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.

Also find Russo on Facebook.

Email Michael to talk about hockey.

I'll be hosting a hockey-centric radio show today

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: December 26, 2014 - 1:05 PM

Hope you all enjoyed your holiday the past few days.

The Wild resumes its season Saturday night (6 p.m.) when the Winnipeg Jets come to town. The Jets are 4-0-3 in their past seven on the road and 10-4-4 on the road this season. Neither team has played or practiced since Tuesday, so that first game after the break is usually an interesting one with some sloppiness.

Huge couple games for the Wild as it starts a home and home with its geographical divisional rival (alliteration).

It has three games in hand on the Jets but are eight points behind them for the first of two wildcard spots. There are several red-hot Jets players right now, from Mathieu Perreault to Mark Scheifele to Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and both goalies. They also have overcome a devastated blue line for much of the year.

I did a state of the team analysis for tomorrow's paper where I quote GM Chuck Fletcher throughout from an interview he did with both paper beat writers during the second intermission Tuesday's game. I'll put a more detailed transcript of the quick, 10-minute interview on the blog once the Insider gets up later tonight.

Today, from 3-6 p.m., I'll be filling in for Dan Barreiro on KFAN (100.3-FM).

Wild defenseman Ryan Suter will be joining at 3:35 p.m. Also joining to talk Wild will be Fox Sports North's Anthony LaPanta and KFAN's Brandon Mileski. My pal from the Winnipeg Sun, Ken Wiebe, will be joining to talk Wild-Jets.

I'll also be talking Gophers and Vikings with Fox 9's Dawn Mitchell and KFAN's A.J. Mansour and Justin Gaard.

Cities 97's Paul Fletcher will also sit in the first few segments.

Tonight at 10:15 p.m., I'll be Fox 9's Sports Now with Dawn Mitchell and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., I'll be on the season debut of Beyond the Pond on KFAN.

I'll be back later with the Fletcher Q and A, and then talk to you tomorrow after the morning skates. Please tune in later on KFAN though.

Have a question about the Wild? Ask on my blog for a Sunday column Q and A

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: December 24, 2014 - 11:14 AM

Happy holidays everybody.

It dawned on me the other day that I have yet to do a Sunday column Russo's Rants Q and A, so here's your shot to ask a question that may be answered in my Sunday Insider.

Here's the deal though: They have to be quick, easy-to-answer questions because space is at a premium in the newspaper (I'll do a longer live chat in the coming weeks) and I'd like to include as many of your questions as possible.

So fire away, and understand that for space reasons, I may have to edit (trim) your question.

Try not to repeat questions asked by others and please don't use this space to comment on reader questions. This way I can easily snip out the questions I'll answer in my Sunday Insider.

Thanks, and again, enjoy the holidays and your mental break from your slumping favorite team.

Remember, I'll be filling in for Barreiro on Friday from 3-6 p.m. There will be plenty of hockey talk. I'll also be on Fox 9 with Dawn Mitchell at 10:15 p.m. Friday.

Postgame: Tension, frustration submerging the Wild as it skids into NHL's holiday hiatus

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: December 24, 2014 - 7:56 AM

When Charlie Coyle scored his first goal in two months to tie Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers in the second period, it looked like Dec. 23 would really provide a Festivus Miracle.

Nope.

Instead, Wild fans got to play the part of George Costanza and air their grievances with loud boos and social media condemnation after their favorite team inexplicably sputtered through yet another loss that featured a slow, sloppy start, soft wall play, lots of turnovers, lots of overpassing and shoddy defense by some of the team’s more reliable players.

Evening from Xcel Energy Center, where the slumping Wild skidded head-on into the holiday break in listless fashion during a 5-2 loss.

What have the Wild lacked during a four-game winless streak, 5-6-3 slide and an amazingly bad 2-3-3 home streak that has the team six points behind the defending Cup champs for eighth and eight points behind Winnipeg heading into a mammoth home-and-home against the Jets?

“Winners attitude and teamwork,” coach Mike Yeo said.

