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 training camp

Trying to figure out the Wild's roster situation

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 25, 2013 - 12:39 PM

The Wild hosts the St. Louis Blues tonight at Xcel Energy Center in its second-to-last preseason game at 7 p.m. The Blues will fly in this afternoon.

The game is NOT TELEVISED but will be on the award-winning (in my own mind) @russostrib Twitter Network and KFAN (100.3-FM) with the sweet sound of Bob Kurtz and Tom Reid (and I suppose Kevin Falness if you like that sort of thing).

Niklas Backstrom between the pipes. Josh Harding and his red pads serving as the backup.

The Wild has a huge cutdown day yesterday. Its roster now stands at 28, but Brett Bulmer and Tyler Cuma are still listed because they’re hurt, as is Mike Rupp, who is destined to start the season on injured reserve due to a knee injury.

So the Wild’s roster is really at 25. The maximum roster size can be 23, meaning two more cuts.

Barring trade or injury, David Steckel is likely one of those. If he doesn’t make the team or signed elsewhere, he’s likely to sign an AHL contract and report to Iowa, where he’ll await an opportunity from the Wild or somebody else while playing.

That means one other player won’t make it. I’d be shocked if Matt Dumba doesn’t. There’s no reason to return him to Red Deer when the collective bargaining agreement allows a nine-game window (nine games where he plays, not the team) to make a decision. He could actually stay longer and be returned, but then the first year of his three-year contract wouldn’t slide.

So, if that’s the case, one of the forwards isn’t making it. Mikael Granlund is the extra tonight. He was having a very good camp before he sustained an upper-body injury last week against Winnipeg. He won’t play tonight (Wild says he’s not 100 percent), but coach Mike Yeo said this morning that he will play Friday in St. Louis to give him one final shot to make an impression. Granlund has improved in a lot of ways – looks faster, grittier, blocking shots, etc.

Charlie Coyle is a lock as No. 2 center. Let’s just get that out there.

So it’s between Granlund, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine.

Fontaine is the only one of those four who requires waivers to get to Iowa. He’s also somebody who can slot up to a scoring line or play on the third or fourth lines. He can also play the point on the power play if the Wild ever got into a pinch.

Yeo has raved about Niederreiter a lot lately. He’s liked him in scoring roles, he liked his physicality and defensive reliability in Columbus on Monday.

So we could very well be seeing a Zucker vs. Granlund tryout these last two games.

Zucker is in tonight: “It’s a statement game for not only myself, but a couple other guys too that need to get a spot on this team.”

Mikko Koivu’s fiancée gave birth to a girl (Congrats to the Captain and his significant other), so Koivu was not at today’s skate. He is expected to play tonight, but because he wasn’t there, it’s hard to get a grasp of tonight’s lines.

But perhaps:

Zach Parise-Koivu-Jason Pominville

Zucker-Coyle-Dany Heatley

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Niederreiter

Fontaine-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell

Extras are Steckel, Jake Dowell and Granlund.

Defense pairs are:

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Keith Ballard-Dumba

Extras are Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser

However, Yeo said he wants to juggle lines tonight to see different players in different roles.

For instance, Fontaine has played real well with Coyle and Heatley this camp. That line has scored in both games vs. Winnipeg that it was together, so I’d suspect we see that trio again as a line at some extended portion of tonight.

If that’s the case, Zucker may see third- or fourth-line action.

I asked Yeo if there’s a chance Granlund – or for that matter Zucker – can play a fourth-line role.

“If it was, then probably the makeup of that fourth line would be a little different,” he said. “Maybe the makeup of our fourth line is a little different than the conventional fourth line, that maybe we put some younger, more skilled players on there, and they have little bit of bigger role (like power play in addition).”

For this to happen, the Wild would likely have to place a player on a one-way contract on waivers.

This still would surprise me. Do you really want Granlund or Zucker developing on the fourth line in the NHL rather than the first line with first PP unit time in Iowa?

Hey, at least this gives us a story line to watch these last two games. I think the Wild try to make its final two cuts after Friday’s St. Louis game because I think it’d want to take its actual team to Duluth on Sunday afternoon.

The Wild practices there Monday and Tuesday. Tuesday’s Amsoil Arena practice at 10 a.m. is free and open to the public for any fans up there in the area.

By the way, all Wild players on waivers today cleared and are Iowa bound.

Talk after the game and on Twitter tonight.

Wild roster cut to 28, plus practice update

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: September 24, 2013 - 4:09 PM

The Wild cut its roster to 28 players Tuesday morning, sending 11 players to its AHL affiliate in Iowa and putting seven others on waivers with the intent of assigning them to Iowa on Wednesday.

