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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Darcy Kuemper gets the start in the second of back-to-back games tonight when the Wild visits the Nashville Predators.
The Preds also played last night, losing in a shootout to the Ottawa Senators. By the way, the Predators are 0-5 in shootouts with one goal on 18 tries, believe it or not. Coach Barry Trotz indicated he planned to come back with Marek Mazanec tonight.
He’s 22 and from the Czech Republic. He’s is 8-9-4 in place of Pekka Rinne with a 2.75 goals-against average and .904 save percentage.
Kuemper will make his third start of the season. On Tuesday, he made a career-high 39 saves during a 2-1 shootout win at L.A. for his second career ‘W.’ He stopped another four in the extra, extra session.
Same lineup for the Wild tonight as in its 4-2 loss last night at home against the Colorado Avalanche.
That means Jon Blum, the Predators’ 2007 first-round pick who played 91 games for Nashville over three seasons, plays his former team for the first time and third in a row for the Wild in place of veteran Ketih Ballard.
Blum scored seven goals and 15 assists for the Predators. At the time of his recall from Iowa, Blum was tied for the AHL team’s scoring lead with 17 points in 31 games.
“The big return,” coach Mike Yeo joked, referring to how Preds fans love to hate Ryan Suter. “We’ll put him on the ice with Sutes at the same time so we won’t know who they’re booing.”
Yeo has liked Blum’s game so far, saying, “he’s played composed, he’s executed, he’s moved the puck well. It helps that Iowa plays the same system because he’s come up and he’s fit in seamlessly.”
Yeo on tonight’s game: “There’s a new challenge every day and the challenge for today is to see if we can bounce back. We went on a nice little run here (four wins in a row before Saturday’s loss). But we really have to guard ourselves to make sure that … -- quite often you have a run like that and then you have a game that maybe you felt like you deserved to win and you don’t get the result that you want and then there could be a letdown, especially with a young group.
“How do we bounce back? This is the only thing that matters to me. So what we did two, three, four games ago, it’s absolutely meaningless to me right now. It’s how do we go out and perform this game.”
I think Yeo just conveyed his message during today’s morning meeting. Yeo expects a tight-checking game against the notoriously stingy Predators.
Not much else going on. I asked Yeo about Matt Cooke, who took two costly penalties last night and has five minors in the past four games. Remember, he went the first seven games this season without a minor.
“He’s working extremely hard, but you have to make sure you’re doing it the right way,” Yeo said. “That was a penalty that was deserved last night (I assume he means the second one), but it was also a penalty out of effort. You’re working hard, but you’ve got to be doing the right things, you’ve got to make sure you’re keeping your stick on the ice and moving your feet. We want to keep the work ethic but losing the penalties.”
Remember, the game’s an early 6 p.m. start tonight and on FSN++++++++++++++++
Remember, I’ll be doing our third Star Tribune Chalk Talk with Wes Walz prior to Tuesday’s game against Ottawa, who bizarrely got to the Twin Cities today and will spend the next few days roaming around the Mall of America, I presume.
If you would like to attend the Chalk Talk and attend the game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.
I’ll be filling in for Paul Allen on Wednesday from 9-noon, incidentally, on KFAN (100.3-FM).
Mikko Koivu, on crutches, met with members of the media after the Wild’s morning skate today. It didn’t take long to get the impression that, while the pain in his surgically-repaired right ankle is already fading, it will take much longer for his frustration to do the same.
He, along with other key Wild players, has to watch his team play. And then there is the question of the upcoming Winter Olympics, where he is expected to captain the Finnish team.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I haven’t thought about it,” said Koivu, who took a puck to the skate in the Wild’s game with Washington Jan. 4. He left the game briefly, then returned long enough to pick up assists on two Ryan Suter goals before ultimately leaving the game for good. He had surgery two days later. The prognosis for his return is about four weeks.
“More than anything, I think it’s just the frustration, when you’re in the middle of the season, you feel good and we were starting to get on a roll again, things like that,” Koivu said. “The frustration, that’s the biggest thing, not being able to do the things with the team.’’
