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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As the Olympics enter the medal round, the NHL starts back up today.
Wild captain Mikko Koivu has been cleared to practice when the Wild's non-Olympians report at 2 p.m. at Braemar Arena in Edina. I'm sure he'll be eased back in as this will be his first time on the ice with teammates since breaking an ankle Jan. 4 against Washington.
Also, with Ryan Suter in Russia and Marco Scandella working his way back from a sprained MCL, I assume Jon Blum has been recalled so the Wild can have six defensemen in practice this week.
Jake Dowell is also up from Iowa to add numbers to the forward group. You might remember my story on Dowell's family's battles. Jake's father, John, died Thursday because of Huntington's disease and Jake was with his family in Eau Claire. The funeral was on Sunday.
Neither Erik Haula nor Stephane Veilleux have been recalled again. We'll see if Haula eventually gets the call back once the Wild gets into real practices. I think the plan has been for Haula to keep playing for Iowa so he gets games.
Coach Mike Yeo said before the break that with the team short numbers with Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Suter in Russia and Scandella hurt, the Wild will almost have three teams of five players initially as the team works to get the players back into game-like condition. The goal is to get the players in shape, while also getting in some skill work and system work. But obviously, it'll be odd until the Olympians are back.
I believe Niederreiter will return to the States before Granlund, Parise and Suter. Parise said before the tournament that there were two NHL charters bringing players back, and those who were eliminated earlier in the tournament would come back early. Then, typically, a team like the Wild would give Niederreiter a few extra days off.
Niederreiter and the Swiss lost to Latvia on Tuesday. In four games, Niederreiter had no points, was plus-2, 10 shots and led Swiss forwards in average ice time at 17 minutes, 5 seconds a game. If you watched the tournament, Niederreiter played very well, but he didn't produce offensively for the offensively-challenged team. He was robbed often.
As far as I can tell, the Wild will have 17 players on the ice today -- 11 forwards, six defensemen and two goalies.
Forwards: Brodziak, Cooke, Coyle, Fontaine, Heatley, Koivu, Mitchell, Pominville, Dowell, Rupp and I assume Zucker, unless his "minor procedure" will keep him off the ice.
Defensemen: Ballard, Blum, Brodin, Prosser, Spurgeon and Stoner.
Goalies: Backstrom and Kuemper.
If you missed it, Mikael Granlund had a heck of a game in Finland's 3-1 victory over Russia in the Olympic quarterfinals. He set up Teemu Selanne after a great hustling play for the second goal and then scored the third goal with a terrific whipping backhand inside the post.
Granlund's having a scintillating tournament. In four games, he leads the Finns with three goals and 19 shots. His role has been elevated dramatically due to Finland's injuries and he's playing alongside his hero Selanne, who played in his first of six Olympics before Granlund was even born.
The U.S. plays the Czechs at 11 a.m. on USA Network, while Canada plays the Latvians at 11 a.m. on MSNBC.
Sweden, who shut out Slovenia today, will play the winner of Finland-Russia in the semis Friday, while the winner of U.S-Czechs and Canada-Latvia plays in the other semifinal game Friday.
The bronze medal game is Saturday, while the gold-medal game is Sunday.
The Wild has torn up goalie John Curry’s two-way American Hockey League contract with the Iowa Wild and signed the former Breck School product to a two-way NHL contract.
This will allow the Wild to be able to call up Curry in case he’s needed after the Olympic break. By rule, he is officially on waivers today in order to be reassigned back to Iowa.
Because of the Wild’s chaotic goalie situation this season due to health issues with Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom, Johan Gustafsson, who’s in his first year as a North American pro, has been on the Wild’s active roster six separate occasions and has backed up nine games.
He has yet to make his NHL debut, so signing Curry is a way the Wild can avoid the yo-yo for a developing young goalie and bring up Curry if it needs to after the Olympic break.
