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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The Wild has signed Calgary Hitmen free-agent center Brady Brassart to a three-year entry-level deal and I hear the team is close to signing hard-nosed prospect Kurtis Gabriel, 20, a 2013 third-round pick, to his three-year, entry-level contract. An announcement on that should come in the next couple days.
Brassart, 20, has scored 33 goals and 75 points, including 10 power-play goals, six game-winning goals, a plus-17 rating and 90 penalty minutes in 62 games with the WHL Hitmen this season. The 6-foot-2, 196-pounder leads Calgary in scoring, is tied for first in assists and second in goals and PIM.
“Brady has had a strong overage season and we are very happy that he chose to sign with the Minnesota Wild,” said assistant general manager Brent Flahr in the press release. “He’s a good-sized center that plays a mature two-way game. He can play in all situations and we look forward to his transition to professional hockey next season.”
As for Gabriel, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound forward is the fourth-leading scorer with 11 goals and 40 points in 52 games for Owen Sound in the Ontario Hockey League. He will officially turn pro in the fall.
If you remember, the Wild faced a tough decision in training camp as to whether or not to sign him then and send him to Iowa or return him to Owen Sound for his overage year so he could play big minutes and a big role for Owen Sound. I think they're happy with its decision.
Gabriel is a character kid, very physical, tough and, most intriguing, has size.
In fact, that's the most intriguing thing about the Wild's next rung of prospect forwards. The Wild's not the biggest team in the world, so it's made a conscious effort the last few drafts to add players with size.
They have Gabriel, Brett Bulmer, Tyler Graovac, Raphael Bussieres, Adam Gilmour, Mario Lucia and Avery Peterson off the top of my head. Add Brassart now, too. I'm just talking forward. Defense, guys like stud Gustav Olofsson, Daniel Gunnarsson, Carson Soucy and Nick Seeler are all big.
Obviously, Matt Dumba plays physically, too.
Wild's got the day off today before practicing Sunday in St. Paul. They're coming off a big four points on two games in two nights to Edmonton and Vancouver.
They were running on fumes in the third period in Vancouver, but Darcy Kuemper stood tall and the work ethic exuded on the ice was beyond impressive.
Since becoming the Wild’s No. 1 goalie Jan. 7, Kuemper is 10-2-2 with a 1.94 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. He has made 14 consecutive starts, has won four in a row (four goals allowed) and is 11 for 11 against shooters in two victorious shootouts.
Again, it'll be interesting how Chuck Fletcher proceeds as Wednesday's deadline arrives. The Wild is in the market for a goalie.
Buffalo would love to trade Jaroslav Halak to Minnesota, so we'll see if anything evolves there if the price is right. I know I indicated last night that there may not be a lot of interest, but he's 28, has put up good numbers throughout his career and with the Wild's goaltending situation, there's no doubt the Wild's in the market for a goalie. Halak's numbers are stellar (24-9-4 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .917 save percentage), but there's always the question of how much is that to do with Ken Hitchcock's system.
We'll see how things play out if the price is right. There's no doubt Fletcher and Sabres GM Tim Murray are talking.
There's Martin Brodeur (could be a good mentor for Kuemper), Cam Ward and his exorbitant contract, maybe Tim Thomas if Florida's willing to move him, Ilya Bryzgalov.
We shall see.
The Wild is 13-4-2 in 19 games in 2014 heading into Monday's game vs. Calgary, a game Kuemper's parents will be in attendance for.
Entering tonight, the Wild has a seven-point lead for a playoff spot, but it's idle from Tuesday to Friday, so Monday's two points would be key.
Anyhoooo, that's it. I have to board a plane. As expected John Curry and Steve Kampfer were returned to Iowa.
Talk to you Sunday.
The Wild will sleep tight tonight on its four-hour charter back to Minnesota, one that’s supposed to land close to 5 a.m.
In a taxing, taxing game, its second in 24 hours, the Wild hung on for a 2-1 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks tonight to gain a seven-point edge on a playoff spot.
Zach Parise scored the lone goal (his 20th through Dany Heatley’s screen, and 11th on the power play, which is tied for third in the NHL) in regulation – lone goal because referee Brad Meier thought he saw something that didn’t occur and wiped out a Keith Ballard equalizer earlier. And Darcy Kuemper, playing for the second time in two nights after shutting out Edmonton, made 30 saves and wasn’t beaten by one Canucks shooter in a seven-round shootout.
Justin Fontaine, in the seventh round and on his first NHL shootout attempt, beat Eddie Lack for the shootout winner.
Kuemper, who has started 14 in a row, is now 10-2-2 in his past 15 starts with a 1.94 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in that stretch. He’s showing zero signs of cracking and tonight won the Wild a game. The Wild battled hard and deserved what it got, but Kuemper was playing behind a very tired team the last half of the game and stole one, maybe two points.