The Washington victory was the team’s second straight after ending a six-game losing streak. Since then the injury-riddled Wild has won two more and is bringing four-game winning streak into tonight’s game with Colorado.
That said, Koivu said he believes he will play in the Olympics, and he is confident he will have returned to action with the Wild before the Olympics begin. Given the general four-week timetable, that will be cutting it close. The Wild plays 13 more games before breaking for the Olympics, with games Feb. 1, 4 and 6.
“I’m pretty confident on the Olympics, that I’ll be there,” Koivu said. “But it’s too early to make that call. What the time schedule will be, I don’t know that right now. I don’t think anyone does. But, talking to people who have had (the same surgery), and talking to the doctors, I think I’ll be playing games here before the Olympics start.’’
Asked if he’d be willing to wear extra skate protection going forward, Koivu wavered, saying he’d heard the protection makes skating less comfortable. “If they can make a good one, make it comfortable? I’m sure I’d wear one,” he said. “But we’ll see.”
Here are some other notes from this morning:
--Josh Harding skated on his own with goalie coach Bob Mason before the rest of the team took the ice Saturday. Wild coach Yeo says it's a good sign for Harding, who has missed the past four games due to not feeling well. Prior to a two-game return in losses to the Islanders and St. Louis, Harding missed another four games to make what was termed "a minor adjustment" to his treatment protocol for multiple sclerosis. Yeo said it was a good sign to see Harding on the ice, but didn’t have a specific timetable for Harding’s return. “I talked to him this morning and he’s been feeling better the last couple days,” Yeo said. “So we’ll look for him to join the group here soon.
--Yeo said there is no specific timetable for Zach Parise to return to practice. Parise, who has a broken foot, has missed eight straight games. Yeo said the hope is for Parise to get back on the ice next week, most likely skating on his own a few times before the decision is made for him to return to practice. “He’s getting there,” Yeo said. “He’s feeling better. Obviously, we’d be very anxious for him to rejoin the group here. So, hopefully, sometime next week we can get him with us.’’
--Defenseman Jared Spurgeon (foot) is scheduled to meet with a doctor some time Saturday evening, after which a timetable for his return to action might be available.
--Yeo said he’d be going with the same lineup tonight as he did in Phoenix, which means defenseman Jonathon Blum will be in the ice again. Yeo wouldn’t say who would start in goal, but it appears Niklas Backstrom will get the start tonight, with Darcy Kuemper going tomorrow in Nashville.
Niklas Backstrom will get the start tonight against the Phoenix Coyotes, Marco Scandella, who missed practice Wednesday, will be in the lineup, Keith Ballard will be scratched and Jon Blum will make his Wild debut.
Those are your answers to all the Wild lineup questions that were heading into the pregame skate.
Afternoon from Glendale, where the Wild visits the Coyotes tonight at 8 p.m. CT. I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission.
If you didn't see, I did a story on GM Chuck Fletcher's attempt to get his players to wear foot protection. That story can be read here. In recent games, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon and Scandella have all suffered injuries from being struck by pucks. Fletcher is bringing in somebody next week to custom make shot blockers for players.
I talked to Scandella this morning, and he will definitely try one out. He used to wear shot blockers, but he found them hitting the ice on crossovers and the second he took them off, he felt quicker and lighter on the ice. That's the issue most players have with them.
Coach Mike Yeo has made the decision to start Backstrom tonight. Despite some abdominal soreness lately, he hasn’t missed any practices, looked good yesterday and Yeo has decided to come back with him despite Darcy Kuemper’s 39-save (plus four in the shootout) performance in Tuesday’s win at Los Angeles.
Bit of a surprise.
Backstrom (4-9-2 with a 3.15 goals-against average and .896 save percentage) has won two in a row for the first time this season but has given up three or more goals in seven of his past eight starts. Yeo said the decision is not unlike Coyotes coach Dave Tippett coming back with Mike Smith despite Thomas Greiss’ shutout Tuesday against Calgary.
Smith (15-10-8 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .911 save percentage), who will represent Canada in the Olympics likely as their third goalie, has three wins in his past 16 appearances, no wins since Dec. 21 and has allowed three or more goals in nine of those 16 appearances.
