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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The day after Tuesday's deflating 4-3 shootout loss to Edmonton, the Wild spent much of Wednesday's practice at Braemar Arena working on its power play. It also worked on something more nebulous but equally important: developing the chemistry that coach Mike Yeo said his team is struggling to find.
Since the personnel shift that occurred at the trade deadline--when the team shed fourth-liner Torrey Mitchell and gained forwards Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick--the Wild is 0-1-2, including Tuesday's clunker against one of the league's worst teams. Yeo said that rebuilding team chemistry with those new pieces will happen with repetition, and he has impressed upon his players that working toward that goal is critical.
Yeo did not make any changes to his line combinations in Wednesday's practice, though he said he would reevaluate that Thursday morning as the Wild prepares for Thursday night's home game against the New York Rangers. He did say that Darcy Kuemper will get the start in goal.
"When we made the trade, the first thing I said to the group was, 'We've got work to do now,''' Yeo said. "The work is not skating up and down the ice. It's not watching video. We do that stuff all the time. The work is building chemistry. The work is, you're almost starting from scratch again to build your team game.
"We've got different guys in different roles now, and different positions. So that’s our task. That’s up to us as coaches to make sure all our players have an understanding of what their role is, but also to players, the only way to build chemistry is to go out and do the things your teammates are expecting you to do, and know they're doing it for you. And that’s when it happens.
"The harder you work at it, the quicker it comes. The players know we have to keep working at it. We're not that far off.''
Forward Zach Parise--who was perturbed Tuesday by what he saw as a lack of energy and intensity as the Wild lost a three-goal lead--said he does not think chemistry is an issue. He described Tuesday's loss as "a weird game'' and "an off night,'' saying he does not think it is indicative of a problem.
"I don’t think there's a chemistry problem at all. That’s just my opinion,'' Parise said. "I thought we played a very good game against St. Louis. We had a lot of opportunities to win in Dallas. Then we played a bad game last night.
"Everyone wants to search for solutions. Really, we just played a bad game. That's it. That's why it's important to look at the big picture. I know when you lose a couple, it's easy to jump on things. In all reality, we're fine.''
The Wild spent time Wednesday working on 4-on-3 and 5-on-3 situations. They failed in both of those at two critical points of Tuesday's game, and Yeo said he liked the puck movement he saw in practice.
"We're still trying to build chemistry with those guys, the same way we are with our lines,'' he said. "When you add a couple new players, it obviously has an impact on line combinations, and there's going to be an adjustment there. Likewise with the power play, the more we can get out there and work these things in practice, just getting the reps and getting out there, knowing where guys are, knowing their tendencies, knowing where their sticks are going to be and reading off each other, it's going to help more and more.''
After a pair of intense back-to-back games at Dallas and St. Louis, Wild coach Mike Yeo predictably gave most his big-minute players a mandatory practice off.
With the Wild near the start of 20 games in the final 37 days of the season, I'd expect a lot of this down the stretch as Yeo weighs the importance of rest vs. work. I was shooting the breeze with a coach the other day and he too was saying the most important thing this time of year is rest.
Besides keeping players fresh, rest, the coach said, is the most critical thing when trying to avoid injuries down the stretch. Scheduled to practice today for the Wild were Erik Haula, Cody McCormick, Nate Prosser, Keith Ballard, Mike Rupp, Justin Fontaine, Clayton Stoner, Ilya Bryzgalov and Darcy Kuemper.
Couple housekeeping items:
1. The final Star Tribune Chalk Talk with Wes Walz and I is Tuesday night prior to the Oilers-Wild game. If you want to come to the Chalk Talk and attend the game, tickets are at www.wild.com/chalktalk.
2. I will be hosting a live Star Tribune chat right here at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Please join.
3. On Wednesday, from 12-3, I will be co-hosting Common's show with Brandon Mileski on KFAN (100.3-FM). Lots of hockey talk, which is the best kind of talk.
4. If you missed, here's David La Vaque's article on Minnesota Mr. Hockey, Avery Peterson, a Wild draft pick.
The Wild, 0-1-1 in its past two, hosts the Oilers, who have won two of their past three, in the second game of its four-game homestand Tuesday night at 7. The Wild is 20-2 in its past 22 home games against the Oilers and 24-11-2 all-time against them at home.
Oilers coach Dallas Eakins said today that goalie Viktor Fasth and defenseman Oscar Klefbom will debut on the Oilers' four-game road trip. Eakins didn't necessarily say Minnesota, I don't think, and the Oilers are hitting the road this afternoon for four games.
