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 player moves

Wild's anticipated opening night lineup; Mike Yeo on today's roster decisions

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 30, 2013 - 7:24 AM

Following today's moves to send Jason Zucker and Jake Dowell to Iowa, here is the Wild's anticipated 22-man opening roster and lineup Thursday night vs. Los Angeles (this is barring transactions; the fact the Wild sent Jake Dowell down, too, opens the door to perhaps a waiver pickup Monday):

Forwards

Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville

Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Mikael Granlund

Justin Fontaine-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell

Injured: Mike Rupp (knee)

Defensemen

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Keith Ballard-Matt Dumba

Extras: Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser

Goalies

Niklas Backstrom

Josh Harding

Fontaine will make his NHL debut; Yeo said there's a good chance of Dumba as well.

Fontaine is very excited to make the team, and both Fontaine and Dumba say they're not taking anything for granted. They know nothing is cemented in stone. Dumba said he's well aware he can still be returned to Red Deer before he plays in a 10th game without the first year of his contract being burned.

Zucker tweeted: @Jason_Zucker16: Nobody to blame but myself.. Have to be better and will be better! See you soon Minnesota! #JustWait #MNWild

As for Zucker, I'm shocked at frankly the shock out there. It's been clear the last four days that he was on thin ice. He got hurt at the wrong time in camp and was outperformed by Nino Niederreiter for the second-line left wing spot -- for now. He can be back at anytime.

As for Mikael Granlund, he had a great camp, looks faster, grittier and stronger. If you have two shooters on the second power-play unit in Coyle and Niederreiter, Granlund makes sense because he's a puck distributor. Zucker is another shooter. The Wild also has concerns with Zucker's defensive game, and although he scored a playoff OT winner in Game 3, he didn't produce down the stretch of last season. This is all in the Wild's mind.

Again though, he will play games here this season. He's 21 years old. The AHL is a developmental league and most the great players in this league have played in the AHL. He hasn't even had to spend a full year in the minors (55 games), so chill.

Here are Mike Yeo's thoughts on today's moves, particularly sending Zucker down:

Zucker conversation: Obviously everybody’s goal is to be here, so you’d be pretty concerned if a player was happy or didn’t show some disappointment. As far as Zuck, it really comes down to we’re not prepared to put him on the fourth line right now and we’re not prepared to have him be a healthy scratch. What you saw on the ice today was us gearing up for Game 1 and we’re really not focused on anything beyond that.

Nino and Granlund: He earned it, as far as I’m concerned, the games that he played. We like what he can add to the [Coyle-Heatley line]. Playing against a team like L.A., we’ve got a bigger body. You’ve got a guy that can shoot, a guy that can skate, a guy that can handle the puck. He played like a top-6 forward in training camp and we’re giving him that opportunity up there. Granny had a good camp, too. We spent the entire camp really looking at him as a centerman. We feel we can get a lot out of him as a winger, too. He had a good camp. He showed that he’s battled harder, he’s showed that he’s faster, defensively he did a very good job for us, and we feel he can be a good complement to the [Cooke-Brodziak] line. You have two guys with size and two guys that play a strong, hard game, so we feel putting a guy there with Granny’s ability to distribute the puck, it could complement that line plus give Granny a bigger role.

Message to Zucker: Just make sure you’re on top of his game because we don’t know when it’s going to be. We know that he’s there and to be perfectly honest, I like the idea that everybody on our team knows that he’s there. It shouldn’t be too difficult to make sure that you’re ready to go knowing that there’s a guy like that waiting in the wings.

Fontaine: He seems like he’s the kind of guy that you can move in different parts of your lineup. He plays an intelligent game, he can play well with the puck, he can execute, he can make some plays, but at the same time, he can play well positionally. It makes him the kind of guy you can put in different parts of the lineup. Plus, he’s the kind of guy that I don’t think we’re going to have a ton of concern right now playing him on the fourth line or third line. He’s at a point in his development where we don’t have to really stress about  making sure he gets too much. The next step for him is playing at the NHL level and developing there

Interchangeable parts: Or Granny can go up, or Granny can play center. It even gives us some flexibility even in the game. Having Granny in the lineup is also big for our power play. It gives us flexibility through the course of the game and night to night to throw out different look.

