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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Posts about Wild practice

Angry Mike Yeo: "We're tired of being on the cusp;" Zach Parise concurs

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 12, 2014 - 6:31 PM

It happened much later in the year, but last season when the Wild arrived in Arizona after getting waxed in St. Louis for a ninth loss in 12 games (3-5-4), the leaders took charge.

The Wild had a CBA-mandated day off in Glendale. Captain Mikko Koivu and assistants Zach Parise and Ryan Suter wanted to practice and met with the coaches at planeside. They were told the team wasn’t allowed to do that.

So instead of wasting the fun day playing golf or lounging by the pool, Koivu, Parise and Suter met for breakfast (Ilya Bryzgalov actually joined), talked about the state of the team, each grabbed different individuals for one-on-one’s and then held a players-only meeting the night before playing the Coyotes at the team hotel.

The Wild rallied in the third the next night to beat the Coyotes en route to a 6-0-1 mark in seven games to clinch a playoff spot. That meeting was credited with largely saving the season and rallying the team together.

To refresh your memory of the meeting, see here.

The Wild’s back in Glendale for the first time since. It’s 2-2-1 in its past five after last night’s 2-1 loss at San Jose and 4-4-1 in its past nine. It is stuck in 10th place in the West, five points behind sixth, seventh and eighth-place Calgary, Winnipeg and San Jose. The Wild has played three fewer games than Calgary and Winnipeg, four fewer than San Jose, BUT this was a team that was supposed to take the next step this season and join the top tier in the West.

At least, that was the expectation.

Today, prior to practice starting, an angry Mike Yeo gathered his team around him in a semicircle by the penalty boxes at the former Glendale Arena. And he ripped into his team during a passionate two- or three-minute diatribe sprinkled with colorful language.

Yeo was fired up. The message? It’s time for the Wild to get its act together, to wake up, to help each other, push and prod each other, challenge each other if that’s what it takes. It’s time for the Wild to stop underachieving and become the team everybody thinks it’s capable of being.

Yeo started practice early because he didn’t want the media to be in the rink when he did this. I just happened to walk to the arena early because after my 3:45 a.m. wakeup call, if I had hung out in my hotel room, I would have passed out.

So myself and few others heard everything, which Yeo didn’t intend and wasn’t exactly thrilled about. He sarcastically called it a “pep talk” afterward.

The gist of what Yeo was trying to convey to his team? Basically what I wrote last weekend here:

“We’re tired of being on the cusp, we’re tired of being close. And we need to demand better than what we’ve been bringing,” Yeo said. “We’re better than what we’ve been showing consistently. We can look at last game and we can say we were close and we could have won the game, but we can’t accept saying that.

“We’ve got a lineup [Saturday] that’s capable of coming in here and winning a hockey game and that’s got to be our focus.”

He continued later, “It would be a mistake to not think that our backs aren’t against the wall a little bit here. We’re behind. We’re not at the level and we’re not where we want to be right now. If that’s the motivation we need, that’s fine. Let’s use it. We should not be accepting of where we’re at right now and we need to demand more.”

Parise, who met with Yeo in the hotel courtyard for awhile before practice, said Yeo’s lambasting to the struggling team was “probably long overdue.”

“We can’t keep going on playing the way we have been lately,” Parise continued. “We’re going to find ourselves on the outside looking in for the rest of the year if we keep it up, so at some point we have to collectively find ways to play better, to be a better team. We’ve been very mediocre for a long time.”

It does seem like this team’s MO is to not play better until its back is against that proverbial wall, which is frustrating for every one of you fans watching and everybody internally on the team.

Parise said, “You don’t want to put yourself in that situation where you’re forced to string together eight wins just to have a sniff. Regardless of the games in hand, we’re still five points back from Winnipeg. That’s not good enough. We should be better. We’re underachieving. It had to be addressed. Like I said, it was long overdue.”

I asked him what’s wrong with this team.

“I don’t know if I could sit here and pinpoint one or two things,” Parise said. “I don’t know if it would be healthy for anyone to sit here and try to analyze and pinpoint and tell you guys what we think is wrong. I don’t think that’s healthy for anyone. But as individuals, we all have to be better. We’re not playing with any excitement right now. That’s really been hurting us. There’ just no excitement to our game. It’s been flat, you know? It’s just been flat. So we’ve got to find a way to address that and start feeling good about how we’re playing.

“We win one, we lose one. We haven’t really had a chance to string anything together and feel good about the way we’re playing.”

Reminded of last year’s players’ meeting and how it seemed to jumpstart the languishing team, Parise said he hoped Yeo’s urging today will do the same.

“I don’t think anyone can argue with the fact of how we’ve been playing and how it just hasn’t been acceptable,” Parise said. “We expect a lot more out of ourselves. But as individuals we all have to be better. You can’t sit around and hope someone else will do it and each guy has to do his job better and help out the next guy. That’s how you get through this.”

The top two lines of Parise-Mikael Granlund-Thomas Vanek and Jason Zucker-Koivu-Jason Pominville were the same today. The third and fourth lines were tinkered with Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Justin Fontaine and Ryan Carter-Erik Haula-Kyle Brodziak.

The No. 1 power-play unit was tinkered with Coyle on the top unit as the net-front guy and Granlund, who was not good at all on the power play last night, on the second. Zucker was off of it.

I had a long talk with Coyle today and will probably hold all that for my game notebook Saturday for Sunday. When Parise mentioned no excitement in the game, I thought of Coyle. He has no goals since Oct. 23, is playing with little confidence and it’s showing. He’s just moseying around right now and is bigtime down on himself.