If Klefbom plays vs. the Wild, it'll be the NHL debut for the 2011 first-rounder. He's one of Jonas Brodin's best buds.
Fasth, if he plays, it'll be his Oilers debut after being acquired from Anaheim last Tuesday -- the day Bryzgalov was traded from Edmonton to Minnesota. If Fasth plays over Ben Scrivens against the Wild, it'll be Fasth's first game since Nov. 18. He's been hurt all year. He won 15 games as a rookie for the Ducks last year.
Kuemper is expected to start against the Oilers.
For the Wild, Matt Cooke is slated to play his 1,000th game. He'll become the 286th NHL player to play in 1,000 games and the fourth to do so while wearing a Wild uniform.
Keith Carney, Andrew Brunette and Matt Cullen were the others. With his family on hand, Cooke will be honored before Tuesday's game with the customary silver stick from the Wild and a crystal from the NHL. NHL official Jim Gregory will be on hand from the league.
Cooke, 35, has collected 162 goals and 384 points, a plus-61, 2,013 hits and 1,120 penalty minutes in 999 regular-season games over 15 years. He ranks 10th among active players in hits, 13th in penalty minutes and 28th in games. He has played another 97 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009.
Also, captain Mikko Koivu is now up to 435 points, putting him two from tying and three from passing Marian Gaborik to become the Wild’s all-time leading scorer. Koivu has 38 points in 49 games against Edmonton, tied for his most against any opponent.
Talk to you after the morning skates Tuesday and again, please join my 2 p.m. Star Tribune chat.
Afternoon from MSP, where I’m about to hustle through this blog to get to my flight for Dallas.
Finally, after four off-days, the Wild will play Saturday night for the first time since Monday. Unusual break in the schedule and coach Mike Yeo said today he’s “excited to put to action” the work the Wild did this week.
Saturday night will be Mike Modano Night in Dallas. I wrote a feature on Modano for Saturday’s paper. His No. 9 is being retired by the Stars/North Stars franchise. Star-studded event (Norm Green will be there!) with a golf outing, private dinner tonight and then a ceremony tomorrow that’s supposed to be off the charts.
There’s a “green carpet” event as guests arrive. Fans are encouraged to show up three hours before the game with the ceremony starting 90 minutes before puck drop.
So I encourage you to read Saturday’s story.
The Wild is 1-13-5 in its past 19 in Dallas since March 21, 2003. The Wild snapped a 16-game winless streak there last season but has lost two there since, including arguably the worst game of this season Jan. 21.
The Wild’s feeling much better about its game since, is 14-4-2 this calendar year and has won five in a row.
Darcy Kuemper will make his 16th consecutive start. He is 11-2-2 in 16 starts since Jan. 7 (one no-decision) with a 1.95 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.
Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick are also expected to make their Wild debuts. Moulson looks really good on that line with Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle (for the lines, see yesterday’s blog), by the way.
“We’re going to a building that typically we haven’t performed well in,” said Yeo, saying he wants his team ready for a good, intense game against a Stars team playing well right now.
During the Wild’s hiatus, the eighth-place Stars have pulled within five of Minnesota, ninth-place Phoenix within six.
Yeo doesn’t want to look past Saturday, but he doesn’t want Ilya Bryzgalov just sitting around either, so he said there’s “certainly a chance we put him in vs. St. Louis” on Sunday.
That’ll be a tough game for Minnesota. The clock springs forward after Saturday’s game, so the Wild plays in Dallas the night before and loses an hour on the way back. St. Louis plays in Denver also Saturday, but an afternoon game, so the Blues should be in Minnesota before the puck drops on the Wild’s game.
We had another fun one-minute press scrum with Bryzgalov today.
Q: How much are you looking forward to starting Sunday?
A: We practice to play in the game.
Q: How excited are you to play in front of the home fans?
A: Yeah, sure.
Q: Feel more comfortable in practice?
A: Yeah, better and better.
Q: Any superstitions or routines?
Maybe he just feels he’s been burned by the media before, so why bother? The Oilers writers say he was standoffish at the start of his tenure there, but he slowly but surely got better and became very cooperative.
He already had a Wild-esque mask today. Paul Deutsch, the gent who was the emergency goalie during warmups that one game a few years back, took Bryzgalov’s Oilers mask and wrapped a vinyl emblem around it with the BRYZ on the front. Looks pretty good.
Bryzgalov said he’s working toward getting his own painted mask.
Kuemper said Bryzgalov has been cool thus far.
