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.
Also find Russo on Facebook.
Email Michael to talk about hockey.
I always say the most interesting team to cover is one in crisis mode, and the Wild, with 13 losses in the past 20 games and eight in the past 10, has officially hit that juncture of the season.
Last year’s annual winter crisis magically turned around when the calendar turned from 2013 to 2014. This year’s crisis is only deepening with the calendar turn. After beating Toronto last Friday, the Wild responded by getting humiliated in Dallas and then losing last night’s game against the San Jose Sharks in overtime despite a better effort.
Coach Mike Yeo wanted the Wild to respond to the loss though with a great practice in preparation for Thursday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that has ousted the Wild in the past two postseasons.
Instead, Yeo stopped practice early on, uncharacteristically pulled the team to the far end of the rink away from the ink-stained wretches and lit into his group demanding more effort and execution.
The yuck continued. Moments after captain Mikko Koivu was bumped to the ice and had trouble getting to the feet, the Wild captain, whom I’ve noticed off the rink has been playing through a lower-body injury the past week, slowly got up, skated to the bench, cracked his stick against the glass, then chopped it in half as he marched down the runway angrily.
Yeo immediately had the players line the width of the ice on the penalty-box side and skated them so hard without pucks, I heard Herb Brooks in my head yelling, “Again.”
Then, the fun began. Yeo gathered the team around him by the referee’s crease, slammed his stick on the ice and unleashed a fury during an expletive-laced tirade that had to do with how bad the team is playing and then they have the audacity to show up and “practice like this!” He lit into them for about 60 seconds, screaming his head off.
He then took an about-face, had a couple words with assistant coach Andrew Brunette, skated toward the visiting bench, slammed his own stick hard against the glass, skated toward the Wild bench and stormed off the ice. At that point, assistant GM Brent Flahr and director of hockey administration, who were watching from the stands, left, too. GM Chuck Fletcher was not at practice, nor was owner Craig Leipold, who planned to attend but didn’t.
Fletcher has declined an interview request.
The rest of practice was run by the assistant coaches. Assistant coach Rick Wilson had a few one-on-ones with veterans like Matt Cooke and Thomas Vanek.
“I think Yeozie finally lost it here,” Vanek said afterward. “He’s been pretty good with us, staying upbeat. We played well last night. It’s not good when you lose a hockey game. That was his message. He didn’t like how some of us practiced and came out, so those things happen.”
Asked if he’s ever seen a coach melt down like that, Vanek laughed and said, “Yeah, I played for Lindy [Ruff in Buffalo] for a long time, so I’ve seen it before. [Yeo’s] frustrated just as is many guys in here, so I think we’ll be OK. I think it was maybe needed. We had a terrible game in Dallas. I thought we responded pretty well. We’ll respond again tomorrow and play hard.
Vanek said Yeo’s “been great. There’s only so much you can say before you’ll kind of snap. I think it’s good. I think these guys will, I think we’ll respond just fine.”
On why he melted down, “We weren’t good enough. And we’re not in a position where we can come in and be let alone decent in practice, bad at practice. I’m not going to accept that.”
Asked if he’s worried that if the team doesn’t respond this time (remember he did something very similar at the start of a practice in Arizona last month) that he has lost the team, Yeo said, “No. I’m not worried about that. I told you I’m not going to accept that. I’m not going to accept guys – we played for the most part a good game last game. We lost the game. We come to the rink today and what are we going to have a practice like that? That’s not good enough. I know one thing – we can hang our heads, we can feel sorry for ourselves, we can point fingers, we can do whatever we want. But those types of things are not the types of things that winners do and those types of things do not help you get out of something like this. I know what I’m going to control and I’m going to make sure that I bring it.”
Part of me wondered how orchestrated this was when today’s stories were all about the goalies and he wanted to cram into his team that it’s everybody, not just Darcy Kuemper.
“That’s everything that we’re in right now,” Yeo said. “We’re in a difficult spot and we’ve got a tough road ahead of ourselves. We might have guys out of the lineup and that’s fine. But the one thing you can always control is your work ethic and your attitude and everything else follows suit after that.”
