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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UPDATE: Jason Zucker was indeed close. He has agreed to a two-year deal. The first year is a two-way, meaning he can be assigned to Iowa and make a minor-league salary and the second year is one-way, meaning he would be paid his NHL salary at either location. Zucker, 22, has 12 points in 47 career NHL games and scored an overtime winner two postseasons ago against Chicago. He underwent what was described as minor knee surgery last February. There were complications, however, and he never played again last season.
Considering the hoopla going on with the MLB All-Star Game, it was quite an impressive turnout when 4,100 fans showed up at Xcel Energy Center for last night’s scrimmage to wrap up the Wild’s development camp.
It’s amazing how much the Wild, particularly Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir, packs into camp between practices, skill and skating work, off-ice workouts, lessons like cooking and (smartness with) social media and fun away from the rink, like paintball, trips to Lake Minnetonka and dinners.
Not shockingly, the prospects are exhausted by week’s end, so imagine the invitees who take part in multiple camps. For instance, Gophers forward Vinni Lettieri, who scored a goal in Green’s 5-3 win over White, took part in the Wild’s camp immediately after taking part in the Rangers’ camp.
There were a number of quality efforts in the two scrimmages.
-- The Wild’s defensemen were real good. Gustav Olofsson, a second-round pick in 2013 who should play for Iowa to at least start next season, was sensational last night. His footwork and ability to get pucks out of trouble in the defensive zone is pretty special.
Louie Belpedio, a third-round pick last month, is pretty smooth. Smart defensively, moves the puck, is pretty swift in traffic with his stickwork. Christian Folin, signed out of college last year, is just solid. Matt Dumba, the Wild’s 2012 first-rounder, has a bomb and plays at full-speed all the time. And Guillaume Gelinas, the Q’s best defenseman last year and signed as a free agent July 1, really stood out with a couple goals – including one last night. He’s got skill and loves jumping up in the play. He’s certainly king of the backcheck, but he has got the wheels to recover.
I thought invitees Zach Palmquist and Alex Gudbranson stood out. Gudbranson is the younger brother of Florida’s Erik Gudbranson, the third pick in the 2010 draft.
-- Alex Tuch, taken 18th overall last month, scored a nice goal last night and he’s big, strong with a bigtime shot.
-- Reid Duke, one of the Wild’s three sixth-rounders last month, scored twice last night and certainly plays with edge. One of his unique goal celebrations included slashing fellow sixth-rounder Chase Lang, then getting into a tussle with him. Duke played on a struggling Lethbridge team last year but still managed 40 points and is expected to have a bigger role there this year.
-- Alex Iafallo, the pride of UMD, scored the winner last night on a sweet penalty-shot goal.
-- The guy who really stood out last night was Zack Mitchell. He showed exceptional patience and a slick wraparound move to score one goal and he was all over the place. Mitchell had 83 points in 67 games for OHL Guelph last year and was signed as a free agent in March. He’ll play for Iowa to start this season.
-- Michael Keranen, who tied for the Finnish Elite League scoring lead last season and voted by the players as the best player in the league, is a terrific playmaker. He helped set up Adam Gilmour’s beauty of a goal last night and showed why the Wild signed him as a European free agent in early June. He’ll be given a good look in training camp. Originally, it looked like if he didn’t make the Wild that he would return to Finland. But it looks like he would now be Iowa bound to start if he doesn’t make the Wild.
Obviously, a lot depends on the injury situation coming out of camp and whether he plays his way onto the team and somebody plays his way off.
-- BY the way, that’s the same thing with the Jordan Schroeder signing. He’ll come in motivated to make the team and try to prove himself. He’ll have to earn his way on. But if you look at the depth chart, all the bubble players may be at the mercy of the health and play by guys in front of him. We all know how fast and skilled Schroeder is. Wild will want him to really add some grit to his game in September.
-- Free-agent goalies Michael Shibrowski and Brandon Whitney looked pretty good in the scrimmages. Draft pick Kaapo Kahkonen struggled pretty visibly in both scrimmages, but he is 17 and has had to make three round-trip flights from Finland in the past six weeks. But he’s pretty raw.
-- Draft pick Alexandre Belanger, a goalie, didn’t play last night because of soreness. Same with invitee Olivier Archambault. Brooks Bertsch of St. Cloud State didn’t play again after getting rocked with an open-ice hit by Hunter Warner (keep your head up with this tough player on the ice) in Friday’s scrimmage. Mario Lucia didn’t play yesterday because he had to return to class at Notre Dame. Louie Nanne also didn’t take part in camp because he’s in class at RPI.