Yeo said part of putting him on that one unit is to simplify things and create a get the puck to the net mentality, which is how the Wild scored most its goals against the Islanders. Crashing the net, etc.

Frankly, I think it’s well beyond time for Niederreiter on the No. 1 unit. But Yeo clearly is trying to jolt Coyle into some sort of life here.

“We need Charlie right now,” Yeo said. “He’s not unlike a lot of players and our entire group. If things haven’t gone well, that’s fine. Well what are we going to do? Are we going to push through it and find a way and demand that things turn around or are we just going to keep on looking in the rearview mirror?”

Yeo said Coyle’s lack of points for six weeks is a function of everything and a “contributing factor as to why other parts of his game are suffering.”

Yeo believes Coyle is putting pressure on himself because of the contract extension in October, which Coyle doesn’t buy and says isn’t a factor. But he agrees he’s in a bigtime funk and needs to be better.

Yeo wouldn’t divulge if he’s coming back with Darcy Kuemper on Saturday or if Niklas Backstrom, who is usually outstanding at Arizona (8-5-0 with a 2.09 GAA, .939 SV% and one shutout in 13 career starts), will start.

The Coyotes have lost eight in a row at home and seven of eight overall.

Yeo said it would be a huge mistake for the Wild to look at Arizona as a reeling team and said the Wild should expect the Coyotes’ best, especially after getting smoked to Nashville on Thursday.

I'll be on KFAN in seconds. Bye.

Wild worried about Keith Ballard's future; Matt Martin debate; Marco Scandella suspended 2 games

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 10, 2014 - 7:22 PM

UPDATED

Good late afternoon from Northern California, where it’s the calm before the storm, I guess.

Some Super Storm is predicted to slam the Bay Area on Thursday. I grew up in South Florida, so I’m accustomed to terrible rainy weather and gusty winds and, frankly, hurricanes, so I’m not too concerned. But I’m not exactly sure how the Silicon Valley handles such events, and people here seem to be in freak-out mode and the weather reports from the National Weather Service do appear daunting.

It’s supposed to be an absolute mess here Thursday, so wish everybody luck and let’s hope everyone’s safe. As of now, most everybody says it’s very unlikely that the game would be cancelled, but as the San Jose Mercury News’ David Pollak reminded me today, San Jose has scrapped a game because of rain (actually flooding) before in 1995.

Onward.

Thoughts here again are with Keith Ballard, who is such a good guy and just continues to have horrible luck with injuries. The latest is serious and could be season-altering at a minimum and career-threatening at a maximum.

He has three facial fractures and a concussion. Once the swelling goes down, doctors will decide whether or not Ballard needs surgery. He has been released from the hospital and is resting at home.

Even Chuck Fletcher admitted his concern. When I asked whether Ballard may not play again this season (which would likely mean at a minimum his Wild career is in danger because he’s in the final year of his contract), the Wild GM said, “This is serious. He’s had concussions before. I don’t know how many. We’re worried about that. Bones will heal. I don’t mean to make light of it, but his face will heal. But his hand was sticking right up. He was convulsing. This was scary. You could even see the reaction of the Islanders’ bench.  They weren’t standing over him mocking him. They were scared.”

Thomas Vanek, Ballard’s close friend and former Gophers teammate, visited Ballard at the hospital last night.

“He was in good spirits,” Vanek said. “It’s tough for him because I’m sure you know his history with injuries. I thought he was an important player for us vocally and on the ice he was doing well, so it’s another setback for him. That’s why you feel bad for him. But I was encouraged how well he was actually doing.”

As you know by now, Matt Martin won’t be suspended. The league felt that when Ballard turned to avoid the hit, he put himself in a vulnerable position and that directly contributed to the incident and subsequent injury.

Fletcher didn’t want to comment, probably because he could be fined more than he’s worth.

Yeo said, “I’m not going to argue with the league on this one and I’m sure people on the Islanders’ side of the coin would be looking at things differently, but for me, it’s our player, it’s our teammate. When I looked at it, I know that Bally was in a bit of a vulnerable position. He may have turned into it a little bit, but at the same time, I see a player launching himself at him at an area close to the boards. The more I watch it, and again it’s hard to watch, when it’s your teammate, you don’t like those.”

A few players said they felt Martin is a left winger and hit Ballard along the right-wing boards, meaning he traveled 70 feet to deliver the hit. I do think he was on a line change though, and as I said last night and this morning, I just think it’s a reckless, needless hit. I know this is a game of finishing your check. I know as (coincidentally) former Sharks serial illegal hitter Bryan Marchment once said, if you don’t want to get hit, play tennis (or something like that).

But Ballard dumps the puck in the corner 100 feet away. He’s next to the boards. I don’t get why he needs to be hit late. Like I said this morning, the league considers seven-tenths of a second after a player releases the puck late. This, the league says, was half-a-second.

“I thought it was maybe even a little late, but it’s tough to tell because you really slow it down to watch it,” Yeo said. But he added, “He’s seeking him out. He’s on a mission there.”

Obviously, all fans are going to see this in their prism. Just look at my Twitter mentions today and I’m sure the blog and article comments. If you’re an Islander fan, Martin’s a saint. Scandella’s a devil. Wild fans say the opposite.

Of course, Martin has two suspensions to Scandella’s zero (well, for another few hours at least; more on that later).

Obviously an emotional topic. Look, even former congressman Anthony Weiner, an Islander fan, joined the fray and expressed his opinion.

