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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Afternoon on this beautiful Saturday here in the Twin Cities. Not a cloud in the minus-8 degree sky.
The Wild practiced down at St. Thomas Academy today since it took the day off Friday in Columbus. The goal today was to reset after its 4-0 beating against the Blue Jackets.
“It looked like we were ready to put it past us,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We had a good, crisp practice out there. Guys were sharp executing. There’s no point dwelling on it, but you certainly do want to use it too at the same time.”
The Sharks took the day off after back-to-back road losses at Pittsburgh and Carolina, and both the Wild and Sharks should expect motivated opponents during Sunday’s 5 p.m. game. I just watched coach Todd McLellan’s postgame news conference here from Raleigh.
He was not a happy camper, saying the team is lacking energy, jump, has been sloppy, not making defensive reads that it should be doing in its sleep. He says it’s either laziness or fatigue and they have to figure out which.
Tough talk from one of the best teams in the NHL, so the Wild may want to buckle up and do the engaging Sunday rather than the reacting because the Sharks will likely come out hard. The Wild plays the Sharks in two of the next three games as it opens a three-game road trip Wednesday in Anaheim. It then plays in San Jose on Thursday.
Josh Harding vs. Antti Niemi Sunday. Zenon Konopka, scratched in the past two games, will center the Wild’s fourth line. In practice Saturday, Yeo rotated in and out Mike Rupp, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine, so one of them will be scratched because Yeo’s plan is to go with the same top three lines of recent games.
That means despite a poor game by the Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley line last night, the three won’t be broken up to start Sunday’s game.
“If we’re going to ask our players to throw that game in the garbage and get refocused and reset, we have to be willing to, too,” Yeo said. He noted the Wild scored four times Thursday against Chicago, so he doesn’t think it’s time to start scrambling his lines based on one clunker.
He said he met with the three forwards today and say they must recognize how they’ve been successful and that’s playing deep in the offensive zone.
“They got away from that bigtime in that game last night,” Yeo said.
Heatley especially was turning pucks over and Yeo said he met with him specifically about that.
“He’s a goal scorer at heart and that’s part of what’s made him successful, but at the same time, when you’re focused on that, you can lose sight on some of the things you need to do to be effective. Even talking to him this morning, I told him the strength of his game lately was playing in the offensive zone, below the top of the circles and around the net and ‘you’re just hurting yourself. The more turnovers, the more time you’re in the defensive zone.’”
Yeo said Coyle, who has three goals in 19 games, is just not playing with the same “confidence level” as last year, but “this was the best he’s looked in practice in a lot time. I talked to him this morning and I think he’s just playing with his head right now too much. He’s got to go out there and remember what makes him successful, and that’s winning battles, being strong on the puck, aggressive on the forecheck and being hard around the net. He’s got to focus on those things.”
Coyle has won 34 percent of his faceoffs this season. In the past seven games, he has won 23 percent and lost eight of nine last night. After practice today, Konopka and assistant coach Darby Hendrickson, a former center, worked with Coyle on faceoffs. Konopka has the NHL’s top faceoff winning percentage since he has been in the NHL (65 percent).
“I just told him he has the resources to take a lot of draws in practice against me and Brodzy (Kyle Brodziak). Repetition is, I think, the best thing for him. The more he can take against us, the better he’s going to get. You see it all the time with young players in this league, it takes awhile to adapt to the faceoff circle. You see it throughout the league.”
The best example is Sidney Crosby. His first two years in the NHL, he was at around 45 percent and 49 percent. He has worked hard on draws since, has been above 50 percent every year since and routinely takes the most draws in the NHL.
“I told Charlie if things don’t go well in the circle, don’t reinvent the wheel,” Konopka said. “Just understand what works and what’s your highest percentage to winning that draw.”
Konopka said he talks with Brodziak and Mikko Koivu all the time about faceoffs and “we have to get Charlie more involved with those discussions He’ll be fine.”
And, you know he will.
Coyle said, “Faceoffs are a big part of the game and if I’m not winning them and the team’s not winning, it’s less possession for us, so it’s a huge thing. Definitely something I have work on. I haven’t been the best at it. I just have to get back to being confident in the circle.”
