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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Afternoon from the X, where the Wild looks to get back on track and snap an 0-1-2 streak tonight against Benoit Pouliot, Dominic Moore and the New York Rangers.
GM Chuck Fletcher is back from the GM's meetings. I talked to him about the meetings and some of the tweaks the managers are recommending be made to the game, like long changes in overtime (teams switch sides like the second period) and instead of kicking cheating centers out of the circle, penalize them by making them move back 18 inches or so. The centers I talk to think this is ludicrous and will create major problems. Imagine losing a game in the last minute because another center was basically given a free faceoff win?
I'll write about the GM's meetings in my Sunday Insider.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Cam Talbot as the Rangers save Henrik Lundqvist for tomorrow’s game at Winnipeg.
Talbot made 24 saves against the Wild in a 4-1 win at MSG on Dec. 22. That game was the final straw for Zach Parise, who had to take the next 14 games off with a broken foot he was playing on.
Talbot is 11-5 in 18 appearances with a 1.75 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. So, not your normal backup goalie.
Kuemper has lost two in a row (one by shootout) and is trying to get back on track from a shaky outing against Edmonton. He and the Wild blew a 3-0 lead. The tying goal was one Kuemper definitely wishes had had back and then he gave up three goals on four shots in the shootout after entering the shootout 11 for 11 this season.
Coach Mike Yeo said that Kuemper has shown the ability the past 2 ½ months, whether it’s a win or lose, to put the previous game aside and show “renewed focus for the next match. So we’re anxious to see if he can do that again.”
Agitator Dan Carcillo will enter the Rangers’ lineup for pest Derek Dorsett. Justin Falk will be scratched. The former Wild D hasn't played since Dec. 29. Martin St. Louis is looking for his first goal as a Ranger. He has one assist in four games since asking out of Tampa.
Yeo will continue his third defense pair rotation and for the fourth straight game change it up. Nate Prosser comes out as Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard will be a pair.
“We said we were going through this rotation a couple times here and reevaluate it after that, so let’s go that way tonight,” Yeo said.
Asked the rationale as to why he doesn’t just pick six D and end it (I write it that way because it reminds me of one of my favorite Seinfeld lines when George Costanza was double-dipping the chip, From now on, when you take a chip, just take one dip and end it), Yeo said, “I don’t think that anybody deserves to just come out of the lineup and stay out of the lineup. We have to go by more than just a one game sample size. That’s the way we always do it here. Those guys played really good hockey for us for a long time. You look at how we counted on them when [Jared] Spurgeon was out of the lineup, how we counted on them when Marco [Scandella] was out of the lineup. Those guys not only got us through those [injuries] but really helped us take our game to another level, so they deserve the opportunity to not just be taken out of the lineup and not have a chance to get in there.”
I talked to Ryan Suter today about his ice time. He logged 34:12 against Edmonton, which surprised me in a game where the Wild was up 3-0 at one point. Obviously, the ice time was elevated by overtime and a 5-on-3 and 4-on-3. Also, Scandella had a real tough night, so perhaps the Wild was trying to limit his ice time in that game. Still, that was the sixth time he has topped 34 minutes this year and the 33rd time in 65 games he hit the 30-minute mark. He averages 2 minutes, 35 seconds per game more than any other NHL player. It just seems too much as the Wild are in a stretch where it plays 20 times in 37 nights.
Suter, of course, said it’s not and he means it. He wants to play that much and admits he tells assistant coach Rick Wilson that often. I’ll have his quotes in tomorrow’s paper.
Yeo did indicate today that 34:12 last game was too much and Jared Spurgeon playing a career-high 30:40 was too much, too.
“That’s a lot, and obviously we’ve got a lot of games coming up here,” Yeo said. “We have to make sure we’re monitoring that. Suts is accustomed to playing big minutes. I think last game was still a lot for him. Spurg generally is not going to play 30 minutes a night.”
Yeo indicated power-play personnel tweaks. My guess is the 5-on-4 units remain the same, but if it gets to a 5-on-3 or 4-on-3, Mikael Granlund will take the place of someone, maybe Mikko Koivu. The 5-on-4's, Granlund and Koivu have been separated.
Yeo expects a tough game tonight. Alain Vigneault coaches the Rangers, so expect to see the Canucks’ old system. That means lots of pressure, players in your face, defensemen jumping up in the play. Yeo said the Wild must be prepared to move the puck quickly and to make quick decisions.
Wild better get its act together now. Of the teams vying for a playoff spot, it has the toughest schedule in my opinion. After games against the Rangers and Columbus, Wild hits the road for eight of 10. Remember, the Wild has won 12 games all year on the road.