My opinion? Who cares? It doesn’t matter. If the NHL suspends Matt Martin, what’s that do for the Wild? It’s a waste of your time to even get all angered. Just hope for Ballard’s recovery.

Wild plays the Sharks Thursday.

Scandella won't be playing because he was suspended two games for an illegal check to Brock Nelson’s head. 

After practice and before his hearing, Scandella didn’t want to comment until Thursday. He pleaded the fifth, so to speak.

“Obviously we’re hoping he’s not suspended. He’s a huge part of our team,” Yeo said after practice.

But two head shots in 10 days, the league won’t be letting him off the hook. The Wild’s clearly guessing two games.

In the NHL video which can be seen here, the league says the main point of contact was Nelson's head, that his jaw absorbed the brunt of it, that head contact was avoidable and it noted how Scandella was just fined for a similar hit on T.J. Oshie 10 days ago.

Scandella loses $11,021.50 in salary (two days pay out of 186 days this season). Luckily for him, his recent extension doesn't kick in til next October.

If he's suspended again in the next 18 months, he'll lose game checks.

So, Christian Folin will draw into the game Thursday and if Scandella is suspended, so will Justin Falk. Asked why Falk over Matt Dumba or Jon Blum, Yeo said with Ballard and Scandella out, the Wild loses two left-shot D and with San Jose and Arizona (Saturday’s opponent) heavy teams, having a big body that can skate and shoot was the deciding factor.

Sounds like Darcy Kuemper will return to the net Thursday even though Niklas Backstrom was in the cage for the Islanders win.

“Still discussing that a little bit. We’ll wait ‘til [Thursday] to announce our decision,” Yeo said. “Looking at a couple different decisions – the opponent that we’re playing, Backy coming off a game that he should feel rea; good about, he should feel real good about and we’ll evaluate everything.

“We’ve got a pretty good idea which way we’re going.”

Yeo made crystal clear if Kuemper plays, this isn’t so much allowing him to bounce back from the Anaheim loss but more so Backstrom’s 1-9-1 record with a 3.63 goals-against average lifetime at San Jose.

The Wild, by the way, has won four of its past five on the road BUT is 2-11-2 in its past 15 in this glorious city.

Yeo talked a lot again how Wild players stepped up after the Ballard incident – Mikael Granlund challenging Kyle Okposo, a fiery Mikko Koivu with everyone from referee Brad Meier to every Islander and Kyle Brodziak fighting Martin.

“The way  that we came out after that, it said a lot to me and I hope we can continue to with that same kind of passion that we played with the rest of the game,” Yeo said. “I could feel it on the bench. That stuff’s contagious when guys take themselves out of their comfort zone and they’re making a statement to the rest of the group, ‘if you mess with one of us, then you’re going to have to deal with the entire group.’”

Vanek said, “It just shows obviously guys care and respect Bally. Everyone stepped up in that way. Only time will tell how significant that game is, but not just getting wins, but showing those battles out of those guys, that can go a long way.”

Brodziak said he has never seen a scene like Ballard on the ice.

“It was scary,” he said.

On fighting Martin, Brodziak said, “Someone had to do something. You definitely don’t want to be a team that just lets things like that happen. We all care for each other and I know if I didn’t do something, someone else probably would have. I think that’s how you build a camaraderie you need in this league.”

Lots of Wild players mentioned how all they could think about while Ballard was on the ice was his wife, kids and parents.

Talk to you after the Scandella ruling.

Suter returning from the mumps; Harding sidelined; Coyle sick; Backstrom starting vs. "my" Islanders

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 8, 2014 - 3:42 PM

Afternoon from Minneapolis.

Nino Niederreiter, Jared Spurgeon and the Wild faces (my!!!) New York Islanders, who boast a lineup that includes John Tavares, Brock Nelson, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Cal Clutterbuck and (who else????) NICK LEDDY, Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center.

Against one of the top teams in the East (Isles lead the league with 19 wins), the Wild looks to wrap up a pedestrian 1-1-1 homestand on a good note before heading out on a three-game road trip to San Jose, Glendale (Ariz.) and Chicago.

The Islanders used to be my favorite team as a kid. Those allegiances are long gone, but I always get a little nostalgic when the Isles come to town and especially during my annual trip to Long Island. Sadly in March, I will be covering my final game at Nassau Coliseum because the team moves into its new digs in Brooklyn next season.

It will be emotional.

I’m also excited that Hall of Fame broadcaster Jiggs McDonald will be in town Tuesday to come out of retirement (so to speak; he fills in every now and then on Islanders and Panthers broadcasts). The great Howie Rose (infamous for his “Matteau! Matteau! Matteau! Stephane Matteau!!!! call when the Rangers beat the Devils in OT to advance to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final) has the game off, so Jiggs will swoop into Minnesota, where he has family, to work with Butch Goring, the best trade deadline player acquisition EVER (in the Billy Harris/Dave Lewis trade in 1980 prior to the first of four straight Isles Cups).

I became friends with Jiggs when he called Panthers games on radio full-time back when I covered them in the latter part of my Fla. career at the Sun-Sentinel. That was real cool because I grew up watching Jiggs do Islanders games on the former SportsChannel with Ed Westfall. In fact, the neatest part of covering the Panthers when I was a young pup? As an old Islanders fan, imagine covering a Florida organization that had Bill Torrey as its President, Billy Smith as its goalie coach, Denis Potvin as its TV color analyst and Duane Sutter as assistant coach (and eventual head coach). Was pretty cool starting out as a hockey writer with so many people I rooted for as a kid around.

OK, onto the Wild.

