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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Morning from Nashville, where the Wild will play its final road game of the season tonight. The morning skate is in a few hours. The only potential lineup change will be Warren Peters entering for Cody Almond.
Peters was supposed to fly in yesterday, so if he’s able to play, Almond would have to be reassigned because he’s an emergency recall.
My guess is, if healthy (he’s been walking gingerly), Niklas Backstrom will start vs. backup Anders Lindback.
There’s been lots of talk lately about the Wild finally winning games and thus, potentially, ruining its draft position after such a disappointing season.
Hey, I get it. If you’ve read me for years, I’ve always contended that one of the Wild’s biggest problems throughout its history is the fact it’s always just good enough to get the 10th pick or the 12th or whatever. If you’re going to miss the playoffs, you might as well get a real, legit, bona fide consolation prize for it.
I talked to coach Mike Yeo about that yesterday. Yeo finds himself in the awkward position of defending the Wild … winning games lately.
You can read that story here.
My random thoughts in reaction to a couple things that have been tweeted or emailed to me by readers:
1) What’s Yeo supposed to say? His job is to win games, not lose them.
2) One of the things I agree with Yeo on: It does just come down to quality drafting, not necessarily where you pick (see Benoit Pouliot at No. 4 in 2005).
First of all, other than the first couple in this upcoming draft, there are allegedly no sure things. And as I pointed out in the article, years from now, we may find out that Mikael Granlund (at 9th overall) and Jonas Brodin (at 10th) were better draft picks than some of the guys taken ahead of them.
One big reason the Wild’s where it’s at isn’t so much the fact that it didn’t get top-5 picks (although it would have helped) but that the previous regime absolutely swung and completely missed at arguably five consecutive first-round picks (Thelen, Pouliot, Sheppard, Gillies and, maybe too early to declare, Cuma) and the new regime traded its first first-round pick, Nick Leddy.
I mean, just think about that: The Wild absolutely blew SIX consecutive first-round picks. You don’t recover from things like that very easily. Throw it the fact the Wild got squat for Marian Gaborik, and … thit is why the Wild’s got such little skill, such little depth at top-6 forwards, why it’s so far behind so many teams in this league.
Look at the Wild’s opponent on any given night and count how many of their OWN first-round picks are in the lineup compared to the Wild.
The Wild has ONE – Mikko Koivu. That’s completely unforgivable, and the terrible Leddy trade aside, this is why the Wild’s new regime needed to stockpile prospects with quality drafting (Granlund, Larsson, Bulmer, Zucker, Brodin, Phillips, Lucia), quality college and junior free-agent signings (Spurgeon, Prosser) and quality trades the last few years (Coyle).
Now, in the next few years, Wild fans will hopefully start to see those dividends.
3) The idea of tanking is impossible. I’ve written this so many times, but again, I keep reading comments, “Fill the team with minor leaguers, … bring up Hackett, … force Koivu to sit.” This stuff cannot happen. Years ago, the league and players’ union implemented a rule where you can only have FOUR post-trade deadline callups. Otherwise, it’s an emergency recall. That means, if you have 12 healthy forwards, they stay. If one forward gets hurt, an emergency callup can come up. When the one forward returns, that forward must go back. Same with goalies. So when Josh Harding and Backstrom returned, Hackett HAD to go back. Why is this? Myriad reasons: 1) Keep teams from shutting down NHLers and filling them with minor-league scrubs (union’s fairly interested in making sure its players don’t have jobs and ice time taken away); 2) The concept that the team you pass the deadline with should in large measure be the team you enter the playoffs with; 3) Since there is no roster limit after the deadline, it prevents gross stockpiling at the NHL level.; 4) It also protects the competitive integrity of the AHL season -- AHL would have major issue if there wasn’t some limit on number of recalls; 5) Similarly, protects the competitive integrity of the NHL season. I think last year the Chicago Blackhawks would have had a pretty big issue if on the season finale, the Wild dressed a bunch of ECHLers against Dallas.
4) On the concept, “Is the Wild building a culture of winning or is the Wild winning games because the pressure’s off,” I think that’s a great debate. I do agree with many readers that it’s mostly the latter. Where was this when the season mattered? Where was this great play by certain individuals when the season could have been saved? You see this annually: An out-of-playoff team suddenly playing well when it’s allegedly playing for pride and trying to save jobs. I talked to Yeo about that, and he says it’s a different kind of pressure, but it’s still pressure. I’ll try to squeeze in those quotes tomorrow or in the next few days.
