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.
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Good evening from a snowy Minnesota.
I’ll be on Fox 9 Sports Now tonight with Dawn Mitchell at 10:15, KFAN on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and a live podcast with Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan at souhanunfiltered.com at 3 p.m.
Big home and home with the Winnipeg Jets starting Saturday night. If the 10th-place Wild, which is 5-6-3 in its past 14 games, can manage to win both games in regulation, it’ll be four points back of the Jets with three games in hand. Lose both in regulation, and the hole digs to 12 points.
You can read my state-of-the-team story with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher at this link, but as I mentioned a few times this week, Fletcher did a state-of-the-team interview with the beat writers Tuesday night during the second intermission (so time was a little restrained).
Here’s the transcript:
What’s your assessment of the first 32 games? “I think it’s been two different seasons so far. The first month we played as well as any team in the league. We dominated games, we didn’t always score, the power play was poor, but we were arguably as good a team as any the first month. The last month or so we’ve gotten away from our game a bit. I think we have players that are struggling, that have lost their confidence, that are trying to find their game again, which certainly we’ve seen a lot of plays that are uncharacteristic of certain players. To me the big thing is, and Mike [Yeo] says this a lot, but to me we’re focused more on the result than the process. And by that I mean I think we’ve lost our way a little bit in terms of simple things. Retrievals need to be better, wall play needs to be better, we need to manage the puck better, reading the situation and getting pucks in deep instead of trying to make a play. Our net front has been very inconstant in the offensive zone. Middle lane drive, we’re very inconsistent in that area.
Just the little facets of the game, the little details of the game, and that was such a strength of our team last year. And right now, whether it’s guys trying to go out and make a big play every shift to make a difference, maybe it’s because we’re trailing in games, but we don’t seem to have the patience to play the right game, stay within our structure and let things come to us. We’re always forcing things and as a result I think we’ve gotten away from what we are. We’re making too many unforced errors and the confidence is starting to wane. So it’s sort of been a tale of two seasons. The fortunate thing is we still have 50 games to go. We have a long way to go. From a positive standpoint, you look at it and we’re still in the top 5 teams in the league in puck possession metrics, our shot differential is high, we’re scoring a lot of goals. On paper to me, this is the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here. On paper, to me, there’s a lot of positives. But we need to stick with things longer. Frustration has creeped into the game which tends to happen when you’re not getting the results you want. But if we can stick with it longer, we will get the results even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.”
You didn’t mention goaltending? “I think our defense has been a problem the last month. And everything has been a part of it. Our forwards have not done a good enough job defensively. Our defensemen are making way too many uncharacteristic mistakes and we’re not getting enough saves. So it’s a complete team effort. I know the goalies have become a lightning rod for criticism for our defensive play. But to single them out and absolve the other 18 skaters would be a huge mistake. It’s a total team effort right now, but we have a lot of confidence in both guys. Darcy [Kuemper] is a guy that’s been successful at every level he’s played at and he’s been successful in this league. We have no doubt he’s going to be a top-notch goalie in this league. There’s going to be ups and downs. We know that. We said that before the season any time you have a 24-year-old goalie. And again, we’re going to ride these things out. In Nik’s case (Backstrom), he missed a lot of hockey last year and has come back and given us some pretty good play and he’s trying to get his rhythm again, get his game again. It bothers me a little bit when we separate the goaltenders from the rest of the play. We’ve given some unbelievable chances against and chances we don’t typically give.”
How much do you need to add a defenseman pretty quickly with a third pair that’s only getting seven or eight minutes a game? “We’ll see. I think a part of that is we’ve had a light schedule. We’ve been at home, then have two or three days between games. So I think the coaching staff has loaded up our big guys with a few more minutes. But I think [Justin] Falk and [Nate] Prosser have played well. I think [Christian] Folin is a pretty good young player. We’ll have to monitor [Keith] Ballard’s health. But in a normal situation where you’re playing three of four games per week, you wouldn’t see those kind of minutes there.”
Are trade talks heating up around the NHL? “I think it’s the same as every year where most of the stuff will happen closer to the deadline. I don’t know why this year would be any different. We might see a few tweaks here and there. It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of teams either in LTI (long-term injury relief) or very close to the cap. Money and cap space is a big factor right now.”
How important are these next two games against Winnipeg? “Well, every game is important right now. I mean, we’re chasing. We have games in hand on the teams ahead of us, but we’re behind in the standings, so every game’s important now. It’s no different than what it's been last year and the year before. It seems like we seem to be in this situation. We’ve never had really any off nights since I’ve been here. Every night’s been a battle. They’re two important games, but we’re still going to have 47, 48 odd games after that, so again, we’ve just got to stick with it. If we keep getting caught up in the results on any given night and any given shift, I think you get in trouble. And that’s what we have to get back to, just get back to the basics, the details, play the game the right way, be patient. It’s not always going to work out, but more times than not, it will. I feel right now we’re rushing things, we’re getting ahead of things and that’s a dangerous, dangerous game to play.”
How frustrated are you though that you’re in this position again scratching and clawing for the eighth spot? This was supposed to be the year to join the top tier. “We still have some time to go. We’ll see. Every team is going to go through tough stages in the season and the last month we’ve been a fairly inconsistent team. We’ve done some good things, too. This team has shown a lot of resiliency this year. We’ve battled back from a lot of deficits and there’s a pretty strong heartbeat in that room. There’s a lot of character in that room. And I think there’s a lot of talent in that room. So that’s what keeps me optimistic and I think we can get the details in our game back, we’ve got to get that trust back and we’re just going to have to work through this stretch and hopefully we can get through it pretty quickly.”
