Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

Also find Russo on Facebook.

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Posts about Wild pregame skate

Mikael Granlund mum on his contract talks; Wild finally plays at home again

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 23, 2014 - 1:08 PM

Finally, a home game again!

For the first time since smoking Colorado 5-zip two weeks ago, the Wild returns home to host the rebranded Arizona Coyotes.

“That opening game just feels like an eternity ago,” coach Mike Yeo said.

Darcy Kuemper vs. Mike Smith in the net.

Keith Ballard and Christian Folin were expected to be the third pair tonight, but they both apparently fell sick at the same time. So Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba will get into the lineup tonight.

Wild lines:

Parise-Granlund-Pominville

Vanek-Koivu-Coyle

Niederreiter-Haula-Fontaine

Cooke-Carter-Zucker

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Prosser-Dumba (although Dumba practiced at left D this week, too)

If you didn’t read my profile on Jared Spurgeon in today’s paper, give it a gander. Some fun stuff in there.

I’m also writing a crazy story for Saturday’s paper that you will most definitely be interested to read.

On the Wild signing Charlie Coyle to a five-year extension, Yeo said, “Real good thing for our organization. We saw it recently for Brods. It starts with a guy like Mikko and Zach and Suts and Pommer, our older core leaders, but these young guys are such an important part of our group, and Nino getting done earlier in the summer. We’re really excited to lock these guys up. We feel good about the group that we have here.”

Parise, on the Coyle re-signing, said, “It’s important for us. For him, he’s got that comfort of not worrying about that in the offseason. He can just play and know he’s all set for a long time. From a team standpoint, Charlie’s a really good player and I think he’s only going to get better. You don’t find a lot of guys with that size, skill and skating ability. They just don’t come around that often. You can play him anywhere in the lineup and he’s going to do well. Now if we can (looks left), there’s another guy hopefully we can get him [signed] soon also and we’ll be all set for awhile.”

That guy? Mikael Granlund.

Things change obviously, but as I have written a few times this week, as of now, Granlund’s camp doesn’t seem to be all too interested in a long-term deal. It seems focused on a two- or likely three-year bridge deal that’ll give the No. 1 center the chance to pile up big numbers the next two or three years and then hit a grand slam contract.

That type of contract also makes sense from a Wild standpoint because of Granlund’s history of concussions.

Granlund said of Coyle and Brodin, “They’re great players and great friends. I’m really happy for them.”

On his situation, Granlund said, “I better not say anything.”

On the short-term vs. long-term thing, Granlund said he would explain his reasoning as to which deal he chooses after he signs it.

He did make sure to say though, “I love this organization. I’ve been really enjoying my time here. I think this team is going to just get better. We’re going to have great years ahead of us.”

It’s so interesting for somebody like me who has covered this league for 20 years to see this whole new world the NHL has become. Pre-2004-05 lockout, teams owned player’s rights for 10 years or to age 30 before they could become unrestricted free agents.

Then, in a concession for the salary cap (or cost certainty, in Gary Bettman’s words), the players got liberalized free agency, meaning seven years or age 25. That’s how you can lose a Marian Gaborik for nothing like the Wild once did.

So what did that risk cause? Young kids on second contracts getting bigtime deals to chip off some arbitration years and unrestricted free-agent years. Teams have to ante up big bucks before they truly know what they’re paying for. Everything is based on projections. So youngsters get inflated contracts after their entry-levels and teams hope they’re right.

It never used to be that way. The benefit though? If you’re right, you’re getting them at quality prices during their peak years in the mid-20s as opposed to “overpaying” later to keep them from becoming free agents.

Maybe I’ll expand on this in my Sunday Insider. Maybe.

On tonight, Yeo said, “Execution is going to be key” against Dave Tippett’s structured Coyotes.

This is another edition of mentor (Tippett) vs. protégé (Yeo; Tippett’s former Houston captain).

“This is a team that plays very well positionally, well coached, you’re always going to be forced to deal with their structure, so if you’re not moving the puck effectively, then your transition game, your speed coming through the middle of the ice, it’s going to be a non-factor,” Yeo said.

Yeo also said the Wild can’t turn pucks over and feed into Arizona’s counter game. The D, guys like Keith Yandle and Oliver Ekman-Larsson, love to join the attack.

First of six games in nine nights for the Wild.

“Hockey players want to play games. We know the importance of practice. We take it seriously. But at the same time, we’ve had a lot of it,” Yeo said of four games in the NHL season’s first 15 days. “So it’s time for us to start playing some games. This will present a new challenge. We have a lot of games in a short period of time, but we’re ready to play again.”