Coyle also said of his line that they’re a bunch of big bodies and they just have to get back to getting down on the forecheck, working the puck down low and on cycles and play in the offensive zone.
“We didn’t do a lot of that last night,” Coyle said.
That’s it for me. No morning skate with the 5 p.m. puck drop Sunday. Remember, if you want to come to the Chalk Talk with Wes Walz and I and attend the Sharks game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.
After taking Tuesday off, the Wild got back on the ice today with back-to-back home/road games coming up Thursday and Friday against Chicago and at Columbus.
The plan for now is to start Josh Harding against Chicago and most likely Niklas Backstrom at Columbus. Obviously, that's subject to change.
Judging by today's practice, Justin Fontaine, scratched in two of the past three games, will get back into the lineup. He skated mostly on the fourth line today with Mike Rupp/Erik Haula and Zenon Konopka and also saw action on the second power-play unit.
Good afternoon from the X. I will be filling in for Paul Allen on Thursday from 9-noon on KFAN (100.3-FM). Guests as of now: The always-entertaining Konopka will be joining at the top of the show to talk about the game against the Blackhawks, actor/comedian Erik Stolhanske during the entire second hour, most likely new Twins pitcher Ricky Nolasco, who coincidentally I happen to know, and former NHLer Ben Clymer.
Rachel Blount will be covering the Blackhawks game and I'll be picking up the team Friday in Columbus.
Also, Sunday's 5 p.m. game, former Wild center Wes Walz and I will be doing another Star Tribune Chalk Talk. Tickets start at $46 and you also get a ticket to that night's game against the San Jose Sharks and can attend the hour chalk talk, which starts at 3:30. For tickets, go to this link.
The big news of the day is center Mikael Granlund, who has missed five of the past six games and three in a row with a concussion, will remain on injured reserve and has essentially been shut down. It sounds like he must have had symptoms working out or after he got on the ice on his own Monday.
"We’re going to keep him off right now," coach Mike Yeo said. "He skated the other day and we’re at the point now where lets just take some time off here and make sure we get this right. ... I just know that we’re not making progress, and so what we’re doing right now, we have to take a different approach."
The Wild worked a bunch on the power play today. It hasn't scored in six games, but in that stretch, it's only 0 for 11. So one issue is because the Wild hasn't drawn a lot of power plays, it's having trouble getting into any kind of rhythm. Today are about moving the puck quicker and having more movement -- basically to stop being so slow and deliberate and predictable.
Earlier in the season, Dany Heatley was taken off the first unit because the Wild didn't want four lefties out there, especially in Heatley's net front/slot position. Heatley was back on the unit today with Charlie Coyle moving to second unit with forwards Fontaine and Nino Niederreiter.
Earlier in the season, the Wild had two good unit and spent a lot of season at or near the top on the power play. It's always tough being on the second unit because unless you're the unit that starts a power play, you're usually only getting 30 or 40 seconds a power play and almost always hopping the board when the puck's been cleared and the team is regrouping. Against Philadelphia the other night, the second unit couldn't even get set up in the zone.
The Wild must do a better job getting pucks through from the point. They're in the bottom half of the league in shot attempts from the blue line, Yeo said, both on the power play and at even-strength.
The Wild has only scored six goals from defensemen this season. Jonas Brodin has four and Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba one each. Other than Brodin, the Wild doesn't have a goal from a blue liner since Dumba scored Oct. 12 against Dallas.
The Wild's defensemen has registered 49 points. To put this in comparison, Chicago defensemen have scored 13 goals and 82 points. Chicago defensemen has 291 shots on goal, Wild defensemen 200.
Obviously, the Wild needs to draw more penalties too. In the past 10 games, the Wild has drawn 22 power plays (2.2 per game) and three or fewer in each. Now, I know the Wild's game has slipped recently and you have to skate and play in the offensive zone to typically draw power plays, but I truly feel the standard of officiating has slipped, too.