5) On the idea that Yeo wants to build a culture of winning, yet a lot of readers have noted many of these guys won’t be back. I was asked a few times by fans whom I think will definitely be back.
Barring trades, the following will be back: Koivu, Setoguchi, Heatley, Brodziak, Powe, Zucker (NHL or AHL), Clutterbuck, Gilbert, Backstrom, Prosser, Scandella … and injured Bouchard (can’t buy out an injured player), Spurgeon, Cullen, Kassian (AHL or NHL), Kampfer (AHL or NHL).
Guys I could see being back: Stoner (unrestricted) and Veilleux on a two-way contract. Wild has decisions to make on restricted free agents, Justin Falk and Nick Johnson. I’d think you’d tender them qualifying offers, but Johnson in particular has been so lost defensively in the second half, it’s becoming a major issue and hurting them often in games. Because he’s restricted though, he I’d think they bring him back.
Christensen, though, is an unrestricted free agent. I don’t think he’s brought back despite the big goals lately. First, when they needed him, he went 15 games without a point. That game in Chicago doesn’t get to overtime without Christensen and Johnson being so poor defensively, and that’s been a common theme with Christensen. If you start penciling in potential free agent signings and the Granlunds and maybe Coyles and Zuckers next year, where does Erik Christensen fit? On the fourth line? Uh, no. Erik Christensen cannot be an effective fourth-liner. He’s skilled, not gritty. Also, the Wild will have plenty of shootout options next year with the kids. Let’s put it this way: I don’t see Christensen being re-signed before July 1. If he’s brought back, my guess is it’s because they missed on some things post July 1. I could be wrong, but that’s my sense.
If guys like Jed Ortmeyer and Warren Peters are brought back, it’ll be on two-way deals.
I don’t see the injured Latendresse coming back unless they get him on a quality one-year deal at a great price. But this is two years in a row the Wild’s been hamstrung by him missing an entire season with injuries.
The Wild will have to make a decision on Josh Harding, and part of that decision will be Harding’s.
Kurtis Foster won’t be back. Mike Lundin won’t be back. And like I said, I have my doubts that Christensen will be back.
6) Frankly, the Wild’s improved play of late, I think, proves just how big of a loss Mikko Koivu was. That’s why it’s incumbent on GM Chuck Fletcher to fix this problem. It’s inexcusable that the Wild annually is a Mikko Koivu injury away from disaster. I think the Wild could have survived Latendresse and Bouchard alone, but when Koivu went down with those two, and then it lost Devin Setoguchi, the Wild went from being a team with interchangeable parts to a team that couldn’t survive the loss of so many top-6 forwards. Players changed their roles and never got rediscovered that early season “stick-to-it-ness identity. Koivu’s presence stabilizes everything. His presence allows others to get better matchups, it allows others to play their appropriate roles, it forces teams to respect his line, it allows him to take the big faceoffs and play the big special-team shifts. This one player missing fouls everything up because the Wild, at least the past two years, didn’t have the depth. Hopefully, now that the Wild’s actually drafted well the past two years, the depth is on its way. That depth still will need to develop though. The Wild’s not going to be able to snap its fingers and just be good – barring the signing of a potential star forward and defenseman, of course.
OK, I'm out of breath. That was a lot of writing. Digest, and I'll be back after the skate to update this blog with the highly-anticipated, "Will Warren Peters play? and Who's in goal?" news.
I've covered the NHL since 1995. Never before have I sat in a coach's office 45 minutes before an important game talking about a scratched player. You can bet Mike Yeo wished he could have been doing something else, but he chose this time and venue to respond to this morning's conversation I had with scratched defenseman Marek Zidlicky. Check out that blog below or by clicking this link.
Here are Yeo's comments. Check out the story in Wednesday's newspaper. I'll also be on KFAN at 9 a.m.
“One thing for sure, we’re going to talk. This is not the right way to handle it. Much the same as I wouldn’t want a player to pick up the newspaper one day and read something like, ‘Woah, I didn’t know the coach thought that.’ Like, come into talk to me if there’s a problem. There’s always more than enough communication from our side. It’s got to go both ways.”