“We played a crappy game in Dallas and aside from that I’ve been happy for the most part with our games post Christmas. Do we just accept that hey we got a point? We lost the game but we played well? No. We can’t. We have to be better. The way we were practicing today, we weren’t practicing with the purpose of getting better. We could’ve just went through the practice and we might’ve been fine tomorrow, but that’s not the attitude that we need as a team right now. We need the attitude that we can’t just accept—and it’s going to be hard. We might play well again and we might lose. I don’t know. But whatever it is, every day we come back to the rink and we’ve got to find a way to be better.”
Darcy Kuemper left practice today with illness or injury. Two days in a row now Kuemper managed not to talk to the media, including after last night’s game.
Yeo said it’s something minor and then subtly inserted, “as far as I’m concerned.” I haven’t gotten an update yet on that, but the pressure is getting to Kuemper, that's very clear, and is clearly trying to avoid us the past few days.
On Koivu, Yeo said, “He left hurt. I don’t have an update on that but I did see that he returned at the end.”
He did, but then he left again.
On Marco Scandella, Yeo said, “Upper body injury and you can count him out for the game tomorrow.”
With all these roster uncertainties, I'd assume we'll see some callups.
On Zach Parise, Yeo said, “I’m just giving him space right now.”
I’d think it’s doubtful he plays tomorrow. As of now, J.P. was hanging on, but he is incommunicative and it’s not good as he lays in hospice with family and friends at his side. I’ll update once it is official through the family or team. This is one story I’m not willing to “pursue” and be first on.
On Yeo: “Clearly not happy with us, deservedly so. We come out, have a pretty poor practice, execution’s not there, our heads weren’t in it, it was deserving.”
Frustration: “It’s definitely high, but I think coming to the rink, practice is a step that we need to do and we’ve got to make sure that whenever we get the opportunities to try to get better, we have to take advantage of it.”
Needed? “I hope so. Hopefully, you hate to think it takes something like that to wake us up, but maybe that’s what’s needed. We just have to make sure we come ready to do what we need to do tomorrow.”
Has he seen such a meltdown: “I think everybody’s seen it at some point in their career. You go through a lot of highs and lows. It was deserving though. The group wasn’t ready today.”
“Bottom line is we can’t come out and have a bad day of practice or a bad morning skate or whatever it is. We can’t afford that right now. That’s just the message he’s trying to get across right now. It just shows that he’s passionate about this group and what we can do, and if we’re not living up to that, he has every right to be upset about it.”
Does this team still believe in Yeo? “I know I do, and I guarantee I speak for every guy in this room. It’s a tough thing. Every team’s going to go through tough stretches, some longer than others and you hope to find a way to get out of them sooner rather than later. Coach Yeo has done a good job. The rest of the coaching staff has done a great job of making sure we’re buying into the system and doing what we need to do. The system works. We’ve seen it work numerous times a lot. Right now is a tough time, we’ve got to stick together and find a way to get out of it.”
Has he seen something like Yeo’s meltdown: “It’s tough to remember. But I’ve been a hockey player all my life. Probably not.”
How does the team respond? “Even without that, we know we can play a lot better, everyone in this locker room. There are a couple guys who are happy with their game, but there are a lot of players, myself included that want to be better. When things don’t go well for a team, it’s always easy to look left or right for excuses. But like Jacques Lemaire always use to say, just worry about yourself and that I think is for every player here – just get the best game out of yourself. For me, it’s just about worrying about making sure I can play at the level I can play at.”
Did he feel Yeo would soon implode? “I don’t know if you sense anything coming. But for sure when you look at the past couple months, things haven’t really gone well here. Things haven’t gone our way so there’s a lot of pressure on everyone. Practice wasn’t as sharp as it should be at this point of the season. We didn’t do the right things so for sure you understand the frustration. As players, we have to make sure we’re ready every time we go out there to help ourselves as players and help the team to get better. We have to make sure when we step on the ice – we’re fortunate to play in the nhl – so every time you step on the ice you have to get better and work for the team.”
Lastly, as of this morning, I was entirely confident that Yeo’s job was completely safe. According to sources, Fletcher is actively looking for a goaltender and that’s where the Wild believes most of its problems lay right now.
We’ll see if Yeo’s meltdown changes his personal situation. The team best respond, I’d think.
I'll be on KFAN in a second, KFAN Thursday morning and Fox Sports North Thursday night.
