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

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Posts about Wild practice

Wild practice: Charlie Coyle joins second line

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: October 21, 2014 - 1:57 PM

With another substantial break in the schedule--three days this time, between Sunday's 2-1 loss at Los Angeles and Thursday's home game against Arizona--the Wild held a long practice Tuesday. Charlie Coyle was the last player off the ice, two hours and three minutes after the workout started at Xcel Energy Center.

The team worked on a little of everything, including a power play that hasn't scored in 16 opportunities. Coach Mike Yeo also swapped the right wings on his second and third lines, elevating Coyle to the second line with Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek and putting Justin Fontaine with Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter.

Yeo is hoping Coyle's speed--and his familiarity with former linemate Koivu--can jump-start a second line that hasn't produced. Koivu has no points in the first four games, while Vanek has only one assist.

"This was our intention going into the season, to have (Coyle) start there,'' Yeo said. "Whether injuries or other factors came into play, or the play of him on the (Niederreiter-Haula) line, that’s a line we haven’t tried yet.

"Mikko and Charlie have had a lot of chemistry together in the past. They're both big bodies, they're both strong on the puck, and Thomas should fit that as well. One thing that excites us right now is the way Charlie is skating. His speed is very noticeable; it's been a real factor out there. We think adding that element to that line could really help.''

As for the power play, Yeo and several players said its failings lie in the details. Yeo urged the team to have a stronger presence in front of the net to make it harder for goalies to spot the puck. Zach Parise said more practice time should help.

"That's the biggest thing,'' he said. "I thought it was good in LA; we had good chances and good shots, but nothing was squirting free for us. I'm hoping we practice it more and everything will start to come.

"We can make cleaner passes; a couple of times, we were trying to set guys up for one-timers, and the pucks are in the feet or the passes aren’t flat. I thought it was good in LA for the most part. It's just that the finish isn’t there.''

Despite losing back-to-back games on their California road trip after starting the season 2-0, Parise said the Wild feels good about the way it's playing.

"I don’t think anyone is upset with the way we played,'' he said. "I think our game is in a good spot. We're playing a good style of hockey. I think we're playing an exciting style of hockey, I think we're playing in a way that’s entertaining and fun for the fans to see. If we keep playing like that, we're going to win more than we're going to lose.

"We just couldn’t find the back of the net in either one of those games. Are there areas we need to improve? Of course. But all in all, for where we are in the season, I think we're playing pretty good.''


Niklas Backstrom to make first start since January + lots of Wild updates

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 18, 2014 - 5:20 PM

The Wild and Los Angeles Kings play Sunday at 2 p.m. CT (Fox Sports North and Kool-108) in the first of a Staples Center doubleheader. Lakers and Jazz play in a preseason game later in the day.

I’ll be on FSN in the pregame show and first intermission.

Good afternoon from L.A., where the Wild practiced this afternoon at the famous luxurious arena.

As you can imagine, with the short turnaround between Friday night’s game and Sunday’s noon local time start, today’s practice wasn’t overly strenuous. It was all about execution around the net, not a shock considering the way the Wild lost, 2-1, Friday night 45 minutes south of here in Anaheim.

Say what you want about the dubious officiating – like missing too many men penalties or Eric Furlatt ignoring three guys (Getzlaf, Perry and Beleskey) all without gloves on one skirmish and somehow finding a way to put the Wild shorthanded or allowing Perry to sit on Erik Haula for 10 seconds or watching Zach Parise get cross-checked in front of the net on power plays and so on and so on and so on – and say what you want about a couple costly young mistakes by Wild players, the Wild lost the Ducks game because of a remarkable lack of sharpness around the net by several players on golden opportunities.

That’s why the Wild lost. Shanked shots, missed nets, whiffed pucks, one clanked post and Frederik Andersen stoning guys like Thomas Vanek, Parise and Jonas Brodin on terrific scoring chances.

So, that’s what the Wild worked on today heading into Sunday’s game against the defending Cup champs, who will be without Marian Gaborik, Jake Muzzin and Trevor Lewis.

As coach Mike Yeo intimated all week, despite Darcy Kuemper’s stellar start to this season, he feels he has to get Niklas Backstrom in a game because the Wild will need him. It plays next Monday and Tuesday at the Rangers and Bruins, so if you don’t play Backstrom now, he’ll be going on four weeks without a start if he gets the nod in Boston.