On how he thinks playing time will be divvied ahead, Kuemper said, “I’m not sure how it’s going to work. That’s up to coaches. Things have been going well. I’ll take it game by game. Obviously I like getting out there and playing, so every opportunity I have, I’ll cherish it to the best of my ability.”
Clayton Stoner is excited to have McCormick on the team. They’ve been in two fights and “he’s a tough customer.” In Buffalo in October, McCormick bloodied Stoner’s nose during a scrap.
Talk to ya Saturday from Dallas.
Wild newcomers Matt Moulson, Cody McCormick and Ilya Bryzgalov, wearing his old Oilers gear, practiced for the first time with their new teammates and met with the media in person for the first time this afternoon.
The mood was tremendous around the Wild today, Zach Parise said.
“You could tell in the locker room before, and definitely on the ice,” he said.
Moulson and McCormick provided some good color on their day yesterday. Coincidentally, they were sitting side by side eating lunch outside at Jacksons, which is the restaurant attached to the Westin in Tampa, on Wednesday watching TSN’s TradeCentre on NHL Network when McCormick got a text from the Wild’s Jason Pominville asking if it’s true they were traded to Minnesota.
McCormick said it caught both off guard, so after doing “some digging” with their agents, they found out it was true.
Moulson knew he was all but guaranteed to be traded during the Sabres’ road trip, so he said he tried to pack as much of his life and clothes as possible into two bags. His wife will ship the rest from Buffalo.
Moulson and McCormick were both very complimentary about their time in Buffalo but are “real happy to be a part of this,” said McCormick.
Today was about meeting new teammates, learning the details of the Wild’s systems and getting to know the area. Moulson and McCormick landed at 10:30 a.m. and practiced by 12:30 p.m. Bryzgalov got in last night.
Moulson and McCormick will make their Wild debuts Saturday in Dallas (coincidentally, their second straight games in Dallas because that’s where the Sabres last played) and Bryzgalov will likely start his first game in a Minnesota sweater Sunday night at home against the St. Louis Blues.
I’ve made you wait long enough. The much-anticipated lines:
Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Matt Moulson-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Nino Niederreiter
Dany Heatley-Erik Haula-Cody McCormick/Justin Fontaine
If you assume Haula will continue to center the fourth line and consider the fact that coach Mike Yeo indicated that McCormick will play Saturday, it appears as if Fontaine will be the odd man out at least for Saturday.
It'll be interesting to see Yeo's shootout lineup. Moulson is 7 for 12 this year (4th in the NHL) and 13 for 25 in his career. Yeo's 1-2-3 when they're in the lineup together is usually Parise, Koivu and Pominville. Parise and Koivu are each 3 for 9 this season and Pominville is 3 for 8. Parise has the second-most shootout goals than anybody in the NHL (35 for 78). Koivu is sixth n the NHL at 33 for 79. Pominville is tied for 21st at 21 for 55.
As GM Chuck Fletcher said Wednesday, the Wild’s goal is to have four deep lines and 1A and 1B power-play units.
We saw that today:
The units had interchangeable pointmen with Ryan Suter-Jason Pominville and Jonas Brodin-Jared Spurgeon. The three forwards were: Parise-Granlund-Heatley and Moulson-Koivu-Coyle.
“If you have two strong units, then you’re a much more dangerous team to play against, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Yeo said.
As Cooke and Parise told me today, what they love about the Wild’s depth now is that Yeo will have options. If there are injuries, if lines aren’t going, Cooke said Yeo can mix and match and “it kind of guarantees us two scoring threat lines.”
Yeo on his lines: “I liked the look of them before we went out on the ice and I liked the look of them after we came off the ice, too. I thought there was real good energy in our practice today. Obviously guys are excited. We felt really good about our team and where we were at going into this trade deadline and we feel that we’re a strong team now, we’re a deeper team. So we’re excited to put it to work now.”
And that’s what Yeo told the players before practice. He welcomed the trio of newcomers but told the group, “now the work starts.”
Parise and every player echoed the coach, saying it’s time to deliver these next 20 games in 37 days that begin Saturday.
“This is a tough conference that we play in,” Yeo said. “We feel that we’ve been getting better and have been narrowing the gap. This is another strong move to put us to another level, we believe. This is a great opportunity for us, but the work has to be put in. We’ve got to work now to build chemistry, we’ve got to work to make sure that we got everybody in the right roles and we’ve got to make sure that we’re working to continue to build as a team.”