The Wild still has Boston, arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference, twice, Pittsburgh once (pummeled Minnesota in Pittsburgh before Christmas), St. Louis, who has beaten them eight in a row, twice, road games at Chicago and L.A.
Time get back to its winning ways.
Josh Harding, two days after he begun skating, put on the pads this morning and took shots and did puck-handling drills with goalie coach Bob Mason.
“It’s a great sign that he’s feeling much better and he’s focused and motivated to try to get back with us,” Yeo said. “So, it’s a great sign. With that said, we’re still a few steps away. It’s not like he’s a week away from rejoining us here, but it’s a good first step.”
Ilya Bryzgalov has a new vinyl wrap around his mask to bide time while his new one gets painted. Bryzgalov didn’t care, but team trainers didn’t like that the old vinyl looked pink rather than red.
Also, to answer a lot of questions, those custom shot blockers have been tried by every player. The only ones who are using them are Spurgeon, Prosser and Erik Haula.
With season-long scuttlebutt that the Wild may look to sign free-agent-to-be Thomas Vanek this summer, the Wild beat Wednesday’s trade deadline by acquiring the player traded for Vanek earlier this season.
The Wild traded two draft picks -- Winnipeg's second rounder in 2014 acquired in the Devin Setoguchi trade and the Wild's second rounder in 2016 -- and fourth-line winger Torrey Mitchell to the Sabres for power winger Matt Moulson, a three-time 30-goal scorer, and hard-nosed forward Cody McCormick.
Moulson, 30, has scored 17 goals and 38 points in 55 games this season between the Islanders and Sabres. He was acquired in October for Vanek, a conditional first-round pick and a second-round pick. He is the last year of his deal with a $3.133 million cap hit.
McCormick, 30, has scored 59 points and 503 penalty minutes in 358 games. He’s in the last year of his deal at $1.2 million.
Moulson has scored 135 goals and 262 points in 377 games, developing terrific chemistry with superstar John Tavares on Long Island, where he was one of the most popular players.
He has perennially been one of the NHL’s most durable players. He played all 82 games in three consecutive seasons from 2009-12, topping 30 goals in each, including a career-high 36 goals and 69 points in 2011-12.
Moulson has scored 47 career power-play goals, including 14 in 2011-12, the third-most in the NHL. He is also known as a player who thrives on the road. In 2011-12, Moulson scored 23 goals on the road, the second-most in the NHL behind Steven Stamkos.
From March 17-April 3, the Wild plays eight of 10 games on the road.
Moulson is a skilled power winger who protects the puck terrifically on the cycle and is known for possessing a hard wrist shot.
Mitchell, 29, scored five goals and 12 assists in 103 games, including only one goal in 58 games this year.
According to sources, Mitchell asked to be traded, although he denied that Tuesday.
Mitchell, a hard-working, fast forward, signed a three-year, $5.7 million deal with the Wild two summers ago. That happened on July 1. On July 4, the Wild signed Zach Parise. The Wild also didn’t know for sure if Pierre-Marc Bouchard would be healthy to start that season. He wound up being ready.
So Mitchell came to Minnesota thinking he’d have a chance to be third-line right wing. After Parise and Bouchard were inserted, Mitchell fell down the depth chart. Since, the Wild has added youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. So Mitchell has been saddled on the fourth line pretty much since he got to Minnesota.
But I mentioned on the blog this exact scenario. My gut said the trade request would wind up burning Mitchell because at $1.9 million next year, he'd be such an easy throw-in for a rental to Buffalo if the Wild couldn't get Drew Stafford done. Now Mitchell misses the playoffs this year and the Wild gets out of his $1.9 million cap hit and $2.5 million salary next year.
The Wild was in on Stafford. I was told this afternoon, and I need to report it out more, that any Stafford deal would be contingent on another complicated trade the Wild would have to make elsewhere to basically move a player.
I'll be hosting a live online chat on startribune.com Thursday at 3 p.m. Bad news: Chat's been postponed. The Wild's now having an afternoon practice Thursday so the three new additions, Moulson, McCormick and Ilya Bryzgalov will be able to join.
The Wild is at San Jose tonight for a 9:30 p.m. (Central) game that kicks off a tough, four-day road trip with games also in Anaheim, Colorado and Calgary.
Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon flew in with the team yesterday, but aren't like to play on the road trip, coach Mike Yeo said.