-- Things will really start to quiet down now. The Wild still plans to sign another goalie to a two-way deal to play in Iowa or go up and down between Iowa and Orlando of the ECHL.
It also wants to sign another defenseman preferably to a two-way deal. Nate Prosser is starting to get nibbles from other teams and I do think the Wild is still debating internally whether or not to sign Prosser, the good soldier who proved mightily valuable last season when the Wild sustained blue-line injuries to Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Keith Ballard and Clayton Stoner.
As the Wild showed last season, it’s very easy to think you’re deep on the blue line and then lose two or three players at once. The Wild likes its blue-line depth, but that depth doesn’t include a lot of players with NHL experience (Jon Blum and Stu Bickel are really the only ones as of now).
Prosser proved last year you can easily throw him in and feel comfortable. The question is whether the Wild would be willing to sign Prosser to a one-way contract. That’s what he still wants if he’s going to re-sign in Minnesota. At some point soon, if Prosser is offered a concrete two-way from someone, he may need to pounce though. As I mentioned the other day, there’s only so many so-called “veterans” teams can sign that can play in the minors if those players don’t make the big club. And those “veteran” roster spots are quickly filling up on AHL rosters.
The debate internally, I think, is the Wild is still trying to make a trade for a defenseman before training camp. So if you sign Prosser to a one-way and then acquire another one-way contract, you could be blocking out kids like Christian Folin or Matt Dumba or maybe even have to put a one-way like Prosser in the minors (if he were not to be claimed off waivers).
So stay tuned on all this. Hopefully everything works out for Prosser. One of the nicest players I have ever covered and my feature on him here was still one of my favorite stories I wrote last season.
-- Restricted free agents Darcy Kuemper, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine and Jason Zucker remain unsigned. Qualifying offers tendered last month expire today at 4 p.m. CT. That really means little though.
A qualifying offer is just the mandatory offer that a team has to make in order to maintain rights to a player. At 4 p.m. today, the qualifying offer is technically no longer on the table, so a team could theoretically lower the offer or cut the AHL salary back for example. Teams don’t typically do that because it just makes negotiating more of a chore and potentially uglier.
I would assume Zucker is close. I also would be shocked if Fontaine gets to his Aug. 1 arbitration date. I think both sides pretty much agree on what the number will be on a one- or two-year deal. By the way, if it does get to arb, I wouldn’t expect a lot of hoopla surrounding Fontaine … since his arb date has been scheduled the same day as PK Subban!
But it won’t get to arb.
As for Kuemper and Niederreiter, I think it takes awhile. Both are pretty complicated situations.
Kuemper came in last year and saved the Wild’s bacon until he started to struggle and then get hurt. My guess is his agent also feels he has a lot of leverage with the Wild’s uncertain goalie situation regarding the health of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. Also, if you remember history, the Wild had a lot of trouble even getting an entry-level deal done with Kuemper the first go-around. So stay tuned here because it would not shock me if we’re still talking about an unsigned Kuemper next month.
In terms of Niederreiter, it’s also not easy to do comparables here. How do you project out exactly what he will be the next few years when he came to Minnesota without any shred of real stats because he was buried on the fourth line on Long Island and then spent all of 2013 in the minors? He showed glimpses of what he could be last season with 14 goals while playing basically every role, from left wing to right, to top line, second line and checking line.
He was also the Game 7 hero (bad word to use in sports, I know) against Colorado, scoring two goals on pure snipes, including the OT winner and setting up Spurgeon’s tying goal in the waning minutes of the third period.
As GM Chuck Fletcher told me last week, his preference would be to sign Niederreiter to a two- to four-year deal, although my guess is at the end of the day, it’ll be a two-year bridge contract. This way, Niederreiter gives himself the ability to pile up numbers the next two years and then tries to hit a homer on his next contract.
-- I’ll be filling in for Paul Allen next Tuesday and Wednesday from 9-noon on KFAN. Folin, who is heading back to Boston to train, may be one of my guests. I’ll try to talk a little hockey both days, but in the dog days of summer, it’ll be pretty hard to justify all-hockey shows. So there will be a lot of Vikings, Twins talk, etc. I’m also going to my first-ever Minnesota United FC game Saturday, so I’m sure we’ll have a futbol guest or two.
