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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Bouchard heading to Denver; Sheppard dilemma; Camp tidbits; Equipment drive

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild training camp Updated: September 17, 2010 - 4:35 PM

Good afternoon from Minneapolis, where I'm punching the keyboard at a furiou rate. The letter 's' is not cooperating, however -o don't be urpri-ed if ome sssssssssss's are mi--ing from tomorrow'- -tuff.

I think the 's' is just shocked from being hit again after month's of inactivity, but we'll get her going and back into more of a routine.

Just to show you where my head's at, I'm going to dinner with the Dolphins writers Saturday night, and then in an email invited them to come over and check out the Wild's open free public scrimmage from 10-noon Sunday. One just wrote me back: "Uh, Mike. There also happens to be this little football game going on at the Metrodome at noon that I might need to be at in order to get paid. Otherwise, that'd be awesome. :) "

It's hockey season, man!

As I've mentioned, I'm extremely excited about the start of training camp. It's been a long offseason and I'm ready to once again do my best to give Wild fans and Star Tribune readers an inside look into the Wild and the NHL. This, believe it or not, will be my 16th year covering the league, and training camp is always one of the most exciting times.

Sheer optimism and hope, that's why, by from 30 locker rooms. That's what happens when you're 0-0 in the standings, or 0-0-0-0 in the NHL, and coaches and GMs and players and owners haven't had any sleepless nights or real stress yet. Everybody's a Stanley Cup contender, which is a cool thing.

As a reminder, I will keep you updated with articles and blogs galore here at startribune.com/russo, but one extremely good way to get instant Wild information from me is to follow me on twitter at www.twitter.com/russostrib.

@russostrib on Twitter is usually the first place any Wild info goes, so if you were following me today, you'd have known hours ago and not right this moment that coach Todd Richards admitted at today's luncheon that Pierre-Marc Bouchard is indeed a longshot to start the season and will be heading to Denver tomorrow to get cleared to begin practicing by concussion specialist James Kelly.

This is not shocking news at all, and more on that in a sec.

Also, Kent Youngblood has returned as my backup, and he has entered the Twitterverse as well. Follow Kent at www.twitter.com/bloodstrib for Wild updates when I am off and Wolves updates when the esteemed Jerry Zgoda is off.

First off, here's a video primer Kent and I filmed today after the media luncheon.

On to the news:

1. If I can't squeeze this into tomorrow's paper, Todd Richards told me last week he hopes to play the guys expected to make the team (i.e. regulars) in four of the six exhibition games played in North America. Obviously, that's subject to change with injuries and things that pop up, but Richards would love to get the guys to jell more in games this training camp.

2. Cuts will happen quickly, with the first round scheduled for next Thursday after the exhibition opener Wednesday night against the Minnesota, I mean, St. Louis Blues. Richards would love to basically have a good idea of his team by the last two North American exhibition games vs. Dan Fritsche and the Columbus Blue Jackets.

3. Bouchard will fly to Denver Saturday in an attempt to get medically clear to essentially allow his heartrate to go above 160. As you know, he's been skating for some time, but he's been pacing himself. The Wild's optimistic that Bouchard can get that medical clearance and be on the ice Sunday or Monday for non-contact skates. Richards said the process will be "baby steps" and how hard he pushes himself will be mostly up to Bouchard.

But Richards admitted that it's probably a longshot to expect Bouchard to start the season. In fact, it's still yet to be determined if he'll travel with the team to Finland. But the Wild continues to be optimistic that Bouchard will be back in the lineup during the early portion of the season, said GM Chuck Fletcher.

Obviously with Bouchard potentially unable to start the year, this may free up another spot because now the Wild has 12 one-way forwards under contract (not including Bouchard or Sheppard) and they'll at least.keep 13 and perhaps 14.

Richards said he'll try different line combinations throughout camp, so maybe Antti Miettinen returns to the Mikko Koivu line or he tries other wingers there like Cal Clutterbuck, Eric Nystrom, Chuck Kobasew, etc.

There's also rookie Casey Wellman.

The Wild made it abundantly clear this morning that if Wellman is not going to get significant minutes on the Wild, he'd be better served playing top-line minutes and No. 1 power play in Houston. The Wild says it will not keep him on the roster if he's going to be running quotes for me in the press box or playing four or five minutes a night. So that sounds to be like he'd have to be a winger on one of the top-3 lines.