“We’re very happy with the game Kuemps played,” Yeo said. “It’s very important for us. There’s a very good chance that as this weekend goes on that we’ll see him in the net again (Wild has back-to-backs home vs. Colorado on Saturday and in Nashville on Sunday), but for this game, going with the veteran guy, I think, is important.”
The ninth-place Wild are tied in the standings with the eighth-place Coyotes with 51 points, but Phoenix has three games in hand, so tonight is a very important contest.
The Coyotes are 10-3-3 in 16 games against Minnesota since 2009-10.
There was a point where Backstrom was a Coyotes killer. He’s now 13-10 in 23 appearances against them with a 2.18 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
Blum, 24, a first-round pick by the Nashville Predators in 2007, will make his Wild debut. He’s excited after playing all season in Iowa. He’s now essentially the Wild’s extra defenseman with Matt Dumba assigned to Portland and Spurgeon hurt.
He has played 91 games for the Predators and at the time of his recall was tied for the Iowa scoring lead with 17 points in 31 games and tied for first on Iowa with four power-play goals (although my guess is we see Jonas Brodin and Justin Fontaine at the points of the second power-play unit tonight).
This will be the 6-foot-1, 188-pound defenseman’s first NHL game since April 27, 2013.
Yeo wants to see a “steady presence, a guy who defends well and makes a good first pass. He does have experience. He’s played in the league. He’s a right-shot, which was important for us. I think having a right-shot on that right side will help some of the execution problems that we’ve had a little bit lately. He’s got some sneaky skill.”
Ballard, a former Coyote, will be scratched for the second in three games. He had a real rough go in L.A. He was turning pucks over and iced the puck four times (although Erik Haula beat out one to wash it out, but that one by Ballard which came a few feet short of the red line happened right in front of Rick Wilson, who sends the D on the ice). His final shift was a chaotic one that is logged as 2:15 by the off-ice officials. He didn’t play the final 32+ minutes.
“I’ll grab him and the message is going to be very simple: ‘just take a game here, take a deep breath,’” Yeo said. “There’s been ups and downs, but by no means are we giving up on him. We still feel he’s a huge asset to our team and we have to work with him and try to get things back to where he’s feeling good and confident.”
Ballard talked to me about his struggles last week. Those comments can be found here.
Since missing nine games with broken ribs (his second injury of the season), he has no goals and two assists in 19 games. He’s a minus-13 in those 19 games with no +1 or better games.
“We’ve put him in kind of an uncomfortable position playing the right side,” Yeo said. “If we can, when we get him back into the lineup, I’d like to get him back on the left side. That’s where he’s played his best hockey for us this year. If you’re fighting it and you’re playing the off side as a defenseman, you feel the pressure a little more, you don’t see your options quite as well and you’re making a lot of plays from your backhand.
“It’s up to us try to get that confidence back in his game and put him in a position where he can be successful.”
This isn’t good. The Wild signed Ballard for a number of reasons, but one big one was because he had experience playing the right side.
Now, the Wild has put him in an uncomfortable position? The other confusing thing is Yeo saying he wants to get him on the left side when he returns. I don’t think he’s playing in front of Ryan Suter, Scandella or Clayton Stoner, so my guess is Ballard either sits for awhile if Blum proves his worth or when he returns, he’ll be back on the right side.
So Ballard and the Wild better figure this out.
No update on the health of Spurgeon, Parise or Josh Harding, Yeo said. Fletcher said no update yet on the severity of Brett Bulmer’s knee injury, but he does have at the minimum a high ankle sprain and will miss a good chunk of time.
The Wild has sustained a significant loss in its lineup for at least the next fews weeks as defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who has played alongside Ryan Suter the past two games and was plus-3 in 27 minutes against Buffalo on Thursday, will be sidelined with a lower-body injury. He has been placed on injured reserve.
Spurgeon, who has been banged up lately as it is, blocked a shot last game. He didn't miss a shift, but it sounds like it stems from that.