Just looked up where the Wild was after 32 games last year. It was 18-9-5 for 41 points (six more than it has now at 16-13-3) and was tied for second in the Central and tied for fifth in the West. It had a four-point lead on ninth-place Phoenix.

Lots of tension after this one. It included a second straight, brief players’ only meeting and more frustration-filled quotes from Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Matt Cooke, who had a lot of interesting things to say.

I’ll do more of a state of the team story in the next couple days, but I got with GM Chuck Fletcher during the second intermission for about 10 minutes. He’s not happy the way the team’s playing, but he made clear he believes in the team he constructed and the gist of the interview is players shouldn’t wait for some roster shakeup or coaching shakeup to get its act together.

It’s up to the players. The chance of some blockbuster seems minimal. He said Yeo is “absolutely safe,” ridiculed the question even being asked and said the coaches are doing everything they can.

Yeo also said after the game that it’s up to the players.

When I asked what his message for the team was heading into the 3-day hiatus, Yeo said, “There’s no message tonight. The door closed and there was some talking [between the players] and that’s what needs to be done. We can talk, we can yell, we can pat on the back. Listen, they’re the ones out there performing. I’m not trying to say that I’m not responsible for this. I always believe that … what you see on the ice is [a coach’s] responsibility, but at the same time, there’s been a lot of attempts, a lot of different ways. At some point it has to come from them, too.”

He said, “What has gone on earlier in the season or last year is completely irrelevant and if we keep sitting around waiting for that to reappear without actually doing the things to make that happen, then we’ll continue to be disappointed.”

He hopes the break comes at the right time.

“Part of me wants some soul searching, part of me wants guys to not think about hockey at all,” Yeo said. “I’m not sure what’s best. Ultimately what we need, we can say whatever we want, guys have to be better and we have to better together as a team. We’re not helping each other right now. For a team that has made a name for itself in the past for playing together, playing a structured game, a systems game, being a good team on both sides of the puck, we’re starting to lose that reputation. And that’s disappointing. I know there’s more pride in the room, but we better get it back.”

Cooke missed seven weeks with a hip injury, so he watched a lot of games from above and completed only his second game back tonight.

He came out to an empty, quiet locker room, pointed to the team mottos plastered on the walls that read, “accountability, character, commitment and work ethic.” He said they better get back to that stat.

“We haven't earned anything yet,” Cooke said. “We're supposed to be a band of brothers that goes out night in and night out and lays it on the line for each other and we found that last year. And just because we had it last year doesn't mean that it's here this year. We have to go out and earn the trust of each other night in and night out to gain that accountability that you can trust night in and night out.”

He said, “Right now it’s time to decompress and enjoy Christmas and not think about hockey and get away from it. I think it’s a blessing that we have these three days right now to just step away.”

On the two Winnipeg games Saturday and Monday, Cooke said it’s cliché, but, “We can’t look further than the 27th. It’s an opportunity to earn back a level of play that we expect from ourselves here at home, and then we can carry that on the road after.

“The best part about it is it’s something we all can control. It’s not systematic. It’s not what someone else is making us do. It’s what we’re allowing ourselves to do.”

Whatever it is, something is missing. Something has to change.

The work ethic that was this team’s identity, the energy, the defensive structure has absolutely disappeared.

Bad D-zone coverage, bad goaltending, no excitement, sporadic work ethic, that has marred many games for a month and is destroying the Wild’s season 32 games in. The hole is deepening, and Yeo and his staff – whether they’re safe or not – better figure it out.

And, it is indeed up to the players.

Yeo said, “Our execution was terrible all night and that led to turnover after turnover and also no willingness whatsoever to shoot a puck. We kept trying to make a prettier play.”

He said the gameplan was to do the right things so they built confidence and momentum in their game heading into the break, and instead Yeo said, they “did the opposite.”

Coyle did score tonight for the first time since Oct. 23 (snapped a 26-game drought), but he said, “I’d rather go through another 25 games without scoring if we’re winning.”