Yeo, who used to be an assistant with Pittsburgh, said of Moulson, “Always a guy that you notice every game, finds a way to get chances, finds a way to be a factor in and around the net. And obviously he has the ability to put the puck in the net. But there’s more to his game than that. He’s a hard-working guy, he fits the identity that we have here, he’s going to complement the players that he’s going to play with very well. So it’s a guy we were excited to grab, that’s for sure.”
On McCormick: “I’m expecting that he’ll play in Dallas, give him a real good opportunity to get in and get comfortable with our game. And I would like to not just put him in for one game and take him out. I want to see what he can do here. I want to give him a chance to get comfortable with his game. He’ll get that opportunity this weekend. :
On Bryzgalov: “[Darcy] Kuemper has been playing great, but at the same time we need to protect him a little bit. And obviously Backy isn’t at 100 percent and he’s battled and we give him an unbelievable amount of credit for the way he’s handled things. It’s been in a real difficult situation. Kuemper has really stepped up when we needed him to. But you need some protection there and to get a guy of that caliber and not only give you minutes but win hockey games for you – we’re very excited about that.”
On his lines: “You look at the top two lines and certainly they’re put together with the idea that No. 1 they can go out and create, but they’re also going to be difficult to play against. They are lines that are going to pressure, they’re lines that are going to work, they’re lines that are going to be strong and should be good two-way lines for us. And with that our third and fourth lines are deeper as well and we feel they can go out and contribute any night for us too. Obviously we need those guys to have an identity and an important role as well. We like the depth that we have, we like the way that this looks right now, but when you have a deep team like this it also gives you more opportunity to try different things whether it’s mixing up the lines from night to night or game to game you have that opportunity. Certainly if all things are going well you’re probably going to keep things the same, but if they’re not there’s certainly more opportunity to make some switches too.”
On whether he talked to Heatley about being on the fourth line, Yeo said, “Yeah, Heatley was awesome. That’s the way he’s been all year. He just wants to be here and help the team. I know that we’re going to count on him down the stretch. This is a guy who’s elevated his play lately. He’s been scoring a lot of big goals for us and he wants to be a part of this group. What’s great about having a guy like Heater there is he can be effective on that line, but he’s going to push guys. If somebody is not getting it done above him then he can push them in a hurry. He’s got the ability to go out and score goals for us anytime.”
A lot of folks were tweeting me upset that Niederreiter wasn’t on the power play and Heatley is. Heatley has scored more power-play goals since 2001 than any player and has probably screened the goalie on 10 power-play goals the past two months. He’s the best net-front guy the Wild’s had on the power play – by far – so to me he should stick there.
McCormick is familiar with the Wild from his days with the Avalanche, and he said, “They come to play every night. It’s a high compete level in that dressing room and they bring it on the ice.”
On his game, “My game is a lot of grit, a lot of body contact. I like to play an in-your-face kind of style.”
Bryzgalov’s not the easiest guy to interview. He almost seems to intentionally try to make things feel uncomfortable with one or two word answers or making reporters squirm like one today who asked, “How were the last 24 hours for you?”
Bryz: “You want to know minute by minute.”
Reporter: “Excited for the opportunity?”
Bryz: “Oh yes.”
It’ll be an interesting contrast with Kuemper, who’s one of the most affable goalies I’ve ever covered.
Hopefully he doesn’t become a distraction like he reportedly was during his tenure in Philly.
Bryzgalov on potentially being the No. 2: “It’s not my call. I came here to work and work hard and bring the best of me to help the team to have the best success.”
On Kuemper, whom Bryzgalov got to watch shut out the Oilers last week, “He’s a good young kid with a promising big future. I saw a couple games he played. He played very calm, relaxed and good.”
He also took a subtle shot at the Oilers by saying practice was tough because it was a "higher pace" than he was used to in Edmonton. Ladislav Smid said something almost verbatim after his first practice after being traded from Edmonton to Calgary. After Bryzgalov's presser, I checked with Bryzgalov to make sure I heard his quote correctly and he repeated "way faster pace."
I'm also no goalie expert, but Bryzgalov did have a difficult practice. Just wasn't sharp, uh, stopping pucks.
I’ll be on KFAN at 5:55 p.m. I’ve also rescheduled my live startribune.com chat for Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Talk to you Friday. I’ll have to hustle for my flight after practice, so I’ll likely blog from the air. So please be patient for it.
All signs point toward Mikko Koivu returning Monday night against the Calgary Flames.
Koivu, who has missed 17 games since undergoing ankle surgery Jan. 6, skated on a line with Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle throughout Sunday’s practice at Braemar and retained his spot on the top power-play unit.