So if you’re Chuck Fletcher, what do you do? If it were me, I’d ride out Kuemper but go out and get some insurance because of Josh Harding’s absence and Niklas Backstrom’s abdominal issue.
Lots of rumors out there tonight that Buffalo will try to flip Jaroslav Halak, whom it acquired from St. Louis today in a package for Ryan Miller, to Minnesota. There’s no doubt Fletcher’s good buddy Tim Murray will try. The impression I got internally though today from the organization is it has little interest in Halak.
The Wild has inquired about Cam Ward and Martin Brodeur and has had Ilya Bryzgalov offered to them. There’s also Tim Thomas.
It’ll be interesting to see how Fletcher proceeds because while the Wild needs another goalie as insurance, but how do you not continue to go with Kuemper as the No. 1?
Huge PK by the Wild, which hasn’t allowed a power-play goal in six consecutive games, in overtime. Kyle Brodziak, Nate Prosser and Matt Cooke were the men on the ice. The three gents did a terrific job keeping Vancouver to the outside and staying in lanes. Cooke and Prosser blocked shots and Kuemper made one save. That also helped get the Wild the extra point.
The big controversy of the game came in the first when Meier, despite staring at the crease from 15 feet away, somehow thought Erik Haula made incidental contact with Eddie Lack. He waved off Keith Ballard’s goal. Replays showed there was zero contact, and ref supervisor Mick McGeough, in attendance, told me during the first intermission, “In my estimation, I think the goal should have counted. It was a good screen by [Haula]. He wasn’t in the blue when the puck entered the net, so it met the criteria for a good goal.”
Haula said, “I think [Meier] made a mistake and he was confident he made the right call. All the coaches said it wasn’t even close. I never touched the goalie. All that matters is we got two points though.”
Gutsy effort by the Wild to hang on tonight. Yeo loved the work ethic and the mental toughness to overcome a shortie and disallowed goal. Everybody worked their butt off.
That’s it for me. I'll be on KFAN at 10:20 a.m. Saturday.
The Wild has the day off Saturday. Barring news, talk Sunday.
Afternoon from heaven on Earth, Vancouver, where the Wild completes the tail end of a back-to-back tonight against the Canuckleheads.
Vancouver snapped a seven-game losing streak Wednesday with a 1-0 win over St. Louis. The Wild is 12-4-2 in 2014. Since Jan. 2, the Wild ranks second in the NHL in win percentage (.722) and save percentage (.929), third in goals against (2.11), tied for third in points (26) and tied for fourth in wins (12).
Eddie Lack vs. Darcy Kuemper tonight -- just like a typical Canucks-Wild clash
Lack is coming off a shutout over the Blues. Kuemper will make his 14th straight start, by far a franchise record for a rookie (previous was four). Since Jan. 7, he is 9-2-2 with a 2.02 goals-against average and .933 save percentage. Over that stretch, he ranks tied for second among NHL goalies in wins, fourth in save percentage and sixth in goals-against average.
Ryan Kesler and young defenseman Chris Tanev returns to the Canucks' lineup tonight.
Mikko Koivu skated this morning and then said he's not playing tonight.
"Wait another day and get a good team practice on Sunday (Wild has day off Saturday because it arrives in Minnesota at 4:30 a.m. from Vancouver) and then look at it again [for Calgary on Monday]," Koivu said. "It's getting better and it's pretty much the same story it's been this whole week. It's slowly getting there and getting more comfortable on skates, but it's still not quite where I want to be, especially battles and things like that.
"It is what it is. But I think now we just got to put the emotions away and be smart and wait another day and see on Sunday, Monday where we're at."
Yeo said Mikael Granlund is fine (read last night's blog for what I'm alluding to) and that defensemen Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner, also banged up last night, are good to go.
"Those six [defensemen] battled real hard and played a real strong game yesterday. Certainly I don't think it would hurt Marco [Scandella] to have another day of practice, another day of rest," Yeo said.
Keith Ballard returns to Vancouver for the first time since signing with Minnesota last summer. He's obviously had previous returns to Phoenix and Florida, so he shouldn't be freaking out. He's coming off one of his best games in awhile, going plus-3 last night in a 3-0 win over the Oilers.
"I think I've played pretty well for the last few weeks before the break, so it feels good getting my game back again," Ballard said. "I thought I started the season real well and had a tough stretch after I got hurt [with a concussion, then broken ribs]. So it's a good feeling when things are going your way and you're contributing."
Darcy Kuemper continues to do everything he can to alleviate any concerns the suits upstairs may have with the Wild’s goaltending down the stretch.
We’ve learned the last two months the rookie’s feeling confident when he flashes the leather after a big save. That’s what he did after gloving down Mike Richards’ shootout attempt in a 39-save victory at L.A. – the game that started this remarkable run from the Sunshine Kid – and that’s what he did on a Taylor Hall blast in the second period tonight.