Koivu said, “We’re a very frustrated team. We’re the ones who’s causing that and we have to find our way out of it. It’s literally as simple as that. … I don’t think we were even close to good enough to win a hockey game. That’s all of us.

“We just have to be better. It is as simple as that.”

Parise said, “Same story as it’s been the last while. … I don’t have [many real] answers. Lot of frustration on everyone’s part. … We have to address the issues, otherwise we’re going to be doing this for a long time. We’ve got to figure them out internally.”

That’s it for me. Please check out the game story for more and also the game notebook on tonight’s goalie swap at the last second because of Nik Backstrom’s illness.

I’ll do that state of the team story for Friday or Saturday most likely. I’ll be on KFAN in studio with Paul Allen on Wednesday at 9 a.m. and am hosting for Dan Barreiro on Friday from 3-6 p.m. I’ll also be on Fox 9 with Dawn Mitchell on Friday night at 10:15.

I’ll also put up a fresh blog Wednesday perhaps because I think it’s time for a Sunday Insider Q and A.

Happy Festivus everybody. Air your grievances in the comment section.

Yeo wants Erik Haula, Darcy Kuemper to "reset" during the Christmas break; Granlund expected to return

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: December 23, 2014 - 12:20 PM

Happy Festivus everybody. If you’re not a Seinfeld fan, google it. Wild fans are celebrating by pelting me on Twitter with their grievances.

I’ll be on Fox Sports North++++++++++++++ during tonight’s pregame show around 5:45 p.m. and the first intermission around 6:35 p.m. I’ll also be live in studio on KFAN with Paul Allen at 9 a.m. Wednesday and I am filling in for Dan Barreiro from 3-6:30 p.m. on KFAN on Friday.

Lots of guests, including maybe Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, Fox Sports North’s Anthony LaPanta and Fox 9’s Dawn Mitchell to talk all things sports. In fact, I’m also doing Dawn’s show, Fox 9 Sports Now, later that night at 10:15 p.m.

I also may be doing a Podcast with Jim Souhan on Friday, so I’ll hit the multi-media foursome – newspaper, Podcast, radio and TV. #overexposed.

Wild vs. Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Nick Schultz (Wild’s all-time games played leader who has resurrected his career this season as by all accounts Philly’s most consistent defenseman) Philadelphia Flyers tonight as the Wild hopes to avoid sputtering (well, more than it has already) into the Christmas break. The Wild is 5-5-3 in its past 13 and 2-2-3 in its past seven at home. The Flyers have won the first two games (11 goals) in an eight-game road trip (like many Flyers trips, they return home a couple times during the roadie).

Niklas Backstrom vs. Ray Emery tonight. I thought coach Mike Yeo may come back with Darcy Kuemper only because Kuemper stole a win in Philly with 37 saves last month and because Backstrom is 1-4 all-time vs. the Flyers with a 3.58 goals-against average and .872 save percentage.

But Kuemper has been yanked in four of his past five home starts (I did a story on the poor play of the goalies today. Here is that link), so Yeo wants Kuemper to reset during the Christmas break “shut the brain off for a couple days, not think about hockey, get away from the rink and get recharged and excited to come back).

In fact, Yeo is also scratching center Erik Haula (3 goals, 1 assist this season, 1 goal in the past 15 games and minus-5), Justin Fontaine (1 goal in the past 13 games) and Nate Prosser (team-worst minus-9 averaging 13:26 a game; no plus games in the past 15) for basically the same reason.

“It’s not like we’re quitting on these guys,” Yeo said. “It’s not like we don’t believe in them. It’s just a means to try to get them in the right mind frame and come back and be really good.

“For the guys that aren’t in, a lot of guys are trying to do the right thing, a lot of guys hearts are in the right place, but focus-wise and mindset-wise, this is where I think the break can come in great use as far as just hitting the reset button and allowing ourselves to take a bit of a deep breath here and remember those little things that make us successful.”