A reminder, Michael Russo is away for a family emergency. We have veteran writer John Ryan stringing for us, and you'll get a first report from John at startribune.com when the game ends. TV tonight is Fox Sports North.
Zach Parise felt fine after his return from a broken foot. John's report from Friday's practice is here.
Sharks, of course, are without rookie sensation Tomas Hertl, who tore up a knee and is out for the season. San Jose made big news yesterday when they extended the contracts of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau.
Preview box for tonight's Wild game:
Preview: The Sharks are fourth in the Western Conference, and the Wild is tied for seventh. The teams have split 3-1 games this season, both winning at home.
Players to watch: Wild RW Jason Pominville scored his team-high 20th goal in Thursday’s 2-1 victory over Chicago. … Ryan Suter (31 points) is 10th in the NHL in scoring for defensemen. … G Darcy Kuemper has a 2.22 goals-against average in nine games but has started six in a row. … Sharks C Joe Thornton leads the NHL with 47 assists and is sixth in scoring with 53 points but has only six goals. Thornton and W Patrick Marleau both got three-year contract extensions Friday. … C Joe Pavelski is second in the league with 28 goals. … G Antti Niemi (2.38 goals-against average) has played in 43 of 51 games.
Numbers: Former Minnesota State RW Eriah Hayes has skated in the past nine games for the Sharks and is looking for his first NHL point. Ex-Minnesota Duluth G Alex Stalock has consecutive shutouts as Niemi’s backup. The Sharks’ Justin Braun, a Minneapolis native, is seventh among NHL defensemen in plus/minus (plus-20). … The Wild is 1-8 in its past nine games at the SAP Center.
Injuries: Wild G Josh Harding (illness), D Jared Spurgeon (foot) and C Mikko Koivu (ankle) are out. Sharks forwards Logan Couture (hand), Tomas Hertl (knee), Raffi Torres (knee) and Adam Burish (back) are out, as is D Scott Hannan (concussion).
Rookie Darcy Kuemper gets his third consecutive start and fourth in the past six games tonight against newly-acquired goalie Ben Scrivens and the Edmonton Oilers.
Morning from the X’s press room. Blaine’s Matt Hendricks will also make his Oilers debut tonight. Edmonton, the worst defensive team in the NHL, is winless in its past five on the road and has won twice at the X in its past 21. Of course, the Oilers nearly ruined the Wild’s season last year with a 6-1 beating April 26.
Remember that game? Fans booed after 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 60 minutes, a timeout, when the attendance was announced! Fans mocked the Wild anytime a save was made, even by Josh Harding, who was making his first appearance in relief of Niklas Backstrom since Feb. 7, anytime the Wild registered a shot or even when the public address announcer let it be known the first, second and third periods were a minute from ending.
Good times. Luckily for everybody involved, the Wild won its must-win season finale 24 hours later in Denver on a nice response by Backstrom.
Coach Mike Yeo said the first shot went into the net that last game against Edmonton and we “completely unraveled.” Tonight, he wants the Wild to focus on the process, not the result, and play a solid 60 minutes doing the right things that will lead to the result it wants.
Despite Backstrom being 17-1 all-time against the Oilers at home with a 1.49 goals-against average (the one loss being that home finale when he gave up three goals on five shots), the Wild’s coming back with Kuemper, who has played well during this stretch.
He made a career-high 39 saves (another four in the shootout) last week in L.A., had a 23-save shutout Sunday in Nashville and stopped 29 of 32 shots in Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to Ottawa, a game he kept the Wild in striking distance until the third period.
“I thought he played a very good game, so it’s just a matter of showing a little confidence in him and seeing if he can come back with another solid effort,” Yeo said.
Asked if he has talked to Backstrom, Yeo said goalie coach Bob Mason did.
“It’s hard not to figure out that Kuemps has played well.,” Yeo said. “We’ve always been a team and believed in giving guys other opportunities and giving guys a chance, much the same that we gave Backy that chance in Phoenix, we’re giving Kuemps this chance to tonight.”
Backstrom made 39 saves in that win at Phoenix, but he gave up three goals on 17 shots in last Saturday’s loss to Colorado.
Backstrom said all the right things this morning, saying, “You want to play every time, but it’s up to the coaches and the training staff to see what’s going on and make a decision. As a player, you try to be ready whenever you get a chance.”
When I spoke with Backstrom, he said nobody had talked to him yet and he hadn’t asked why he’s not playing.
“I never ask,” Backstrom said. “You try to be ready when you get a chance. You don’t want to think too much. You try to work hard every day and try to be at your best every day and work on your game.”