Is there any way the GM can make a spark now with a trade? “Well, I like our group. Every year since I’ve been here, we’ve routinely got outshot, we routinely can’t score goals. We dominate most games we play in, our goal scoring’s getting better. Now we’ve got to get our defensive structure back, get back to the details of the game, but I think anybody’s that has watched our team this year sees the talent and the ability of the team. It’s a good hockey team and right now we just have to get back to doing what we do well.”
How concerned are you with the play of youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula? “I think that’s symptomatic of every young guy of every sport in every league throughout the world. That’s just what happens. Every league’s a tough league, and hockey’s no different. And we have some of them playing really well, and some of them not playing as well. But maybe the second half it switches. The guys that are hot now, maybe they struggle the second half. It’s a hard league. You look around, every team has that. It’s not something that was unexpected.”
What do you want to see here the next 50 games? “I just want to see us play the right way and just trust each other, trust themselves and trust the system. That trust is lacking right now. We had an expression last year or slogan last year, ‘When it’s your turn.’ Basically it meant when you were on the ice and you were in position to do the right thing, you do it, whether that was a middle lane drive or whether it was net front or whether it was taking a hit to make a play, whether it was going back and making the right retrieval or making the right decision with the puck and sometimes there was sacrifice involved. We have to get that team orientation back and getting everybody focused on the process, doing things the right way, and if you do that, things will take care of themselves. You can’t go out every night and say geez, ‘We lost last game, now we’ve got to go out and start off right away and score right away.’ Just go play the right way. Stick with it and show some patience. The longer it goes, the more the frustration builds, but we’ve had these before and we’ve popped out of it before and we’ll pop out of this one, too.”
How do you feel Thomas Vanek is fitting in? “I think he’s getting better every week. I think it’s been a big adjustment coming to the Western Conference. It’s a lot different hockey in the Eastern Conference. He’s had some challenges on and off the ice. I think he’s getting better on a weekly basis. His production’s getting better, his attention to detail’s getting better. He’s never going to win the Selke Trophy, we all know that, but every night you see more and more examples of him grasping what we’re trying to do away from the puck.”
Is Mike Yeo safe? “Oh my God. I’m not even going to answer that. … Yeo’s absolutely safe. The coaches have done a great job. That’s a quote.”
So the gist of what you’re saying is you believe in this team, a roster shakeup is doubtful and plan to stay the course? “You can’t every time you go through a little slump or have your struggles look to the outside and airlift somebody in and assume they’re going to solve all your problems for you. You’ve got to battle through. That’s part of the process of learning how to win. You have to learn how to win. Learning how to win means you have to see your mistakes and overcome adversity. It’s all the clichés, but especially with young players, this is how they grow, this is how they gain experience. To me, it would be the wrong time and the wrong message.”
That's it for now. Talk to ya after the morning skates Saturday.
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.
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.
With Darcy Kuemper sidelined because of illness, the Wild is bringing John Curry up from Iowa of the AHL to back up goalie Niklas Backstrom tonight against Boston.
At least that's the plan -- Backstrom wasn't 100 percent himself in last night's 5-3 loss at Chicago, but coach Mike Yeo hopes Backstrom can play in tonight's game.
Curry has a 3.02 goals against average in 12 games for Iowa, and a .911 saves percentage. He played in two games for the Wild near the end of last season.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who missed the past two games because of illness, should return to the lineup tonight for the Wild.
The illnesses of Spurgeon, Kuemper and Backstrom were flu-like in nature, but were not the mumps.
CHICAGO – Hours ago, Darcy Kuemper lay on the ground between defensemen Marco Scandella and Christian Folin doing his normal stretch routine in preparation to start tonight’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The goalie was bubbly and even shot the breeze, talking about the time he lost a personal-record 10 pounds of water weight during a start.
Well, something happened between 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. because Niklas Backstrom will get the surprise start tonight vs. Chicago.
There is a stomach bug going around the Wild that has caused Charlie Coyle to miss a recent practice and Jared Spurgeon his second game tonight. And, of course there’s the mumps, but it's not the mumps.
During coach Mike Yeo’s availability two hours before the game, Yeo confirmed that Kuemper was starting at the exact moment Backstrom walked out of the locker room to begin his pregame slow-walk routine when he’s the starter around the bowels of United Center. In hindsight, that was strange.
Then, after Backstrom led the Wild onto the ice, General Manager Chuck Fletcher wouldn’t disclose what was wrong with Kuemper other than to say he would back up.
But during warmups, Kuemper didn’t move from his spot near the red line until the very end when he skated to the crease and basically stood stationary so players had a target to shoot around.
Must be something around the United Center. Remember, two years ago, Backstrom aggravated an abdominal injury in warmups prior to Game 1 and Josh Harding, who had just returned from weeks away with complications from multiple sclerosis, had to start the series.
The Wild hosts the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, so Backstrom may have to start consecutive games. If Kuemper is unable to dress, John Curry and Johan Gustafsson have a game tonight in Iowa.
In other news, Yeo said before the game that Spurgeon, Ryan Carter and Matt Cooke all skates this morning. Yeo didn't know if Spurgeon would be able to play tomorrow. Carter (shoulder) and Cooke (hip) may return Saturday vs. Nashville.
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