This is Michael Russo's 18th year covering the National Hockey League. He's covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005 following 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. Michael 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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Good afternoon from the Twin Cities. Late blog for a morning scrimmage, I know, but I was distracted by the Dolphins-Vikings game. Twice the Dolphins coughed up the football immediately after Brett Favre interceptions, and alas, the Vikes still couldn't pull it out.
Purple is 0-2. When's Donovan McNabb available again?
Speaking of the Dolphins, I showed off downtown Minneapolis to the Phins media contingent last night. Fun, fun reunion with some old pals, reminding me how lucky I've been to work in two great sports markets with great colleagues at great papers. Tonight will be another reunion. For 10 years, I covered the Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel with colleagues Brian Biggane from the Palm Beach Post and David J. Neal from the Miami Herald.
We had went toe to toe competitively for a long, long time, yet we managed to put business aside and stay friends. They now cover the Dolphins, so we're doing dinner with the old agent of original Panthers captain Brian Skrudland. Should be a lot of laughs.
Enough about me, but last night put me in a nostalgic mood.
News of the day:
-- Pierre-Marc Bouchard got the go-ahead from a Denver doctor to ramp up the intensity in skates and the fitness room. He skated before today's practices with assistants Dave Barr and Darby Hendrickson and the goal now is to get into game shape. His head felt fine afterward. His legs and lungs were a bit heavy though.
Right now, he'll skate for a few days with the coaches before practice. The next step will be to join the team in practices, then start taking some contact.
There's no timetable as to a return, but Bouchard said his goal is still to be ready by the start of the season.
"He's excited. We're excited," coach Todd Richards said.
More on this in the paper.
-- Amazingly, with so much going on in town Sunday, 2,500 Wild fans made their way down to the X for this morning's scrimmage. I predicted a white rout, and rout they did -- 5-1 over the green team.
Nick Schultz got things started 13 seconds in off a pass from Twins season-ticket package partner Andrew Brunette. They must have spent the summer diagramming the play from Target Field. It worked to perfection.
Robbie Earl tied it for green from Clayton Stoner, but that would be all she wrote for the greenies.
Jon DiSalvatore from Carson McMillan and Brent Burns; Brunette from Antti Miettinen and Mikko Koivu; Burns from Koivu (great goal) and McMillan from Petr Kalus. Josh Harding got the win, playing the first half for white.
In reaction to Bouchard hand-picking Burns for his eventual first contact in training camp, there'll be a funny quote from 'ol Burnzie in tomorrow's paper, too.
-- I always say to people, Schultz reminds me a lot of Rob Niedermayer, whom I covered for awhile in Florida. As nice as can be, as mild-mannered as there is, but for some reason, there's something about these guys in scrimmages that always ticks the absolute you know what out of opposing "teammates."
For the last few years, Schultz has gone head-to-head with Petr Kalus, but they're now teammates in training camp, so Kalus is taking out his normal Schultz aggression on Nate Prosser, who by the way is having none of it. Prosser stood up to the intense Czech in both the last two days, which impressed me bigtime.
Today, Schultz got Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz to focus much of their energy on him after Schultz checked Nystrom, who did much of his own hard checking today on opponents, too. Nystrom and Staubitz went after Schultz a couple times, and later, Schultz became incensed when Guillaume Latendresse took a run at him a few seconds after he gave up the puck. But afterward, Schultz put it all behind him and said it was just competitive people being competitive. So did the other two, too.
-- The players got more and more crabbier as the scrimmage went on. Staubitz, taking exception to a hard hit from roster hopeful Justin Falk, dropped the gloves with the big defenseman. Remember, Staubitz, acquired for a draft pick from San Jose on the day of the NHL Awards ceremony (I remember because I was in Vegas), has had 20 fights in 82 NHL games.
Staubitz is a tough, good skating cookie, and he's only played forward for two years after spending his entire junior and minor-league career at defense. The one great strength of the Wild this year should be those third and fourth lines with good skating, hard-working guys like Nystrom, Staubitz, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, John Madden and as of now Chuck Kobasew.