Musician Eric Hutchinson, who just was in town playing Oake on the Water at Maynard’s and then the Basilica Block Party, will be coming on one of the days. He’s a great guy and a sports fanatic – a self-proclaimed fantasy baseball and football expert. I’ll also try to get one other surprise, well-known musician on one of those days who’s also a sports fanatic and has a concert in town in the upcoming days.
Also, actor/comedian/SuperTrooper Erik Stolhanske may join me in studio one day. So, the shows will go beyond sports, which won't surprise anybody who knows me.
Most players and … all coaches were present and accounted for at Monday’s practice.
Hey, you never know after Sunday night’s meltdown at the X. The New York Islanders snapped an NHL-record 380 consecutive games of being down three goals or more without winning. That streak dated back to 1994.
In the social mediasphere and blog and article comments, coach Mike Yeo is under the gun. Today, Leslie Frazier was fired by the Vikings. I asked Yeo about that and how tough this is that eyes are starting to zero in on him.
“I feel bad for Leslie,” Yeo said. “I’m not a football guy, so I don’t know the ins and outs of that. But I do know he is a great human being. That’s part of it. Same as our team, same as everything else, I want our guys to look at me and say that’s how we’re going to deal with this. It’s adversity. That’s fine. But come to the rink the next day and you work a little harder.”
Sunday was the Wild’s fifth consecutive loss as it fell to 10th in the West heading into Tuesday’s New Year’s Eve 5 p.m. showdown with the big, bad St. Louis Blues. Remember, this 5-11-1 freefall down the standings began with a 3-0 loss at St. Louis on Nov. 25. That was the game Zach Parise had a bogus goal disallowed because of a high-stick (the shot wasn’t even over the cross-bar, so how could the puck be tipped with a high-stick?) in the first minute and the game the Wild actually outshot St. Louis 12-0 in the third period before Alex Steen scored an empty-netter.
It’s been downhill ever since. The Blues are real banged up but are 4-0-2 in their past six road games. Steen won’t play Tuesday, nor will Roman Polak or Jordan Leopold. David Backes (upper body) is skating in the optional practice going on now at the X, so his status as of now is questionable. He didn’t play in Sunday’s overtime win over Dallas, a game in which stud defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk scored the OT winner a game after scoring a shootout winner in an exhilarating game against Chicago.
Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon didn’t practice today. Remember, he missed much of the second period against the Rangers last week, was tripped up badly last night against the Islanders and missed part of the second. Coach Mike Yeo said it was just maintenance, but just in case, the Wild called up Jon Blum from Iowa with Clayton Stoner also hurt.
Yeo indicated that there is a chance Blum makes his Wild debut even if Spurgeon can play. If that were to happen, it’d likely be for Nate Prosser.
Blum, 24, was signed to a two-way contract last offseason and has played 91 games for Nashville.
Yeo said if Blum plays, he should add experience, composure in his own end, he makes a good first pass and should bring consistency.
With 22 players, Yeo said the Wild may call up a forward later.
Yeo said today’s practice was “understandably not joyous and chipper. But as practice wore on, we had some more life and had some more talk. Certainly we put the work in.”
Injured Zach Parise watched from the bench in workout clothes and sneakers.
He said viewing the tape again just reaffirmed the issues the last half of the game in an eventual 5-4 loss.
“You just lose some of the good things you did,” Yeo said of seeing the late mistakes. “For a team that’s struggling with confidence, there’s opportunities and things that are there that you would like to be able to grab onto. If we were able close that game out, you could talk about the way we were scoring goals and creating chances, some of the things that were ailing us before this last stretch.”
But Yeo said some new problems have crept in. He said the positive that the Wild feels it should be able to rectify these mistakes because it’s been a “very, very strong team in our own zone,” so it should have the confidence to get that back very quickly.
Yeo said the Wild just has to get back to being better in its own zone after a series of bad decisions and reads Sunday.
Again, I just think this team is in between in so many areas. It’s relying on three 21-year-old’s among its top-6 forwards. Mikael Granlund has had a tough last two games after two great games. There are times in games when Charlie Coyle is dominant and strong on pucks and times where he takes too long to make a decision or is easily knocked off a puck.
The epitome of good and bad last night was Nino Niederreiter, who had a goal and assist but was responsible for losing Thomas Hickey on the 3-3 goal early in the third.
These kids will get it, but they’re young and the good news is they want to get better. Every practice, the three of them are the last off the ice as they work with Andrew Brunette and Darby Hendrickson. But you can’t just magically snap your fingers and make them polished. It takes time.