But he said the Wild must brace itself for a tough challenge tonight because it seems Arizona is always a tough opponent for Minnesota, especially in St. Paul.

Wild will try to spoil Anaheim's home opener; Lineup updates

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 17, 2014 - 4:31 PM

UPDATED

Good morning (it’s morning in California!) from Anaheim, where the Wild finally dusts off its road whites and plays a game again at 9 p.m. CT (FSN, KFAN). I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. CT.

If you want to read a little about what the Wild has been up to since beating Colorado, 3-zip, Saturday, check out this story.

For the second straight game, the Wild walks into an arena with a division championship banner already hanging. Saturday in Denver, the Wild spoiled that Central Division title party for the Avs in their home opener. The Ducks have their Pacific Division title banner up in the air already as they finally play a home game after a 3-1 road swing to open the year.

“In the end, no matter how great it feels to win the division against the teams that are in our division, if you don’t go further than that, nobody cares," said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. "It is saying something you won it, but we want no fanfare with that. Hopefully there will be a bigger banner there some time in the next year.”

As expected, Darcy Kuemper in goal, Keith Ballard and Matt Dumba will be the third pair and the fourth line will be Matt Cooke-Ryan Carter-Jason Zucker with Justin Fontaine making his season debut on the second line. Nate Prosser and Christian Folin are expected to play Sunday in L.A., perhaps with Niklas Backstrom in goal. That's all subject to change.

On Fontaine playing with Vanek and Koivu, coach Mike Yeo said, "We’re hoping to see that line click. We’re hoping to see that line create a lot of 5-on-5. They got the one big goal when we spotted Zuck up there, but then after that, the rest of the game they were pretty quiet. I want to see those guys be a threat every time that they’re on the ice and when they’re not on the attack that they’re defending the right way."

In Game 3 of the first round against Colorado, Kyle Brodziak was scratched for the first time in his Wild career. Despite two quality games on the fourth line to start this year, Brodziak’s first scratch of this season will come in Game 3.

"We’re a deeper team," Yeo said. "We’ve had some healthy guys out of the lineup already and this is the lineup we’re going with tonight. The one thing we want to create is we want the idea that guys are pushing each other, and so obviously we have that right now.

"Actually I haven’t been disappointed with his games at all. It’s just a matter of where other guys fit right now and we’re happy with a lot of other people’s games, so the message is pretty simple: Work hard today and get ready for the next one."

Said Brodziak, "I understand it’s part of it. It’s a long year and you’ve just got to stay positive and keep trying to build your game up as much as you can. When you get a chance to get back in, you’ve got to make the most of it.

"When you have a team that’s as deep as we are up front, it is going to create higher competition amongst the team and that’s never a bad thing when you have guys that all want to accomplish the same thing and contribute and be a part of it. As much as everybody else there’s a competition that comes along with it and that should be a good thing for the group."


Carter, who won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Ducks (see that story here), will center the fourth line.

As I wrote in this story here, Clayton Stoner is excited to face the Wild tonight. Dany Heatley won’t play because of a groin strain.

“It’s frustrating to be hurt. I felt real good in training camp and preseason and I’m just trying to get healthy again,” Heatley said.

Heatley said it was a freak, innocent thing and disappointed because he showed immediate chemistry on the Ducks’ first line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the preseason.

“Perry is one of the best goal scorers in the league, and Getz is the best center or definitely right up there. He looks to pass a lot and that’s good for a shooter.”

On his three-year Wild career, Heatley said, “Ups and downs. The first year there I thought was a decent year. The lockout year was a weird year, kind of struggled with some injuries and the same thing in the third year.”

In the playoffs, Heatley was scratched the first two games. He drew in Game 3 of the first round and finished with a goal, five assists and a team-best plus-6 in 11 games. His saucer helped set up Nino Niederreiter’s Game 7 OT winner in Denver.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was obviously a tough start to the playoffs, but once I got into the lineup, it was fun playing with those guys. I think I left on a pretty good note.”

Yeo on Heatley: "I really enjoyed coaching Heater. You always know a little bit about the player coming there, and when you have the chance to coach them, especially players like that, you end up appreciating them so much more. First off, you get to know the human being and what kind of person they are and what kind of teammate they are. … It was a real pleasure for me."

Boudreau again raved about the Wild, its players, what Thomas Vanek adds to the team and all of the Wild’s young kids, especially Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula.