Forward Erik Haula and Carson McMillan, both of whom had performed well in camp, were among Tuesday's cuts. Haula, Raphael Bussieres, Josh Caron, Kris Foucault, Tyler Graovac and Zack Phillips are the forwards sent to Iowa; defensemen who will join them are Corbin Baldwin, Colton Jobke and Kyle Medvec. Goalies Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson also were assigned to Iowa.

Players placed on waivers with intent to send to Iowa: Forwards McMillan, Stephane Veilleux and Chad Rau; defensemen Jonathon Blum, Brian Connelly, Steven Kampfer and Jon Landry. Kurtis Gabriel also was assigned to Owen Sound of the OHL.

Mikael Grandlund is practicing today, but Mikko Koivu is not. We'll have an update later.

UPDATE: Koivu did not practice Tuesday because his fiancee is in labor. Wild coach Mike Yeo expects him in the lineup for Wednesday's preseason game against St. Louis. Granlund, who has what the Wild is calling a "slight upper-body injury,'' looked good in practice. Yeo said if Granlund is feeling fine, he will play Wednesday.

Other post-practice notes Tuesday:

--Yeo sounded doubtful that forward Mike Rupp (offseason knee surgery) will be ready to go when the season starts. "That's going to be a stretch,'' Yeo said. "He's feeling better. I'm not going to rule it out. But he's got to get some quality practice time in. He's got a lot of catching up to do.''

--The coach lauded Haula's speed, positioning and ability to read plays. But he said none of the players cut Tuesday were going to make the opening-night roster, so it was best to move them along. "The young kids, the prospects, they need to play,'' Yeo said. "So let's get them on their way and get them started.''

--Forward Justin Fontaine was happy to have a locker in the main room, squeezed in next to the stereo and the goalies. To keep it, Yeo said, he will have to put the puck in the net or create a chance for someone else to do the same. "He's going to have to be a guy who contributes offensively,'' Yeo said. "He's going to have to be a guy who's creating and making plays.'' Fontaine said the coaches want to see him refine the details of his game, particularly when it comes to following the Wild's systems.

--Defenseman Matt Dumba had a place in the main locker room, too: a temporary stall with a folding chair. He wasn't complaining. Yeo continued to laud Dumba for working his way out of a jam in Monday's 2-1 shootout victory over Columbus, when Dumba persevered after two lousy periods and righted himself in the third. "That was a big step for me,'' Dumba said. "I calmed myself down and found my game. ... That was huge for me.''

On eve of huge roster cutdown, Zucker, Niederreiter shine in Wild's shootout win

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 23, 2013 - 10:23 PM

The Wild rallied from a 1-0 deficit to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-1 in a shootout here in beautiful Columbus tonight.

Keith Ballard, with a rocket, tied the score with 8:24 left and then Jason Zucker, who assisted on Ballard’s goal with Justin Fontaine, scored the lone shootout goal as the Wild’s JV squad basically beat the Blue Jackets’ varsity to pull 3-1 this preseason.

Before I get started, please read my big Jake Dowell piece in Tuesday’s paper. He is living through quite the ordeal and the story is a very sad tale, but I had a pretty gripping interview with him Sunday about his dad and brother, who are dying of Huntington’s Disease. There is a 50-50 chance he’s inherited the same gene and he plans to get a blood test to find out in the next year or two.

ESPN’s newsmagazine show E:60 will feature Dowell and his family Tuesday at 6 p.m. My story is a must read, and you know I don’t say that often.

On Tuesday morning, the Wild plans to execute a mass cutdown. Currently, the roster stands at 47. It sounds as if it’ll be cutting as many as 20 players as coach Mike Yeo wants to get down close to the Wild’s opening night roster with maybe a couple exceptions.

I don’t think the Wild feels it can make all its final decisions now, but I’d think by the time the Wild boards that bus for its two-day bonding/practice/golf/dinner trip to Duluth on Sunday, the Wild will get to its team.

There are two preseason games left – both against St. Louis, on Wednesday at home and Friday in St. Louis.

At this juncture, I’d think Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle will be the second-liners with Dany Heatley. Nino Niederreiter got a look tonight with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak, and Yeo loved his game. He was strong on the puck, won battles, was good away from the puck and had five hits.

As of now, I’d think Mikael Granlund would stay. He was having a real good camp up until he sustained a “slight upper-body” injury Saturday.

Even though defenseman Matt Dumba had a very tough night tonight in the first and second periods, I’d think he stays. I still think he makes the opening-night roster just because you have the nine games to make a final decision before the Wild would have to send him back to junior without burning the first year of his three-year deal.