On not being told the first time he was a healthy scratch the first time? “The lineup was written on the board [before the skate]. I think if anything he’s confusing not being told with not being told what you want to hear.”
You trying to change him? “One problem for me is when he says I can’t change. 1) One it speaks to the buy-in for me, but 2) I don’t want him to change. I don’t ask Cal Clutterbuck to change. I don’t ask Matt Cullen to change. I don’t ask Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, any of these guys. I haven’t asked Marek Zidlicky to change either. I want them to be themselves, to play their game, but to do it within the team concept. That’s it. No. 1, that way works, wins hockey games. No. 2, like for a guy like that, I’ll point to guys like Kris Letang. He’s playing the same way, the same system, same way. Sergei Gonchar, played the same way, same system. It worked for these guys. So, not only would it be beneficial to him, but it would also be beneficial to the team. But it’s about buying into it. There are very, very clear expectations for every player. As a team, we knew three years in a row we haven’t made the playoffs, so we knew we had to change the culture here. We knew we had to change the environment either. So in order for that to happen, the players No. 1 had to know what was expected of them and No. 2 everybody has to be held accountable. That even means Marek Zidlicky. But with that, like, it also tells me that we’re not there yet. I’m willing to do that. I owe that to Craig, to Chuck, to the fans, the players, the players that are out there battling and doing everything they can for each other. I owe it to them. But I will know that we’re there when the players start holding themselves accountable to those standards.”
How do you now handle this now with Zidlicky. Do you just throw him back in the lineup? “Well I’m just going to go into tonight’s game and we’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. But after tonight’s game regardless, I’m going to have a talk with him.”
Did he tell you who should be on the power play and what to do on the power play? “He never talked about schemes, and that’s one thing for sure, and I asked [assistant coach Darryl Sydor], who’s in charge of the power play, and Syd said he’s never talked about that.”
Where does this go. Obviously Chuck’s going to try to trade him, but are you worried he’s going to create a distraction during an important month? “For me, I’ve always been one to be able to forgive. But this is going to be something we’re going to talk about as a group even. I’m going to talk to Zid. This is about how we learn and get better, and for him, players always decide. You think he would be out of the lineup today if he was playing really well? His play dictates that, how he handles this dictates that. Greg Zanon decided how he was going to get back in the lineup. He had a great, great attitude. He worked his rear-end off in practice and forced us into making another hard decision. We could have kept scratching him, but it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t right and he’s forced us to keep him in the lineup with his play the last few games. Players decide. We just see what they do and then we go along with it. … He is a really good player. And he has the potential to be a great player and our team can’t be as good as it can be until we get everybody playing up to their potential. But I’ve never asked him to change. I’ve never asked him to be someone other than what he is. Every player is the same. We have a bunch of different players contributing in different ways. They all have different roles. We ask them to play their game, do it their way, but do it within the team concept. And it works. That’s what he needs to do.”
As I hinted at this morning, this Marek Zidlicky thing has hit a breaking point.
Zidlicky is unhappy, something I learned this morning when the veteran defenseman came looking for me to offer his opinion on the fact that tonight against his former team, the Nashville Predators, he’ll be scratched for a third consecutive game.
Zidlicky was critical of coach Mike Yeo, the way he has been treated and the fact that he loves the game too much to sit idly by if the Wild keeps scratching him.
While Zidlicky didn’t say he has asked for a trade, he indicated he is willing to waive his no-trade clause if this continues.
“I can’t be quiet,” Zidlicky began during our sitdown, which you can read more details about in tomorrow’s Star Tribune. “I think three games healthy scratch, it’s more than just like a healthy scratch. [Yeo’s] put me in this position that I am in right now. It’s not easy for me. It’s good for team probably because the guys played pretty well the last two games, but for me, I did everything what he wants me to do. I played like 17, 18 minutes ice time, I play just third, fourth line, I stood on the blue line, I didn’t do anything what I did years before. He said everything I do with the puck and without the puck, it’s wrong. So I have a little different opinion.”