Zach Parise will miss tonight's Wild game against the San Jose Sharks to be with his dad. J.P. Parise is at his Twin Cities home with his family at his side in hospice care.
In a statement, "the Wild supports his decision to be with his family as his dad, J.P., battles lung cancer and asks that their privacy be respected. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Parise family during this difficult time."
My best to the entire Parise family.
In need of a left-shot defenseman with Keith Ballard out indefinitely and right-shot defenseman Nate Prosser playing out of position, the Wild was considering yesterday putting in a waiver claim for Arizona Coyotes defenseman David Schlemko.
We may never know if it did, although I'm fairly sure it did.
The Dallas Stars plucked Schlemko off waivers today. Last night's Wild win lowered Minnesota just below Dallas in the waiver order.
With multiple NHL sources telling me that GM Chuck Fletcher had been shopping for a left-shot D, I reported in today's paper that Schlemko could have been a potential stopgap measure.
Schlemko, 27, was placed on waivers yesterday for a second time this season by the Coyotes (he cleared waivers Nov. 14 and eventually was sent to Portland. He played two games there before being recalled. The Coyotes have apparently tried to trade him much of this season). He has been in and out of Coyotes coach Dave Tippett's doghouse all season for issues in his own zone and throwing the puck away, but he apparently has been playing better as of late.
Schlemko has a goal and three assists this season and is a minus-5 in 20 games averaging 18 minutes, 6 seconds per game. At one point this season, he was a healthy scratch five consecutive games. The 6-1, 190-pound Edmonton native has nine goals and 41 assists and is plus-19 in 207 career games over parts of seven seasons with the Coyotes. He was undrafted and originally signed as a free agent by then-Phoenix out of WHL Medicine Hat.
He is in the last year of his contract with a $1.275 million cap hit and can become an unrestricted free agent in the summertime.
Prosser is a minus-9 in 30 games, worst among Wild blue-liners, averaging 13:10 a game. He is minus-10 in his past 18 games and hasn't had a plus game since Nov. 15.
I am currently on a plane to Dallas, where the Wild visits the red-hot Stars tonight. The Wild doesn't have a morning skate after arriving in Dallas close to 2 a.m. because of plane trouble in Minnesota.
Coach Mike Yeo's pregame availability is at 4:45 p.m., so for lineup updates, follow me on Twitter around then.
Good evening from a snowy Minnesota.
I’ll be on Fox 9 Sports Now tonight with Dawn Mitchell at 10:15, KFAN on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and a live podcast with Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan at souhanunfiltered.com at 3 p.m.
Big home and home with the Winnipeg Jets starting Saturday night. If the 10th-place Wild, which is 5-6-3 in its past 14 games, can manage to win both games in regulation, it’ll be four points back of the Jets with three games in hand. Lose both in regulation, and the hole digs to 12 points.
You can read my state-of-the-team story with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher at this link, but as I mentioned a few times this week, Fletcher did a state-of-the-team interview with the beat writers Tuesday night during the second intermission (so time was a little restrained).
Here’s the transcript:
What’s your assessment of the first 32 games? “I think it’s been two different seasons so far. The first month we played as well as any team in the league. We dominated games, we didn’t always score, the power play was poor, but we were arguably as good a team as any the first month. The last month or so we’ve gotten away from our game a bit. I think we have players that are struggling, that have lost their confidence, that are trying to find their game again, which certainly we’ve seen a lot of plays that are uncharacteristic of certain players. To me the big thing is, and Mike [Yeo] says this a lot, but to me we’re focused more on the result than the process. And by that I mean I think we’ve lost our way a little bit in terms of simple things. Retrievals need to be better, wall play needs to be better, we need to manage the puck better, reading the situation and getting pucks in deep instead of trying to make a play. Our net front has been very inconstant in the offensive zone. Middle lane drive, we’re very inconsistent in that area.