Mikael Granlund, who missed last game with a stomach bug, looks like he’ll return and slide back into that top line with Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek. Surprises me a little. Charlie Coyle has been better the past four games (especially last game between Parise and Vanek) and Granlund, who looked sluggish this morning, has a disappointing two multi-point games out of 31 as the Wild’s No. 1 center this year. TWO, playing mostly with Parise. Not good enough.

Stu Bickel will also draw in, which surprises me, too, because the Flyers are hardly a hard-nosed team anymore (9.1 penalty minutes per game compared to the Wild’s 9.7) and Zac Rinaldo isn’t playing.

Asked why he’s in, Yeo told me kiddingly, “Why not? Has anything else we’ve been doing worked lately?”

In seriousness, Yeo said, “I will say this: It’s been pretty comfortable for other teams to come into our building and if you’ve played the game, then you understand that’s part of the game. When there’s a thought or presence of you might get hit or it might be a tough, physical game, it’s a little bit more difficult to execute, you’re not quite as quick to go back and retrieve a puck, you’re not quite as willing to go to the hard areas.

“Quite often when you have a player like that in the lineup, it’s not just about him. It’s about what it does to the other group. We’ve seen that. We’ve won games when he’s been in the lineup (the Wild’s 4-0 with Bickel) and I think a big part of that is we have other guys who end up playing bigger because of that.”

Yeo had a long talk with Haula on the ice today. Fans were freaking on Twitter about Bickel playing for Haula, which, hey, I get, but sometimes kids need to take a step back and see the game from upstairs and not be entitled to just keep playing when they're struggling. And Haula has been struggling. Tonight is Haula's first turn this season to sit out a game.

“Of course it’s about offense, but it’s about winning,” Yeo said. “Offense comes by doing the right things and by taking care of the details. He contributed offensively for us last year, but he wasn’t our leading scorer. I think that expectations-wise, we have to be realistic. He’s not playing power play right now. He has the ability to create offense. We’ve seen his speed be a factor. We have to find a way to make it more of a factor again this year. But the way he earned his way into the lineup and how he was successful last year was the defensive part of his game. When you look at probably the best hockey he’s played in the Colorado series, he had one singular focus and that was to shut a very important line for the opposition down (Nathan MacKinnon). That was when he played his best hockey. He brings something different to the table than a lot of the other guys that we have and he’s a very valuable part to our group when he’s on top of that part of his game. So again this is just a good opportunity for us to hit the reset button. He’s a very big part of things going forward and a very big part of the second half of our season. Hopefully we’ll help him get ready for that.”

Haula said the Christmas break will allow him to “clear it all up here in the next couple days and just come back with a great attitude and put everything on the line and keep working hard and keep taking those little strides and not expect too much.”

Haula said the first couple months of the season was a “little bit of a disappointment in some ways. I think individually, there’s areas I can do better at. I definitely have more to offer the team. Also I think there are some areas I think I have done a pretty good job in (like penalty kill). I’ve got to let it go here and enjoy the couple days we have off and come back with a great attitude and let that first half go and finish strong.

“My game is to move my feet, play good defensively and win my battles and I want to focus on those areas a little more.”

Haula said Yeo told him at the start of the year that the second year is always harder than the first, especially “if you do have some kind of success, you expect more and set high expectations. I’ve tried my best to not think about stuff like that. At the start of the year it was going really well where I maybe wasn’t necessarily getting the results on the scoreboard, but I thought I was playing really well. The little things haven’t been what I really wanted it to be. I don’t think I’m a minus player. Defensively I think I can play against any one and that’s one area where I have to clean up.”

Fontaine needs to pick up his play, too. Just hasn't impressed in many games this year and certainly hasn't been anything close to the scoring threat he was last year.

I talked to Jared Spurgeon a little this morning. His game has taken a turn for the worse. He is minus-7 his past 11 games and he said, “I need to be better.”