It wasn’t as pronounced. But look closely, and it was clear as day to see.
Kuemper made 21 saves for his second career shutout during the Wild’s 3-0 blanking of the Oilers.
Check out the gamer for the details, but the Wild defended well, took hits to make plays and got the puck north for the majority of the game. Kuemper didn’t have to make a bunch of huge saves, but his biggest on Jordan Eberle in the second – a point-blank one-timer to his right – preserved a 1-0 lead.
Shortly after, Erik Haula set up Stephane Veilleux for the Wild’s second goal.
The Wild’s now five up on Dallas for the top wildcard spot and six up on 10th-place Vancouver, Friday’s opponent. Coach Mike Yeo said Kuemper will start that game. He is 9-2-2 in his past 14 starts with a 2.02 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
Mikael Granlund, whom Yeo said this morning has a chance to do something special these final 22 games, scored two minutes into the game off a nice feed from Zach Parise. He did get banged up twice, once when he took a puck to the left cheek, the other when he was checked by Nick Schultz and looked to fall into another Oiler. Athletic therapist Don Fuller worked on him a bunch after that shift and was with him in the locker room after.
Granlund said afterward cunningly that he didn’t know what I was talking about and he’s OK.
Two guys also banged up tonight?
Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner.
Prosser, 12 seconds into his first shift and 54 seconds into the game, was hit from behind by Blaine’s Matt Hendricks, who was a physical menace all game. Somehow no penalty was called on the blatant boarding major. Kyle Brodziak immediately challenged him thought, which resulted in a 4-on-4 that led to Granlund's goal. So it worked out.
Prosser said he got his “bell rung” and took stitches to the chin, but while he was lost for the rest of the first period, he returned to start the second and had an assist on Veilleux's goal.
“I knew he was coming,” said Prosser, whose wife is days from giving birth to their second child. “I knew it was Hendricks and he finishes his hits. But I’m digging the puck out. I expect a little rubout or something, but he full-fledged put me into the glass.”
Clayton Stoner’s injury was, as Yeo said, “gruesome” looking. While either grabbing the jersey of Luke Gazdic in a fight or having his finger punched by Gazdic as he reached (Stoner didn’t know), Stoner’s left ring finger dislocated. Screen captures on Twitter (check out @randball) showed his finger facing east.
I would have been lost for weeks. Stoner returned in the third after doctors got the finger back in place and he told them to tape his ring finger to his middle finger for support.
“Probably looked worse than it felt,” said Stoner. “I’ve had problems with this finger for three weeks, so I think the tendons are weak and it came out easier than it should of.”
We’ll see if Stoner can play Friday in Vancouver, his home province team so to speak. If he can’t, the Wild has Marco Scandella waiting in the wings. If he can’t play, the Wild has Steve Kampfer or will need to helicopter in Jon Blum.
Keith Ballard, who returns to Vancouver, his former team, for the first time since signing a two-year deal with Minnesota last summer, was plus-3 and was great. His drive to the net helped lead to Granlund’s goal.
I thought Jared Spurgeon had a great game. Assist, three blocked shots for the Edmonton native. Charlie Coyle was good defensively and offensively. Dany Heatley scored a goal in front of the fans who just love him so.
Lots of good efforts from Wild players. Now on to Vancouver for a big game Friday. I’m staring a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call in the face. Talk to you from one of the best stops in the league Friday.
Good day from the Rexall Place, where the former Northwest Division rival Wild and Oilers clash tonight at 8:30 p.m. CT.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the 8 p.m. pregame show and first intermission to talk about the Wild and all the trade rumors running rampant throughout the NHL. I’ll also riff about them in my Sunday Insider this week as well.
The goaltending situation is something I feel the Wild is trying to address before Wednesday’s 2 p.m. deadline, but a lot could have to do with the next three games beginning tonight in Edmonton.
Darcy Kuemper, 8-2-2 in his past 13 appearances with a 2.18 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, will make his 13th consecutive start. Depending on how tonight goes, coach Mike Yeo even opened the door for Kuemper to start tomorrow’s game in Vancouver.
Here is my profile on Kuemper from today’s paper, and I have a couple extras on the bottom.
Yeo originally contemplated starting Backstrom tonight in Edmonton if he was healthy.
“We argued back and forth as far as whether Backy should play, whether Kuemps should play, whether Kuemps is capable of playing back-to-back games,” Yeo said. “There’s a lot of things, but bottom line is we just want to get off to a good start and we want to see if Kuemps can pick up where he left off.”
There is no doubt the game in Vancouver is a big game. The Canucks are one of the teams the Wild is bound to be fighting with the rest of the way to make the playoffs. But first things first, get the two points tonight, so I think it makes more sense to start Kuemper and then worry about Vancouver tomorrow.