I'll write more about Staubitz and Nystrom in Monday's paper. Incidentally, I'm digging the new room. Lots of good quotes in there, including the four new guys -- Matt Cullen, John Madden, Nystrom and today, I learned, Staubitz.
-- I think Falk's got a shot to crack the roster. Marco Scandella, after two days, looks to me like he'll need some time developing in the minors with Darryl Sydor. Like Tyler Cuma last year against Rick Nash in Columbus, Scandella's head was spinning trying to deal with Koivu, Brunette and Miettinen today.
Scandella not only was suspended last year in juniors, but he then got a appendicitis. So he's missed some hockey, and because he doesn't need waivers, I bet he goes down for some development with Cuma as long as the Wild remains healthy on the back end. So, Clayton Stoner's got No. 6. No. 7 to me will be either Falk, Prosser, who looks good and even though he's inexperienced at the NHL level, remember, he's 24, or Drew Bagnall.
And since the Wild will at least take eight D to Finland, maybe two of those three stick until the Wild at least returns to the States. I spent today really watching the young D. I'll spend tomorrow or Tuesday really looking at the young forwards vying for spots.
-- Koivu, Brunette and Miettinen line hasn't lost chemistry since April, and the Cullen, Latendresse, Marty Havlat looked very promising today. I think coach Todd Richards should just leave this line assembled for awhile to let the chemistry transpire.
-- It's taken one scrimmage for Brett Bulmer to show he's a pain in the butt to play against. The 2010 second-round pick might be Kristian Huselius skinny, but the guy's got guts and got into a chirping match with Cal Clutterbuck after one collision, which was undeniably rated NC-17. Very good sign for the youngster that will soon return to his junior team, Kelowna. Remember, Bulmer was the only 2010 top draft pick that was in Traverse City. No Granlund, Larsson or Zucker. Heck, no Haula, and the Wild still won the title, which is a good sign for the future. It seems at the very least the Wild's filling what was a barren cupboard of young talent.
-- Marek Zidlicky missed his second day today with a strained hammy, which allowed tryout Colton Jobke to play. Good opportunity, and he held his own and showed he's a very smart defenseman. At 18, he'll soon return to Kelowna also, but this is a free look at the undrafted free agent. Technically, the Wild can sign any of these tryout kids, from Jobke to Josh Caron to Brandon Buck to Jared Spurgeon, and they wouldn't count toward the Wild's 50-man reserve list. Their contracts would slide. All you'd have to pay is their signing bonus, and then if you like them, you don't have to waste a draft pick on them next June. For a team trying to add more and more young talent, I bet this is very much in the cards for some of these kids.
OK, I should write for the paper. Richards wasn't overly in love with today's scrimmage, which he felt lacked structure. He was considering scrapping tomorrow's scrimmage and practicing instead. We'll see. Talk to you Monday.
"No to Mo" has turned into "Yes to Mo."
Wild GM Chuck Fletcher confirmed an ESPNDallas.com report this afternoon that not only is Detroit and San Jose in contact with Modano, but so are the Wild.
“We’re interested in speaking to Mike about his future plans,” Fletcher said. “We obviously have interest in doing anything that will make our team better and we just want to sit down with him and see if there’s a mutual fit.”
Modano told ESPNDallas.com, "It would be a fun storyline," referring to the fact that he began his future Hall of Fame career 22 years ago with the North Stars.
Fletcher said he hopes to sit down with Modano at some point to determine if there's a right fit. This is definitely not something that will happen overnight -- if it even does.
But I will say: I think Modano's "fun storyline" comment to Stars beat writer Richard Durrett is more than just a quote though. I really feel that he'd be very excited about coming to play specifically here. I felt back in April that Modano was dropping lots of hints that if he continued playing, he'd want it to be here.
I just never sensed the interest was reciprocated, and frankly it wasn't until the last few days.
Right now no meeting is planned because Modano told Fletcher he's got some things going on, and frankly, so does Fletcher. But Fletcher said at some point he and coach Todd Richards will sit down with the future Hall of Famer. But as I mentioned above, we could be far from a conclusion.
Hey, you're always patient with the Brett Favre wait. You'll have to be patient with this, too. In fact, Judd and Chip can cover both. They're experts.