With skid mounting, Wild striving for better goaltending, defensive play

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild practice Updated: December 22, 2014 - 3:31 PM

The Wild, 5-5-3 (13 out of a possible 26 points, .500) in its past 13 overall and 2-2-3 (7 of a possible 14 points, .500) in its past seven at home, looks to enter the NHL’s 3-day holiday break with a win Tuesday (6 p.m.) against the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Flyers, behind surprising NHL leading scorer Jake Voracek who was named the league’s Second Star of the Week today, have won two games in a row on an eight-game road trip. Voracek leads the league with 44 points and is tied with teammate Claude Giroux for first in the NHL with 30 assists (Giroux is third in NHL scoring with 40 points).

Mikael Granlund didn’t practice for a second day in a row and is questionable against the Flyers. Coach Mike Yeo said it’s not the mumps. He said he would have to feel considerably better Tuesday in order to play.

Yeo wouldn’t say which goalie would start. Also, GM Chuck Fletcher told me Keith Ballard won’t need surgery to repair three facial fractures, but he is out indefinitely.

Afternoon from the press room at Xcel Energy Center. I’m back in town and it appears as if nothing has changed.

The Wild, which battles back seemingly nightly in the third period (the continued comebacks are commendable, but they only keep happening because the Wild falls behind almost EVERY game), rallied again in the third before losing in overtime to Nashville. I’ll look up the overall numbers, but the Wild has rallied in four in a row now to tie at some point in the third.

Get five goals on Pekka Rinne, you have to win, so a lot of focus the past few days has understandably been on the below-average goaltending of Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom.

That is fair. Kuemper has been pulled in four of his past five home starts.

The Wild has allowed a league-low 26.5 shots per game and 820 in 31 games. Yet, the Wild’s save percentage is .898. It’s PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage) ranks 25th. Kuemper’s .903 save percentage ranks 52nd in the NHL, Backstrom’s .901 ranks 55th (tied with Vancouver’s Ryan Miller).

According to war-on-ice.com, Kuemper has the fourth-worst even-strength save percentage in the NHL at .897 and second-worst adjusted save percentage (measures shot quality) at .887. Backstrom is seventh-worst there at .899.

The Wild has scored 89 goals in 31 games compared to 72 through 31 games last year. That’s 17 more goals and four fewer points in the standings than 31 games last year, so that tells you something right there.

Last year, whichever goalie the Wild put in there was interchangeable. This year, not so much.

So Yeo said, “Clearly our defensive play is not where it needs to be right now.”

In other words, Yeo knows the goalies need to be better, but he says the defense in front of them and the details of the Wild’s game haven’t been up to par either.

“I’ve never been one to single out a player,” Yeo said. “I always believe it’s a team game. I always believe that’s generally not something that helps players feel better. But I’m not going to sit up here and say that we don’t need a higher save percentage and we don’t need to give up less goals a game.

“That goes without saying. But we’re not helping the situation with some of the play in front of our goalies. You look back to last year and how many goalies came in – whether it was Backy, whether it was Bryzgalov, whether it was Kuemps, take your pick -- we were able to throw different goalies in there and they were able to play well, and that was a credit to those guys, but that was also a huge credit to the structure and the system and the players playing in front of them. That’s what we have to get back to.”

Yeo said, “There’s a lot of details in our game that are missing. Our changes lately, they’ve been terrible. We’re so focused on scoring a goal, … we’ve been stretching our shifts, we’ve been taking longer shifts. We’ve been changing at the wrong time, we’ve been hurting the guys that are coming on the ice because of that and we’ve been giving up goals against because of our changes.”

So Yeo wants more discipline to the Wild’s game.

“We need some mental toughness right now,” Yeo said. “We have to fall back on the things that we’ve done effectively before and the things that have made us a tough team to play against. You have to trust that your teammates are going to do all those little things. And you have to trust that if you do all those things that the result that you do badly want will be there for you.”

I’ll be writing about the goalies mostly in Tuesday’s paper. If you’re expecting a new one to come to the Wild’s rescue, I wouldn’t count on it. Good, capable goalies don’t just become available in the middle of a hockey season, and again, Kuemper cannot be sent to the minors without going through waivers and Backstrom has a no-move clause. So unless the Wild’s willing to carry three goalies – an option, but one that will create little flexibility – it’ll be hard to just add a goalie no matter whom it is.  