Sooooo, Backstrom, coming off season-ending abdominal and hip surgeries, will make his season debut Sunday against the Kings. It’ll be his first start since Jan. 11 and first appearance since Jan. 30. Remember, it was at L.A. last Jan. 7 that Backstrom was scratched from his start because he received a cortisone shot in his achy abdomen. Kuemper, who didn’t start since allowing four goals on seven shots in Toronto on Oct. 15, got the surprise nod at L.A. and made 39 saves in a shootout win during a game the Wild was outshot 40-17.

“I’m real happy with Kuemps’ game right now, but Backy had a great training camp, too, and we’re a team and I want to make sure everybody feels part of that team,” Yeo said.

Same forward lines are expected to play against the Kings, meaning Kyle Brodziak is expected to be scratched again. As expected, defensemen Nate Prosser and Christian Folin will play and Keith Ballard and Matt Dumba won’t. Again, this was the plan all week because Yeo doesn’t want defensemen sitting around and he believes Prosser and Folin should be able to play a heavy game against a heavy opponent.

The Wild’s power play is 0 for 11 with one shorthanded goal against. Yeo said after last night’s game it needs to be addressed, and today it was with two brand new units (in fact, other than arguably a flip in centers, the units I think the Wild should have started the season with).

The first unit today was Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Thomas Vanek with Jason Pominville and Ryan Suter at the points. The second unit was Nino Niederreiter-Mikael Granlund-Charlie Coyle with Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin at the points.

Vets and youths.

“I think that young group can really challenge the first group,” Yeo said. “They’re really comfortable with each other. Sometimes the young kids go out there with an older guy and they defer.

“And you look at the personnel we have on the top group, there’s no question that that should be a dangerous unit too.”

Maybe it’ll get Koivu and Vanek going. Koivu, the all-time leading scorer for the Wild, has no points in three games. Vanek is searching for his first goal, although he had seven shots last night and some Grade A chances, so it should be coming.

Yeo said he’s really, really happy with Niederreiter and Coyle, especially Coyle.

“I’m looking at the scoresheet after the game last night and the way Charlie played, I’m just saying I didn’t play him enough,” Yeo said of Coyle’s 12:33 ice time (of course, part of the reason for the low ice time is he spent six minutes in the box).

Coyle had five shots last night, and that doesn’t count the pipe with the score tied, 1-1.

“He deserves more and he deserves more of an opportunity and he’s going to get that.”

Yeo reminded that the power-play goal the Wild actually should have scored in Denver was because of Niederreiter crashing the net and Coyle scoring (bad call, but the referee waved it off because Niederreiter was on Semyon Varlamov; he was pushed onto him by Jan Hejda).

So Yeo feels Niederreiter and Coyle will be two big bodies that’s going to cause some net-front presence and traffic on the power play (which is why, like the preseason, they should have been on there all along in my opinion)!

But Yeo said he wants the Wild to become a team where the players know that when they’re playing well, they should get rewarded, and Niederreiter and Coyle warrant more ice time.

On Coyle, Yeo said, “He’s creating things when he’s out there, playing with a physical presence, playing a big game and he’s been frustrating for a lot of these guys to play against, and I can understand why.”

One thing that bothered me about last night is Ryan Kesler’s run at Granlund, which he seems to have survived because he practiced today.

Kesler got a major charging penalty at the buzzer. What he did though didn’t cross the line into supplemental discipline, so basically there’s no repercussion at all for a very dirty play. Look at the replay and it’s clear that Kesler knew exactly what he was doing. It’s interesting, but Colie Campbell used to bring this up at GM’s meetings about how if a player is running around dangerously late in a game and gets a major like this, maybe there’s a traveling penalty and he has to serve it to start the next game. Maybe, the team isn’t shorthanded to start the next game, but the player has to sit.

There was never any appetite from the GM’s to do something like that, but what’s going to stop Kesler from doing this again and getting a free lick on an unsuspecting player when another team’s got their skilled players on the ice late in a one-goal deficit?

I brought it up to Parise today and he found it interesting until he remembered he got a cross-checking major on Kesler at the buzzer.

“Then I’d have to sit, too, so I don’t like it,” Parise said, laughing.

There are heavier teams than the Wild in the West – Anaheim, St. Louis, L.A. I asked Yeo again today how he counteracts that when the Wild’s not made up the same way.

“We’re a team that’s built on speed and I think that style of hockey, that brand of hockey is very exciting for the fans,” Yeo said. “I just felt in the game there were times where our speed was very frustrating for them and creating a lot of momentum for us, and there were times where they started to do things that should have warranted power plays for us.