Asked if he feels his game has returned to a higher level having won three of his past four with Josh Harding sidelined, Backstrom said, “I feel good out there. You always want to be better. Everyday you want to be better, whether you play good or bad. I don’t know if you’re ever satisfied. I don’t think you ever should be. It’s always about trying to improve and being at your best when it counts. That’s what you work for.”
Defenseman Keith Ballard is back in the lineup tonight after being a scratch the past four games. As Yeo promised, the left-shot Ballard will play the left side after playing much this season on the right. In 19 games since missing nine games with broken ribs, Ballard has two assists and is minus-13. Some glaring turnovers and icings led to being benched the last half of Tuesday’s shootout win at Los Angeles.
Jon Blum will be scratched, meaning left-shot defenseman Clayton Stoner moves to the right. Stoner, who played a little on the right in juniors, played a few shifts with Marco Scandella on the right against Ottawa. On two of those shifts, the Senators scored. Yeo said it was more circumstance: the power-play goal by Clarke MacArthur when the Wild still feels he was offside and the broken stick by Scandella that led to Erik Condra’s breakaway goal.
Yeo wants Ballard not to try to do too much tonight, “just play a solid game, just play an efficient game with how he moves the puck, how he defends.”
Ballard said, “I’m a lot more comfortable on the left. Earlier in the season, I think I was playing real well. At that point, it didn’t matter what side I was on. I felt good on the right, good on the left.” Ballard means that right now, with his game out of order, it would be better for him to get back in the swing of things on the left.
Yeo said Jared Spurgeon will get on the ice soon and he wouldn’t divulge the Wild’s plans for Harding, saying they have some thoughts. That made me ask if the team is considering asking Harding to go on a conditioning stint in Iowa. Yeo said, “we’ll consider everything, whatever we think we need for our team … to make sure we get him on top of his game.”
Harding will miss his 12th game in the past 14 tonight and eighth straight. He was on the ice again today with the team.
Parise looked good again today. He brought in his skating coach, Andy Ness, of ProEdge Power, to work with him before the morning skate. Ness is also the Wild’s
skating consultant part-time skills coach.
After working hard with Ness, Parise took part in the skate with his teammates.
I grabbed Parise afterward.
“I’ve skated with him and [his mother] Diane for, gosh I don’t know, over 10 years now, so they know my stride and my skating better than anybody in the world,” Parise said. “I wanted Andy to run me through a lot of the drills we do in the summer and for him to physically see how I look.
“He said he thought I would look a lot worse than I did today, so that’s a good sign. Today, I felt better than I did yesterday, so that’s good. Each day you try to do a little more and little more. Rest it, ramp it up tomorrow, rest it, ramp it up. That’ll be the gameplan for the next while.”
Parise said getting into game shape is a must, so “a couple more days of doing what I’m doing, and then we’ll add bumping and game-like situations. Unfortunately it’s tough to get practice time because they don’t practice much, so that’ll be a little bit of a challenge, but we’ll get there.”
“I’m trying to get in a game as soon as I can in a smart and safe way. That's the best timeline I can give you.”
The Wild had a team meeting this morning prior to its 5 p.m. game against the St. Louis Blues. A few guys took the ice, including backup Niklas Backstrom, healthy scratch Zenon Konopka and injured Clayton Stoner. Zach Parise is still not allowed on the ice with his broken foot.
Jared Spurgeon was also on the ice testing his injury and coach Mike Yeo expects him to play. Jon Blum was called up but will be scratched as long as Spurgeon can play, Yeo said.
Josh Harding vs. Brian Elliott tonight.
I'd expect David Backes will play in his hometown, but I'll check with him after the Blues' skate. He missed the last Dallas game with an upper-body injury. David Backes is indeed out tonight.
The Blues are 4-0-2 in their past six on the road, 7-1-2 in their past 10 overall and 12-0-1 against the Central this year (unbeaten against the Central since an Oct. 18 shootout loss to Winnipeg).
I'll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission.
If you didn't catch today's story here, I talked to GM Chuck Fletcher about the state of the sinking Wild yesterday. He talked about the team, his attempt to make a trade and also Yeo's job security. While he says his inclination is not to overreact and to give this group a chance to fix things, Fletcher declined to give Yeo a vote of confidence.
The entire coaching staff is in the final year of its contract. The rest of this homestand is huge. There is no doubt Yeo is on the hot seat.