Goalie names rumored to be on the trade block include Cam Ward ($6.3 million cap hit this year and next, and he is not the same goalie he once was), Viktor Fasth (his save percentage stats are right around Kuemper and Backstrom, so is it really an upgrade?), maybe Martin Brodeur once Brian Elliott is back (severe downslope of career), Michal Neuvirth, maybe James Reimer.

Also, look at the Miller trade last year. It would take a king’s ransom likely to get a big name, and that sure worked out for St. Louis, didn’t it?

Basically, the Wild needs to figure this out with its current cast of characters (and again, Josh Harding is out of the picture due to sadly effects of multiple sclerosis again).

I talked to Ryan Suter, and he said, “Every team goes through ups and downs. Every team that’s trying to be an elite team year after year, you go through things before you can get to that stage. These are growing pains. I feel we have the right group of guys here. We need to start playing as one from our goaltending out, we have to be better.”

On the goalies, Suter said, “They have to be better. They know that. But we have to help them better. Early in games, we have to be better to limit the chances to get them into games. They want to be better. I know they do. They’re working hard. It’s not like they’re coming to practice and taking it easy. They’re working hard. We just have to be better as a group. The faster we get it figured out, the better off we’ll be.

“I remember last year at this same time we were struggling and things were going downhill, and then we came out of it. Hopefully we can do the same here.”

On the urgency level, Suter said, “Every time you look, other teams are winning and we’re not. You definitely feel that pressure. But there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to try to get the next one. Once we get one, hopefully we can build off of that. We had a solid game against Boston and we blew it. We played a good game. We should have won that game. And then you score five goals against Pekka, you should win that game too. We’re not playing a complete game and we have to be better.”

I got Kuemper alone and he said, “There’s no question about it that me and Backy as a whole, we need to worry about ourselves and get ourselves ready. Just as a team, we’ve got to get back to playing defensively as a unit. If we’re not all on the same page, some breakdowns start happening. I don’t think we’ve been quite on top of that. It starts with the goaltending, but I think everyone as a whole, we need to tighten up.

“Me and Bax, we’ve got to focus on ourselves and be better and give our team a better chance to win every night. I think if everyone gets back to the way we were playing, we’ll be alright here.”

On him personally and his struggles, Kuemper said, “I’ve been playing good hockey on the road. It seems like lately at home there’s been bad luck. You’ve just got to reach back on some older times. This is a building I’ve had a lot of success in and I just have to look back and reflect on those times and get some confidence back here.”

Jason Pominville concurred that it’s frustrating when the Wild has continually shown an uncanny ability to rally in the third and yet isn’t finding the final ability to win routinely. He said the Wild has to figure out a way to grind out a 2-1 win and stop getting in these run and gun games. He said they’ve been way too loose.

Personally, I think the Wild has lost a lot of the detail in its game because it constantly has to open up to rally in these games because it constantly falls behind. And again, that does also have to do with goaltending and how they must be better early in games.

Nothing can derail a team more than goaltending.

But Pominville said, “We’ve got to clog it up defensively. Look at the start of year, puck possession was great, we didn’t play much in our zone. Now we play more in our end and turning pucks over. We have to get back to being tighter defensively.”

Backstrom said, “It’s about winning. Sometimes you start to think too much about winning instead of doing the work and thinking about the way you have to play to win.” So he said the team has to get back to the level of play it should be at and the wins will take care of themselves.

But he said, “We goalies, we have to be better.”

More on all this in Tuesday’s paper. I also hope to talk with Fletcher Tuesday for a state of the team chat.

I'll be on Fox Sports North ++++++++ during Tuesday's game and in the pregame show and I'm filling in for Barreiro on KFAN on Friday from 3-6 p.m. I'll also be in studio with Paul Allen at 9 a.m. Wednesday.

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