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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Day One of Wild training camp: 2 points already in the bank

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild training camp Updated: September 12, 2013 - 5:21 PM

The Wild had such a good first day on the ice, coach Mike Yeo joked that he planned to call NHL headquarters on Avenue of the Americas and request two points in the standings.

Good bet Gary Bettman and Bill Daly don’t return that call, but as always on the first day of any NHL camp, the vibe was positive around the Wild on Thursday.

Sure, it was weird being at Ridder Arena (thanks to the Blake Shelton concert). Players, like Zach Parise and Niklas Backstrom, said they got flashbacks from a year earlier when Wild players and other Minnesota-based NHLers had to skate daily at Ridder during the lockout.

Of course, guys like Keith Ballard and Erik Haula loved it. The U is their home. Former Badgers Ryan Suter, Dany Heatley and Jake Dowell weren’t as thrillied. Suter JOKED that it was a great day, well, other than the facility.

Good late afternoon from the Ridder press box, where I got to watch Bethany Brausen run the captain’s practice for the national champion Gophers’ women. First time I’ve ever gotten to watch a captain’s practice after hearing about them for years and she does a fabulous job. She sure organizes drills impressively like she’s a coach herself.

Back to the Wild, but as Yeo said today, “waking up this morning was not difficult.” Finally, training camp, and a real training camp, not a condensed six- or seven-day one like last January where NHL coaches and players could barely catch their breath before the 48-game in 99-day sprint began.

Training camp will return to the X Friday. Group B – the second group today – will practice first, and that will be followed by a scrimmage (so be sure to follow me on Twitter (@russostrib) for updates), then a Group A practice.

Remember, on Saturday, all fans can flock to the X and watch a 9:30 and 11:15 practice for free. Single-game tickets also go on sale that morning at 9 a.m. at the X and noon elsewhere. On Sunday, the Wild will scrimmage at 11 a.m., and again, that is free for all of you to come down and witness in person.

Some lines and D pairs today, and I’m meshing the groups here:

Parise-Koivu-Pominville

Zucker-Coyle-Fontaine

Niederreiter-Granlund-Heatley

Cooke-Brodziak-Mitchell

Dowell-Konopka-McMillan

Bussieres-Haula-Veilleux

Graovac-Phillips-Sandlak

Gabriel-Steckel-Rau

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Stoner-Ballard

Blum-Prosser

Actually Ballard was with everybody, but I’ll be honest, the second group D pairs I didn’t get a good grasp of because I was writing.

In Friday’s newspaper, I wrote a feature on an always very talkative Dany Heatley. I had lunch with him Wednesday, and as I’ve indicated, he is visibly leaner this season, looks quicker and spent a lot of the summer training to not only rehab his shoulder, but to come in tip-top shape and work on his skating with a power-skating instructor.

He is motivated to prove to everybody he can still be Dany Heatley, the threatening goal scorer, as he enters the final year of his contract. Yeo said today that he looks like he’s “gained a step,” at least.

Again, that’s all in Friday’s Star Tribune, and I’ve got a number of profiles planned this month, so please return daily to the site and/or purchase the paper.

Yeo also praised Mikael Granlund today. Granlund looked to be weak on his skates at times last summer and Yeo felt he looked a step quicker and much stronger on his skates. Yeo also praised defenseman Marco Scandella, who should get top-4 minutes this year. I don’t like making predictions early in camp because there’s just so many moving parts as to who can make the team, especially this year.

For instance, there really is no way of telling yet how many of Charlie Coyle, Granlund, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter can make the team. It really all depends on their camps. There’s really no way of telling right now how good a chance Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine have of making the team right now because it all depends how Coyle, Granlund, Zucker and Niederreiter do as well as how they perform.

In addition, for a guy like Fontaine to make the team out of camp, it may have to be on the fourth line, and that could depend largely on injury. As of now, Mike Rupp is trying to overcome his knee injury and will be held out of camp initially.

But I am willing to guarantee Scandella’s on this team. He requires waivers for the first time in his career, and no chance the Wild risks waivers on the young defenseman

On Scandella, Yeo said today, “We saw last year when we put him in that situation, we were a better team. So some of it has to come from us putting him in that situation, showing that faith in him, and certainly the rest has to come from him. I thought he was another guy who had a great day. He looked real strong, skating was real strong, stick was great. He was kind of flawless in the execution of habits part that we were looking. I thought he looked really good.”

Yeo talked about a number of players specifically. One was Kyle Brodziak. I’ll probably write about him for Saturday’s paper. The Wild’s looking for a bounceback year from its third-line center and Yeo talked with him on the ice today.