Coach Mike Yeo said he had a great practice and said a few times, “we’re excited to get him back.”
Officially though, the Wild will take the decision into Monday morning to make sure Koivu’s ankle feels good after he wakes up and after one last morning skate.
In practice today, the Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville line stayed intact.
“It’s the coaches who make the decisions and players, it’s our job to create chemistry with different players,” Koivu said. “Injuries are a part of the game and you’re going to have different guys and different lines. I think with Heater, it would be easy because we’ve played a lot of games together and with Charlie, [I’ve played with him]. I think it’s a matter of time more for myself to get on their speed of the game so I can help them out.
“I don’t think it really matters right now who you’re playing with. I think every guy is playing great and we’ve had to adjust the lines all season long and every single night it’s been some combination or some individual who steps up and makes the play to get us points. It’s huge, but like I said, it’s more about me getting to the level I want to help them and it helps that I’ve played with those two guys in the past.”
Yeo likes the makeup of the line.
“It’s a big line,” Yeo said. “First off, three guys that can control the puck, three guys that are really tough to defend. Mikko’s had chemistry with both Heater and Charlie in the past, too. Hopefully there’s not too much of a feeling out process. But I just think that it gives us an opportunity to have a line that’s out there with the ability to create offense every night that’s hard to play against.”
Matt Cooke skated with Kyle Brodziak and Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula centered Torrey Mitchell and Justin Fontaine. Stephane Veilleux looks like he’d be the extra if Koivu returns.
So, basically, the trickle down effect of Koivu’s return initially would have Coyle move from center to right wing, Niederreiter to go from second line to third, Fontaine from third to fourth. Or, basically exactly what we predicted on the blog last week.
This is a good thing. Basically, as Parise said today, every team has its opening night roster every year and it never quite works out to what you want it to be all year long because of injuries.
But since the second period of the second game of the season when Coyle sprained his knee, the Wild has never had its full roster together. Against Calgary, if Koivu and defenseman Marco Scandella return, it will.
Koivu’s return makes the Wild deeper and could potentially give the Wild four deep lines.
The Wild also suddenly has two formidable power-play units. Koivu, the all-time Wild leader in power-play points, took his spot again with Parise. Coyle, to give the Wild a needed righty down low, moves to the top unit with Pominville and Ryan Suter at the points. The second unit consisted of Heatley-Granlund-Niederreiter with Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon up top. That’s three lefties down low, which could make things tricky, so it wouldn’t be shocking if Fontaine gets some time or they move Spurgeon down to that left circle position to attempt one-timers.
Suter and Spurgeon were a pair today, while Scandella was with Brodin. The third pair, if Scandella returns, will be two of Keith Ballard, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. I don’t know how you take Prosser out the way he’s been playing, so if Scandella returns, Ballard or Stoner will likely be taken out.
Darcy Kuemper will make his 15th consecutive start.
Scandella says he’s ready, but like with Koivu, Yeo said they’ll take the final decision into Monday morning.
Monday will be the first-ever Mikael Granlund vs. Markus Granlund game. The younger Granlund will play his third NHL game. He was drafted in 2011 in St. Paul.
As for the game, Mikael Granlund said, “I feel really proud for my parents. It’s very special.”
Jason Zucker, by the way, skated on his own today.
That’s it for now. Nothing new on the goalie front. Here's my column on the goalie trade front today. I think it goes to Wednesday. If the Wild’s the only team out there really searching for a goalie, if I’m Chuck Fletcher, I use that as leverage to let acquisition prices for Jaroslav Halak or Marty Brodeur or whoever drop.
Again, Wednesday at 12:01 a.m., you can go over the 23-man roster as long as you don’t go over the cap ceiling. So the Wild could very well carry three goalies the rest of the season. If the Wild has three goalies, that means one won’t dress every game. That could create an interesting dynamic, but the Wild doesn’t seen too concerned. As Fletcher always says, “I just want to win,” so he’s not going to worry about feelings.
And as we learned in the playoffs last year when suddenly Kuemper was playing games because Backstrom and Josh Harding got hurt, you can never have too much depth. It’s better having more players than too little.
Speaking of depth, remember when the Wild was always a Mikko Koivu injury away from disaster every year? Pretty impressive that the team, which is 13-4-2 in 2014, is 11-4-2 without him. Says so much about the improved depth of the team and the job the Wild’s youngsters have done to this point.
As Parise said, maybe all the long-term injuries the Wild has had this year, from Koivu to Parise to Harding to Spurgeon to Coyle to Granlund, has made the Wild a better team for these final 21 games.
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