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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Sunday's open-to-public scrimmage will be Wild's first big chance to evaluate

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild training camp Updated: September 14, 2013 - 3:41 PM

Day 3 of training camp is in the books and the one thing that is very clear: this is a lot less frantic a pace as last January’s crash course, six- or seven-day camp.

Coach Mike Yeo can actually work the players at a measured, organized pace, not being forced to hit every facet of the Wild’s game daily and in an abbreviated fashion.

In Sunday’s newspaper, I wrote a feature on Jonas Brodin, who finished fourth in Calder Trophy voting last year (snubbed) and is poised to have a quality Year 2. Nobody seems to be worried about the proverbial sophomore slump, and if you’ve ever been around Brodin, it’s easy to see why.

Just a great player and seemingly unfazed by anything. He just makes it look so easy on the ice, and he says his goal this year is to add more points than the 11 he got in 45 games last season while not having that affect his defense. In a system that will ask more of the defensemen to jump into the play, the points should come easier. That, and just the natural coming out of his shell now that Brodin is a 20-year-old, uh, veteran.

I also wrote a notebook on Zenon Konopka, who played the role of TSN’s Bob McKenzie in Mexico over the Fourth of July. Several of Clayton Stoner’s teammates were down there for the defenseman’s destination wedding, and players stayed after for vacation. But it happened to be July 5 – the day of free agency. So for hours at the pool, Konopka informed teammates of all the trades and free-agent signings in the NHL. It was Konopka who let Devin Setoguchi know that he was now a Winnipeg Jet.

Yeo continued to be completely positive about everything he’s seeing after today’s practices. Day 3 is usually Hump Day, as longtime NHL coach Terry Murray calls it. Soreness sets in, legs get heavy and practice is often messy.

But Yeo was pleasantly surprised by today’s practices, which were open to the public as the ticket windows opened for the first time for single-game tickets.

On Sunday, the Wild will scrimmage at 11 a.m. Gate 1 opens at 10:45, and again, it’s free, open to you all, concessions will be open, tickets can be bought, etc., etc.

Yeo is looking at this like a real game, like the first real evaluation of players. There will be three periods, intermissions, and Yeo wants to see the first real sign of system work and good habits out on the ice. Now, the Wild has not yet worked on special teams. When we left the rink today, the coaching staff had not yet cemented how they’ll do the special teams in the scrimmage, but Yeo said it may be one-minute power plays. On Monday, the Wild will begin special teams work and have what Yeo’s been calling a special teams scrimmage.

That means we should get to see power-play consultant Andrew Brunette on the ice for the first time. So far, Bruno’s been in the stands behind the media. I know this because I heard his roaring laugh through my noise-canceling Bose headphones today!

Two lines that were shuffled today that will be seen Sunday? Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle were split, as were Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund. So Zucker will skate with Granlund and Justin Fontaine and that leaves a real big line of Niederreiter with Coyle and Dany Heatley.

Here are some Yeo-bits from today.

On tryout David Steckel, an NHL vet who is a faceoff specialist and penalty killer (if he doesn’t make the team and can’t latch on elsewhere, he will likely play for Kurt Kleinendorst in Iowa with the Wild’s AHL affiliate): “I’m more anxious to see him in a game, to be honest with you. I’ve always had a good feel for what kind of player he is and I just want to see how he integrates himself into our game and how he performs, and that’s a little bit more important for him. Now certainly what I am looking for is how quickly he’s picking things up and things that we want to do, and how he can go out and apply those in a game.”

On the defensemen competition, and Matt Dumba (the Wild will keep seven or eight, meaning if Dumba makes it and the Wild’s healthy, Yeo will have tough decision to make regarding the six he dresses. Defensemen on the depth chart are Ryan Suter, Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Keith Ballard, Stoner, Nate Prosser and Jonathon Blum): “Well, you always want competition. The one thing that I’ll say is our vets look good right now. But this is a kid that’s going to get a very good look in camp. When you have that kind of competition, it pushes everybody to be better or ultimately they end up passing somebody, it makes your team better. You’re only doing that because you feel that they can add something that you don’t have. Certainly that’s a guy that we’re keeping a close eye on. I’ve been happy with what I’ve seen from Blum. I’ve been happy with all the defensemen, from what I’ve seen, even the guys like [Steve] Kampfer and [Brian] Connelly and [Jon] Landry, names that aren’t getting mentioned, they’ve shown well so far.”

Who did Yeo mean when he said vets? “I think anybody who that with us last year -- and I'm including, he obviously wasn't with us last year but I'm including Ballard in that group -- I've seen a lot of good things from them. From everybody on the blueline. I can't sit here and say I've been disappointed with anybody.”
 

This year, the next wave of Wild prospects are turning pro, the very talented Tyler Graovac, Raphael Bussieres and Johan Gustafsson (maybe Kurtis Gabriel if the Wild decides to sign him and send him there). They will all start in Iowa. Here is Yeo on Graovac and Bussieres: “You can tell that they’re young and you can tell that this is a lot of information, but more importantly that this is a big step for them. You come from junior hockey and now you’re playing with the best of the best. It’s a big step, but they’re doing fine. The big thing that I’m looking from them, that I want to see, is No. 1 is work and really buying into the way that we do things here, showing that they can learn and improvement.”

On Niederreiter: “I'm anxious to watch that line play in the game tomorrow. It's a great combination of size and skill (with Coyle and Heatley). I've liked that he appears faster than for whatever reason I envisioned him. I like his first step, I like the way he goes to the net. His shot is silly hard. So I said this yesterday, but I've really liked a lot of things about his game -- I've really liked the way he plays positionally, I just want to see a little bit more puck touches. So hopefully this line gives him that opportunity.”

Why wasn't he getting that with Granlund:
“I don't know. It was only one day, so I'm not even judging that. That's not fair to Granny, that's not fair to Nino. Certainly one thing that I would like to see from [Niederreiter] is to be a real force in the offensive zone. So before I jump to any conclusions with him, I kind of want to see how he is on the boards, how he is protecting, shielding and escaping.”
 

More on Justin Fontaine: “I liked his first scrimmage and his day. I do like that he's asking questions. You can tell he's engaged and he wants to learn and he's a smart player. He's another guy that I'm certainly not going to rush any decision one way or the other. I've got a pretty open mind. You can tell, we're putting him with good players. We want to put certain players with certain players because we feel it gives them the best chance to show their game. And he's one of those guys. So we're putting him with [those] guys so that hopefully he can showcase his skill. Like I said, this is not going to be a one day or a two day evaluation for him.”

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