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 Wild spent a lot of practice time working on power plays at Xcel this morning. That unit, going into Tuesday night’s game at Nashville, is an NHL-worst on the road (10.2 percent) and hasn’t scored in the past nine road games (despite going 7-1-1). The Wild’s PP is 28th in the league and 3-for-35 in the past 15 games overall.
Chris Miller reporting today, just recalled from Orlando of the National Vacation League. Russo is in Nashville early, apparently to try out for backing vocals on the Patsy Cline revue, so I spent some quality time here in St. Paul wondering who was in charge of handing out coffee. Turns out, it’s bring your own. Who knew?
First, an injury report. Nate Prosser took a hip check in Saturday’s victory at St. Louis and is week-to-week. Coach Mike Yeo says it’s typically a four-week injury (lower body). Christian Folin will replace Prosser on D.
Marco Scandella (oblique) practiced for the first time in a while. He won’t travel to Nashville, but could play by the weekend, he hopes. Ryan Carter (upper body) practiced as well. He has been out since Feb. 9 and is likely to be out another week or so, reading between the lines.
Yeo on Nashville: “Another good test for us. You look at what they’ve done all season long as far as the level of play, the consistency in their game. I know the last game [against the Wild] wasn’t a great outcome for them, but for 40 minutes of that game, they were clearly the better team.”
The Predators have lost eight of 10, a string of futility the Wild started.
Matt Dumba stays on the first power-play unit, adding a strong right-point shot. Ryan Suter is the other point, with Jason Pominville moving up front with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Thomas Vanek stays on the second unit with Mikael Granlund and Chris Stewart up front, and Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon on the points.
“[Dumba’s] shot’s the biggest thing, he’s a threat over there,” Yeo said. “We do like Pommer in the middle of the ice as well, but we also feel there’s a lot of strength on our other unit as well. The ice time will be equal, and both will be able to get out there and show what they can do.”
More on the intricacies of the power play in tomorrow’s paper.
Devan Dubnyk makes his 29th consecutive start in goal, 28th for the Wild. Said he of the Predators: “Possible first round opponent for us, some any time we have an opportunity to go in and feel good about ourselves, it’s a big step. “
Scandella on his time away from action: “Been watching 'Sons of Anarchy,' weather has been nice in Minnesota, so I’ve been going for walks, getting away from the game mentally. But it was great to get back with the boys.”
No “Sons” for Carter, who has two daughters: “A lot of daddy time, so that’s been the silver lining, hanging out with the girls a little more than usual.”
Unlike Russo, I have no radio appearances or podcasts to promote, just have to get back to the office to pack up for our big move to the Cappella Tower. Maybe there’ll be leftover cake from Sid’s 95th birthday, which he celebrated last night by working.
Late last night, I had a conversation with Kurt Kleinendorst, who lost his job Sunday night as head coach of the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines. See this blog for that news.
Following a loss to Chicago that put Iowa’s record at 2-10, Kleinendorst met with Wild director of minor-league operations Jim Mill and was informed of the team’s decision that he was being dismissed as coach. It left a sour end to Kleinendort’s 29th wedding anniversary to wife, Deon.
After finishing last in the AHL’s Western Conference last year, this was Kleinendorst’s 25th year as a hockey coach and it was by far his toughest.
Kleinendorst said he’s disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated and relieved that it’s over. He says the Wild had little choice but to let him go. Whatever he tried the past two years didn’t work with a group that wasn’t responding to him in Iowa, so now it’s his friend John Torchetti’s chance to retake the reins of a struggling team that lacks confidence right now.
Here is a Q and A with the 53-year-old who now will enjoy eight months of paid vacation:
On getting fired: “It’s interesting. I’ve never been through it. You watch your peers go through it and you feel for them because it’s not fun obviously. These are high-profile positions. At the end of the day I do appreciate that [GM Chuck Fletcher] gave me an opportunity in the first place.”