Oh, also Kuemper.

“I don’t think they’ll go 82 games without giving up a goal,” Boudreau said. “I don’t think we’re licking our chops to be the first team that scores on him. We just want to come out and play hard and hopefully it’s good enough to win. We love to play in front of our home crowd, so hopefully the guys aren’t too preoccupied with it and play a little bit like they were on the road.”

Rikard Rakell is the Ducks’ scratch tonight. Emerson Etem takes Patrick Maroon’s slot on the first line. Frederik Andersen starts. And Chris Wagner, the Player of the Week in the AHL, will make his NHL debut.

Matt Cooke: I always have my head on a swivel; Stu Bickel may debut

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 11, 2014 - 4:03 PM

It’s weird, but after tonight, the Wild and Avalanche won’t play again until Feb. 7 and not again in Denver until Feb. 28.

These two teams have grown so accustomed to seeing each other, and as defenseman Jared Spurgeon said this morning, Denver almost feels like the Wild’s second home.

“We know where to go, that’s for sure,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We even said that on the way over [to the arena on the bus], it’s going to be weird going and playing somewhere else on the road because we’ve been here so much.”

The Wild and Avs play each other tonight in Denver (8 p.m. CT, FSN, KFAN; the Wild is holding a free viewing party at Xcel Energy Center, where it will show tonight's game on the new scoreboard) for the first time since the Wild fought back from a goal down four times to win Game 7 of the Western Conference quarterfinals in overtime April 30. It’s the second game of the season for each team after the Wild pounded Colorado, 5-0, in St. Paul on Thursday.

But, Yeo’s message again to his team, “Not a lot of thought’s going back toward last year. Not a lot of thought’s going back toward last game. Really just focused on this one.”

Avs coach Patrick Roy will scramble his lines tonight.

The top 3 will be Jamie McGinn-Matt Duchene-Jarome Iginla; Alex Tanguay-Nathan MacKinnon-Daniel Briere; Gabriel Landeskog-Ryan O’Reilly-Dennis Everberg.

On the blue line, Nate Guenin won’t play and Ryan Wilson will be inserted.

Top 3 lines, top 6 D and Darcy Kuemper are the same for the Wild, but Stu Bickel may get in on the fourth line, meaning Jason Zucker, Ryan Carter or Kyle Brodziak would be scratched if Bickel plays. He will at least skate warmups. If Brodziak comes out, Carter would have to slide to center.

Yeo really liked his fourth line of Zucker-Brodziak-Carter on Thursday, so I’m a little surprised Yeo’s thinking of cracking it at least for one night. It didn’t become apparent to me that Bickel may be playing until after Yeo’s availability, so my assumption is Yeo is thinking of playing Bickel because of all the talk the last couple days of redemption for last playoff’s Matt Cooke on Tyson Barrie knee-on-knee hit and Roy telling Denver Post columnist Mike Kiszla, “One day, it might be the opposite. One of our players will hurt one of their guys. And I'm sure everybody is going to be very happy to remind (Minnesota) what happened to Tyson Barrie.”

Kiszla offered this last line in his column: “Free advice to Cooke: Keep your head on a swivel. The first shot of the game might be a fist directed at a lowdown, dirty Wild man certain to be greeted in Denver by a chorus of boos.”

Cooke, with a grin, said he didn’t read the column. Cooke reads everything, so he surely knows what was said by Roy and the Denver writer.

I caught up to Cooke as he walked to the bus after the skate.

He said if the fans want to boo, “That’s up to the fans. I don’t control that kind of stuff. I just have to go out and prepare like it’s another game.”

As for keeping his head up like Kiszla graciously suggested, Cooke said, “I always have my head on a swivel. That’s the way I play the game. I hit guys and I expect to be hit. That’s part of the game and what I expect. Obviously emotions are high and things are said at times, but it really doesn’t have any effect on how I prepare to play the game tonight.”

If you didn’t see my Cooke piece prior to Thursday’s game, here that is again.

If you forgot, go to wild.com, but the last time Cooke was in this building, he was ecstatic in the locker room and greeted every teammate enthusiastically as they entered the locker room following the Game 7 win. Cooke says that had nothing to do with knowing that he would be able to return in Game 4 of the second round against Chicago. It’s because he was so proud of what the team accomplished, especially young guys like Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula.

Roy just wants his team to play better tonight than it did while being humiliated by the Wild two nights ago. He didn’t practice the Avs yesterday. Instead, they met.