1. Captain Mikko Koivu, who missed Saturday’s practice with what was described as a very minor strain, practiced today, as did defenseman Ryan Suter, who missed the past two games with the mumps. He is expected to return vs. the Isles (more on this below)

Yeo didn’t divulge yet which defenseman (Nate Prosser, Keith Ballard or Christian Folin will come out of the lineup.

Niklas Backstrom will be in net (more on this below).

Charlie Coyle missed practice today because he’s sick.

“I was told it is definitely … not… the mumps,” coach Mike Yeo said. “It’s a stomach ailment. We’ll see where he’s at [Tuesday].”

If Coyle is questionable, the Wild will either have to play Stu Bickel at wing or call up a forward from Iowa later today or in the morning. Yeo may want Bickel playing against a tough Isles team.

Typically, we’ll get word after 4 p.m. CT because the salary cap is computed daily. The Baby Wild plays at Charlotte tonight.

Matt Cooke is still not practicing due to the hip flexor. Eighteen games out and counting now. Wild misses him badly.

2. Speaking of Charlotte, I updated the top of the last blog that goalie Josh Harding left Saturday’s game after two periods due to dehydration.

It was so serious, he was taken to the hospital and remained hospitalized until he was released late Sunday. Multiple sources say this is related to his multiple sclerosis. Harding is listed day-to-day with dehydration, but this will likely be one of those indefinite day-to-day’s. It’s very unlikely he will play another game for Iowa until this is figured out.

Iowa has recalled Johan Gustafsson from ECHL Alaska to back up John Curry tonight in Charlotte and the Wild was making arrangements on getting Harding back to Minnesota.

So, wish Harding well.

3. From a Wild perspective, Harding is out of the picture for the time being, meaning Darcy Kuemper and Backstrom are the two goalies … period. Somebody suggested to me that perhaps the Wild swoops in on Anaheim and signs Ilya Bryzgalov as insurance (technically Bryzgalov is on a tryout with the Ducks and still a free agent), but I’d think that is improbable.

Backstrom, who is 3-2-1 with a 1.97 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in nine appearances, gets the start vs. the Isles.

“We feel that’s what the team needs right now and part of that is [Backstrom] deserves to start,” Yeo said.

There’s no doubt the Wild would love Backstrom to get in the net and play a string of good games to 1) help the team and 2) give Kuemper some internal competition.

Yeo alluded to this the other day, but it does seem the second Kuemper hit the 14-game threshold that mean he required waivers to get to Iowa, his game has been inconsistent.

Columnist Chip Scoggins is writing about the Wild goalie situation for Tuesday’s paper. It certainly seems like the Wild’s biggest concern right now. The Anaheim game really showed that. The Wild gave up about eight scoring chances in the game and Kuemper was beaten cleanly on five of them (on only 18 shots).

Yeo said, “That’s the struggles of any young goalie. We know that he has the technical ability, we know that he has the athletic ability, we know that he’s a great kid and he’s going to put the work in, but the reason why it takes goalies a little longer is because of the mental aspect of it, how you prepare, how you find consistency in your game.”

Backstrom doesn’t look like the same goalie as the past few years. He just looks more confident and healthier in net because he is healthy. He does his rehab work daily and it’s to the point he’s not thinking about being in pain on the ice.

Tuesday’s game will be Backstrom’s 400th of his Wild career. He is the winningest goalie in Wild history and owns 25 individual goalie records.

He’s not used to being a backup but says, “You have to find a way to be there for the guys. You can’t hide behind excuses even if it’s something you’re not used to. You just have to find a way.”

Kuemper’s big issue seems like he lets goals affect him instead of forgetting about it and moving on. I asked Backstrom his perspective on Kuemper as a veteran: “For everyone, even young and older, you learn every day. You learn about yourself, you learn about the game. For sure you want to stop every puck, but it’s a big thing for a goalie, you have to realize if you do everything right, and they score, you can’t let that bother you. You hate to get scored on but you have to forget it and move on and focus on the next shot. Even if you’re my age, I think if you talk to every goalie, you work every day just to be in the moment and not look behind you. You can’t fix what happened in the past. You have to learn from it and move on. I don’t know, maybe when you retire, you realize you learned it. But before that, for a goalie, for sure a lot of the game is physical, but it’s mentally, too. You have to be comfortable about there. You can’t be afraid of letting in goals and making mistakes because it’s going to happen. It’s part of the game.”

Kuemper talked to Chip today and said he has had some bad luck recently at home, but his body of work is still good.

“I’m definitely learning,” Kuemper told Scoggins. “It’s been a little bit tough with new D-men every night it seems with the disease going through. Not that that’s an excuse. But the mumps makes it tough. But I’m kind of learning as I’m going. Obviously you want to be as consistent as you can. I don’t feel like I’m going in there one night feeling awesome and one night fighting the puck. Sometimes there’s some puck luck as well. I’ve been consistent at every level and I know it will come here.”

On the so called meltdowns, Kuemper said, “I think it’s just coincidental. The only game that I’d say really went awry was that New York game. I think that kind of put some thoughts into peoples’ heads. So when two goals happen, then all of a sudden, it’s, ‘Oh no. It’s happening again.’ But really it’s just situational.”

Check out Chip’s column Tuesday.

4. I’ll be writing about Suter, who is coming back from the mumps.

“I’m glad it’s out of my system,” he said. “There’s a few days there where you really can’t do anything. It’s a miserable virus and I’m glad it’s out of me. It was miserable. I’m fortunate we only played a few games there, a few off days. So that helped. My version was pretty bad.”