Were you surprised? “Oh no, Jim and I, we go back, and anybody that knows me, would agree that I can self-evaluate. He and I have actually been having dialogue for some time because it’s been such a struggle. Since Day One, it’s been a struggle. You can’t let something like this go on too long. I understand that. The last thing any organization wants is for their young kids to be developing in a losing environment because it’s not healthy. We tried and tried and tried. We tried pretty much everything. At the end of the day, what options are left? This is what’s left, so I get it. I totally get it. I understand. I’m disappointed, but I understand why they felt they needed to do what they needed to do. I’m completely on board with it. It’s just disappointing because generally at some point you’d expect you’d get your players to kick a little bit, and it just didn't happen and that bothers me."
Why not? Looking at your career, this hasn’t happened to you at any level? Are the kids not the right kids? “I’ve been with these guys every day. I’ve got a good idea of why, but I’m going to keep that to myself. I will say this though: This needed to be done. Now Chuck is going to know it was either the guy behind the bench or it was the players out on the ice. What is it? So at the end of the day, Jimmy, Chuck, they’re in a good situation because they will be able to determine if it was the guy behind the bench or just maybe we’re not as good in Iowa as we think we are. It’s got to be one or the other. I totally understand that. I think the time was right-you just could not let this continue to fester.”
Can Torch jumpstart this team? “Torch and I go way back. I was in Raleigh when he was that taxicab driver (see previous blog for context). I love Torch. He’s a friend. I think he’s the right guy to come in and do what Chuck and Jim need him to do, plus he’s got a relationship with some of these players already from Houston, so I think that will be helpful. He’s a no-nonsense guy most of the time. I’m a no-nonsense guy most of the time with less bite and I think this group needs that extra bite. I think they need a guy that is going to be a miserable jerk, and I think Torch can be that guy – and trust me, that’s no disrespect to Torch. He's a solid person. You have to be who you are. The year that we won the [Calder] Cup [in Binghamton], I had a group of guys that connected with me. They wanted to play for me. They appreciated to be coached the way I coach. My Calder Cup year we did have a group that responded to my approach. That's how you win. Not every team is the right fit for every coach and vice versa. This group, I think they need 90 percent jerk. Maybe that's what they deserve and that’s what he’s going to give them. I will always be true to myself and stick to what I believe in.
They just didn’t connect to you? “It bothers me. It’s not often that I have a group that isn't willing to push for me. It does come down to the willingness to do what you’re being challenged to do. We challenged and we challenged and we challenged, and most every player will tell you, we put our time in, we did everything we thought would help this group click, and it just didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen. You get to a point where you have a big cloud over the locker room, and the only way you’re going to get rid of that cloud is by winning, by making a trade or by getting rid of a coach. And in this league and at this time of the year, it’s not the easiest thing to trade players. And you don’t want to be trading assets for the sake of the American League anyway, you really don’t.”
How tough was it with the Wild’s top-end prospects being in the NHL most of your tenure and guys shuttling back and forth because of injuries? “The NHL, we all know, is the best league in the world, but the hardest league to coach is the AHL in my opinion. No. 1 you’ve got a bunch of guys that don’t want to be here and a bunch of them who don’t think they should be here. That's an interesting dynamic in itself. You’ve got guys at all different developmental levels. You’ve got your veteran guys that get it, you’ve got your middle of the road guys that some get it and some don't but think they do, and you’ve got your young, developing guys that are just happy to be in the locker room. I mean, it’s a tough, tough league to coach, and that’s what makes it such a great challenge. But there are some good pieces here for sure. Justin Falk, Brett Sutter, Stephane Veilleux played their hearts out for me and are the veteran depth guys that every NHL team needs: Mark Hagel, Zack Mitchell are all in. Listen, when you’re winning, you’re not going to find out anything about anybody-not when things are going well. Anybody can be a good boy and a positive person and be uplifting when things are going your way. It’s when things aren’t going your way when we’re really going to find out about ourselves. Justin Falk is an unbelievable character. Brett Sutter is an unbelievable character. Stephane Veilleux is an unbelievable character. These are guys, that fought for me and their teammates every day, and as a coach, I respect that and appreciate that.