Zidlicky said that since he doesn’t get out with top guys, he spends most his shifts in the defensive zone and “if you spend most time in our zone, you can’t do anything. It can be anybody.” He said he has tried to tell Yeo twice what’s wrong with the power play and who can play the power play, but Yeo told him it wasn’t his business.
“He doesn’t like what I’m doing,” Zidlicky said. “If I’m an offensive player, I’m supposed to play with the top guys. He should show me, ‘You are that guy, and you will be out there the last minute when we need to score.’ There was a lot of times when I just laid on the bench and just wait for my chance. We had a couple meetings about that after 10, 15 games in the season, and I can’t change my style. That’s what I know. That’s for sure. He wants to play easy hockey. I tried everything what he wants, but apparently it doesn’t work.”
Zidlicky, who turns 35 Friday, said of Yeo’s system: “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my style. I tried to explain it to him couple times, but he wants something different. I don’t think I can change something when you are like 34 years old.”
Zidlicky’s no-trade and no-move clause lasts through the draft. I asked Zidlicky if he has asked to be traded. He paused long.
“That’s, that’s the option, too. That’s only what I’m thinking right now because I still love hockey. That’s my whole life. Every player likes hockey and nobody likes to be healthy scratch three games, four games. It doesn’t help yourself, it doesn’t help your team, it doesn’t help anybody. I’m just thinking it’s pretty tough right now for me. My son, he’s in first grade and he needs both parents here. So it’s very tough. I don’t want to be selfish, go somewhere and I will be happy and leave my son here in the school. So, we will see. I just wanted to say something about this situation because a lot of guys are writing something different about me and I just wanted to tell you my opinion.”
However, to be clear, I asked again if he’s willing to waive his no-trade. He essentially said he wants Yeo to tell him where he stands and that if he continues to be scratched, he’d rather be elsewhere.
“If he doesn’t have a place here for me, OK, I will take that. Just talk to me more and just tell me what’s my position,” Zidlicky said. “It’s not easy. I like the hockey. I like to play. I’m never thinking about myself. I’m never thinking how many scores I will have after the season. I just do my best for team. I enjoy the hockey. That’s the key. If you don’t enjoy the game, you’re done.”
After Zidlicky sought me out this morning, I went to get a response from Yeo. That will come later tonight I believe, but Zidlicky’s comments to me did trigger a long meeting between Zidlicky and GM Chuck Fletcher.
Fletcher has chosen to keep the contents of that meeting private, but you can bet this is a distraction Fletcher doesn’t want to infiltrate the locker room.
Fletcher has a lot of respect for Zidlicky and believes in him as a player, but there is zero doubt Fletcher will investigate trading Zidlicky now. If he finds a fit, it’ll be up to Zidlicky as to whether or not he wants to move.
He has one more year left on his contract at $4 million. He has no goals and 11 assists in 34 games and is a minus-9 the past 13 games and was a minus-5 in Philadelphia and Toronto (the last two games he played).
In the past 15 games without Zidlicky, the Wild is 12-3. In the past 16 games with him, it was 2-10-4.
Do I think Zidlicky can be moved? He’s obviously not had a very good season, but he has performed very well throughout his NHL career, is a power-play specialist and everybody covets a right-shot defenseman with a big shot. So, I do think it’s possible.
“Z is a talented player, and he at times can be quite creative, almost to a fault,” Preds coach Barry Trotz said this morning. “He has a tremendous skill level. He was an important player for us a few years back. Players go through that.”
I get how frustrated Zidlicky is. This guy cares a lot, he’s got a lot of pride. He’s competitive. But after two wins in a row, it was doubtful Yeo was going to change the lineup tonight and you can bet the team’s not happy that after two wins in a row, this was the forum Zidlicky decided to air his grievances.
The team was losing with Zidlicky in the lineup, and after the last two losses on that ghastly road trip, Yeo had to do something. You can’t just keep pulling guys, like Justin Falk, or sending guys that are performing well to the minors, like Nate Prosser, because you don’t want to bruise a veteran’s ego.
So how does this end? Stay tuned.
Nik Backstrom will be back in goal tonight in San Jose, two days after he shut out Calgary 3-0 with 41 saves.
Josh Harding was the NHL's First Star last week after four consecutive victories, but clearly Backstrom didn't lose his edge watching from the bench.
With a back-to-back in L.A. and Anaheim on Saturday and Sunday, you'd have to figure the goalies will split games in SoCal.