Dowell: The message was pretty clear. We’re being honest with it that our focus is sort of for this game -- getting ready for this week and then thing can change in hurry.
 

Not carrying an extra forward to save salary cap/proximity of Iowa: But also it doesn’t help anybody to sit around and not play. So it's just a matter of Iowa is close and they're playing the same game, the same system, so let's just concentrate on the group that we're going in with. So to have anybody up here who's not going to play and just sit around and be an extra, it doesn't help the guys that are in the lineup and it doesn't help them.
 

Dumba NHL debut Thursday: I would say there's a good chance of that.
 

How will you use him: Again, this is a game one focus for us with this group. With the amount of young guys that we have, I think it just has to be something that we stay on top of night after night.
 

Prove himself being one of the best defenseman in St. Louis: He played his gap, his skating ability, makes him a tough guy to play against defensively. There's still some things that he can get a little better at with some teaching and some time here he'll continue to get better at that. What it comes down to is his ability to move the puck, his ability to get in the play. We're a team that needs to generate more from the offensive blue line and he's a guy that has the ability to.
 

What do you want to accomplish the next four days: Well, bigger picture things. Obviously there's tactical parts that we want to get into. We've got the team building trip which will be nice. Bottom line is our main focus is on pace, making sure that we're doing things at game speed, the speed that we want to play games at when we drop the puck on Thursday. Number two is the competitiveness. You saw a lot of battle in our practice today. Number three would be the detail and the habits. And number four would be the execution -- just making sure that we're sharp and crisp and we have a good feeling going into game one.
 

How fluid will the lineup be: Most of the time, you're not making a lot of changes to your lineup when things are going really well. So I hope that we play 82 in a row with the same lineup (laughing). But I don't think that that's going to happen. And even at that, we won't be afraid to change the lineup if we win. We won't be afraid to change the lineup if we lose because we've got moving parts. Because we've got guys that are capable of playing different positions and guys that are capable of pushing. So I think that's going to be interesting following the story line of that as things go on. Again, we don't know what it's going to look like in Game 5. We know what it will look like in Game 1.

How do you keep from getting stale next four days: We're going to back off a little tomorrow. Obviously today was a very tough practice and we're going to back off tomorrow so we can ramp it back up on Tuesday.

Jason Zucker, Jake Dowell reassigned to Iowa; Fontaine, Dumba among those staying

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 29, 2013 - 9:50 AM

The Wild has assigned Jason Zucker and Jake Dowell to Iowa of the American Hockey League, trimming its roster to 22 players this morning.

Obviously disappointed, Zucker left the Xcel Energy Center with his bag and sticks and declined to comment.

Again, as the Wild has said over and over this camp, in its mind, whoever didn't make the opening-night roster simply won't be in the lineup opening night vs. L.A. on Thursday. It's not, "not making the team."

With Iowa in such close proximity and so many players on contracts that allow the Wild to send them up and down freely, this could happen for some time.

Zucker will be back at some point. But against big, tough L.A., coach Mike Yeo must feel he needs rugged Zenon Konopka in the lineup, meaning one of the kids will be scratched.

Zucker would be that guy. He's admitted to feeling sore since his groin injury, Mikael Granlund has also had a quality camp and the second power play has two shooters in Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. Zucker is a shooter, Granlund a puck distributor.

We haven't talked to Yeo or GM Chuck Fletcher, but to send Dowell down and go below the maximum 23, the Wild is likely looking to save precious salary-cap space since Dowell would be the clear extra forward. This also would allow the Wild to sign David Steckel at any time if it wants.

So, as of now, UMD-Bulldog Justin Fontaine is on the team. Same with Granlund, Niederreiter and Matt Dumba.

And of course, Coyle.

By the way, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are practicing today here at the X, as well as Torrey Mitchell. The Wild heads to Duluth for two days after practice.

Opening Night roster as of now (must be submitted at 4 p.m. Monday)

Forwards

Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville

Dany Heatley-Charlie Coyle-Justin Fontaine

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell

Mikael Granlund-Zenon Konopka-Nino Niederreiter

(If it were me, I'd switch Fontaine and Niederreiter, but Fontaine's been on that line most of camp, so I'll put him there for now)

Defensemen

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Keith Ballard-Matt Dumba

Clayton Stoner-Nate Prosser

Goalies

Niklas Backstrom

Josh Harding

Injured: Mike Rupp (knee)

More later

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.''