“They were not happy with their performance,” Roy said. “I think it’s important to regroup. We talked about it. We know we’re going to have to compete better than what we did. That was the big difference in that game. They were sharp, they were moving the puck quick, they were first on pucks, they were winning those battles.

“If we compete in front of the net, I think it'll be a lot different tonight -- both nets.

“Tonight, in front of our fans, the start of the game will be key for us. If we can score a goal early, it’s going to help us even more.”

Yeo said, “I’m not going to spend a lot of time sitting around thinking about what to expect from them. I’m just a lot more focused on what we’re going to bring tonight. Our first road game of the year. I want to become a good road team and this will be a good challenge against a team that we know wants to come with a good effort, are going to want to bounce back and wants to have a good show in front of their home crowd.

“Last game is behind us. Last game was last game. This is a different circumstance. We’re playing a different team tonight. We’re playing in a different building. This will be a new challenge.”

Yeo again said he is not worried about playing rookie defensemen Matt Dumba and Christian Folin as a pair tonight. This will be Folin’s first NHL road game.

“Listen, if you’re going to be on our team, then you have to play in tough buildings and you have to play against good teams. We don’t want to have guys on our team that we feel we have to hide. There’s no other way to get that experience except to go out there and deal with it. Obviously we’ll pay attention to matchups like we always do. But there’s no easing into it.”

Niederreiter sat in the same stall he always does in the visitors’ room at Pepsi Center. The man who scored the Game 7 OT winner said, “It’s always a special feeling coming back here. The whole series was such a fun series. I felt like we played some great hockey in this building. We were always very close. And obviously I will never forget Game 7.”

He admitted that while he was on the ice for the morning skate, “a few things came to mind. I like to come here. It’s a great city. It’s a great atmosphere and great building to play in.”

Talk to you tonight on Twitter (@russostrib) and after the game.

Wild-Avalanche + Jarome Iginla renews rivalry tonight

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 9, 2014 - 1:16 PM

Wild and Avs tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Network and KFAN.

Fox Sports North is having an hour pregame show. I’ll be on it around 7:40 p.m.

I’ll also be on KFAN at 3:30 p.m. and please join by live chat on startribune.com/wild at 2 p.m.

No better way to jump into this season than against last year’s first-round opponent, Colorado. This is the first of two consecutive games against the Avs.

“It’s two teams that are going to have same core players for a long time and play a lot of games against each other,” Zach Parise said. “The way the playoffs are set up now, we’re most likely going to see each other in the playoffs quite a bit, too. It’s building and it’s getting there and it’s good to start the yea this way.

“I guess it's recognized by the league, too. It’s a national game.”

Said coach Mike Yeo: “We all just want to get going. It’s 82 games. We can’t make the playoffs with this win tonight.”

-- Again, to see the Wild lines, see the previous probably half-dozen blogs. Keith Ballard and Justin Fontaine, both banged up, each skated this morning but won’t play.

Fontaine is close, but Yeo said after his glute injury, the Wild wants to make sure there’s no chance he could aggravate the injury, and that they want to make sure he gets enough reps to make sure he’s up to game speed and his conditioning is OK.

-- Jarome Iginla, the longtime Calgary Flames captain and all-time leading scorer against the Wild and all-time leader against the Wild in just about every offensive category, gets his Avs career started with consecutive games against the opponent he loves to munch on.

“They’ve always been very disciplined,” Iginla said. “I’ve played a ton against the Wild. They always seem to be very structured, very disciplined and work hard and I don’t think that’s changed.  In the past few years, they’ve added more skill than maybe they’ve had in the past. They compete very hard to go with that skill. They’re a good team and it’ll be a good challenge.”

Iginla signed a three-year deal with the Avs July 1. The other team that went hard after him? Minnesota, which ended up signing Thomas Vanek to a three-year deal.

“I was definitely considering it,” Iginla said. “A good team, a good hockey city that keeps adding guys and is very competitive.”

-- It’s pretty good start the season off with such a rivalry.

“It’s going to force us to be good,” Yeo said. “We know that they’re going to be good. We have a lot of respect for that team over there.

“This is not Game 8 of the playoffs here. This is Game 1 of the regular season. What happened last year is last year. We want to leave it behind us as much as they want to leave it behind them.”

-- Former Gopher Erik Johnson, who got to eat a home-cooked meal at his folks’ house last night, said he took a lot of flak from his Minnesota buddies this past summer for losing to the Wild in the playoffs.