Just the little facets of the game, the little details of the game, and that was such a strength of our team last year. And right now, whether it’s guys trying to go out and make a big play every shift to make a difference, maybe it’s because we’re trailing in games, but we don’t seem to have the patience to play the right game, stay within our structure and let things come to us. We’re always forcing things and as a result I think we’ve gotten away from what we are. We’re making too many unforced errors and the confidence is starting to wane. So it’s sort of been a tale of two seasons. The fortunate thing is we still have 50 games to go. We have a long way to go. From a positive standpoint, you look at it and we’re still in the top 5 teams in the league in puck possession metrics, our shot differential is high, we’re scoring a lot of goals. On paper to me, this is the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here. On paper, to me, there’s a lot of positives. But we need to stick with things longer. Frustration has creeped into the game which tends to happen when you’re not getting the results you want. But if we can stick with it longer, we will get the results even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.”
You didn’t mention goaltending? “I think our defense has been a problem the last month. And everything has been a part of it. Our forwards have not done a good enough job defensively. Our defensemen are making way too many uncharacteristic mistakes and we’re not getting enough saves. So it’s a complete team effort. I know the goalies have become a lightning rod for criticism for our defensive play. But to single them out and absolve the other 18 skaters would be a huge mistake. It’s a total team effort right now, but we have a lot of confidence in both guys. Darcy [Kuemper] is a guy that’s been successful at every level he’s played at and he’s been successful in this league. We have no doubt he’s going to be a top-notch goalie in this league. There’s going to be ups and downs. We know that. We said that before the season any time you have a 24-year-old goalie. And again, we’re going to ride these things out. In Nik’s case (Backstrom), he missed a lot of hockey last year and has come back and given us some pretty good play and he’s trying to get his rhythm again, get his game again. It bothers me a little bit when we separate the goaltenders from the rest of the play. We’ve given some unbelievable chances against and chances we don’t typically give.”
How much do you need to add a defenseman pretty quickly with a third pair that’s only getting seven or eight minutes a game? “We’ll see. I think a part of that is we’ve had a light schedule. We’ve been at home, then have two or three days between games. So I think the coaching staff has loaded up our big guys with a few more minutes. But I think [Justin] Falk and [Nate] Prosser have played well. I think [Christian] Folin is a pretty good young player. We’ll have to monitor [Keith] Ballard’s health. But in a normal situation where you’re playing three of four games per week, you wouldn’t see those kind of minutes there.”
Are trade talks heating up around the NHL? “I think it’s the same as every year where most of the stuff will happen closer to the deadline. I don’t know why this year would be any different. We might see a few tweaks here and there. It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of teams either in LTI (long-term injury relief) or very close to the cap. Money and cap space is a big factor right now.”
How important are these next two games against Winnipeg? “Well, every game is important right now. I mean, we’re chasing. We have games in hand on the teams ahead of us, but we’re behind in the standings, so every game’s important now. It’s no different than what it's been last year and the year before. It seems like we seem to be in this situation. We’ve never had really any off nights since I’ve been here. Every night’s been a battle. They’re two important games, but we’re still going to have 47, 48 odd games after that, so again, we’ve just got to stick with it. If we keep getting caught up in the results on any given night and any given shift, I think you get in trouble. And that’s what we have to get back to, just get back to the basics, the details, play the game the right way, be patient. It’s not always going to work out, but more times than not, it will. I feel right now we’re rushing things, we’re getting ahead of things and that’s a dangerous, dangerous game to play.”
How frustrated are you though that you’re in this position again scratching and clawing for the eighth spot? This was supposed to be the year to join the top tier. “We still have some time to go. We’ll see. Every team is going to go through tough stages in the season and the last month we’ve been a fairly inconsistent team. We’ve done some good things, too. This team has shown a lot of resiliency this year. We’ve battled back from a lot of deficits and there’s a pretty strong heartbeat in that room. There’s a lot of character in that room. And I think there’s a lot of talent in that room. So that’s what keeps me optimistic and I think we can get the details in our game back, we’ve got to get that trust back and we’re just going to have to work through this stretch and hopefully we can get through it pretty quickly.”
Is there any way the GM can make a spark now with a trade? “Well, I like our group. Every year since I’ve been here, we’ve routinely got outshot, we routinely can’t score goals. We dominate most games we play in, our goal scoring’s getting better. Now we’ve got to get our defensive structure back, get back to the details of the game, but I think anybody’s that has watched our team this year sees the talent and the ability of the team. It’s a good hockey team and right now we just have to get back to doing what we do well.”