Suter was hoping to return Friday against Anaheim, but at the morning skate, he was dizzy and nauseous. Saturday, the Wild had a very tough practice and Suter looked exhausted afterward. He said he felt much better after today’s practice.

Suter said he woke up Sunday morning with one of the symptoms bigtime. He thought the worst (i.e. cancer), but after some ultrasounds and bloodwork, it was confirmed he had the mumps.

“I was just locked in the room,” he said. “My wife was great. She’d knock on the door, leave the food outside the door and I’d go and get it. She’s an angel.”

Suter has two kids and another on the way, so he quarantined himself from his pregnant wife, Becky, and kids.

He never got the swollen facial glands, but it did hurt and “you could feel the heat coming off the virus,” Suter said as he touched his face.

Suter admitted, “As I was laying in bed, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Why didn’t I get the booster?’” he said, laughing.

Teammates all got mumps boosters in mid-November. He chose not to because, “That’s the thing, I probably wash my hands more than anybody. I go out of my way to make sure I’m a clean guy. So for me to get it, I always tell these guys, ‘You’ve got to be mentally strong and you’ll never get sick.’ So they’re all giving me a hard time, ‘What were you thinking while you were laying in bed sick?’”

“I’m glad it’s over.”

So is Yeo. If you look at the goals against vs. Anaheim, you know Suter would have been on the ice for a lot of those hairy moments.

“It’s hard to really quantify what he means to our team,” Yeo said. “You’re talking about half the game first of all and you’re talking about every key situation against every key player. I thought we did OK against Montreal without him, but certainly his presence was missed last game against a bigger, heavier puck possession team. That’s where he comes into play. He makes it so difficult for them to establish that type of game because of his execution, the way he’s able to break their pressure, but then if they do get set up and they do have control, he’s so sneaky strong, he’s so good with his stick and is in such good position that he helps us defend much quicker.”

5. So, we’re in the press scrum today when I happen to glance at Twitter and see that Ottawa coach Paul MacLean, who had been saying some weird, outspoken comments after games and practices lately, was fired.

I always make fun of Yeo’s poker face to you. Well, now I have to fess up. Apparently I showed pocket aces to Yeo. The coach looked at me and my wide-open eyes and interrupted the press scrum with a, "What do you got?”

I told him the news, and his eyes turned stunned, too, especially because the Sens rallied from 3-0 down to beat Vancouver in overtime yesterday.

Yeo then had the perfect exit to his press scrum. He put his hands on his head and walked away: “Thanks for the constant reminders!”

It was a funny ending to the practice availability.

Lastly, here's a TSN update on expansion talk at the Board of Gov's meetings in Boca Raton, my old hometown. I even make a cameo in Bob McKenzie's story.

Talk to you Tuesday.

Mike Yeo and Thomas Vanek meet, discuss Wild role and off-ice distractions

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 7, 2014 - 9:30 AM

Update: In Josh Harding's second start with Iowa on Saturday night, he had to leave a game at Charlotte after two periods due to dehydration, GM Chuck Fletcher said on Sunday. Harding allowed two goals on 21 shots and got the loss.

The Wild, which has the day off Sunday before returning to the ice Monday at Ridder, had a very interesting practice today at Xcel Energy Center.

It was a good workmanlike practice, one that pleased coach Mike Yeo after Friday’s painful loss to Anaheim.

“Just wanted to make sure everybody’s heads were in the right place,” Yeo said. “I liked our practice a lot today. Some battle areas, some wall play, some things that we know we can be better at. Our guys had a good focus. It was an emotional loss last night, a difficult one, but we moved past it quickly.”

Yeo met with several players one-on-one before and during practice, including struggling Thomas Vanek, who after a couple promising games at Dallas and home against St. Louis, had two bad, turnover-filled, shotless games in a row.

Yeo and Vanek were very transparent regarding their chat, and more on that in a sec.

First, the news of the day:

1. Captain Mikko Koivu missed practiced with what Yeo called a “very, very minor strain” and he’s expected to practice Monday. Koivu was around doing an off-ice workout and it doesn’t appear to be anything serious.

2. Ryan Suter practiced. The hope is he can practice Monday and return Tuesday against the Islanders.

“He’s a tough farm boy,” Yeo said. “I think he’s not going to want to stay out for too long.”

3. The goaltending. I’ll write more about this for Tuesday’s paper, but Darcy Kuemper has been pulled from three of his past four home starts with a .755 save percentage and 5.37 goals-against average in those games. Other than the third period against Winnipeg a few weeks back, Backstrom has been good in his past six starts/appearances.

“We haven’t determined our starting goalie, but the way [Backstrom] has played lately, it gives him a very good chance” to start Tuesday, Yeo said.

On Kuemper, Yeo said, “I just know he’s capable of more. The good games that he has played lately have been response games. It’s like there’s a different approach or mindset that he has going into [those type of] games, so if it’s something preparation wise, if it’s something that we need to do differently, whatever the case is, we need to find a way to make sure that he’s prepared and ready to go every game at the level he needs to be at.”

The problem with response games is it means you’re coming off a lot of bad ones. Yeo wonders if it’s attitude.

“If you look at the best stretch of hockey he played at the start of the year, he could have been in the minors for all he knew. He was trying to prove himself, he was trying to win the No. 1 job and so if that’s something -- I don’t want to put things into his head, but he’s got to figure it out how to play his best hockey.”

Again, Yeo said subtly, “Looking at [Backstrom], I know that he’s ready to go back in the net.” I took it as he’s not sure Kuemper is. But he said he would talk more with goalie coach Bob Mason and decide. “We always like giving players a chance to respond, but at the same token, Backy has been playing well.”

