s about every guy doing their job. And rebounds happen during the course of the game and we have to make sure we’re ready for that situation and he’s got to make sure he’s ready for the shot. And that’s the focus that we need. If I’m a defenseman, I can’t be focused and worried about what Nik Backstrom’s doing. I have to make sure that I’m aware and alert and ready for my job and that goes right through the whole lineup.”

Yeo admitted there are letdowns after some of the deflating goals lately, especially the power-play goal last night that made it 3-1 so soon after the Wild trimmed it to 2-1, but he said, “We have to find a way to be stronger.”

Zach Parise said, “I think we should stop referencing last year. We’ve been doing that way too much. We give up one, two goals and mentally right now we quit. We’ve been fragile and we change the way we play. That’s what’s killing us right now.”

I asked Parise about the goalies, well, just because: “It’s a collective thing I think. That’s a position that’s always magnified. The way that position works, if you have an off night it can unfortunately cost you the game easily. Whereas if you’re a forward and you have an off night, you can blend in and do other things – but not as a goalie. There’s way more that happens before the puck gets to the net that can’t happen. The way we’re turning the puck over, the way we’re not tying up guys. We’re there, but we’re getting outworked and outmuscled and we’re giving up second opportunities that shouldn’t happen. That’s a big concern for all of us. We’re making it pretty easy for the other team.”

On all the meetings, Parise said, “Of course it needs to get said. There’s been a lot of talking around here the last four weeks. At some point, we have to start to deliver. The coaches can only do so much. As players, we have to have some thicker skin and hold each other accountable. We’re missing that right now. It’s too easy internally to not compete and it’s too easy for us to quit. That’s the problem, that’s the biggest thing.”

On the team’s game: “You can pull out a video and hit stop and start and slow-mo and pick apart our game, I’m sure there’s a lot that we need to be better at. But a lot of it is a mindset for us. We’re not willing to defend the right way right now. When things are going wrong, we start to cheat for offense and next thing you know we’re spending four or five shifts in our own zone. We’re not strong enough on the puck. Our D-zone coverage hasn’t been good enough, our neutral-zone transition hasn’t been good, our forecheck hasn’t been good. But we know how to do it. that’s not a question. We’ve done it. we know how to do it, we know it works. Just right now, it’s a mindset, it’s not there.

So how do you get that mindset: “Great question. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. That’s where you need guys like myself to help pull us out of it and to go out tomorrow and have a great game and lead the way and play the right way. That type of stuff is contagious. That’s got to be something that happens tomorrow.”

On how tough this year has been, Suter, before his hearing, said, “It’s awful. This whole year has just been terrible in every way possible. With our dads, the sicknesses, the way the team is playing, it’s not good right now. The good thing could be that we have a lot of year left to change that. Today was a good practice. We tried to re-set. We’re trying to build traction any way we can. I think that’s all we can do right now.’’

On Yeo’s job, Suter said, “That’s a huge reflection on us. Yeozie’s a really good coach. He knows the game. He’s matured a lot in the last couple of years. He’s a guy that we want to play for. That’s the disappointing thing. I don’t know what’s going on, we play so well and then we let in a goal or two goals and the wheels just come off. We try to stabilize and it just doesn’t work."

Meeting last night, “Everybody is saying the right things. We’re all in it together. We all get along. It’s a good room. It’s just so frustrating. Because you come out and the effort wasn’t bad the first two periods but the result was terrible at the end of the game. It’s just unacceptable.’’

Nik Backstrom on the criticism with the goalie play: “That’s part of the game, we grew up like that as goalies, you’re used to it. When things don’t go well, they usually look at the goalie, and if things go good, they look at the goalie. That’s how it goes. It’s part of the game. The good thing is that I’ve been around and I know that. For sure as a goalie you know you can go out there and play a really good game to help the team get out of the slump. You put pressure on yourself to do that. But at the same time, you can’t force the result. You have to focus on the details, the process. You can’t think about making 70 saves, just make the first one, then the second one, then the third. Sometimes you can get carried away trying to be perfect. Just play hockey. But you have to do the right things every day. It starts in practice. Today we had a great practice. Last week we had some good practices. So it’s getting better.’’

Parise returns to Wild, will play this weekend

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: January 9, 2015 - 1:55 PM

Two days after the death of his father, J.P., Wild winger Zach Parise was back with his teammates for a Friday practice at Xcel Energy Center. Afterward, he said plans to play in Saturday's game against Nashville and will accompany the Wild on a three-game road trip that begins Sunday.