In this eventual sitdown between the Wild and Modano, I think they'll both have to convince each other that there's a mutual fit. Is Mike committed to playing and going through the rigors of training camp? Is he going to be comfortable and play the good soldier if it's the middle of the long grind and he's getting third-or fourth-line minutes and playing the second power play?
Remember, this is a proud athlete, a former superstar, one who's scored 50 goals in this league and 30 goals a bunch. Can he handle a secondary role?
I was led to believe for some time that the Wild wasn't going to be going after Modano, that it didn't make much sense to have him taking playing time from a kid like Casey Wellman. But clearly things evolve over time, and I think Fletcher signed Matt Cullen and Eric Nystrom and then took a few days to really analyze the roster.
There's uncertainty with Pierre-Marc Bouchard's health, even though he is exercising and is trying to come back. I think there's uncertainty whether Casey Wellman will be ready for a full-time NHL job, even though he's turning 23 and not turning 19. I think there's a definite unwillingness to hand James Sheppard another NHL job unless he completely deserves it. This will be the biggest training camp of Sheppard's hockey-playing career.
And of course, even though Cullen was signed to be the No. 2 center, as even he said to me, "you can't script chemistry," so will there be chemistry with Cullen between Gui Latendresse and Marty Havlat?
Fletcher's very happy with the pickups of Cullen, Nystrom and Brad Staubitz and with the fact that he believes the Wild will be a harder-working team and more importantly a harder-to-play-against team. But there's still the concern of scoring and the skill level of the team, and if a guy like Modano could get 40 or 50 points and that means five or six more points in the standings, well, in the NHL, that could be the difference of making the playoffs and missing.
I've always said that if the Wild couldn't get their long-term solutions via trade, they'd look to short-term solutions in free agency. I was thinking more in the lines of Saku Koivu or Olli Jokinen when I wrote that in late June. Obviously, the Wild didn't get them, and obviously a trade hasn't transpired yet.
So they move on to Modano. What this also shows me is that since the Wild clearly sees a hole when it comes to skill, maybe guys that didn't make sense a few days ago could start making sense a few days from now or later in the summer.
In other words, I guarantee the kicking tires from Fletcher's part isn't just with Modano. Modano just revealed the contact. So could that mean Fletcher's kicked tires with guys like Alex Frolov, Lee Stempniak, Paul Kariya, Maxim Afinogenov, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Miro Satan?
Hey, I ate crow on Modano, so I'm no longer discounting anybody.
On another subject, Fletcher said Richards has talked with assistant coaching candidates and he's also had conversations with some. Fletcher said the Wild is a week or maybe two from naming a replacement for Mike Ramsey.
Guess what? This is going to be a lazy blog, but I'm cutting and pasting my notebook in Monday's paper on here because, well, I've got friends coming over for the Vikes game in 20 minutes. Here's the notebook -- space permitting -- on the first-class Wild skills competition today.
Also, check out my feature on Wild director of hockey administration Shep Harder in Monday's paper and the Wild's objective to go after more college free agents under the new regime.
Unless there's news, no updated blog Monday. The Wild's got the day off. Brian Stensaas will be covering Tuesday's practice and Wednesday's game vs. Detroit as I get a head start on meeting the team in Denver for Thursday's Avalanche game and upcoming three-game road trip. Russo Radio Wednesday at 6 p.m. on KSTP.
And without further ado, here's the notebook on the skills competition.
Good morning from high above the X, where Petr Sykora is running the Iditarod thanks to the whipping of assistant coach Dave Barr. Sykora is literally on the ice as I type gasping for air. Get that man a bowl of water.
Sykora is working hard for his return from a concussion. Sad thing is his progress might be stalled because NHL teams can't practice Thursday and Friday. Saturday there will only be a morning skate. Sunday there will be an abbreviated practice before the team flies to So. Cal for back-to-back games, next Wednesday is a planned day off, next Thursday (New Year's Eve) is a game day, then one practice on New Year's Day and a game Jan. 2 and then finally two practices in a row before a game in Chicago on Jan. 5.
My totally unscientific math. Earliest Sykora plays is Jan. 5. But coach Todd Richards seemed to agree with my math.