How concerned are you with the play of youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula? “I think that’s symptomatic of every young guy of every sport in every league throughout the world. That’s just what happens. Every league’s a tough league, and hockey’s no different. And we have some of them playing really well, and some of them not playing as well. But maybe the second half it switches. The guys that are hot now, maybe they struggle the second half. It’s a hard league. You look around, every team has that. It’s not something that was unexpected.”
What do you want to see here the next 50 games? “I just want to see us play the right way and just trust each other, trust themselves and trust the system. That trust is lacking right now. We had an expression last year or slogan last year, ‘When it’s your turn.’ Basically it meant when you were on the ice and you were in position to do the right thing, you do it, whether that was a middle lane drive or whether it was net front or whether it was taking a hit to make a play, whether it was going back and making the right retrieval or making the right decision with the puck and sometimes there was sacrifice involved. We have to get that team orientation back and getting everybody focused on the process, doing things the right way, and if you do that, things will take care of themselves. You can’t go out every night and say geez, ‘We lost last game, now we’ve got to go out and start off right away and score right away.’ Just go play the right way. Stick with it and show some patience. The longer it goes, the more the frustration builds, but we’ve had these before and we’ve popped out of it before and we’ll pop out of this one, too.”
How do you feel Thomas Vanek is fitting in? “I think he’s getting better every week. I think it’s been a big adjustment coming to the Western Conference. It’s a lot different hockey in the Eastern Conference. He’s had some challenges on and off the ice. I think he’s getting better on a weekly basis. His production’s getting better, his attention to detail’s getting better. He’s never going to win the Selke Trophy, we all know that, but every night you see more and more examples of him grasping what we’re trying to do away from the puck.”
Is Mike Yeo safe? “Oh my God. I’m not even going to answer that. … Yeo’s absolutely safe. The coaches have done a great job. That’s a quote.”
So the gist of what you’re saying is you believe in this team, a roster shakeup is doubtful and plan to stay the course? “You can’t every time you go through a little slump or have your struggles look to the outside and airlift somebody in and assume they’re going to solve all your problems for you. You’ve got to battle through. That’s part of the process of learning how to win. You have to learn how to win. Learning how to win means you have to see your mistakes and overcome adversity. It’s all the clichés, but especially with young players, this is how they grow, this is how they gain experience. To me, it would be the wrong time and the wrong message.”
That's it for now. Talk to ya after the morning skates Saturday.
Hope you all enjoyed your holiday the past few days.
The Wild resumes its season Saturday night (6 p.m.) when the Winnipeg Jets come to town. The Jets are 4-0-3 in their past seven on the road and 10-4-4 on the road this season. Neither team has played or practiced since Tuesday, so that first game after the break is usually an interesting one with some sloppiness.
Huge couple games for the Wild as it starts a home and home with its geographical divisional rival (alliteration).
It has three games in hand on the Jets but are eight points behind them for the first of two wildcard spots. There are several red-hot Jets players right now, from Mathieu Perreault to Mark Scheifele to Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and both goalies. They also have overcome a devastated blue line for much of the year.
I did a state of the team analysis for tomorrow's paper where I quote GM Chuck Fletcher throughout from an interview he did with both paper beat writers during the second intermission Tuesday's game. I'll put a more detailed transcript of the quick, 10-minute interview on the blog once the Insider gets up later tonight.
Today, from 3-6 p.m., I'll be filling in for Dan Barreiro on KFAN (100.3-FM).
Wild defenseman Ryan Suter will be joining at 3:35 p.m. Also joining to talk Wild will be Fox Sports North's Anthony LaPanta and KFAN's Brandon Mileski. My pal from the Winnipeg Sun, Ken Wiebe, will be joining to talk Wild-Jets.
I'll also be talking Gophers and Vikings with Fox 9's Dawn Mitchell and KFAN's A.J. Mansour and Justin Gaard.
Cities 97's Paul Fletcher will also sit in the first few segments.
Tonight at 10:15 p.m., I'll be Fox 9's Sports Now with Dawn Mitchell and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., I'll be on the season debut of Beyond the Pond on KFAN.
I'll be back later with the Fletcher Q and A, and then talk to you tomorrow after the morning skates. Please tune in later on KFAN though.
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