“This is not to get into the debate of having tough guys. I love toughness too, but there’s no question it’s hard to build your team only around speed if that stuff isn’t taken care of by giving us a chance to go on the power play when that happens. Again I want to be careful what I say here, but I felt there were times in the game last game where we should have ended up on the power play and that’s a deterrent for that kind of behavior.”

But Yeo made clear he’s ready to move on and officiating was hardly the reason the Wild lost last night.

The Wild lost because a few players seemed to have holes in their sticks.

Yeo, by the way, gave Jason Zucker a pep talk on the ice. It was his pass into Matt Dumba’s skate that led to Corey Perry’s winning goal.

“With his speed, it’s just kind of a minor thing and these are learning moments,” Yeo said. “If he can have a bit of a shoulder check, he can realize that he has a little bit more time and space, that he’s part of the attack as opposed to just moving it to somebody. It’s just trying to get his feet going and with his speed, that could be such a factor for us. We saw it on his goal. As much as anything else, I wanted to make sure he knows that one mistake, that’s part of the game, that’s part of the process for a young player and he’s still developing and you’ve got to move on from that and learn from it.”

Basically, Yeo said the right play for Zucker was to look and see where the defenseman is. He said a pass is a fine play if it’s on Dumba’s tape, but the better play would have been to take the ice because then Zucker’s part of the attack and part of the rush as opposed to making a stationary play and then being behind the play.

OK, that’s it for me. See you on FSN on Sunday, on Twitter during the game and on here after the game.

Clayton Stoner to face his old Wild on Friday, but Dany Heatley won't

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 16, 2014 - 6:37 PM

Look who's here! Dany Heatley, the Wild vet of the past three years, is 33, but it seems California has been good to him. He looks younger and in good shape.

"It's the California sun, Roose," said Heatley.

Heatley won't play in Anaheim's home opener against the Wild on Friday though. He is out with a groin injury.

This guy will those....

Clayton Stoner, fresh off signing a four-year, $13 million deal to triple last year's $1.1 million salary from the Wild, will be paired with offensive defenseman Sami Vatanen.

“I kind of just felt like I needed a change from Minnesota,” Stoner said. “Nothing against it. Just sometimes change is good for somebody and keeps you motivated for a new team, new teammates and a good opportunity here.”

He already has stitches on his left eyebrow from being checked into the glass, has gotten into a scrap and believes he has put himself in a position here to win a Cup.

“[Playing the Wild in the home opener] makes it more exciting to play the game," Stoner said. "I love those guys so much that it probably will be more smiles at them. I’ll be playing as hard as I can like I do every night but after playing for so long with those guys, it’ll be fun.”

Stoner joked he looked forward to checking his old buddy Kyle Brodziak “because he probably wouldn’t get too mad at me,” although Brodziak may be a healthy scratch Friday. That's the way it looked in today's practice.

Stoner said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau hadn’t yet asked him for background on the Wild.

“I’m surprised. I thought he’d been asking for my expertise,” Stoner joked.

On playing with stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Stoner said, It’s unbelievable. It’s pretty amazing. They just have a different dynamic than I’m used to with them being so big and able to protect the puck."

More on Stoner and Heatley, coincidentally close friends on the Wild, in Friday's paper.

After taking yesterday as a team building day by the pool and golf course and upscale resort and awesome meal, the Wild had a good, hard practice today and will have to figure out a way to go right back into combat after so much time off. It hasn't played since Saturday.

Just like Tuesday, it appears as if Ryan Carter will center the fourth line with Matt Cooke and Jason Zucker, although coach Mike Yeo said they still have to talk about that. Justin Fontaine will make his season debut on the right side of Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu.

Vanek gets to move back to where he feels most comfortable -- the left wing, and Fontaine's there because the line looked good together before Fontaine got hurt. Yeo doesn't want to mess with the Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Charlie Coyle line. He's very happy with that line. And even though Zucker will play right wing on the fourth line, Yeo doesn't know if he's quite ready to play the off wing full-time yet. If he looks good at right wing and Fontaine doesn't, Yeo said he may spot up Zucker the way he did during his big goal in Colorado with Vanek and Koivu. Yeo liked the way Zucker was playing, so he moved him up.

But, basically, Yeo wants to insert Fontaine without touching the top line and the third line, and he wants Fontaine on the second line because they're three offensive guys who think the game well.

By the way, retired Saku Koivu watched his brother practice today.

Keith Ballard and Matt Dumba is a pair, as is Nate Prosser and Christian Folin. As I have indicated all week, that leads me to believe one pair will play against the Ducks, the other Sunday at L.A. Yeo said the Ballard-Dumba pair will go vs. Anaheim.

