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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Realignment allegedly off; Wild's Swedes reach pinnacle; Wild recoups and Bouchard hurt

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild practice Updated: January 6, 2012 - 10:44 PM

In my Winnipeg gamer about a rivalry being born, I couched realignment a few times in there with the term, "pending NHLPA approval." I got three emails from readers calling me a moron. Well, it was never a done deal, as you can see below...

The National Hockey League announced
today that it will not move forward with implementation of the Realignment
Plan and modified Playoff Format recently approved by the NHL Board of
Governors for the 2012-13 NHL season because the NHLPA has refused to
provide its consent.

“It is unfortunate that the NHLPA has unreasonably refused to approve
a Plan that an overwhelming majority of our Clubs voted to support, and
that has received such widespread support from our fans and other members
of the hockey community, including Players,” said NHL Deputy Commissioner
Bill Daly. “We have now spent the better part of four weeks attempting to
satisfy the NHLPA’s purported concerns with the Plan with no success.
Because we have already been forced to delay, and as a result are already
late in beginning the process of preparing next season’s schedule, we have
no choice but to abandon our intention to implement the Realignment Plan
and modified Playoff Format for next season.”

“We believe the Union acted unreasonably in violation of the League’s
rights. We intend to evaluate all of our available legal options and to
pursue adequate remedies, as appropriate.”

As a result of the League’s decision today, the NHL will maintain its
current alignment and Playoff Format for the 2012-13 season.


Now before you panic, this is the first pawn in a big chess game. The collective bargaining agreement expires before next season. Negotiations are about to begin, according to Gary Bettman, around the All-Star break. You can bet this is just one big piece of leverage NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr wasn't going to just give away. You can bet this will be part of the negotiation. I don't buy yet that realignment is dead for next season.

As for the deadline being because of the NHL schedule, bogus! The NHL schedulemaker was able to book Winnipeg into the league in June because there were several drafts of the schedule -- just like there could be this time. Don't buy that for a sec either.

NHLPA will issue statement soon, but issues with travel and playoff structure are apparently the union's big concern. The playoff structure, I'm not a fan of either. I don't like how two conference have a 4 out of 7 chance of making the playoffs and two conferences have a 4 out of 8.

Anyway, remember this date, because things are bound to get ugly during the upcoming CBA negotiations. Today was the start.

An email I just received from Wild owner Craig Leipold:

"To say I am disappointed in the actions of the nhlpa to deny consent to implement realignment for next season is an understatement. Our fans were universally excited to be playing against midwestern teams in the previous old Norris Division. 

"I'm disappointed for our fans, our employees and our players. It appears everyone wanted this to happen except the leaders of the players union. I pledge to Wild fans to continue to pursue this realignment plan as aggressively as possible." 

Here is a statement from Fehr:

 

“On the evening of December 5, 2011, the NHL informed the NHLPA that they proposed to put in place a four-conference format beginning with the 2012-13 season. As realignment affects Players’ terms and conditions of employment, the CBA requires the League to obtain the NHLPA’s consent before implementation. Over the last month, we have had several discussions with the League and extensive dialogue with Players, most recently on an Executive Board conference call on January 1. Two substantial Player concerns emerged: (1) whether the new structure would result in increased and more onerous travel; and (2) the disparity in chances of making the playoffs between the smaller and larger divisions.

 

In order to evaluate the effect on travel of the proposed new structure, we requested a draft or sample 2012-13 schedule, showing travel per team. We were advised it was not possible for the League to do that. We also suggested reaching an agreement on scheduling conditions to somewhat alleviate Player travel concerns (e.g., the scheduling of more back-to-back games, more difficult and lengthier road trips, number of border crossings, etc.), but the League did not want to enter into such a dialogue. The travel estimation data we received from the League indicates that many of the current Pacific and Central teams, that have demanding travel schedules under the current format, could see their travel become even more difficult. On the playoff qualification matter, we suggested discussing ways to eliminate the inherent differences in the proposed realignment, but the League was not willing to do so.


The League set a deadline of January 6, 2012 for the NHLPA to provide its consent to the NHL’s proposal. Players’ questions about travel and concerns about the playoff format have not been sufficiently addressed; as such, we are not able to provide our consent to the proposal at this time. We continue to be ready and willing to have further discussions should the League be willing to do so.”


 

 

Wild prospect Jonas Brodin showing off his gold medal

Afternoon from Calgary, where the Wild arrived a couple hours ago from its few days up in Banff, Alberta, and I'm probably about to write the world's longest blog.

I'll be on KFAN on Dan Barreiro's show at 5:20 p.m. CT, and also in a bit of a hockeycentric show, I'll be hosting for Paul Allen on KFAN from 9-noon Monday. So get ready for some hockey talk. Getting some good guests lined up.

I'll get into the world junior tournament in a bit, but just some news: Pierre-Marc Bouchard missed the past two practices and is questionable against the Calgary Flames on Hockey Night in Canada with a lower-body injury (appears to be groin). Defenseman Clayton Stoner has been activated off injured reserve and will likely play the Flames, so the Wild's at 23 men with eight defensemen. That means the Wild can't call up a forward, meaning Brad Staubitz, scratched the past two games, will return if Bouchard can't play. Actually, my guess is Staubitz plays regardless.

They'll see how Bouchard feels in the morning, but today, the top line stayed intact, Matt Cullen centered Casey Wellman and Nick Johnson, the Wild united a Darroll Powe-Kyle Brodziak-Cal Clutterbuck line and Warren Peters centered Colton Gillies and Staubitz.