“To have Gus just up here backing up, it’s just not right for his development and leaves Iowa really shorthanded, too,” GM Chuck Fletcher said. “John’s a little older and has a little more experience, so it’s just another option for us. It’s not a reflection on Gus at all. There have been times we’ve had [Darcy] Kuemper and Gus up here and John’s been the only goalie down there, so this is recognizing the reality of our situation and protecting us with another NHL contract.”
Basically, Curry’s an insurance policy beyond Kuemper, who started 12 consecutive games before the break, and Backstrom, who was suffering from abdominal soreness before the break. Since Jan. 7, Backstrom missed two games and had to back up rather than start Jan. 7 in L.A. because of the issue.
Fletcher said the Wild will know more Wednesday once every non-Olympic player reports for practice, but he anticipates that Backstrom is “fine.”
As for Harding, who has started two games since Dec. 17 and none since Dec. 31, Fletcher said there’s no real change to his status and he will not be practicing this week.
“Once we get into practicing here, hopefully we can provide a better update,” Fletcher said. “There’s no real change with Josh.”
Fletcher knows Curry well. When he was assistant GM in Pittsburgh, Fletcher signed Curry out of Boston University.
“He has lots of experience. He’s earned it. He’s just played very well down there, so he deserves an NHL deal and there’s no downside to signing him and having him available to you,” Fletcher said.
Curry, who turns 30 Feb. 27, has shuttled all year back and forth between Iowa and ECHL Orlando. He is 6-3-2 with Iowa in 12 games with a 1.95 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. In 2007 with BU, he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker and was named Hockey East Player of the Year.
In four NHL games for Pittsburgh over parts of two seasons in 2008-09 and 2009-10, Curry is 2-2 with a 3.67 goals-against average and .867 save percentage.
I'll be on KFAN in-studio with Paul Allen on Tuesday morning at 9.
UPDATED Mikko Koivu will miss the Winter Olympics.
The Wild captain, who was expected to captain Finland, underwent surgery on a broken ankle Jan. 6 after being hit by a dump-in off the stick of Washington's Nicklas Backstrom two days before.
The normal course of recovery for this type of injury is six to eight weeks. Koivu underwent surgery in an attempt to accelerate his return to the Wild lineup. Monday will be five weeks from surgery.
Koivu has been skating daily, but he has yet to be cleared to participate in practice let alone games. Koivu, who has missed 15 games and has 35 points in 44 games, informed Finland GM Jari Kurri today.
"I just don’t feel healthy enough to feel that I can play at the level that I want," Koivu said, the pain in his eyes. "I really think it’s not fair for my teammates with Minnesota, with Team Finland, the management in Team Finland and most important it’s not fair for myself either. It’s been going on the last two weeks, but for sure the last week, just back and forth the emotions have been up and down. Had a good day, then following day it would be worse. Just the level that I’ve been skating by myself, I haven’t been practicing with my team that’s here, I just don’t think it’s fair to anyone to play for Team Finland."
Koivu will take some time off from skating but plans to resume before the team is allowed to practice again Feb. 19. His hope is still to be ready by the first game in Edmonton on Feb. 27, but that could be pushing it.
He made clear that doctors say his ankle is healing properly and the screws are keeping the bone steady.
"I knew that would happen with bones healing that you’re going to have a good day and it’s going to get the pressure and the next day it might be worse," Koivu said. "But even knowing that and going forward with it, it’s frustrating. It’s a different kind of pain, too, then for example if you hurt your knee. It’s kind of a little stiff and wears off and gets better the longer you skate. With this one, it’s the opposite. It’s good for 10, 15 minutes and then the pain just starts building up and the kind of pain you don’t enjoy skating and not even talking about playing the game the way I want to play the game, so it’s just different than any other injury that I’ve had."
This would have been Koivu's third Olympics. He won bronze with Finland in 2010 and a silver with Finland in 2006. His older brother, Saku, is also not participating in this Olympics.
He said doctors told him this was the "worst timing ever" to have this injury, that if it happened a week or two earlier or if the Olympics were a week or two later, he'd be there.