"I don’t want to go three weeks into a season and all of a sudden we need a defenseman and they haven’t played," Yeo said of Ballard and Prosser. "They have no foundation, they've got no base for a season. All of training camp would be pretty much a waste. So, try to get them involved here early and we’ve got a team here, too. We don’t have a bunch of guys and a few extras. We’ve got a team. It’s always good to make sure that guys know they can work hard to come into the lineup and guys know that they have to work hard to stay in the lineup. Nothing’s given to anybody."

Big test for the Wild going up against Anaheim and L.A. Ducks were 29-8-5 at home last year.

"We really believe that Minnesota is a really good team," Boudreau said. "They were good in the playoffs. They could have beaten Chicago. As a matter of fact, even though Chicago won in six, I thought Minnesota outplayed them for most of the time. It was just that karma or whatever that Chicago had that let them win that series. They’ve come in, and a good Colorado team, they beat them badly twice. We know it’s a great test for us, for our young players. We’re going to use them as a measuring stick to see where we're at."

Patrick Maroon is out with a sprained knee for the Ducks, so speedster Emerson Etem looks like he'll slide onto the line with Getzlaf and Perry.

Justin Fontaine likely to debut Friday; Lineup shuffle in the works

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 14, 2014 - 1:53 PM

The Wild had a long, workmanlike practice today at Xcel Energy Center and is about to take off from MSP for Orange County, where it will spend the next few days prior to Friday's game at Anaheim.

Good afternoon from MSP myself. The team will have an off-ice workout Wednesday, a golf outing and team dinner before ramping back up at practice Thurday in Anaheim.

Justin Fontaine looks like he will make his season debut Friday night on the right side of the Thomas Vanek-Mikko Koivu line.

Coach Mike Yeo is looking to keep his real quality Nos. 1 and 3 lines intact, especially that solid Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Charlie Coyle line. Ryan Carter said today that line reminds him of a certain Anaheim young line that helped lead the Ducks to a Cup in 2007. The names on that line -- Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner -- became eventual stars (at least two of them), and that's not what Carter's saying. He's saying the makeup, the role and the age is very similar.

Carter centered the fourth line today with Jason Zucker and Matt Cooke. Kyle Brodziak was switching in and out.

I think Carter will indeed center that line Friday and Yeo talked more today about just how much Carter knows his role and is playing it well.

Last week, I mentioned how I thought Fontaine would slide into the second line because the best that line has looked so far came with Fontaine there in training camp and the Pittsburgh exhibition game.

I started to wonder if initially Yeo would start Zucker there just because of the goal with Vanek and Koivu in the second Colorado win, but Yeo said today, "I saw some things earlier in training camp. Unfortunately Fonzie got hurt and we want to give it a little more of a go, but what we like about Fonzie is his whole life he’s sort of been in that role. You could see what he has done at various levels, the way he has had the ability to play with top players and had the ability to put up points. What I like is the way he thinks the game. That gives him a chance to read off of those two guys and make the plays that he needs to make. We saw a couple instances of that in practice, whether it was darting to a hole or making a play into space with those guys. Very hopeful that works out."

Fontaine also played the No. 2 power play with those two in practice instead of Niederreiter or Coyle. Yeo said that may not be a full-time thing, that he wanted to give them more time to skate together.

BUT, it sure sounds like that's what he's thinking to start.

"We’re trying to find the right mix there," Yeo said. "I wanted to give him a good opportunity to go in practice today. Both those guys – Nino and Charlie – had a chance to factor in on the power play, but I grabbed them before that I wanted them to really have a good focus on their penalty killing today. Nino’s really been doing a great job and I’ve been using him a lot and Charlie, I would like to get him more involved in it as well. It’s not just a power-play practice when we’re working that stuff. We’re working our penalty kill too and I just like that we’re much closer to a place where our penalty killers are penalty killers and our power-play guys are power-play guys. There’s not much crossover. The guys that go out on the penalty kill, that’s their baby and they have pride in that, and I think we’ve seen that so far and likewise on the power play."

Keith Ballard was paired with Matt Dumba today and Nate Prosser played the left alongside Christian Folin. Folin had been playing the left, but that's really not fair to a young guy to put him on his off side when he's rarely done it before. The irony is Prosser in previous years was always the healthy scratch when the Wild needed a left-shot D because Yeo didn't feel he could play that side.