Jonas Brodin will move back to the right side with Suter and Nate Prosser will move to the second pair with Marco Scandella.
"Pross, I liked his game [the past few]," coach Mike Yeo said. "He's shown in the past that he can provide the kind of stability and defensive game that we need to go up against top lines. It’s a great opportunity for him."
Clayton Stoner will skate tonight with Keith Ballard, who was a healthy scratch last game.
"Bally's a very capable veteran guy," Yeo said.
He has struggled bigtime though. He's a minus-12 the past 17 games, and hasn't had a plus game during those 17. I talked to him today about his game and that will be a big part of my game notebook in Sunday's paper.
The Wild is down to six defensemen now with Jon Blum next on the depth chart. We'll see if the Wild now brings Matt Dumba back to Minnesota to add depth after world juniors (my gut has always been that he was going to be assigned to Portland of the WHL, which traded for his junior rights, after world juniors; now I'm not too sure, at least initially). The team may have to in order to step some sort of depth tide unless GM Chuck Fletcher can find a way to add a defenseman. I can't imagine the Wild's too comfortable with its depth on the blue line right now, especially until Ballard shows he can bring some stability to the lineup.
In other news, Justin Fontaine will miss tonight's game after inadvertantly colliding with Ballard in practice Friday. Yeo says he is sore and will see the doctors tonight at the arena. Yeo hopes it's not serious. In the meantime, Brett Bulmer has recalled and will slide into Fontaine's spot on the third line with Matt Cooke and Charlie Coyle.
In other potentially significant news, Josh Harding will miss his second game and third day in a row because he's not "feeling well." That's the only detail or update Yeo has provided, but this is obviously a concern.
"We'll just keep going day-to-day here. Not much of an update," Yeo said.
Yeo did talk today like Darcy Kuemper is here to stay for a bit and Niklas Backstrom must step up like he did against Buffalo.
"Kemps is a young kid and at some point if he is here and he does gets in, he’s going to have to perform," Yeo said. "We have seen what he’s capable of doing in the past, but having said that, I’m very comfortable with Backy and with his game right now. Talking to him the other day, he’s been waiting for an opportunity, and here it is."
That sounds to me like Yeo isn't expecting Harding back for a bit. We know he missed 10 days recently because he had his treatment altered for multiple sclerosis. If you remember last season, Harding missed two months starting with a scratched start in Vancouver because he was not reacting well to a new treatment protocol.
Hopefully this is a simple illness right now, but obviously it's a concern.
Again, if Harding will be out, the Wild needs Backstrom to step out or Fletcher's first priority before scoring and defense may be goaltending. Backstrom, by the way, has finally received goal support the past two games. He has gotten eight goals of support the past two games after TEN the previous TEN games, which is pretty insane.
Braden Holtby will start for the first time since Dec. 21. Martin Erat down to the fourth line with Brooks Laich back at third-line center.
Seven of the Wild's 18 skaters tonight will be 23-and-younger. One 23-year-old and six 21-year-olds or younger.
Yeo said they have to look at it as an opportunity and rise to the challenge.
The Wild had an optional skate today. Funny moment, but at one point when the Wild was almost 30 minutes into that optional, Yeo, who wasn't on the ice, looked in the locker room and saw how many of the Wild players were still out there.
Yeo walked out of the locker room and to the bench. Next thing you know, every player filed off in a line.
It was one of those, "Save it for the game," moments. But that's what happens when you have so many kids in a lineup. They were all just out there skating and skating and shooting and shooting, almost forgetting they have to play tonight against the Washington Capitals.
Never a dull moment for the Wild, which is trying to snap a six-game losing streak tonight. As is often the case, it starts with goalie drama.
The Wild's six-game losing streak began in Pittsburgh on Nov. 19 when Josh Harding couldn't come on a four-game road trip because of a necessary alteration to his treatment for multiple sclerosis.
The Wild lost all four games with Niklas Backstrom surrendering 17 goals. Harding returned against the Islanders on Dec. 29 and has lost two games since, including the 3-0 blown lead against the Islanders while giving up a season-high five goals.