First, check out the poll on the Star Tribune home page and throughout the site asking you what's the biggest Minnesota sports story of the decade. I encourage you to vote.
Martin Havlat skated this morning and looked good in the locker room. But as we know with this flu, that means squat. The Wild will wait to see how he is when he returns to the rink tonight to decide if he can play.
If he can't Guillaume Latendresse will replace him. If Havlat can play, the Wild will have to make a forward decision. I'd suspect James Sheppard will draw the short straw behind centers Mikko Koivu-Eric Belanger-Kyle Brodziak-Andrew Ebbett.
Derek Boogaard is in, unless Richards notices Brad Watson's officiating. The zebra didn't take his pupils off Boogaard two weekends ago in Vancouver.
Boogaard got lots of reminders from inside the locker room today about my blog yesterday. Boogaard knows Cal Clutterbuck's honor is on the line, and he guaranteed tonight's the night his goal drought ends.
"What will be the decibel level in here tonight if Boogaard gets a trick?" Clutterbuck wondered. I'm assuming he meant Gordie Howe [hat] trick, not a real-life three-goal trick.
By the way, some players were jokingly asked Niklas Backstrom today, "Hey when did we trade for Giguere?"
This was a crack at how huge his chest protector looks.
Backstrom's been the most affected by this equipment fire. In Ottawa, he had to use his old, beaten up, retired chest protector. Against Colorado, he wore Josh Harding's. Tonight, he's wearing brand-new ones.
Asked how they feel, Backstrom laughed and said, "Feels big."
In fact, after the second period against Colorado, Richards said he considered pulling Backstrom and inserting Harding, but he didn't want to do that to Harding since Backstrom was wearing his gear and Harding was wearing new gear.
Sounds an awful lot like the Brad Childress-Brett Favre controversy. I pointed that out to Richards, and he didn't seem too enamored with my joke.
OK, must work.
Good afternoon or early evening from inside the beautiful University of Phoenix Stadium, where the roof is sadly closed and the Vikings and Cardinals are preparing to drop the puck in a little more than two hours.
Thank goodness, the good folks at the Star Tribune got me a press box seat next to Judd, Chip and Souhan. I think it was 1999, and the Florida Panthers were playing the Coyotes a night or two after the Fiesta Bowl. FSU was playing Tennessee for the national championship, so my old newspaper drafted me at the last second to do the Tennessee sidebar and notebook from the game.
But I was like the sixth reporter from the Sun-Sentinel, so I got the seat in the auxiliary press box on the roof. When the stadium cleared out, it was like 40 degrees out and I literally was writing with frozen finger tips. By the end of that long Panthers road trip, I got walking pneumonia.
Another funny story (at least now): Al Gore was at the game, so afterward, they shut down the lone elevator to the press box. Just picture a hundred out of shape sportswriters huffing and puffing up the stairs.
I remember I wrote a Peerless Price sidebar if I'm not mistaken.
In my Vikings' story tomorrow, I plan to use every hockey cliche imaginable. Brett Favre lit the lamp. Jared Allen stood on his head. Adrian Peterson and Bernard Berrian SPED through the slot.
During the lockout, I covered the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. During one game up in Toronto, I used lines like "Shaq lit the lamp" and "Dwyane Wade stood on his head."
Strangely, I never wrote another Heat game story after that one.
Quick Wild update: The players are spending the day lounging around the hotel, which has been overrun by Vikings purple. It's blinding. I bet the Coyotes are praying a few thousand of these Vikings fans stay over for Monday night's Wild-Coyotes game, you know, to double the crowd size.
Cal Clutterbuck, ill Cal Clutterbuck, wasn't allowed on the Wild team plane last night as not to infect his teammates. But he's feeling better today and was scheduled to catch a Nashville to Phoenix flight to rejoin the team. Team couldn't be infected, but general public, no sweat. No, no, I'm sure he's not contagious
Wonder if Clutterbuck flew a couple regional jets like moi?
OK, talk to you after the morning skates tomorrow, and maybe I'll tweet during tonight's Vikings game.
The Wild's coaches at the very least were going to try to make it over across the parking lot from their hotel.
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