We see this all the time in the middle of 82-game seasons. Every game I watch I see clear obstruction and interference penalties go uncalled. Typically in a month or two, we'll see the standard pick back up when GM's and teams complain.
Against Colorado and Philadelphia, the Wild should have drawn more than two combined power plays with the amount of time it spent in the offensive zone.
Lastly, here is Mike Yeo today on Harding being named Third Star for November yesterday:
"He’s been such a huge part of us being able to win games, being able to find our game within games, being able to hang onto leads and doing it in such a confident manner that it breeds confidence to the rest of the group. When you see an empty net and you’ve got a two-goal lead and he dives across the net and makes that save last game, that’s a huge boost of confidence for the rest of the group that you’re going to seal the deal and win that game and that’s the way he’s been. I also think it’s also a compliment to the guys and the way they’ve been playing in front of them. The guys have recognized his efforts and they’ve rewarded him by playing well in front of him."
The last few sentences is a reference to the Wild allowing 23 shots per game in Harding's 14 wins.
Is Harding the Wild's No. 1 goalie, Yeo was asked: "I don’t get into that stuff, but he’s playing like he deserves it, let’s put it this way. We know we also have another No. 1 goalie in Backy. Couple the games he’s playing most recently, if we can get him healthy, he’s basically stolen two games for us, so he’s close to returning to form. We feel that’s a strength of ours that we have two guys that can go out there and give us a great chance to win a hockey game."
Here is Yeo on Fontaine:
"It’s just the way it goes. He’s a first-year guy and he’s still trying to carve his way into the lineup and become a regular. But for a first-year guy, I feel like he’s handled it really well. He’s had different roles, he’s been on the top line, he’s been on the fourth line, he’s been out of the lineup. The bottom line is for him, his game shouldn’t change. Where we put him, we have confidence in him and he should have confidence in himself that he can go out and he can perform the way he needs to and there’s no reason why he can’t. He’s got a good idea of who he is. He’s a smart player, when he’s playing well he’s very strong on the puck and he’s making plays and that’s what we want to see from him."
Do you feel his game slipped? "I think that a couple games before the scratch, yes I would say that. And some of that is that’s it’s not always easy for a younger player like that. Things aren’t going well for the team and all the sudden you find yourself on the fourth line. And certainly it doesn’t take long for the confidence to go a little bit and even just to kind of step up and make a play in those situations. So for him to have the chance to take a step back and watch the game from above and get refocused on his game and what he needs to bring is quite often a good thing."
Join me on the radio Thursday and talk to you again on the blog Friday.
Happy Thanksgiving from the X, where the Wild practiced, including Zach Parise. He lasted the whole thing, every now and then skating up to assistant athletic therapist John Worley to talk about his bum foot.
Parise is officially listed as questionable for Friday's 5 p.m. game against Colorado -- the front of a home and home. It'll be a tough challenge despite the fact the Wild has had Colorado's number for seven years or so -- 31-11-5 in its past 47 and 12-2-2 in its past 16 in Denver.
Coach Mike Yeo wouldn't reveal which goalie would start in goal. Josh Harding practiced and if he's healthy, I'd think he starts if for no other reason than his stellar home record. I'd think Niklas Backstrom starts in Denver.
Center Mikael Granlund has been placed on injured reserve with a head injury (officially upper-body, but I'm not blind), meaning he will miss at least a week or at a minimum three games -- probably more -- after three hard hits in the past eight games.
Granlund took a head shot from Toronto's Nazem Kadri, then took a hard hit four games later from Ottawa's Marc Methot where he crashed into the boards. He missed two games, returned to the lineup last night against Phoenix and was lost 29 seconds into his first shift when he was hit high by rookie defenseman Connor Murphy as Granlund tried to deliver a check.
Yeo said the Wild didn't rush Granlund back.
"To sit here and say in hindsight that I wish he didn’t play, of course," Yeo said. "But when a guy’s cleared to play, what are you going to do? You going to say no? He was cleared to play and obviously cleared to play with the idea that we wanted to be careful and think about the big picture. Sometimes things happen."