Fontaine needs waivers to get to the minors, is having a good camp and I’d think with Mike Rupp hurt, Fontaine has a shot to stick on the fourth line with the opportunity to move up in the lineup. Erik Haula is the big question mark. He may get a longer look, but right now, he could be destined for Iowa. He doesn’t require waivers and this is his first experience with the grind of pro hockey.

I’d think basically every one else is assigned to Iowa Tuesday, including David Steckel, who may be released from his tryout and signed to an AHL contract to play for Iowa, Jon Blum and Stephane Veilleux. Several players will require waivers to get there, but these days, dozens of players have to be put on waivers to be sent to the minors. Rarely are they taken.

Zucker, who strained his groin Tuesday, returned tonight. He had a rough first period, especially with turnovers inside his own blue line, but that was his second period of the preseason. He rebounded, assisted on Ballard’s goal and late impressively beat out an icing and forced a penalty that resulted in a late third-period power play that carried into overtime.

“I don’t think the dman realized I was there,” Zucker said. “You guys know, I just try to skate out there, but as you saw by the [pass to] Ballard, my stickhandling’s not exactly the best because that was supposed to be a shot on goal (laughing).”

Yeo said Zucker “changed the game” after struggling in the first.

Dumba had a very, very tough first two periods. Turnovers, a penalty, screened goalie Josh Harding on the lone goal. On one power play, he looked panicked as he kept turning pucks over. It was a far cry from his game Thursday in Winnipeg when he scored a goal and was solid all night alongside Clayton Stoner.

Yeo met with Dumba during the second intermission.

“I told him, ‘Young players, you can’t let a bad shift, a bad period turn into a bad game. And what I’m really looking forward to is how you respond this period,’” Yeo said. “I didn’t like his first two periods at all and I really liked his third period. Given the way he responded, it shows a lot of maturity.

“You could tell he was just off his game. I’m sure he was feeling the pressure of needing to go out and perform. Once he got off to a bad start, I think he kept on getting into quicksand. The harder you work you dig yourself even deeper. But I was happy he was able to pull himself out of that.”

Harding wasn’t beaten in the shootout and made 20 saves. He still was hard on himself after the game, saying he’s not happy with the way he played and he needs to be cleaner. To me, his only glaring issue was three turnovers behind the net where he had to rush back to the net for scrambles. He had to rob Marian Gaborik on one turnover.

But Harding was also playing behind a bunch of defensemen he’s not accustomed to playing with, so communication issues and mishaps could be expected.

Frankly, I think he’s being a little hard on himself considering the Wild’s plane landed two hours before the game and the team arrived 90 before the game. Goalies like routines, and he felt rushed stretching and taping his sticks.

Wild squares off tonight at Columbus; Ryan Johansen on El Nino

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 23, 2013 - 1:08 PM

The 2-1 Wild visits Todd Richards, Marian Gaborik and the 4-1 Columbus Blue Jackets tonight during its fourth of six preseason games. The obnoxious cannon will first burst my eardrums around 6 p.m. CT.

Greetings from Columbus, where it's a spectacular day. The game can be watched on the @russostrib Twitter Network as I paint a brilliant picture and heard by the sweets voices of Bob Kurtz and Tom Reid on KFAN (100.3-FM).

The Wild, which is scheduled to depart Minnesota in 30 minutes, is bringing a very young lineup tonight.

Jason Zucker is expected to return from a groin injury. Nino Niederreiter will skate with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. Why? To get a look. Let's just say your second line is Zucker-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley. If Niederreiter is to make the team out of camp, his spot may have to be next to Cooke and Brodziak, and the Wild wants to see if Niederreiter can play in a checking role.

His skill is obvious. His size is obvious. His shot is "silly hard," as coach Mike Yeo said a week or so ago. But can he check, be reliable defensively?

It's kind of like how the Wild skated Keith Ballard on the right side Saturday. He's done so a lot in his career -- former Panthers assistant Mike Kitchen is the one who really worked with Ballard in playing his off side. The Wild may need that this season with Ballard, especially when Jared Spurgeon is the only right-shot D in the top-6 (whether it's deserving or not, Nate Prosser is destined to be a depth defenseman again, it appears, and Matt Dumba hasn't yet made the team, although things appear to be tracking that way at least off the bat).

Back to the checking line, Torrey Mitchell, who played mostly fourth line last year, has looked very good next to Brodziak throughout camp, so that's why tonight is important for Niederreiter.

It's also important for Zucker. The Wild has a very unproven lineup tonight. The Wild wants to see him make an impact in games, especially again with guys like Mikael Granlund, Justin Fontaine and Niederreiter pushing for spots.