Yeo wants to alleviate pressure from many of the players who didn’t play well last year, saying it was such a weird, unique year. Brodziak is one of them, and again, you’ll hear from Brodziak on Saturday. As always, Brodziak was a great interview on the subject – honest, accountable and is motivated to have a good year.

All month, the ongoing theme will be the tweaked system as the Wild looks to carry the puck into the offensive zone more often and potentially activate the weakside D more often for support.

Yeo made that clear again today when he stopped practice 10 minutes in to preach this to the first group. He says he wants to gear the system more to his personnel.

This will be a work in progress as players try to get out of habits. With this will come mistakes, too, because this is the NHL. Teams jam up the neutral zone. Defensemen step up at the blue line. That’s why often players have no other choice but to dump that puck. You have to take what your opponent gives you. You can’t force plays with bad decisions.

So a lot of camp will be about how to generate that neutral-zone speed, and that starts with good retrievals, proper breakouts and exits from the D-zone. Yeo wants much better wall play this season, saying too often players are leaving the D-zone without the puck.

Offensively and defensively we want the right details, we want the right habits and like I said we're not just going to do something for the sake of doing it,” Yeo said. “If we're going to do it, we're going to do it right. So that part of our game is one that we have to improve on -- there's some tweaks that we're making in that area off the rush, in particular in our entries into the offensive zone, so it has to be a focal point for us. We've talked a lot about this already, but we want to be a better team off the rush, we want to create more off the rush. And we still want to be a good defensive team. We want to be a team that makes the playoffs. The one thing that's important to understand is you can't just create off the rush every single time. That's a sure fire way to not make the playoffs if you start turning pucks over night in and night out, so we want to be a good team in the offensive zone, we want to be a much better team off the rush, and that's putting yourself in a better position to make something happen and more importantly reading those situations, reading your support and making the play.”

Like I said, I’ll be writing about this probably ad nauseum all month.


Yeo said the results of Wednesday’s fitness testing was good for each player.

“The one thing on top of that, we’ll be monitoring that, we’ll be pushing the guys hard,” Yeo said. “It’s good to see where everybody came in at, but there’s another level we want to get to before we drop the puck.”

Yeo and his staff met with each group before each practice.

“We met with each group separately as opposed to the entire group, and that’s by design,” he said. “We plan to have sort of a little bit more philosophical, bigger picture meeting a little bit later on in camp (reading between the lines, when the Wild gets down to its team before Duluth Sept. 29-30).

“This one did touch on some of the things, some of the goals that we have, but the main one for me is that big, shiny goal that we all want, that the 29 other teams are talking about right now, there’s a way of getting there. What’s really important for us to understand is if you want that to happen, you have to have a great season. If you want to have a great season, you have to have a great start. And if we want to have a great start, then it’s pretty simple, we better have a great training camp. That was our message.”

Here’s some quotes by some of the heavy hitters:

Parise: “We have to keep progressing and keep moving forward and building on what we did last year. We can’t keep using the excuse ‘we’re young, we’re young, we’re young.’ We have to start developing and making progress and winning now.”

Koivu on the system and if it’ll be hard to break habits: “I don’t think so. Obviously we have six or seven preseason games, so I’m sure a lot of the guys will play three to five games, and then we scrimmage, and three weeks skating and that’s where you learn stuff. That’s when it starts to come out automatically, so I don’t see that as a problem. To be honest, obviously you have to be responsible with the puck, but I think a lot of players like that, to get the puck and try to get it at full speed.”

Pominville on playing with Parise and Koivu: “It would be nice to try to find a little chemistry and get together for some practices and even some scrimmages or some games. I mean we all know throughout the course of the season a lot of things can happen and a lot of things can change. If they want you to play with certain guys, it's nice to be able to find that chemistry and get to know them and know what they do in certain situations and even talking. I think communication is huge and when you know you're going to be on the ice with certain guys, you can talk about what they want you to do and what you want them to do when you have the puck.”

Parise on playing with Pominville: “I like playing with Pommer a lot. He’s a really good playmaker and scorer, too. He can finish. So if that happens to be the line I think we’ll do really well together. We played a little bit last year and if I remember right we had games where I feel like we had a lot of puck control in the offensive zone. But that’ll be up to the coach, what he decides. If we do play together, I think we’ll play well together.”

Backstrom on an actual training camp this year: “For sure it's fun, for sure it feels better to have the 21 days before the season starts. Last year, we skated at this rink, but it was a long couple months. You never knew if you were going to play or not. And then the season started, I think it was seven days and we had the first game, so we didn't really have time to work on anything, Just get yourself into the best shape as possible and start to play. Now we have some time to work on things. It's the same thing for every team, but I think it's good for us to get the system going and get to know each other and be ready when the season opens."

Talk to you Friday. It’s hockey season!

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