J.P. Parise died Wednesday night of lung cancer at age 73. Zach missed the Wild's past two games, Tuesday against San Jose and Thursday against Chicago, to remain at his side. Friday, Zach joked that his dad "probably would have been mad'' that he stayed away from the rink, and he said it was important to his healing to return.

Zach said the timing isn't ideal for a road trip to Chicago, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, but his brother Jordan will be at home with his mother, Donna.

"Not only the last few days, but the last month has been really hard,'' Parise said. "Last night, I was watching the game, and finally my wife told me, 'You have to go to the rink. You have to go and practice and get away and try and get back into the groove of things.'

"You can sit at home and sulk. But I know my dad probably would have been mad at me for skipping the San Jose game, and he probably would have been mad at me for not playing last night, too. So it was important for me to get back.''

Parise said his family has been wrapped in support from the hockey community inside and outside Minnesota. It has been "amazing'' and "incredible,'' he said, to hear about the impact J.P. Parise had on so many people.

When asked whether there would be a public memorial, Parise said the family is planning a funeral for next Friday, Jan. 16.

In other news Friday: Coach Mike Yeo said goalie Darcy Kuemper won't play in at least the next three games. Kuemper is sidelined by a lower-body injury, and neither he nor defenseman Marco Scandella (upper body) has been cleared to practice. Kuemper will definitely sit out against Nashville on Saturday, Chicago on Sunday and Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Scandella is day-to-day, so he could be back sooner.

The Wild also reassigned defenseman Stu Bickel to Iowa on Friday.

With Parise returning, Yeo said he would not split the Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville line. He will do some other shuffling to get Parise back in. "The last couple games, that line has been too good to break up,'' Yeo said. "We'll see if Zach coming in can strengthen one of the other lines and we can keep that line going the same. We would be a better team for that.''

The Wild held a short, businesslike, 30-minute practice Friday after Thursday's 4-2 loss to Chicago, a game that Yeo said looked good on film.

"That was arguably one of the best games we've played in the past couple of months, in terms of the way the game is supposed to look, how we were pressuring the puck, how we were creating turnovers and taking away time and space,'' he said. "It will be a good challenge to see if we can bring that again tomorrow.

"We've got a little bit of a condensed schedule, with three games in four days here. When we're playing our best game, it takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of effort. But that was the thing I was most pleased with (Thursday). The effort looked the way it's supposed to. That said, we didn’t win, and I talked about it yesterday. We need wins right now. But the wins will come if we keep bringing the right work ethic, the right attitude every day."

RACHEL BLOUNT

Opening a three-game homestand, the Wild tries to move on from Saturday's beatdown

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: January 5, 2015 - 6:51 PM

Evening from Xcel Energy Center, where for some reason I’m still at following this morning’s practice.

Just slow moving with everything I’m trying to accomplish today.

1. In many, many years covering the league, I saw one of the funniest things I have ever seen in a practice today.

During a 2-on-2 battle drill, Matt Cooke destroyed Mikko Koivu with a check. I was actually on the phone with my editor, Chris Miller, at the time and I interrupted the conversation because I was so flabbergasted and taken aback.

Koivu scraped himself off the ice and gave Cooke a “What the %&#@!!! are you doing?!?!” look and barked a couple things at him in Finnish, I assume. Cooke was hysterically laughing afterward.

Why was this all so funny?????

Because Koivu was Cooke’s 2-on-2 TEAMMATE!!!

See, Cooke was wearing a white sweater. Koivu was wearing a green sweater. So was Ryan Suter, who was defending Cooke and Koivu. So Cooke saw the green sweater color of Koivu, mistakenly thought it was Suter, and kaboom!!!

“That’s his explanation anyways,” Koivu said, rolling his eyes, in the locker room afterward.

OK, maybe you had to be there to find the humor in all this, but it brought some levity to the team after a 7-1 loss two nights after.

2. I mentioned the whole Bryan Allen waiver thing on the previous blog, so check that out. Just don’t see it, but we shall see. Used to be a good player, but he’s not the same and makes some bigtime $$$.

3. Mikael Granlund skated on his own today after practice largely just to keep up his fitness as he recovers from wrist surgery. He’s still hoping to come back later this month and is wearing a soft cast.