4. Yeo had what he called a “great talk” with Vanek before practice. Vanek has two goals and 12 assists this season and 39 shots in 25 games. Fourteen of those came in two games, so he has 25 shots in 23 others, including one or none in 16 games.

He has not scored a goal at 5-on-5 this season.

Yeo said there are a number of factors why, from Vanek bouncing from line to line to not working hard enough to the off-ice gambling issue that has been stressing him out.

Yeo: “I have no problem saying, it’s been public knowledge, but this stuff that he’s trying to deal with, I don’t want to say it’s a huge distraction, but it’s got to be weighing on him. There’s no about that. There’s the fact that he came [back to Minnesota] and he’s putting pressure on himself, he’s been bouncing around from different lines, he’s off the top PP now, there’s a number of things that could lead to him not feeling good about his game and so whatever the case is, today the message was pretty simple, ‘what are you doing when you’re a good player and what do we have to do to make sure you can control the things that you can control?’”

The message from Vanek? Put me back in a top-6 role. So today in practice, Vanek no longer skated on the third line with Nino Niederreiter and Kyle Brodziak.

Vanek came out of that meeting with Yeo and ended up on the top line with Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund. That is where he is expected to play against his former Islanders on Tuesday.

That second line, provided Koivu practices Monday, will be Jason Zucker-Koivu-Jason Pominville; Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Erik Haula; Ryan Carter-Kyle Brodziak-Justin Fontaine.

“I was really encouraged with the practice Thomas had today and for me that’s where it starts,” Yeo said. “This is not something that’s going to magically appear in Game 1. Even if he has a great game [against the Islanders], even if he has a few points, I want to see a good month of real good hard practice, more consistency through the games and then it’ll come for him.

“The message was, ‘you do those things and we’ll take care of our part.’”

Yeo said Vanek was “very receptive. He really wants to do well. I don’t care who you are, a veteran, young kid, it’s always more difficult for a skilled guy to get out of something like this. … If they’re not scoring goals, they’re not feeling good.”

Still, this is not like a normal slump. It is beyond clear by just using our eyes that Vanek’s problems stem from not shooting, turning pucks over, not skating hard consistently and not working hard enough.

“I’m not defending all those aspects. We’ve talked about those things,” Yeo said. “It’s not like he’s trying not to work. It’s just other things get on your mind and you forget about the little things and, quite often when I talk to players, not just him, quite often they actually think they are working hard and that’s because they don’t see the other parts of their game that are missing.”

So why reward Vanek with a first-line role?

“Zach is a guy with his work ethic, with his instincts, with his skill, he has a chance to make guys around him better,” Yeo said. “Thomas is too important for us. The easy thing to do is say it’s not working [and cast him aside], but then we’re not doing our job. If it’s not working, we have to look at what can we do differently. We’ll continue to try to find answers.”

So, Yeo has made it clear to Vanek he wants work ethic and good habits starting in practice. Yeo liked Vanek’s game against Dallas and St. Louis.

“Things didn’t go well the last couple games, so let’s get it back,” Yeo said.

Vanek admitted that he is putting a lot of pressure on himself.

“It is what it is. It’s hasn’t been a great start for me,” Vanek said. “I feel like I’m making plays for my linemates, but right now it’s not one of those slumps where I’m getting chances after chances. I’m more of a setup guy right now, but I have a good opportunity now with Granny and Zach and I’ve got to make the most out of it.

“Today I think was a good work day. I tried to get to the net and find those guys. Hopefully I can find my game again with those two guys.”

Vanek knows this is indeed his chance. It’s very clear that he made it very clear to Yeo that he can’t score consistently in a bottom-6 role. So Yeo is giving the veteran the benefit of doubt and putting him on the top line even though he arguably doesn’t deserve it.

In return, Vanek knows he needs to get it done.

“I don’t want to use an excuse, but when you play on one of the lower lines, for me it’s a different situation,” Vanek said. “You don’t get in the game as well as you want. Some guys are great with it. You look at a guy like [Ryan] Carter who doesn’t play a lot, but he just does it. I’ve got to be better at that. Now being with two guys who make plays and score goals, I’m excited for the opportunity.”

Vanek also admitted the off-ice gambling issue has weighed on him. A link to a big story the Buffalo News just published can be read here.

“It’s just nagging around,” Vanek said. “I made my comments and I know what I did was wrong and I’m trying to move on from it and someone (a lawyer) spouts out again.

“I can’t change it. I can’t do anything about it. Obviously it’s a story. It’s nothing I’d wish upon anyone and I’ve dealt with this since the summer and made amends to it. Is it something I’m happy keeps coming up? Obviously not. But for me the best way to get out of this is to play good hockey and find my groove.

“It’s not fun to deal with. Hopefully it’s over with now and I can find my game again.”

Ryan Suter has the mumps; Power play, power play, power play, power play

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 4, 2014 - 2:05 PM

Ryan Suter has the mumps – the fifth defenseman on the Wild to be stricken with the beast, a nasty virus that won’t disappear despite boosters and disinfected locker room and cleansed equipment and time between symptoms arising with players.

Every time the Wild thinks it’s in the rearview mirror, it reappears.

The hope though is Suter, the NHL's ice time leader the past two seasons and again this season, got the Marco Scandella strain and not the Jonas Brodin one.

I say that obviously as a joke.