Defenseman Jon Landry, signed over the summer to play for Iowa, is expected to dress tonight, which would make Steve Kampfer the likely extra. Yeo hasn't named the extra forward and I wasn't at the skate in Minnesota to look at line combinations.

I'll let you know during warmups or beforehand if Yeo tells me during our pregame chat.

Three young forwards on the trip are Kris Foucault, Zack Phillips and Tyler Graovac. Foucault played well in Winnipeg on Thursday, so one would think he'd play again. However, maybe the Wild choose to reward Phillips and Graovac. If it's one of the two in, it may be Phillips because he's a first-round pick that's never gotten into a preseason game, I don't think.

Blue Jackets are playing a pretty solid lineup. Sergei Bobrovsky is expected to start. The full lineups were tweeted, but some of the players in for (Eastern Conference) Columbus include Gaborik, Jack Johnson, Cam Atkinson, Brandon Dubinsky, Tim Erixon, James Wisniewski, Ryan Murray, Artem Anisimov, Nick Foligno and Fedor Tyutin.

Charlie Coyle again has the game off. Granlund again has a "slight upper body injury" and is day-to-day. Dumba will play. So will Erik Haula and Fontaine.

Ohio State's David Steckel, in camp on a pro tryout, will play. He lives in Columbus and his wife and wife's family should be at the game. Unless a player or two are moved or injury occurs, it will be very hard for Steckel to make the Wild.

If not, and if he isn't signed by another NHL team, he will likely sign an AHL contract and play for the Wild in Iowa. That way, he has the flexibility to sign in Europe or another NHL team or even the Wild if opportunity arises.

I went to the Blue Jackets' morning skate today. I talked with Ryan Johansen, the very talented Columbus forward who had a great game Tuesday in Minnesota. He was Niederreiter's junior linemate at Portland (with Toronto second-round pick Brad Ross) and the two lit it up.

"He's very humble, a down to earth person," Johansen said. "We had the time of our lives together and some great memories together. Minnesota's lucky to get him. It's a great spot for him."

What's interesting, Johansen told me that before the 2010 draft, the Wild brought Johansen to Minnesota to meet with GM Chuck Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr. He loved the facility and the area and says he told Niederreiter that when he was traded there.

Johansen went fourth overall to Columbus. Niederreiter was chosen one pick later by the Islanders. The Wild met with El Nino late, too, because it liked him so much.

It wound up taking Granlund 10th overall, has since traded for Niederreiter (5th overall) and traded for Coyle (28th overall).

Remember, the Wild also had a great 2010 second round, too, taking Zucker, Johan Larsson (used to acquire Jason Pominville) and Brett Bulmer.

Talk about getting sidetracked. Back to Johansen on Niederreiter: "You see his hands around the net, if he gets an opportunity close in, he's not missing. I figured that my first year in Portland. All I had to do was get him the puck and it was in. He hard on all pucks, relentless all over the ice. He battles hard. A very complete player.

"He's pretty loud, not afraid to joke around and talk. He's great around the room. He's one of the guys everybody loves. His teammates are going to love him in Minnesota once he comes out of his shell. Just a great, great person."

Zucker expected to play in Columbus; Granlund has "slight injury"

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 22, 2013 - 3:06 PM

UPDATED

Left wing Jason Zucker, looking to win the second-line left wing spot or third-line right wing spot in training camp, returned to practice this morning after missing the past four days with a groin injury.

Zucker strained his groin on his first shift in Tuesday's preseason opener against Columbus, tried to gut through it but was told during the first intermission not to risk hurting it more seriously.

Zucker said it felt "absolutely perfect" in today's practice and coach Mike Yeo said there's a very good chance he plays Monday's preseason game in Columbus. He is on the lineup card, which can be seen below.

Zucker admitted he felt a little pressure to return to the ice with so many young players -- Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine -- that are vying for spots.

"But at the same time, I have to look out for myself," Zucker said. "There’s no point for me coming back early and not being at my best. That would be worse for me. … That would just make me look even worse."

Granlund, who played well last night, did not practice today with what Yeo called a "slight upper-body injury."

"It's nothing big," Yeo said, adding the team just kept him off for precautionary reasons.

He will not play in Columbus, however.

Josh Harding will start. Darcy Kuemper will back up.

The lineup: Forwards: Zucker, Torrey Mitchell, Jake Dowell, Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Cooke, David Steckel (Ohio State), Carson McMillan, Justin Fontaine, Tyler Graovac, Erik Haula, Zack Phillips, Kris Foucault. Defensemen: Keith Ballard, Clayton Stoner, Jon Blum, Nate Prosser, Steve Kampfer, Matt Dumba, Jon Landry.

Landry likely won't play. Of the forwards, likely Graovac or Phillips won't play.

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