"It’s hard," Mikko Koivu said. "Obviously we’ve been having lots of success in the past and the feeling to represent your country especially in the Olympic Games, it’s something as an athlete that doesn’t happen very often and who knows if it’s going to happen again with the NHL.
"But I've got to think clearly and I just think it’s not fair to anyone for me going to play for Team Finland right now even if I wanted to go there bad and play for my country there. I've just got to move on and get better over here."
He said he felt a responsibility as captain of the Wild: "To be honest, I thought about it in both ways. I thought if I would be healthy and I could go and play, that would help me to come and play here. But at the same time, I want to make sure that I’m 100 percent healthy and be ready to go as good as I can be when the puck drops here after the Olympics. Those were the things. There’s lots of things that you have to go through before you make the call, but that was definitely one of them.”
Earlier this week, GM Chuck Fletcher made clear Koivu's Olympics were in jeopardy, telling me, "There’s a lot of healing and work that needs to be done to get him to that position. If we can get him there, great, but I think people need to understand how hard he’s working to get healthy and come back. But it is what it is. Your body’s only going to heal the way it’s going to heal. There’s no magic wand here. He’s skating on his own, but it’s a long way from skating on your own to playing in a high-end international Olympic game.
"It’s not like this is just going to turn here in the next day or two. Once you start practicing with the team and taking contact, how long ‘til you’re able to play in a game, are there any setbacks? There’s a whole host of issues you have to look at. My only thing is I don’t want to rush it and I want to make sure we err on the side of caution. If he’s ready, great, but I don’t want to be gambling with his health and nor does Mikko. I give him lot of credit to have that surgery. A lot of people would not have had that surgery, so he’s ing everything he can to accelerate this. But he can only do so much.”
The Wild will have four others representing their countries in the Olympics, the United States' Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, Switzerland's Nino Niederreiter and Finland's Mikael Granlund.
On Granlund, Koivu said, "I think he’s showed that in the past with the national team. He’s been playing very good each and every time he’s been part of Team Finland. So, I expect a lot from him. But obviously you don’t want to put any pressure on him either. It’s not about, obviously, one player. It’s about the team, which will always been that as Team Finland. But yeah, I hope nothing but the best for Granny and obviously for the whole team and I’m sure they’re going to do just fine.”
Finland also lost Tampa Bay's Valtteri Filppula with ironically a broken ankle yesterday. Brutal.
Afternoon from the X, where the Wild's practicing in advance of its game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It'll be a tough one: Lightning is darn good and the first game back from a long road trip is often a tough one.
Jared Spurgeon is again practicing today and could return. Mikko Koivu is not practicing, is out Tuesday and I'd say doubtful for Thursday. The big question is whether he partakes in the Olympics. As I wrote here, GM Chuck Fletcher doesn't want him playing if he's still injured. Fletcher said he will see the doctors again this week.
Justin Fontaine is the lone guy not practicing today. I saw him limping after the game at Colorado on Thursday, so maybe this is related. Update after practice.
Thomas Vanek reportedly turned down a contract extension with the Islanders and will be traded before the March 5 deadline. Shocker.
Again, my guess has always been the Wild waits until free agency to pursue Vanek. The price for him as a rental will be huge, so why give up a boatload of assets for Vanek when you can sign him as a free agent? Again, the Wild, if it makes the playoffs, is all but locked to get a wildcard spot (Wild's unlikely to catch St. Louis, Chicago or Colorado), meaning it's all but locked to play St. Louis or Anaheim in the first round. Would you want the Wild to trade a first-round pick and a prospect or two for Vanek when your fate is a first round with those teams and he almost certainly will be available four months from now anyway?
Doesn't make a ton of sense to me.
I don't doubt the Wild would like add a rental winger/scorer before the deadline, but the price for Vanek will be high. I'd think L.A. is a possibility. The Kings cannot score. They must add a scorer before the deadline.
Zach Parise was named the NHL's First Star of the Week. He had eight points in three games, including a 3- and 4-point game against Anaheim (winning goal) and Colorado, respectively.