However, coach Mike Yeo did say Suter is feeling better and “I’m not even ready to rule him out for [Friday’s game against Anaheim]. Marco missed two games with this and Bally (Keith Ballard) missed eight games with it, so it affects people differently, so we’ll see where he’s at [Friday].”

Asked if he’s worried about bring a contagious player back into the locker room, Yeo said, “Well he’s a pretty important player to us and obviously we’ve tried to take precautions with that. Whether he’s around, it’s obviously around us, so I don’t know that’s going to make a huge difference. We’ve been trying to do everything we can to prevent this.”

Yeo’s point is that mumps symptoms usually appear 16-18 days after infection and people are mostly contagious three days prior to salivary-gland swelling and up to nine days after the onset of symptoms.

Suter hasn’t gotten the swollen glands but has other symptoms unique to the mumps. The virus is spread by mucus and saliva from the nose or throat, usually when an infected person coughs, sneezes or touches surfaces.

The virus has affected Scandella (two games), Brodin (seven games, 17 days), Ballard (eight games) and Christian Folin (five games). It has also affected the Anaheim Ducks this season (players like Corey Perry, Francois Beauchemin and former Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner), several St. Louis Blues and reportedly the Rangers’ Tanner Glass.

“It’s bizarre,” Yeo said. “Luckily this hasn’t become a bigger story to be honest with you. And I really mean that. It’s probably something we should be talking about a little bit more. The fact that we’ve overcome this adversity, we’ve talked about the start of the year just how important our D were to the type of game we want to play and when we’re successful how involved we are at both sides of the puck and we just really haven’t had our group together. But our guys have done a good job battling through that.”

Earlier this season, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock joked that the CDC was in St. Louis. That wasn’t really true, but I asked Yeo what the Wild has been doing to try to rid this team of the illness.

“We’ve had the room cleaned and decontaminated or whatever you want to call it,” Yeo said. “But I might have it in me, you might have it in you. Who knows? … Sorry to say that (laughing). Even though we decontaminated and cleaned the room, even though I don’t have it, I might still be bringing it back into the room. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. I don’t really know. I’m trying to learn and probably learning too much about this, to be honest with you. But we’re doing everything we can. But at the same time, we can’t be sitting around thinking about the mumps. We play a pretty darn good hockey team [Friday].”

In the meantime, Jared Spurgeon and Nate Prosser, as the only two defensemen to avoid the beast, were walking around in body suits today. Joking.

If Suter can’t play, the Wild will have to get good minutes from those two, as well as Brodin, Folin, Scandella and Ballard, who all played well in Wednesday’s win over Les Habitants.

“We talked about needing guys to step up and I thought that group did a great job for us,” Yeo said. “Certainly we’re going to need a similar performance [Friday] from them. Those guys in particular (Brodin, Scandella and Folin) jumped out from last game, but I thought that was a real strong team effort. Certainly there’s going to be games where certain guys jump out at you and have real strong performances, but the simple fact is it’s a team game that allows those guys to have that center stage and we need to continue to have that same kind of performance.”

THE 7 FOR 78 POWER PLAY, which interestingly has scored five goals during the Wild’s 7-2-1 stretch compared to two power-play goals for the opponent.

I talked with Zach Parise again today. Obviously he made a postgame comment minutes after a game before he had time to cool off that ticked some fans off, but frankly, I’m the one who asked the question, so I wanted to (partly out of guilt) talk to him again today where I wasn’t on deadline and where I could actually have a conversation rather than a quick postgame scrum.

My point to him last night was, we all know the power play stinks. It has been a seasonlong topic. It has been talked about ad nauseum, written about nonstop. My point in my question though was how much does it make things worse when 18,000 fans are booing on a five-minute major. How do you make a play? Because there’s little doubt the Wild looked paralyzed during the major. In fact, fans in the corners were trying to drown out the boobirds with “Let’s Go Wild!” to spur the team along.

The Wild’s hoping for a little home-ice advantage Friday similar to the jolt it felt in the playoffs. Several told me that off-the-record today. Parise basically said so on-the-record today.

Parise said of the booing, “It doesn’t help. They’re frustrated, and I understand that. And they have a right to be frustrated. We’re frustrated, and then when we get booed, we get more frustrated, and then it snowballs. But sometimes we feel like booing ourselves, too, it’s that bad, so I can’t disagree with them.”

In depth on the power play, Parise said, “We’re frustrated, too. We probably deserved to get booed. It’s been a sore spot for us and we need to work on it. It’s the only way you get out of it. It’s not just going to change.”

The Wild did work on it today and actually had a second unit without a center that I’m sure will have a center inserted whenever there actually needs to be a faceoff. But they may be more of an on the fly unit. The No. 1 unit today had Parise-Mikko Koivu (to win that draw since the other centers on the team have been subpar)-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville-Jonas Brodin (Suter if he plays) and the No. 1 unit had Jason Zucker-Thomas Vanek-Nino Niederreiter-Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon.

What did they work on today? Parise: “More repetition, a little more movement. More shots. We don’t shoot. We’ve got to take some shots and we need a guy in front of the net. It feels like when we do finally get a shot, there’s no one in front of the net. It’s an easy save. It’s not just one thing. It’s a lot of things that are happening. It’s hard to just pinpoint this is what we’re doing wrong because there’s a lot of things that we do wrong that just accumulate and doesn’t work.”

The Wild got off to such a great start this season on the power play. It just didn’t score and then things have gone downhill since. It happens to everybody. I mean, Anaheim, which has a ton of weapons, just snapped an 0 for 19 power-play drought last night. But normally you break out of it. The Wild hasn’t (interestingly, as bad as the Wild’s power play has been on the road (1 for 42), Nashville is actually 1 for 41 at home yet somehow is second in the West and 10-1-1 at home. Weird, eh?