“You’ve got a third of your group, your core leaders, you've got your middle third and then you've got your bottom third. Your bottom third is generally your young kids, the middle third are the group of guys that could go either way. What we weren’t able to get to was, we had a really strong upper group, but we just couldn’t get the middle group to come up and join them, and because of that, you can’t get the bottom third to get pulled to the middle. But Falky, Sutter, Steph, I can’t express enough how much I appreciate them for what they did. Justin has come far. He's the one guy that I will walk away feeling the best about. In some very difficult circumstances, he's a guy that stepped up, did everything I asked of him. He wanted to be part of the solution and was a guy who was pulling for me, trying to make it work, and his game grew the most. Isn’t that how it is supposed to work? Listen, put in the time, work hard and grow. Crazy how that works. He’s taken a big step in getting back to the NHL. And Sutsy, you wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”
Can Torch turn this around though? “They’re bringing in the right guy. Don’t expect him to flip it in a day. The guys are just not in a good place right now. It’s more than likely going to take a little time.”
What’s next for you? “I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I feel bad that this didn’t work out. If there could have been a comedy of errors in a bad way, it would have been the start to this season- nothing went our way. It was almost like it was never meant to be-if you believe in such things. I have a daughter who is a grad assistant coach in Vermont at Castleton College so I’m going to go out and spend some time with her. We’ve got a place out in Park City I will get out there.
“When I left on Sunday, I was disappointed and embarrassed. I always feel that your teams are a reflection of you, and this team was by no means a reflection of me. It was difficult to get this group to buy in to what I needed them to do and I own that. I won't pass that off on anyone. I was disappointed, and in the end embarrassed for the way we were playing, but I was also relieved that it was over. It was like we had tried everything and it wasn’t happening-it happens. Time to move on from a bad experience. Plenty of good coaches have been let go and come back to have success. [Devils GM Lou Lamoriello] taught me to be a good self-evaluator and I believe I do. I know everything that needed to be done and what I could control was done.
“I’m going to take some time. I won't come back to coaching until my belly’s burning and I'm excited to get behind the bench again. My belly’s not burning right now. Hockey is a great game and coaching’s such a great profession. I’ve got something to offer. We'll just have to wait and see where that will be.”
With the Iowa Wild off to an American Hockey League-worst 2-10 start after finishing last in the Western Conference a year ago, Kurt Kleinendorst is out as head coach of the Wild’s minor-league affiliate, sources say.
The Wild has tabbed John Torchetti as Kleinendorst’s replacement, according to sources, and he will be on the ice to coach the Baby Wild during Tuesday’s practice. Torchetti, 50, who won a Stanley Cup as a Chicago Blackhawks assistant in 2010, returns to the Wild after coaching the Houston Aeros to back-to-back postseason berths. He was supposed to relocate with the team to Des Moines, but he exercised an out clause to take a job in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League last year.
Kleinendorst, 53, was informed of the Wild’s decision by director of minor-league operations Jim Mill after Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Wolves. An announcement is expected Tuesday morning.
The Iowa Wild, despite such prospects as Tyler Graovac, Kurtis Gabriel, Zack Phillips and Brett Bulmer and skilled players like Jordan Schroeder, Michael Keranen and Zack Mitchell, averages only 2.25 goals per game, has allowed 3.8 goals per game and has won once at home.
Johan Gustafsson is off to a 2-6 start with a 3.70 goals-against average and .884 save percentage.
It’s been more and more clear the past few weeks that General Manager Chuck Fletcher was growing increasingly displeased with Iowa’s play and was worried about the development of some of its prospects would stall.
After the latest loss Sunday, Kleinendorst was quoted on Tom Witosky’s Twitter account (@toskyAHLWild) regarding the season’s tough start, “Trust me I know. It hurts. It is not pretty. Obviously, it is a huge, huge reflection on me.”
Assistant coach Steve Poapst and the rest of Iowa’s staff was retained.
Kleinendorst, a Grand Rapids, Minn., native, came to the Wild after coaching the University of Alabama-Huntsville for one year. The longtime New Jersey Devils assistant coach was a finalist for the Aeros’ head-coaching position in 2010. It went to now-Wild coach Mike Yeo instead, and Kleinendorst was hired by the Ottawa Senators to coach their AHL affiliate in Binghamton. Coincidentally, Kleinendorst’s Baby Sens rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to beat Yeo’s Aeros before Yeo came to Minnesota.