“My response is you should probably cheer for us because if the Wild wins a Cup, you’re not going to be invited to any Cup parties. That switches their opinion pretty quick.”

--Parise sounded the alarms again that the Wild needs to rid itself of those summer hockey habits that showed up in a lot of the Wild’s 3-2-1 preseason.

He says the Wild needs to remember what made it so successful in the final 10 games of last season and the playoffs.

“Sometimes it does take a regular season game to get that back,” Parise said. “That’s the thing that’ll be the most important thing is to understand how we played and what worked for us and what worked for us last year and how hard we were to play against at the end of the season. There were times … we’d go 10, 12, 14 minutes without giving up a shot on net. That frustrated the other team and made us successful. We can’t afford to get too much of a fancy game early in the season.

“We have to be smarter in the regular season than [we were in the preseason].”

What else?

-- Cody Almond has Geneva in his back pocket, but he plans to give Iowa a try first. But he wants a chance to be an NHL player and GM Chuck Fletcher has gotten a couple calls from teams. However, the Wild doesn’t want a contract back for Almond. It wants a draft pick. But the teams interested so far want to give up a live, breathing, human player.

-- Nik Backstrom, one of the funniest Wild players, was hysterical when I was shooting the breeze with him this morning about this new referee helmet cam that was debuted last night on TV.

"At least they can't say they didn't see it anymore. Now there's proof,” Backstrom joked.

He said I could go with the quote. Once he saw the tweet, the goalie joked, “I'm in deep trouble now. Suddenly I'm going to be the guy that's diving.”

-- Speaking of Backstrom, Yeo talked more about giving Darcy Kuemper the first start tonight.

“It’s a decision that I’m not going to lose any sleep over because of the way Darcy played. He had a good camp, but it wasn’t an easy decision because of the way that Backy performed in training camp.”

In the end, Yeo said he evaluated both performances, and the opponent also came into play and how Kuemper played against the Avs at home in the playoffs. “It felt like the right call to make … today.”

-- That’s it for tonight. See you on the chat in a bit and on Twitter tonight.

Links to today's Star Tribune Wild preview

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 9, 2014 - 8:37 AM

Opening Night is tonight at 8 p.m. against the Colorado Avalanche.

This afternoon at 2 o'clock, I will be hosting a live chat on startribune.com/wild to preview the season. Please join, and if you arrive early, you can leave questions early.

I will also be on KFAN with Dan Barreiro previewing the season at 3:30 p.m. and on Fox Sports North's hourlong pregame show around 7:40 p.m.

Remember, the game is being televised on NBC Sports Network (play-by-play man John Forslund was stuck in a stuffy St. Paul elevator for 70 minutes yesterday, but luckily, he escaped and will be on the mic and Pierre McGuire) and broadcast on KFAN (100.3-FM, with Bob Kurtz, Tom Reid, and ugh, Kevin Falness on the call).

If you have the ability, please try to pick up today's Star Tribune for our Wild preview. Great pics by the talented Carlos Gonzalez, design by Bob Timmons and the rest of the Strib team and editing by Chris Miller, who has the unenviable job of having to read my copy daily and worse yet, communicate with me!

BUT, to make things easier, here are some of the links that you can find on the Star Tribune Wild page above.

Kid-Friendly: Wild counting on ascending youngsters Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jonas Brodin and Erik Haula.

My FOUR big keys to season success for the Wild

My notebook on Darcy Kuemper starting opener over Nik Backstrom, the fact coach Mike Yeo has tons of shootout choice and Matt Dumba and Christian Folin being a pair.

VIDEO of Michael Rand and I, in our cool shades, previewing the season.

Jim Souhan's column on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter

VIDEO of the Wild unveiling its massive scoreboard to the media yesterday

My game preview, which I put in part as my annual reminder that I do a game preview box before every game and it's on there where you can ALWAYS get the answer to the question, "What channel is the game on?"

Again, if you missed yesterday's paper, I did a feature on Matt Cooke playing the Avs for the first time, a story on Kyle Brodziak and also my NHL preview and predictions.

Tonight's Wild lines are expected to be:

Forwards

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Matt Cooke-Mikko Koivu-Thomas Vanek

Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Charlie Coyle

Jason Zucker-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Carter

Defensemen

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Matt Dumba-Christian Folin

Goalies

Darcy Kuemper

Niklas Backstrom

Extras: Stu Bickel, Keith Ballard, Justin Fontaine (the last two are banged up), Nate Prosser

I'll be back later to update this blog after the morning skates.

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