I’m rambling. Back on topic.

Parise: “I don’t think anyone would have expected this. It’s a lot of different things. Just when it doesn’t go well, you get frustrated and then all of a sudden, you know everyone wants to make that play to create the goal and everyone wants to make that pass. It’s a great mentality to have, but sometimes that’s what’s causing us a lot of the plays that are getting broken up or one and done’s. We’re not moving it around crisp, we’re not setting each other up, so a lot of times when we do have an opening, we don’t put it in a guy’s wheelhouse. We throw it in the skates, we throw it behind them. Other times we’re not attacking when we’ve got them coming out of a corner. Like I said, it’s a lot of things. And then the frustration creeps in and then you end up where you are right now.”

But Parise said, “If we were playing terrible hockey and losing games but we had a good power play, what’s the good in that? But right now our 5-on-5 game is great. We’re playing really well. We could definitely use some power-play goals, but we’re winning games. Once we get the power play going, which we will, then we’re going to be really dangerous. But right now it’s not working. It hasn’t worked. But it’s fixable. That’s the good thing. It’s very fixable.”

And luckily, the Wild’s penalty kill is second-best in the NHL and as I mentioned has given up two goals during the 7-2-1 string.

“That’s been a big part,” Parise said. “When you’re not scoring on the power play, if you can kind of nullify their power play, too, and not lose the special teams game, that goes a long way because I think we’re confident we can play with any team 5-on-5. And if we’re not losing the special teams game, then we have a chance to win.”

Yeo said, “We’ve tried a lot of different scenarios. We’re trying to put the right pieces in place. That’s part of it, but more than anything else, I just wanted to make sure we’ve got the right mentality. Whenever your power play’s struggling – and that’s what’s going on right now, we know that – there’s a lot of things you have to overcome, there’s a lot of difficulties that are faced that don’t involve x’s and o’s, that don’t involve things that you can just draw up on a board. You’re talking about confidence, you’re talking about even anxiety, things that can get in your way and inhibit the things that make you successful, so we have to get back to the right approach here and we have little things that we have to do that will make us successful if we do them and we have to stay focused on that. If we go out and have a great power play the first power play and we don’t score, we can’t get too rattled by that. Obviously we want to, obviously that’s the goal, but we have to try to generate as many shots and as much momentum as possible from it.”

I asked more about that anxiety because again, even though these guys are professionals, the nervousness on the power play, the lack of confidence, was visible to the naked eye Wednesday, especially when the fans let the player have it.

“I don’t know that I’m qualified to give you the answer to that one,” Yeo said when asked how to tune that stuff out and overcome the jitters. “We work it repeatedly in practice and hopefully you can build some of that good feeling. Until you start to see the results in a game, it’s not something you can magically make it appear. We have to work for our confidence, there’s no question. And it’s the same way we’ve had to do it with our game, but we’ve got character guys and we’re going to keep fighting through it. we saw this last year. There was a part of the season where there was some difficult stuff going on, and at the time, I said that’s the kind of stuff that can make you better. Well this is the kind of stuff that can make you better, too. We’re finding a way to win despite the frustration that’s been involved with our power play, and that’s something that our guys should be proud of, that’s something we should really be focusing on. As we continue to fight through this adversity, it’ll continue to make us better.”

Yeo said, “I guess what’s tough about the power play is here we are again today and we’ve spent five minutes talking about the power play and yet we haven’t talked about tomorrow’s opponent, we haven’t talked about the game that we’ve won or any success that we’ve had recently. The power play is part of the game – it’s a very big part, there’s no question. But you know what? So is our forecheck, so is our D-zone coverage, so are our faceoffs, so are so many other elements of the game. If we have a great power play and the rest of our areas are not good and we lose the game, I don’t think we should feel good about that. obviously our goal is to become a better team and we do that by continuing to be strong and sharp in the areas that we are and we do that by trying to improve the areas that we’re not. Certainly there’s some parts of our game that we have to make sure that we continue to stay strong with, and there’s other parts like our pp that we have to work to try to get better at.”

Mikko Koivu on the power play: “Every single year I’ve been around, you go through tough times on either penalty kill or power play or 5 on 5 or whatever it is. You’ve just got to come out the next day and work on it and get better at it. Simplify. I think that’s the most important thing.”

On the fans booing: “I think as players, you know if we played a good game. Five minutes on a power play we didn’t capitalize on the way we wanted, we didn’t get the momentum, but at the end we got two points and beat a very good hockey team from out east. We’re not happy with it, the way we had that pp. but at the same time, we worked on it today and we want to get better at it and we will.

Change anything: “You can’t change who you are. If you look at the power plays across the league, everyone plays pretty much the same way. It’s a matter of all the little things that get you that goal. Sometimes when you’re not scoring, you’re starting to think about it and you’re making it more complicated than it should be. I think that’s why it’s good to have a practice and work on a couple things.

Should you just get more pucks on net? “You can’t think that. If you’re thinking that, odds are not good that you’re going to score a goal. It’s the plays before you score that will make that happen. It’s not that we’re not trying to score a goal, but sometimes it’s just not going the way you want it. And you’ve got to give them credit too. They’re a good pk team with a good goaltender. I think it’s a process. You’ve got to do things the right way to score a goal rather than thinking about the goal right away.

On the good PK: “I think it’s work ethic, winning battles and winning loose pucks. It’s a lot of little things that make that happen.” 

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