Former Gopher Phil Kessel was Second Star, while the Wild played a role in helping Calgary's Mikael Backlund get Third Star.
FIRST STAR— ZACH PARISE, LW, MINNESOTA WILD
Parise led the NHL with eight points (3-5--8) last week as the Wild
(29-21-7) went 1-1-1 in three road contests. Parise began the week by tallying the game-winning goal plus two assists in a 4-2 win at Anaheim Jan. 28, handing the Ducks their second regulation loss in 25 home starts.
He recorded a season-high four points (2-2--4) and nine shots in a 5-4 loss to the Colorado Avalanche Jan. 30 and notched an assist in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames Feb. 1. Parise also was named captain of the
2014 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team on Jan. 31. The 29-year-old Minneapolis native, who served as an alternate captain for the silver medal-winning U.S. team at Vancouver in 2010, has recorded 35 points
(18-17--35) in 42 games with the Wild this season.
SECOND STAR –- PHIL KESSEL, RW, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Kessel recorded seven points (3-4--7) last week, helping the Maple Leafs (30-21-6) climb to third place in the Atlantic Division with three consecutive victories. He earned an assist on the game-winning goal in a
3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Jan. 28, recorded two assists in a 6-3 victory over the Florida Panthers Jan. 30 and tallied his fifth career hat trick and one assist in a 6-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators Feb. 1. The 26-year-old Madison, Wisc. native, who will represent the United States at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games later this month, leads the Maple Leafs in scoring and is fourth in the League overall with 61 points (30-31--61) in
57 games. His 30 goals rank second in the League to Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (39).
THIRD STAR – MIKAEL BACKLUND, C, CALGARY FLAMES
Backlund recorded six points (4-2--6) last week, highlighted by multiple points in each of his three appearances, as the Flames (21-27-7) closed out their first 5-0-0 homestand since Feb. 7-15, 1997. Backlund began the week by notching two goals, one shorthanded, in a 5-4 overtime victory over the Chicago Blackhawks Jan. 28. He tallied two assists in a
4-1 victory over the San Jose Sharks Jan. 30 and he closed the week by recording a shorthanded tally as well as the overtime winner in a 4-3 decision over the Minnesota Wild Feb. 1. The 24-year-old Vasteras, Sweden native increased his season scoring total to 13-14--27 in 54 games.
After combining for nine points in Thursday’s loss to the Colorado Avalanche, Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville will remain a line when the Wild visits the Calgary Flames on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night.
Afternoon from Calgary. I'll be on KFAN on Saturday at 10:55 a.m.
Parise, who has seven points in the past two games, is coming off a two-goal, two-assist performance, while Granlund and Pominville combined for two goals and three assists.
Coach Mike Yeo plans to also reunite the Jason Zucker-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley line. The trio had success last month together, including a two-game string where they combined for four goals and five assists.
Zucker had been scratched the past three games due to the trickle-down effect of Parise’s return to the lineup from a broken foot.
Nino Niederreiter skated on the third line with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. He had spent time there earlier this season, while Erik Haula will center the fourth line with two of three wingers – Mike Rupp, Justin Fontaine and Torrey Mitchell.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who has missed the past 13 games with a broken foot, may return against the Flames.
Spurgeon didn’t take part in a regular pairing during Friday’s practice, but the Wild made sure to get him plenty of reps.
“I thought he looked really good moving the puck and showed no problems whatsoever working in the D zone,” Yeo said.
Yeo said he’d like to get another right-hand shot into the lineup. During Spurgeon’s absence, Nate Prosser has been the only righty other than four games Jon Blum played. Yeo said it would give the power play more options, too.
If Spurgeon returns, Keith Ballard would be the likely scratch.
Yeo wouldn't name his goaltender. My guess is he returns with Darcy Kuemper, although Niklas Backstrom has had a lot of success in Calgary.
He is 8-7 all-time in Calgary with a 1.98 goals against average, .932 save percentage and three shutouts.
The Wild has won eight of its past 12 at the Saddledome.
Talk to you Saturday.
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