Torchetti, 50, coached CSKA Moscow last year after having an out clause in his Wild contract with the Aeros. At the time, Fletcher said Torchetti couldn’t pass up a “huge deal,” but he apparently left after one year because of the unrest politically in Russia last year. Torchetti went 32-20-2 in Moscow.
Torchetti's Houston Aeros went 75-51-26 in two seasons. He has been an interim head coach with the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings (so he has been through transitions before) and has been an assistant with Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Chicago.
He has got almost 20 years of pro coaching experience, spending time in the ECHL, CHL (Coach of the Year in 1995 in San Antonio), IHL (Coach of the Year in 1998 in Fort Wayne), AHL and NHL, and was also a minor-league general manager.
From my Torchetti hired blog a few years back:
He’s a former minor-league goal scorer who got his career started playing for Rick Dudley for the old Atlantic Coast League’s Carolina Thunderbirds in the mid-80s. Dudley used to drive the buses and Torchetti would sit in the front seat and stay up every night ‘til 3 or 4 in the morning talking hockey and life with Dudley. They’ve been tight ever since.
When Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr ran the San Antonio minor-league franchise for Florida, Torchetti was the head coach and they became good friends.
Torchetti is a guy who worked for free in his first coaching job in Greensboro. On the side, he drove a taxi to earn a living. He hails from Northeast and has the thickest Boston accent you’ve ever heard, so get ready for that.
Mike Yeo has agreed to a three-year contract extension to continue coaching the Wild. His contract was set to expire June 30.
“Very well-deserved,” first-line left wing Zach Parise, who led the Wild in playoff scoring, said during a phone interview. “I think he did a really good job – [the entire coaching staff] all did a really good job – down the stretch for us, especially in the playoffs. I mean, we were really prepared. We knew exactly what to expect. We exploited weaknesses. It’s a big chess game, the playoffs. I think they did a really good job making adjustments on the fly. It was real impressive.”
You can hear more from Parise in Sunday's paper. Here's a preview.
Here is the link to my story in Saturday's paper.
"I am very excited to continue to coach the Minnesota Wild and pursue a Stanley Cup for the State of Hockey,” Yeo said in a press release. “Our fan support has been amazing and it went to a new level during the playoffs this season. We are all motivated to reward them.”
“Mike has done a very good job the last three seasons as our Head Coach and we look forward to his leadership going forward,” said GM Chuck Fletcher in the press release.
The Wild will hold a news conference Thursday because Yeo, Fletcher, assistant GM Brent Flahr and a few Wild executives traveled to Exuma, Bahamas, to conduct budgetary meetings at owner Craig Leipold's home.
This is the precursor to organizational meetings that will occur June 9. That’s when the coaches, front office personnel and pro scouts meet to evaluate the past season and prepare for the next season. There, the Wild will discuss which of its unrestricted free agents it should try to re-sign (I still believe defenseman Clayton Stoner and forward Cody McCormick are the likeliest), which unrestricted free agents it is interested in pursuing, which players on the trade market it may be interested in pursuing and which of its players it should dangle on the trade market.
Yeo coached the Wild to the postseason in two of three years. He is 104-82-26 (.552 points percentage) in three years. The Wild ranks 10th in the NHL in wins since the start of the 2012-13 season and is one of 11 teams to advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs the last two seasons.
In other news, if the Wild doesn’t sign 2012 fifth-round pick Daniel Gunnarsson by Sunday, the Wild loses the big defenseman's rights and he can reenter the NHL draft. He has already re-signed to play Farjestads the next two seasons, so even if he signs, he will likely remain there. The Wild hasn't talked with his reps since Friday. In the old days, teams would own the rights for all European draft picks for 10 years. Not anymore. It’s two just like North American non-collegiates. Of the 2012 draft picks, Matt Dumba and Raphael Bussieres are signed, John Draeger (Michigan State), Adam Gilmour (Boston College) and Louis Nanne (RPI) are in college and Christoph Bertschy is considered a defected player (there’s no Swiss/NHL agreement right now, so like Russia, teams keep their rights beyond the normal two years).
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