Tonight, in a pivotal game against the Buffalo Sabres that could determine the future of coach Mike Yeo, Harding will be sidelined. He's not feeling well, Yeo said, and Backstrom, who is 2-9-2 with a 3.32 goals against average and .893 save percentage, will get the start and be heavily relied upon.
Backstrom has given up 24 goals in his past six starts, three or more in each.
"Here's another opportunity for Back, and hopefully he takes advantage of it," Yeo said. "Last year, when we needed to win that last game against Colorado, he came up with a great performance. I actually feel pretty good that he's going to come out and do the same thing tonight."
Backstrom and Harding have been the Wild's tagteam for GM Chuck Fletcher's five years (Harding has missed much of two full seasons though, once with a torn ACL/MCL, once last year with MS complications).
But it is unbelievable how many times Harding and Backstrom have been sick or injured in that five-year timespan and unbelievable how many times the Wild has had to carry three goalies on its active roster because of it.
The Wild's goalie carousel annually is not a normal thing in the NHL. I mean, just look at last year's playoffs as the best example. Backstrom hurt in warmups, Harding hurt during Game 4, the will he start, won't he start, will he start, won't he start drama at the pregame skate in Game 5.
Tonight is no exception. Darcy Kuemper has been recalled to back up. The Wild obviously doesn't want to put Harding on injured reserve because he would have to miss a week and this hopefully is a short-term thing.
To be able to make the roster move, the Wild placed Zenon Konopka on waivers today. Now, Yeo said it was because the Wild needed to call up a goalie, which is actually is baloney from the standpoint that there were many other things the Wild could have done if it wanted to keep Konopka here:
The Wild could have placed Mike Rupp on waivers, the Wild could have kept Clayton Stoner on injured reserve another game (he's been activated and struggling Keith Ballard will be a healthy scratch), the Wild could have sent down Stephane Veilleux and moved Torrey Mitchell back to wing and played Konopka at center.
So this is obviously a Konopka-specific decision, and we do know the Wild last summer tried to trade Konopka. So this appears to be the end of the line in Minnesota for Konopka, who has the NHL's best faceoff win percentage and the most fights since he's been in the league.
Losing Konopka to another team or sending him to Iowa on a one-way contract would open a roster spot if there's a trade brewing. I don't think it's to create cap space though because the Wild's cap space isn't an issue right now as much as the lack of cap space for other teams.
In other words, the Wild has about $1.5 million in cap space. Believe it or not, there are 20! other teams actually in worse shape than the Wild from a cap standpoint. That is why it's been so hard for Fletcher and other GM's frankly to make moves right now.
Just to show you how tough a time Ballard is having lately, this is the first time in Nate Prosser's Wild tenure that I can remember where he was actually kept in the lineup to remove another veteran.
Back to the Wild's goalie drama. Check this year out alone:
Oct. 8 in Nashville, Backstrom strains his knee.
Oct. 15 in Toronto, Darcy Kuemper gives up three goals on seven shots and Harding, whom the Wild wanted to give the game off because of his MS, has to come in and relieve him.
Oct. 24 against Carolina, Harding sustains muscle spasms in his leg and Backstrom, in his first game back from the knee injury, has to replace him after two periods and start consecutive games against Chicago.
Nov. 13 against Toronto, Harding can't start because he's not feeling well.
Nov. 13 against Toronto, Backstrom suffered a concussion when run by Nazem Kadri. Harding has to enter.
Nov. 23 at Winnipeg, Backstrom is activated off IR to back up first game after concussion. Kuemper reassigned. In warmups, Harding suffers muscle spasms. Backstrom is thrust into duty (Kuemper is rushed back from the airport and arrives in the first period on emergency status), Backstrom wins that game, has to start in St. Louis and against Phoenix.
Harding returns against Colorado on Nov. 29 and then has to start Nov. 30 because Backstrom is sick.
Harding leaves the team again Dec. 18-29.
Jan. 2 against Buffalo: Harding sick, Kuemper called up.
--Kuemper has been on the Wild's roster five separate occasions this season.
--Johan Gustafsson has been on the Wild's roster four separate occasions this season.
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