It’s not just the kids. After Justin Fontaine made it 4-4 last night, the Wild let Kyle Okposo into its zone too easily. Then when Jonas Brodin went into the corner with him, Matt Cooke should have hung back seven or eight feet off the boards to create a layer. He didn’t, instead opting to go in for a check. When the puck took a funny bounce, Thomas Vanek was able to walk out with no Wild player between the boards and the net.
Josh Harding couldn’t smother the puck and Okposo beat the Wild to the net for the rebound.
The Wild just doesn’t usually give up goals like that.
The second goal by Cal Clutterbuck that turned the game around, Yeo said the Wild – Granlund, Stephane Veilleux, Torrey Mitchell, Marco Scandella and Spurgeon -- was in “borderline panic” mode. They were exhausted, running around and made bad decisions, exemplified best by Veilleux getting the puck six feet in front of the net and just freezing before turning it over moments before the goal.
“Every game against every team there are times in a game where you have spend a long shift in your own zone, but you have to be able to defend it,” Yeo said, adding that’s when you have to stay within your structure, keep things to the outside and simplify.
The Wild has given up 24 goals the past five games, has scored eight goals the past two and lost them both. This is not a team that is built to go run and gun. If it doesn’t find a way to get back to its defensive foundation, a lot like that 2-0 game earlier this month against Philadelphia, this losing streak will continue to grow.
The big thing now is finding a way to rebound against the Blues.
"Learn from it, tweak the minor mistakes that happened and get ready for [Tuesday]," Cooke said. "That’s the whole thing in this world as a professional athlete. You can’t let the highs get too high, and you can’t get the lows get too low. If you do that, you can usually find a pretty good measure of where to be and how to play.
"We all understand there’s a desperation level that has to be there [Tuesday night], but it’s not going to help us by fretting over last night. You can learn from it, but you can't hang onto it until tomorrow night."
I’ll have more on the losing streak, Yeo’s job security and whether maybe a trade is on the horizon to shake things up in Tuesday’s paper.
Defenseman Keith Ballard did not accompany the Wild to our nation's capital this morning.
He will miss the two-game trip that starts Thursday against the Capitals and continues in Raleigh on Saturday with an upper-body injury. Coach Mike Yeo said it is in no way related to the concussion that kept him out of seven games recently and that the team has gotten Ballard checked out and it doesn't believe he'll be sidelined "long-term."
But he was in a lot of pain, Yeo said, so the team obviously left him back. Ballard was back for three games and had three assists before getting hurt again.
With the Wild in need of a right D against the Capitals, Nate Prosser will get the call. Prosser has two assists in five games and is plus-3.
He played well during a recent four-game stretch before being removed again because of the return of Ballard and Jonas Brodin on the same night against Montreal.
Coach Mike Yeo said Prosser's play warrants him getting back in and this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Matt Dumba's next game would be his 10th -- meaning his three-year contract kicks in.
Against an intimidating Caps lineup with a lights-out league best power play, Yeo said the Wild needs Prosser, who is a solid penalty killer.
Carson McMillan was reassigned.
The Wild has won six of seven. It's looking for its fourth consecutive win. It has won three in a row twice previously without winning that fourth straight, so there's one goal for Thursday.
The Wild is 1-5 all-time at Washington, being outscored 14-4 in the five losses. Its lone win was Nov. 21, 2002, by a 4-3 score.
The Caps have the best power play and best penalty kill in the NHL. It has given up one power-play goal in the past 10 games and scored four power-play goals in a 6-2 win over the Islanders on Tuesday.
So big challenge. The Wild has the second-best power play in the NHL.
"Our power play's been very good this year, too, so we should take it as a chanllenge that it’s us against them," Yeo said. "Likewise our penalty kill, it’s a good opportunity to go out there and prove we can continue to go in the right direction. It'll be a challenge. First and foremost, we have to be focused on staying out of the box."
Ryan Suter is coming off his best game in a long time. Two assists in 30-plus minutes and great defensively.
"Some of the plays he made, just watching it, you can't help but marvel," Yeo said.
I talked to Dany Heatley about being on the fourth line. That will be in Thursday's notebook in the paper, as well as a feature on the always fun Nate Schmidt, the former Gophers star D who has played 11 games and is on Washington's top defense pair with Mike Green.
Fun story to write. I also have a few interesting notes that'll be in Friday's game notebook.
Same forward lines against the Caps as Tuesday against Calgary. I didn't ask about the goalie, because we know Josh Harding's in net.
Be prepared, I think this Sunday column will be another blog Q&A mailbag. I will post a blog in the morning asking for questions.