If the Wellman or Cody Almond would only be a fourth-liner, I'm betting Robbie Earl has a pretty good opening of making the squad (thanks to James Sheppard ATV ride), or depth center Warren Peters. Fletcher also says Colton Gillies has a "fire in his eyes," Petr Kalus and Matt Kassian can compete for a spot.

Defensively, Clayton Stoner should have the 6 spot locked up, and the Wild will be paying close to attention to youngsters Nate Prosser, Marco Scandella and Justin Falk for the No. 7. There's also former Manchester captain Drew Bagnall, Max Noreau and Tyler Cuma. If the Wild feels there's concerns here, I'm still thinking there could be a trade or free-agent pickup, but Prosser and Scandella both had great rookie camps by all accounts, Scandella came close to making the team last year and Prosser might be a rookie, but he's no kid.

Lots more specifics on all these open roster spots and players fighting for the spots early in camp.

4. Sheppard was seeing the Wild doctors for the first time today since having surgery on his broken kneecap. The Wild hasn't decided yet if it'll suspend him, although I'm starting to lean back to the side of -- they will -- if for no other reason than to save the 800-plus K.

I'm betting they're not happy he put himself in this situation so close to camp, especially after investing in Sheppard by re-signing him when they could have walked away. And the ramifications of this injury are bigger than you may seem. I know the injury has been kind of discounted among us in the media and the fans because of Sheppard's struggles here his first three seasons, but this is a significant blow to the franchise for many reasons.

1) It hurts the depth of the team, especially now if you consider Bouchard may not be available to open the season.

2) Now the Wild has to replace Sheppard externally or by putting a player on the team it didn't anticipate it would, meaning pay another player too.

3) Now the Wild may have to put a player in a role they didn't want to.

4) It hurts Houston because a player likely will be here that would have been there.

5) Every team has a budget, and the Wild's shelling out $56.5 million in real salary BEFORE potentially coming up with two other forwards and one defenseman for the available spots. And now, if you consider real money -- not just that they're less than $2 million from the cap ceiling, Sheppard's 800K being wasted could affect a move down the line that Fletcher could have made because he no longer has that budgeted money or cap space.

6) And it's devasting to Sheppard's already-fragile career.

So even though I've assumed that such a relatively miniscule amount would be paid by the Wild, now I really believe the team has no other choice but to suspend Sheppard. We will see eventually. Again, this is my opinion, and Fletcher says 1) they haven't decided what they're going to do; and 2) they're going to deal with it internally (although I'm thinking the eventual decision won't be too difficult to unearth through a little reporting). 

Where was I in this outline?

Oh, back to 5! Used equipment drive:

The Wild, Let’s Play Hockey and Minnesota Hockey today announced its second annual used hockey equipment drive. The drive will culminate in a public distribution on Sunday, Oct. 10, at Xcel Energy Center from 1-4 p.m.

Berger Transfer will place drop-off boxes throughout the Twin Cities at select arenas and hockey shops, beginning Friday through Wednesday, Oct. 6. On Sunday, Oct. 10, the equipment will be distributed to hockey associations and individuals at Xcel Energy Center from 1-4 p.m. Goalie equipment, as well as sticks and helmets, are in the most need.

The drop-off locations include the following arenas: Burnsville, Woodbury, Super Rink (Blaine), Eden Prairie, Plymouth, Lakeville, Bloomington, Eagan, Highland (St. Paul), St. Thomas (Mendota Heights), Stillwater, Cottage Grove, Maple Grove, Apple Valley, White Bear Lake, Braemar (Edina), Buffalo, North St. Paul, Tartan (Oakdale) and Minnetonka. Westwood Sports (Bloomington and Apple Valley) and Boehm’s (Mendota Heights and St. Paul) are also drop-off locations.
 
In addition, Xcel Energy Center will have drop-off boxes stationed on top of the Xcel Energy Center Box Office for the Wild’s pre-season game on Wednesday. Fans bringing in a piece of equipment on Sept. 22 will receive a discount voucher for any Wild 2010-2011 regular season home game. Vouchers must be redeemed in person at the Xcel Energy Center Box Office.
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