Left wing Jason Zucker, who played three games in Ottawa, Winnipeg and St. Louis before being reassigned yesterday to make room for Keith Ballard and Torrey Mitchell, has been recalled and should stay awhile now. Zucker scored twice in Iowa's win last night at Chicago.
He was sent down Wednesday with Darcy Kuemper. They had 3 p.m. flights that were delayed, they arrived for the game vs. the Wolves at 5:30 p.m. with only airport pizza in their stomachs and beat the Wolves. Zucker was pulled off the bus headed to Iowa after the game to go to an airport hotel for sleep, then a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call to fly back to Minnesota because of the Granlund injury.
Zucker's recall doesn't fill the center need though. Charlie Coyle has played better at wing than center, although we all saw in training camp that he has the ability to play the position. He won the second-line center spot outright until spraining his knee. Granlund filled in admirably.
Besides being more of an offensive-threat at wing, Coyle hasn't done well in the faceoff circle. He has won 38 percent of his draws this season. In his last four games predominately at center, Coyle has lost 30 of 43 faceoffs and 15 of 17 the past two games.
So in practice today, Yeo experimented with Justin Fontaine, who has rarely played center in his college or pro career, as second-line center, putting Zucker on the third line and Matt Cooke, goalless since Oct. 12, on the fourth line.
Lines: Parise-Koivu-Coyle; Nino-Fontaine-Pominville; Zucker-Brodziak-Heatley; Cooke-Konopka-Mitchell.
Why Coyle back to the top line as a winger rather than second line as a center?
"The games we've been winning lately, that line has been producing," Yeo said of Parise-Koivu-Coyle. "We were forced into a situation where we had to break it up, but I think what we have to try to do is look at it in a different way and keep that line together and fill some holes elsewhere."
Yeo made clear, "I’ve got no problem putting [Coyle] at center, but I think we have to try to give that line a chance to get back to the type of dominance they were having and the success they were having. Instead of breaking them up, let’s arm those guys with what they need to lead our group. We need people to step up, whether it’s a guy coming into the lineup like Zuck or whether it’s a guy biting off a little more ice time."
On Fontaine moving to center, Yeo said, "Just trying things. Thought we'd give it a shot."
Fontaine is looking forward to the opportunity. He is 2 for 2 on faceoffs this season and doesn't practice them much.
On Zucker on the third line, Yeo said it should elevate that line with Brodziak and Heatley and give it some speed. "Heater had one of his strongest games in a long time last night," Yeo said. "He was strong on a lot of puck battles and had three really good scoring chances and one goal. We'll use this as an opportunity to continue to help him grow his game, get it back to his top level."
By the way, I questioned yesterday why the Wild wouldn't just keep Zucker here and keep Mitchell on IR. Yeo said it was because the Wild needed Mitchell because of his role as a penalty killer.
On Cooke being demoted to the fourth line, Yeo said, "Many times when players haven’t scored in awhile, they start to do things that hurt themselves. We all remember how he scored his goals." He needs to get back to "doing the right things," Yeo said.
Today was a long, long practice with a ton of teaching moments. Yeo interrupted practice a lot with whistles, saying afterward, "there's a couple parts of our game that have slipped and we have to try to get it back."
There is no morning skate Friday because of the early game. I'll be back with you after Yeo's 2:45 p.m. availability. I will also be on Fox Sports North during Friday's Wild Live pregame show and first intermission.
Good afternoon from chilly St. Louieee, where the Wild faces the big, bad Blues on Monday night at the house formerly called, Kiel Center.
Josh Harding, who was hurt in warmups Saturday in Winnipeg, returned to the Twin Cities this morning on a commercial flight from St. Louis. The MRI on his left leg “checked out,” according to Mike Yeo, meaning it was negative. Harding had one more doctor’s appointment this afternoon.
Apparently, Harding sustained some kind of spasms during warmup. It didn’t happen from stepping on a puck, as some reported.
The team is hoping Harding lets them know later today if he thinks he can return to St. Louis on Monday and back up Niklas Backstrom. The reason why this is important?
The Wild’s at the max 23-man roster – 14 forwards (includes Mike Rupp; activated off IR to make him eligible for conditioning stint to Iowa), 7 defensemen, 2 goalies.