By the way, I have been asked a bunch on Twitter why Granlund tapes his blades in black in the first two periods and white in the third. I finally remembered to ask him today, and guess what, there’s no rhyme or reason. He said it’s something he started doing in Finland, so it’s now a superstition, so he just does it.

4. I talked to Stu Bickel today about the team-record 39 penalty minutes (37 during the one second-period incident in Dallas) today. I asked him about Trevor Daley not getting called for the clearest third-man-in penalty in history. He is literally holding Bickel's arms as Jason Demers punches him. The evidence is the welt to the left of Bickel's left eye today. Yet, Daley didn't get a single penalty minute.

Photo courtesy of @lafrinier on Twitter.

“You could over the video and say what you want about the penalties,” Bickel said. “I think it’s pretty obvious if you just watch the video.”

5. Talking points out of today’s practice: 2-1 loss, 7-1 loss, they’re both the same thing – two points lost in the standings, so don’t dwell on it, fix the problems and don’t let it filter into the San Jose game.

We’ll see Tuesday if that’s easier said than done.

The Wild has to get its act together. I’m not going to rehash everything I put in my main article for Tuesday, but the highlights from today:

“It sure does feel like we could be in trouble,” Ryan Suter said. “But it’s up to us. We control it. That’s a good thing to have. There’s not many problems in life that you can control.”

Suter knows he’s not on top of his game and talked a lot about that today, and that’s in Tuesday’s article.

Coach Mike Yeo said, “We have to move on. It’s as simple as that. It’s very frustrating and disappointing to lose a game like that, but to sit around and dwell on it the next couple days is certainly not going to help us for [Tuesday].

“Too bad last game ended the way it did because there’s been a lot of positives lately. It’s easy to sit here and look at that one game, and I’m not a guy to make excuses, but I’m a realist too, and I know that three games in three different cities with travel against a team that was well-rested sitting there waiting for us, that had an effect. There’s no question that we weren’t on top of our game, we didn’t have the pace we needed in that game, but there’s been a lot of positives lately, so we have to make sure we throw that one in the garbage and we have an opportunity now with a homestand. They’re all against good teams granted, so it’ll be a good test. But we just have to make sure we take care of what we can control.”

Again, please read Tuesday's paper for the rest of the quotes on turning the page from Saturday, etc., and a story on Keith Ballard. Talk to you after Tuesday’s morning skate.

Keith Ballard talks about injury, future and potential retirement

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: January 5, 2015 - 1:55 PM

Good afternoon from Xcel Energy Center.

The Wild, two days after its worst loss of the season, practiced this morning.

Tyler Graovac was expectedly reassigned and Brett Sutter, who got the team stomach plague, returned to practice but doesn’t look like he’ll play when the Wild opens a big three-game homestand Tuesday against San Jose.

If you didn’t see my story today on J.P. Parise’s health and the burden Zach Parise is playing under, here is that link and get a tissue. Keep Jeeper and the Parise family in your thoughts and prayers. Here is the link to the original story in September of J.P. and Zach talking about J.P.'s condition.

I will write up a fresh blog in a bit with more stuff from today’s practice, but I wanted to quickly blog that defenseman Keith Ballard talked today for the first time since he sustained three facial fractures and a concussion Dec. 9 against the Islanders.

Ballard, 32, the Baudette native and former two-time Gophers national champ, is still experiencing symptoms and has done nothing other than taking walks since the injury. He admits that he’s not sure if he’ll ever play again. He said he’s going to let this play out before determining if he’ll return.

Ballard said during his last concussion that he’s worried about his future and wants to make sure he’s healthy in his post-hockey career as a husband and dad to two children.

He said that again today.

“I’m not ready to decide that stuff, but knowing what we know about concussions, I have to think about the long-term,” Ballard said. “I’ve had three in 14 months, five in five years, not to mention all the times you get hit and say, ‘I’ve got my bell rung,’ and you’re dizzy for a period. That happens probably a lot more than people know. I have to think about the long-term effects, but again, I’m not ready to make that decision yet. But answering it honestly, yeah, I’m going to think about it.”

Ballard said he has good days and bad ones, but he’s “better than I was the last couple weeks.”

He said he has watched the replay of the Islanders Matt Martin checking him between the benches. Ballard's head hit the top of the boards and he fell terrifyingly to the ice. The league didn’t discipline Martin because it felt Ballard aided things because he saw the hit coming at the last second and turned to avoid the check.