Maybe Kuemper can start tomorrow. Maybe they come back with Backstrom. Last March, Backstrom did have a 35-save performance there during the Wild’s last visit last season to snap Minnesota’s 0-9-2 winless streak in Vancouver.
Yeo says Backstrom is feeling fine, although he has clearly been getting a bunch of treatment on his abdominal region lately and he was chatting with athletic therapist Don Fuller a few times during the skate.
Like I alluded to above, I just don’t see how the Wild doesn’t address the goaltending situation prior to Wednesday. Remember, Backstrom told me last month that he played the final month of last season with a tear in his “core muscle.” He told me last week he visited the surgeon who operated on his sports hernia and they finally figured out what’s ailing him. He said it’s up to the team to divulge it though.
So clearly he’s fighting through something serious. So to me, even if the Wild opts that it wants to ride Kuemper the rest of the way, my gut says they bring in some kind of goalie as insurance because, what if Kuemper gets hurt?
The question is what type of goalie? An experienced No. 2? Or do you wait as long as you can and hope the price comes down for a guy like Ryan Miller? As I’ve written many times, Chuck Fletcher and Sabres GM Tim Murray are close friends from their days in Florida and Anaheim. The Wild has inquired about Martin Brodeur, and I wrote him in last Sunday’s column.
Others maybe available? Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, Ilya Bryzgalov, whom the Wild inquired about before he signed with Edmonton.
Captain Mikko Koivu (ankle) and defenseman Marco Scandella (knee) won’t play tonight. Yeo said “tomorrow’s a new day,” so it’s possible the Wild doesn’t want to risk playing them back-to-back and Koivu and Scandella are possible for tomorrow. My guess is Scandella is less likely than Koivu, although that could have a lot to do with tonight’s final.
So Mikael Granlund, who finished third in the Olympics in scoring and made the all-tournament team, will center the top line with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville tonight.
I was going to do a Granlund lead note for my notebook for tomorrow’s paper, but I may hold that for Saturday’s paper with a morning skate doubtful tomorrow. He was real good today talking about playing with legendary good guy/hockey player Teemu Selanne in the Olympics.
I’ve got some good color on Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter rooming together in Sochi that I’ll write for tomorrow’s paper. Some funny stuff.
Yeo believes Granlund has a chance to do something special these final 23 games. He talked to Granlund about that yesterday.
“He’s flying, he’s flying,” Yeo said. “He should be used to playing at a high pace. Those are fast games that we got to watch in the Olympics, and the level that he played at, I’m hoping he can continue that on.”
Justin Fontaine is slated to skate on the second line with Dany Heatley and ChAHlie Coyle. Fontaine, a 26-year-old rookie who is third on the Wild with 12 goals, hails from Bonnyville, Alberta, which is 2 ½ hours northeast of Edmonton. He says he’s got 15 buddies and his entire family coming down for tonight’s game.
I’ll have more on Fontaine in Friday’s game notebook. For the rest of the lines, see yesterday’s blog.
I mentioned in the Kuemper piece how players tell me he goes into the room and apologizes to them when he gives up a bad goal.
I asked Kuemper about that and trimmed it from the article: “My job is to keep the puck out of the net. They’ve done a good job this year and don’t let anything faze them. I just want them to know that if I let in a bad goal it doesn’t mean I’m going to have a bad game. Or if I let one in that wasn’t a great goal it doesn’t mean that I’m out for the game. It was one and I’m going to turn around and be there for them and I know they’re going to be there for me.”
On that Toronto loss, he said, “That game you don’t want to say anything in front of the whole group. You feel bad and everyone knows you feel bad. You don’t always have to say something. They know what you’re feeling like. It was tough because those are the games that you feel like you’ve let them down. They stuck with me and when I came back up they didn’t shut down and they still had confidence in me and that helped me play with a lot of confidence.”
It’s funny how much the Wild players mess with Kuemper. When he stands up to give interviews, there’s a chorus of veterans chiming, “Uhhhhhhhh,” in the background because he kind of “Uhhhhh’s” a lot when he speaks.
“He’s a fun kid,” Dany Heatley said.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft who says he has never scored against Kuemper in the pros, played with Kuemper in Red Deer.
“He was a talkative guy in junior,” RNH said. “Everybody liked him in Red Deer. He is
outgoing. We played jokes on one another. He's a big guy in net. He's so well-positioned and he battles hard. Obviously with goaltending, it takes a little longer to get to the NHL level, but he's
worked his way up. He's taken advantage of his opportunity. That's huge. You have to capitalize on things and it's good to see. He wasn't a high draft pick but he got better as he got older, as a 20-year-old. My second year with him, when he was 20, that's when he really found himself. I do know his
weaknesses a bit though and I'll try and use that [knowledge] Thursday.”
See you on the tube and the Interweb tonight, and the newspaper tomorrow.
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