I'll have a few more updates when practice ends ...
DETROIT -- Trust everybody had a grand 'ol time with me out of the loop.
The players certainly did as I got chirped from every area of the visitors locker room this morning for going on "vacation" during the hockey season. Hey, every day is a vacation for me. Life is grand.
Guillaume Latendresse was particularly funny, noting how they beat Detroit with me gone and the moment I come back into the fold and the players see me lurking in the stands, they had one of the crummiest skates of the season.
Latendresse was referring to a morning skate where coach Mike Yeo wasn't a happy camper. Yeo twice huddled the players over and laid into them.
"We have plenty of time to correct it if we take the steps and do the things that we need to to make sure we're prepared the right way to play this game," Yeo told the media regarding a skate that lacked crispness. "We just needed to hear that we weren't good and that we need to be better, and that we're going to have to be pretty sharp to have a chance to win this hockey game tonight. We earned that win last game, but we're going to have to earn every inch that we take on this ice tonight. So the game doesn't start when the puck is dropped. The game starts in your preparation -- mentally and physically -- and it doesn't just happen when you show up at the rink for gametime. I can't wait to see how we play tonight."
Also, struggling Wild defenseman Marek Zidlicky will start tonight's game at Detroit on the No. 2 power-play unit, Yeo said.
Yeo feels Zidlicky has been "forcing a lot of plays" and needs to get back to his bread and butter -- shooting the puck.
Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser, Justin Falk and Spurgeon all played more even-strength minutes than last game's pair of veterans Nick Schultz and Zidlicky.
Yeo said he was happy with Zidlicky's 5-on-5 play last game. "It looked like Zid was starting to come last game." He's been happy with his battle level (which is never a problem with Zidlicky), but he hasn't been happy with his execution this season (i.e. incredibly unbelievable turnovers).
Yeo said he will continue to experiment with lines even though he's reunited the first two lines tonight. He wasn't sure yet of tonight's "net front presence" guys on the No. 2 PP tonight.
Couple other things:
1. The Wild had its NHLPA meeting last night at the hotel with Executive Director Donald Fehr as he does his annual team-by-team tour around the NHL. Player rep Nick Schultz said a lot of the conversation stemmed around CBA talk and the plan going forward regarding the expiration of the agreement next September, rules and myriad other issues, including the use of painkillers and the NHL/NHLPA Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program and some changes that could be made to the problem in light of the offseason deaths of Derek Boogaard and Rick Rypien (who had been in the program), and Wade Belak.
2. Regarding Brett Bulmer, I asked Yeo why all the charades the last few days. In other words, the team coming out and saying they told Bulmer not to worry or read anything into the scratch last game, how they wanted to play Brad Staubitz more, etc., etc. As Kent can attest, when Bulmer was scratched the other night and the Wild came up with a bunch of reasons why, I texted Kent and said, "I call," uh, baloney, and I guarantee they're evaluating the situation and Yeo was told to pull him out.
Yeo said: "We hadn't made up our mind yet, and we wanted to see how we did in the Detroit game (i.e. injuries, outcome). ... We're also not going to point him in the direction of you're probably going back just in case if he is going to get in the lineup next game, he has to have the right mind frame."
Basically, the Wild's saying Bulmer was going to be scratched the next few games if the team continued to be healthy and it refused to have a 19-year-old with promise relegated to the fourth line or press box. And with that third line playing well (Clutterbuck, Brodziak, Johnson) and the Wild healthy right now, fourth line or press box is where Bulmer was going to wind up.
Regarding the 10-game rule and the fact the Wild's claimed the past several weeks that it would actually be a benefit to have Bulmer burn a year of his deal with so many youngsters on the horizon potentially starting their 3-year contracts at the same time, the Wild claims the 10-game rule had nothing to do with this decision, that the timing was mere coincidence. In other words, he was sent down because he wasn't going to be making a regular contribution and the Wild didn't want to hinder his development (i.e. James Sheppard, Colton Gillies decisions of the past).
I don't know: I get deception if it's to get a competitive advantage. In this case, I don't know why the Wild couldn't simply say we're evaluating the situation and that's why we're pulling him from the lineup. To me, the scratch was an obvious sign of that.
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