“The after part was kind of scary,” Ballard said of the video that shows him convulsing on the ice and tons of medical staff and paramedics to his aid (see this story). “I was in a bad spot. I think I was in a bad spot regardless. I dumped the puck and he’s playing on the other side of the ice and he comes all the way over to finish his check. Which I understand that. Guys like that, that’s what they do. For me, I was kind of trying to side step it and he moved right with me. So it’s unfortunate. I don’t know what else to say about that.”

On his future, Ballard said, “I’m not ready to make that decision right now. I’ll make it whether I get to that point. I might not have to make it depending on how much longer these symptoms last. But you definitely think about.

On being healthy in his post-hockey career, Ballard said, “That’s still more important to me than playing hockey. But I’m not going to make that decision right now. I’m going to let this play out and see how I feel. Hopefully things clear up and I can get back and play. But if it’s a choice between trying to stick it out and play and maybe say you’re feeling well when you’re not and getting hit again or just deciding it’s time to be done, that’s a decision for down the road. But it’s something I’m going to think about.”

Ballard didn’t have surgery, but he said it was tough “coming home and my face is pretty smashed up and seeing my kids again. I was so out of it for the first week, it was just kind of a blur. I sat on the couch and didn’t do much.”

Personally, I don't think we see Ballard again in a Wild sweater.

Regardless, he is out indefinitely and the Wild will continue to look for a left-shot defenseman. I'd be surprised if it's Bryan Allen, who's on waivers. This is not the same Bryan Allen who used to play for Vancouver. He's on the downslope of his career and $3.5 million is a huge ticket for a Canadiens depth defenseman. That type of pickup financially could inhibit the Wild from making other fixes, but we'll see tomorrow.

Plain and simple, the Clayton Stoner loss to a big, gigantic contract to Anaheim hurt this team, as did Willie Mitchell (understandably) choosing a richer payday in Florida. Not only does the Wild lack a left-shot, it misses the grit and physicality and size on the blue line.

I’ll be back in a bit with a bunch of stuff from today’s practice.

Zucker, Brodin return to practice; Graovac back to Iowa

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: January 1, 2015 - 2:37 PM

Happy new year from Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild held an optional practice Thursday. Fourteen skaters, plus goalies Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper, participated--including a couple of players who had been missing recently.

Jonas Brodin and Jason Zucker both practiced at full speed. Brodin, who has missed two games with a head injury, said he feels great; coach Mike Yeo is optimistic Brodin will play Friday against Toronto at Xcel as long as Brodin still feels good Friday morning. Brodin has been skating by himself or with Backstrom, who also is feeling good again after missing three games because of the stomach bug that has been working its way through the team.

Zucker is a longer-term project. He said after practice that he has never been hit so hard by an illness as he was by this nasty norovirus. Zucker didn't eat for two days and didn't get off his couch for three or four days; he missed three games, and Thursday marked the first time he has skated since falling ill on Dec. 27.

Zucker said he felt better than he anticipated during Thursday's practice, but Yeo said he knows conditioning will be an issue, and there is no timetable for his return.

Speaking of returns, forward Tyler Graovac was sent back to Iowa after Thursday's practice. He impressed Yeo in the first two NHL games of his career, and both Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher stressed that Graovac's reassignment had nothing to do with the quality of his play. Fletcher wants the 21-year-old center to continue developing in the minors by playing a big role regularly, and Yeo plans to bring center Erik Haula back into the lineup Friday.

Yeo made it a point to say he hopes Graovac's debut puts a little heat on some veterans."We look at how far he’s come along, and we're very encouraged,'' Yeo said. "I hope that he's pushing some guys, because we know he can come in and play. And we're talking about a big, skating centerman who can create and has the ability to make plays. So we're encouraged with where he's at.''

The coach also wants to see how Haula responds to being benched for three of the past four games. Yeo has seen improvement in practice, he said, but stepping up in a game presents a new test.

"The defensive part of his game has to be there,'' Yeo said. "He has to be a guy that’s difficult to play against, in terms of being positionally sound and taking away time and space from players. On top of that, more than anything else, it’s the compete in the hard areas.

"Every player has to play the game with a physical element. What Erik Haula brings physically is going to be different than what Stu Bickel brings physically. But they have to bring what they bring. That’s what I'm looking for.''

Yeo declined to say how he plans to deploy his goalies in back-to-back games Friday (at home against Toronto) and Saturday (at Dallas). But Backstrom is ready to go if he is called upon to start.

RACHEL BLOUNT

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