Here's some numbers I threw together:
Wild at the midway point
Record: 20-16-5 (10th in the West)
1-Goal Games: 12-3-5
2-goal Games: 5-5
3+-goal Games: 3-8
Scoring First: 14-4-2
Opponent Scoring First: 6-12-3
Leading after 1: 8-1-1
Trailing after 1: 1-11-2
Tied after 1: 11-4-2
Leading after 2: 14-1-3
Trailing after 2: 4-14-2
Tied after 2: 2-1
OT record: 0-1
Shootout record: 5-4
Outshooting opponent: 9-7-5
Vs. East: 9-8-2
Vs. West: 11-8-3
Goals per game overall: 2.22 (29th in the NHL)
Goals per game at home: 2.7 (17th in the NHL)
Goals per game on road: 1.85 (29th in the NHL)
Goals against per game overall: 2.51 (12th in the NHL
Goals against per game at home: 1.95 (7th in the NHL)
Goals against per game on road: 3.05 (24th in the NHL)
Shots per game: 27.7 (27th in the NHL)
Shots against per game: 27.3 (tied for 4th in the NHL)
Power play overall: 19.4% (11th in the NHL)
Power play at home: 20.6% (11th in the NHL)
Power play on road: 18.2% (11th in the NHL)
Shorthanded goals allowed: 3 (tied for 13th in the NHL)
Power play opportunities: 129 (tied for 21st in the NHL)
Penalty kill overall: 78.8% (26th in the NHL)
Penalty kill at home: 82.8% (tied for 14th in the NHL)
Penalty kill on road: 75.7% (27th in the NHL)
Shorthanded goals: 1 (tied for 26th in the NHL)
Times shorthanded: 132 (18th in the NHL)
Penalty minutes: 19.7 a game (tied for 6th in the NHL)
5-on-5 goals for: 61 (tied for 25th in the NHL)
5-on-5 goals against: 62 (tied for 5th in the NHL)
Goals: Jason Pominville 17, Zach Parise 15, Mikko Koivu 8, Dany Heatley 8, Justin Fontaine 8
Assists: Koivu 22, Ryan Suter 22, Parise 12, Nino Niederreiter 12, Mikael Granlund 12
Points: Koivu 30, Pominville 28, Parise 27
Plus-Minus: Niederreiter +6, Matt Cooke +5, Fontaine +5, Marco Scandella +5
Penalty minutes: Zenon Konopka 55, Clayton Stoner 35, Keith Ballard 31
Power-play goals: Parise 8, Pominville 5, Jonas Brodin 3, Heatley 3
Power-play assists: Koivu 10, Suter 9, Pominville 4, Granlund 4
Power-play points: Koivu 11, Parise 11, Pominville 9, Suter 9
Shorthanded goals: Parise 1
Even-strength points: Pominville 19, Koivu 18, Parise 15, Niederreiter 15
Game-winning goals: Pominville 4, Koivu 3
Shots: Parise 144, Pominville 111, Koivu 96
Faceoff winning pct.: Konopka .657, Koivu .555, Kyle Brodziak .513
Shooting pct.: Brodin .206, Fontaine .190, Pominville .153
Time on ice per game: Suter 29:40, Brodin 24:42, Koivu 21:35
Games: Josh Harding 28, Niklas Backstrom 16, Darcy Kuemper 2
Wins: Harding 18, Backstrom 2
Shots against: Harding 667, Backstrom 430, Kuemper 16
Goals allowed: Backstrom 46, Harding 44, Kuemper 6
Goals against average: Harding 1.64, Backstrom 3.32, Kuemper 6.10
Save percentage: Harding .934, Backstrom .893, Kuemper .625
Shutouts: Harding 3
Unique stat team leaders
Hits: Cooke 96, Niederreiter 95, Jared Spurgeon 50
Missed net w/ shot: Koivu 52, Pominville 45, Spurgeon 39
Blocked shots: Spurgeon 66, Suter 57, Scandella 55
Points at home: Parise 18, Koivu 17, Pominville 13
Points on road: Pominville 15, Koivu 13, Suter 13
Shootout goals: Koivu 3, Parise 3, Pominville 3
Shifts per game: Suter 32.2, Brodin 30.2, Spurgeon 28.3
Fights: Konopka 7, Stoner 3, Ballard 3
Minor penalties: Niederreiter 12, Brodziak 10, Cooke 10, Stoner 10
Goals to tie games: Parise 4, Koivu 4, Fontaine 3, Pominville 2, Brodin 2
Goals to put Wild up by one: Pominville 6, Parise 5, Fontaine 3, Brodin 3, Heatley 2
Goals to put Wild up by two: Parise 3, Pominville 3, Koivu 3
Goals to cut deficit to one: Pominville 3, Heatley 2
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