The Flames should be surly thanks to a 9-0 pasting from the Boston Bruins. Chris Butler was a minus-7. Jay Bouwmeester and Miguelito Backlund were minus-5's.

Jarome Iginla, who scored his 300th goal against the Wild and is the all-time leading scorer against the Wild, is one goal from 500, so ..... the Wild's already trailing 1-0. 9:17 p.m. CT puck drop Saturday because of a ceremony to honor my bud Olli Jokinen's 1,000th game.

Thank goodness the Wild only has four more games west of the Central time zone. If there's a game story in Sunday's paper, it'll be a coup.

On Banff, “It seemed like it was a breath of fresh air getting up the air and clearing the head,” coach Mike Yeo said. “It would have been a long couple days to come and sit here after that last game and have a couple days in the hotel thinking about it, so to get there and clear the heads and have two real good practices up there, I feel real good about where we’re at right now.”

Curling was cancelled, but the players went to a hot springs or something.

“Overall, the couple days have been real good for everybody just to reflect on where we’re at after the first half of the season and use that toward where we’re going in the second half,” Yeo said. “There’s a pretty clear sense that No. 1 we have to get back to playing our game and No. 2 is if we do that, we should be a really confident group. It’s not like we’re losing games and we’re playing our game really well. So it’s not like we’re not good enough. There’s things that are preventing us to getting to our game right now mentally and emotionally and hopefully this break can allow us to clear our heads.”

Yeo said the team spent a lot of time together and had very healthy conversations about what it will take to be a tough team to play against.

The Wild built an identity in the first part of the year and slowly with the injuries, that identity vanished. Why? Because players’ identities changed.

Example: Why did Brodziak lead the Wild in goal scoring when he didn’t have to score? But the second players started to drop and he started to feel he had to score, why hasn’t he scored since? The Wild’s 1-7-3 in its past 11. He has one goal in that stretch.

Same with Cullen. Why is Powe, a strong shutdown forward, a minus every night now? Same with Marco Scandella (only as a defenseman).

Players moved into different positions, started to think they had to do more, changed the way they were playing that made them successful and now they’ve forgotten what made them successful as individuals and a team.

I was talking to Yeo about this in the lobby just now. The other thing I truly believe is Wild players started to buy into how good they were. When we were on those two west coast swings in December, every single city we went to, reporters were assigned to do how the heck are the Wild so good stories. The national guys also converged on the team in San Jose after the Board of Governors meetings.

So every city we went to, players are being asked, “Why you so good, why you so good, why you so good?” It’s just natural. Everybody’s telling you you’re so good, you start to think, “Heck, we’re good.”

“It’s easy to get a little, I don’t want to say complacent, but just to forget what you have to put into it,” Yeo said.

Now the Wild’s got to somehow find it back – its game and its swagger. Every team goes through ruts every year. When Boston came and played the Wild last year, I remember talking to an executive from their team about how absolutely terrible they were. They won the Cup.

When Ottawa went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007 and they played the Wild, I remember talking to Bryan Murray during a rough stretch about how bad they were. There’s countless examples of this. Every team goes through this. The key is coming out the other side in a positive way and getting back on track.

This is a new experience for this team. We’ll see if they can do it.

“Times like this can make you stronger,” Yeo said.

The good news is if they can get out of the next 9 out of 12 on the road stretch, they play 18 of their final 29 at home and 10 of their final 14. Trips will be easier. Of the 20 games played in the Pacific and Mountain Time zones, after tomorrow, 16 will be done. The Wild has three trips to Denver and one to Phoenix the rest of the way.

I mentioned in my Mikael Granlund blog yesterday, I think, I attended my first-ever world junior tournament yesterday, and it was a fabulous experience.

I'll write more about it in my Sunday Insider, but the Sweden-Russia game was a great experience. Sweden just dominated. I mean, in a gold-medal game, 39-4 shot advantage after two periods. I've never heard of such a thing in a game like that. I mean, this wasn't Sweden-Latvia.

But on the 58th shot, Mika Zibanejad, the Persian Prince, stole a puck, buried his head and buried a breakaway goal in overtime for a 1-0 lead.

That delivered gold to Wild prospects Johan Larsson, Jonas Brodin and Johan Gustafsson. All three were terrific. Larsson's got more skill than I ever imagined and he works bloody hard. It was good for me to see Brodin. You hear so many good things about him, but then you look at the stat sheet and wonder why the heck he never gets points. The kid skates better than few players I've ever seen. He skated backwards better than many do forwards. He was so poised after a tough game against Finland and he shoots the puck well. And Gustafsson could have gotten rusty with the little action, but he made the save of his life with 30 seconds left.

I talked to the three prospects after the game. I'll have quotes in my Sunday Insider and also my Sunday game notebook from the Flames game. But Larsson made it very clear he is coming to North America next season and his intent is to do everything he can to earn a spot with the Wild. If he doesn't, he'll be in Houston. Brodin also is going to do everything to try to earn a job, but he may need further development in Sweden. As I wrote in today's Granlund piece here, it's either Wild or Sweden most likely for Brodin. If he's not strong enough to play for the Wild, the Wild's likely not putting a 19-year-old in Houston. Remember, he's only 18 now. Gustafsson is a few years away from coming over, and unlike Larsson and Brodin, he's not signed yet.

The fans delivered on an atmosphere standpoint. The Canadians were rooting for Sweden, chanting, "LET'S GO SWEDEN!" Just a really cool experience for me to be at.

Here's some more pics, and check out the midseason package in Saturday's paper. I will also put up a midseason stats pack on the blog Saturday for you to see. Talk to you Saturday after the skates.

 

 

Johan Gustafsson

 

 

Johan Larsson

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