I will be on KFAN at 4:15 p.m. CT and on Fox Sports North's pregame show and first intermission on Thursday. Remember, with the radio conflict with the Vikings, the Wild will be on 107.9 FM Thursday.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, expected to be very active in the free-agent market, got the ball rolling today when they acquired goaltender Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings for former University of North Dakota standout Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and a conditional second-round pick.
The Wild, as reported here Saturday, were in the mix for Bernier with the Maple Leafs and Flyers. The Kings were looking for a top prospect from the Wild and at least Darcy Kuemper, sources say.
The Wild continues to talk contract with Niklas Backstrom. He can become a free agent July 5, but the Wild has also been investigating trade options. Remember, salary-cap space is limited as of now. The Wild technically has about $6 million available to spend this summer (that's before potentially re-signing Backstrom, Cal Clutterbuck and Jared Spurgeon), so it's clear the Wild will need to make some trades or execute some buyouts in order to free up more flexibility.
For more on that, see this report.
Things should start to heat up as next Sunday's draft in Newark approaches. GM Chuck Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr are available to talk about the draft Monday.
By the way, I will be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN Monday and Tuesday from 9-noon.
Actor/comedian/Super Trooper Erik Stolhanske will be sitting in with me Tuesday, which will be a hoot.
On these days, I'll have Kevin Falness joining from the Wild Road Tour, likely Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, Matt Cullen, St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, Vikings sackster Jared Allen, Star Tribune baseball writer Lavelle E. Neal the Third, Fox Sports North's Jamie Hersch and Ben Clymer and some other surprises as well.
The Wild hosts the Detroit Red Wings late this afternoon at 5 p.m. at the X.
Jason Zucker will make his season debut, Johan Larsson his NHL debut. This puts five players 22-and-under in the Wild lineup tonight -- backup goalie Darcy Kuemper is 22, Zucker is 21, Larsson and Mikael Granlund are 20 and Jonas Brodin is 19.
I will be on Fox Sports North's Wild Live at 4:30 p.m. today and also during the first intermission around 5:40ish.
Here is my Sunday column on how Kevlar socks should be made mandatory in the NHL. Only a handful of Wild players wear em, and Mike Rupp, in reaction to the awful Erik Karlsson injury in Ottawa, decided to try them against Colorado. He liked the feel and plans to continue.
Remember, at 11 a.m. on NBC, there will be a pretty moving piece on the relationship Jack Jablonski has with Vikings star Adrian Peterson.
Good morning from Chateau Russeau, where for a rarity, I didn't have to be at a morning skate. Because of the early game, the players didn't go down to the X today, so I can't give you the lines so many of you are curious about. We will talk to coach MIke Yeo at 3 p.m., so I will blog and tweet them soon after.
Niklas Backstrom vs. Petr Mrazek tonight. Mrazek is a 21-year-old Czech who tore up the AHL during the lockout and won his only start of the season vs. St. Louis.
To guess lines, one we know. After combining for two goals in the shootout loss to Colorado on Thursday, you know Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Dany Heatley will remain intact.
From there, it's just a guess because Pierre-Marc Bouchard was sick yesterday and likely won't play today and because Yeo will have to choose one other forward to come out.
My guess is Zucker slots right into a line with Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi because Torrey Mitchell filled in there yesterday.
The other line in practice was: Mikael Granlund-Kyle Brodziak-Cal Clutterbuck in practice. So if that stays the same, perhaps Yeo just slots Larsson onto the fourth line with Mike Rupp and Zenon Konopka and sits Mitchell? Or perhaps he plays Mitchell and has Larsson center the fourth line with Rupp. I'd think Rupp plays because he scored last game and was the forward Yeo pretty much chose to get more ice time once Clutterbuck left the game. Remember also, Konopka took a bad penalty against the Avs and Yeo made his displeasure known by not giving Konopka another shift.
Still, my guess is that Mitchell sits.
The only caveat to all this is if the club isn't comfortable playing a banged up Clutterbuck, who did feel better yesterday but was having issues with peripheral vision in the second period of the Colorado game. That's why he left the game.
Again, despite Brodziak's rough start to this season and tough shift after the Mikko Koivu go-ahead goal the other night, I can't see the only right-shot center being scratched. He comes in handy on defensive-zone right-circle draws.
Funny tweet, by the way, from Konopka yesterday at @zenonkonopka: "I think that Jonas Brodin should get some serious consideration for the Calder trophy (rookie of the year), side note- I may adopt the kid"
OK, that's it. I'll update blog after we talk to Yeo.
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