Regardless, it's pretty clear the plan is for Ballard and Dumba to play one game together this weekend and Prosser and Folin the other. Subject to change, of course, but the Wild doesn't want its extra D sitting around for three weeks not playing and when the two rookies played together in Denver, they only logged 9 and 10 minutes, respectively.

Same thing for Niklas Backstrom. Again, subject to change, Yeo is heavily considering playing him in Los Angeles on Sunday. Remember, it was at LA last year that Kuemper came out of nowhere in January to sub for an ailing Backstrom and won in a shootout during a game the Wild was severely outshot.

BUT, Yeo said, "When I talked about trying to get everybody in, [Backstrom's] part of that equation too. It’s too early to predict what’s going to happen right now. We were considering heavily putting him in last weekend, but Kuemps really didn’t give us a chance. Just going forward here, we are very conscious of trying to get him in. The schedule’s pretty light right now, but there will be a time where it will pick up and we’re going to need both goaltenders going and we just have to make sure he’s prepared for that."

Stu Bickel cleared waivers and was assigned to Iowa.

Also, if you remember back at the draft, Richard Park interviewed with GM Chuck Fletcher for a player development role. In almost a tryout basis, Park then worked development camp as a coach. Today, in a move that was coming for some time, Park was officially hired as a player development coach to work in Iowa.

Park, 38 (5/27/76), recorded 241 points (102-139=241) and 266 penalty minutes (PIM) in 738 career NHL games during 14 seasons with Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Vancouver and the New York Islanders. The forward skated in 40 career NHL playoff games, including 18 with the Wild in 2002-03 when the team advanced to the Western Conference Finals. The native of Seoul, South Korea, tallied 74 points (37-37=74) in 217 games during three seasons with Minnesota (2001-04).
 Park retired as a player after spending the last two seasons playing for Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland (2012-14). He was originally selected by Pittsburgh in the second round (50th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.

Wild practice: A little fun during a long wait

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: October 13, 2014 - 1:43 PM

With five days until its next game, the Wild turned Monday's practice into a spirited session of pond hockey for pros. The team spent much of the workout playing three-on-three on a compressed rink, with the nets parked just outside the blue lines. There was plenty of laughter and one-upsmanship, along with some complaining about the calls being made by assistant-coach-turned-ref Darryl Sydor.

Team Green celebrated its victory with some chest bumps and a group hug. Coach Mike Yeo said the unusual early-season break mandated a creative approach to practice time this week, one that allows the team to throttle down for a couple of days while keeping it on its toes for Friday's game at Anaheim. The Wild leaves for California on Tuesday afternoon, with Friday's game followed by a Sunday matinee at Los Angeles.

Yeo said there was a lot of "hidden work'' in Monday's practice, along with an off-ice workout. The Wild also made a roster move, putting forward Stu Bickel on waivers to make room for Justin Fontaine. Fontaine said he is fully recovered from a gluteus strain, and Yeo said there was a good chance he would play on the road trip. The coach expects to mix others into the lineup as well to ensure everyone on the roster is getting the playing time they need to be at their best.

"I'm not afraid to make changes,'' Yeo said. "This is a weekend where we have to see guys get in. If they don’t play this weekend, we're looking at three weeks into the season where guys haven’t played a game.

"This is a long season. To sit here and say we're just satisfied with where we are and what we've done, that’s not going to be the case. We've got to keep trying to work to get better. Whoever is in the lineup and wherever they're playing, they have to be ready to go.

"We don’t want guys on our roster sitting around for three weeks without playing a game. These guys, we're going to need them down the road. We've got to make sure we give them a chance to make sure they're ready to have a good season. That doesn't mean we're going to be going game after game just rotating things here, but certainly, we have to eye this weekend as an opportunity for us to make sure guys get into the lineup.''

In other practice news Monday:

--Kuemper was named the NHL's second star of the week after making 46 saves in his back-to-back shutouts of Colorado to open the season. Yeo--who seemed uncomfortable with the praise heaped on his team for its two victories--said he was happy for Kuemper but wanted him and the rest of the team to look forward. The goalie echoed that opinion.

"It's exciting to get mentioned like that,'' he said. "But I was fortunate our team played so well. I just benefited from that. It's exciting, and we'll move forward from that now. ... Just our preparation, we can't let that level drop. We've just got to stay on top of it and start looking forward to the next game.''

--Yeo said he isn't certain what Fontaine's role will be, but he does want to see him increase his scoring this season. "We weren’t playing him in skilled roles a lot of the time (last season), or in more of a scoring role. But that said, I think I'd like to see him take another step in that department this year.''   


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