Mikael Granlund, who missed yesterday’s game in Winnipeg with an upper-body injury, didn’t practice for the second consecutive practice today. If he can’t play against the Blues, the only way the Wild can call up a forward is to place Torrey Mitchell (leg) on injured reserve. But if Harding can’t back up, Mitchell will be placed on IR so Darcy Kuemper is officially added to the roster to back up.
If that were the case, the Wild will either have to dress seven defensemen (Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba) again like Winnipeg or Rupp, expected to join the Wild after playing five games for Iowa on a conditioning stint that ended yesterday, would have to make his season debut. Reports are Rupp did get better every game but that he looked slow with his skating (not that Rupp’s ever been a speedster, especially with the recent knee issues).
“Everything seems good,” Yeo said of Harding. “If he feels good enough, we’re hoping he can back up tomorrow. But again, comfort wise, his pain tolerance, he has to be able to go out and perform if needed to.”
Yeo hasn’t ruled out Granlund against the Blues, but he hasn’t been on the ice since the Ottawa game. I asked Granlund to talk today, but he didn’t want to. He’s showing no signs of an obvious injury. I asked Yeo if it’s a concussion – he’s played four games since the Nazem Kadri head shot, but he was crushed into the boards by Marc Methot in Ottawa – and Yeo just said it’s an upper-body injury and wouldn’t say when it happened or how or what.
Jared Spurgeon didn’t practice today, but Yeo says he expects him to be in the lineup Monday night.
Yeo said in his mind, Keith Ballard isn’t ready, plus for Ballard to play, two players would have to go on IR.
Yeo said all lineup decisions will be made Monday, and again, a lot has to do with how Harding feels and if he returns to St. Louis.
Beginning Monday in St. Louis, nine of the Wild’s next 11 games come against the top five teams in the Western Conference and the current eighth-place team – in order, Anaheim, Chicago, St. Louis, San Jose, Colorado and Phoenix. Those six teams are a combined 95-26-14 (.756).
Of those teams, the Wild has only played Anaheim and Chicago this season, going a combined 1-1-1.
So by mid-December, we’ll all get a really good sense of the Wild.
The Wild flew to Winnipeg on Friday morning and practiced in the afternoon at MTS Centre. Making a bit of a surprise appearance: goalie Niklas Backstrom and defenseman Keith Ballard, both of whom had been out with injuries.
Backstrom had missed the past four games because of a concussion. He took lots of pucks in practice, as he and Josh Harding got most of the work while Darcy Kuemper watched along the boards. Harding will start Saturday against Winnipeg, coach Mike Yeo said, but he liked what he saw from Backstrom.
"I would say I'm pleased and also happy to see the way he looked out there,'' Yeo said. "He looked quick, he looked slick, but it’s one day, obviously, so we’ll keep an eye going forward.''
Backstrom said he has been skating for a few days and felt "pretty good'' after his first full practice in more than a week. "We'll see how everything feels after this,'' he added.
Ballard had missed seven games because of an upper-body injury. Yeo said he doesn't anticipate Ballard playing Saturday, but he said Ballard has "come a long way'' in the past couple of days and that his status is now upgraded to day-to-day. Ballard has been skating on his own and said he just needs to get used to contact again.
Torrey Mitchell (lower body) is still not with the team but could rejoin it in St. Louis, where the Wild plays Monday.
Other notes from practice:
--Matt Dumba will stay in the lineup. He was paired with Clayton Stoner in practice, and Yeo wants to give him a chance to play two in a row and establish some rhythm. "I liked his game in Ottawa,'' Yeo said. "Certainly when we’re playing in high-pace games he helps us with his skating ability, he helps us with his execution and his puck movement. He’s playing against a team that he’s played a number of times already, including preseason, so hopefully that gives him a little bit of comfort there.''
--Mikael Granlund did not practice but was simply taking a day of rest.
--Ryan Suter came off the ice with a towel to his face, surprising Yeo, who was in the hallway talking to the media when his workhorse defenseman walked past. Suter was smiling and had just a small cut to his lip.
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