Wild close to signing Nashville Predators defenseman Jonathon Blum

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: July 11, 2013 - 2:24 PM
Agent Gerry Johannson says the Wild is one of many teams in the running for Nashville Predators free-agent defenseman Jonathon Blum. The agent says nothing is finalized, but according to NHL sources, it's all but signed, sealed and delivered and Blum will indeed be signing with Minnesota as early as Friday.
 
“We’ve talked to Minnesota and a number of teams,” Johannson said. “They are definitely in the running.”
 
General Manager Chuck Fletcher has said the past week the Wild will likely sign a defenseman with NHL experience to a two-way contract. Blum, a 2007 first-round pick by Nashville, likely fits that two-way mold. He would vie for a roster spot come the fall if not have the opportunity to be a first callup option.
 
The Predators didn’t tender Blum, 24, a former Western Hockey League star from the Vancouver Giants, a qualifying offer presumably because the threat of his winning a one-way arbitration case and Nashville’s logjam on the blue line. He became an unrestricted free agent last Friday. It was clear from reading Josh Cooper's stuff in the Tennessean the past few years that Blum has talent but needed a fresh start. Just wasn't working there.
 
The 6-1, 195-pound right-shot blue-liner has scored seven goals and 22 points in 91 NHL games. In four years with the Giants, Blum, their former captain, scored 49 goals and 204 points. He was WHL and CHL Defenseman of the Year in 2009. He scored 66 points that year playing on a team with Winnipeg’s Evander Kane. He won a Memorial Cup in 2007. His Giants teams record four consecutive years of 100 points. He is their all-time leader in assists (138).
 
The Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., native represented the U.S. in the world juniors twice. He’s a product of the California Wave (you may have seen that documentary on them a few years back, called In the Crease).
 
Here’s a story on Blum in the Vancouver Sun last week.
 
Here’s a story on Blum in the Vancouver Province last week.
 
The Wild's depth chart on the blue line for roster hopefuls now looks like:
 
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella-Keith Ballard
Clayton Stoner-Jared Spurgeon
 
Vying
Nate Prosser
Jonathon Blum
Matt Dumba

Matt Cullen moving on from Minnesota; Keith Ballard coming to Minnesota

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: July 4, 2013 - 6:34 PM
 
 
The Wild’s about to lose one Minnesotan, but it will gain another.
 
Wild center Matt Cullen will become a free agent when the market opens at 11 a.m. CT Friday. The veteran had a conversation with Chuck Fletcher last night where the general manager informed him he could not extend a contract offer.
 
However, defenseman Keith Ballard, the Baudette native and former University of Minnesota star, has agreed to terms with the hometown Wild. Ballard, 30, was bought out of the final two years of his contract by the Vancouver Canucks this morning. It's a two-year, $3 million deal -- much less than the Tom Gilbert $4 million cap hit. The buyout is why Ballard could agree early. The signing won't be official until Friday.
 
"It is exciting in the sense that I’ve enjoyed playing here on a visiting team," said Ballard, saying he got interest from a half-dozen teams. "I love the building, I’ve got great memories playing here in the three years in college and playing in front of these fans. And I know the support that the team gets. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be nice to be closer to family and friends, but at the same time, this isn’t a big homecoming celebration.
 
"There’s a lot of work to be done to reestablish my career. It’s an important year for me. I’m not overly wrapped up in that side of it. I’m just focused on putting all my efforts into having a good year and helping the team do well."
 
Ballard, a left-shot D will play the right side in Minnesota. In 545 career games with Phoenix, Florida and Minnesota, the two-time Gophers national champ has scored 36 goals and 165 points.
 
In 193 games with the Wild, Cullen scored 33 goals and 101 points. He scored an additional 11 goals in the shootout.
 
Cullen is coming off a strong season, still has the legs of a 20-something and has won a Cup in Carolina. He has scored 202 goals and 562 points in 1,073 games in 15 seasons with Anaheim, Florida, Carolina, the Rangers, Ottawa and Minnesota.
 
The Wild never made Cullen an offer.
 
“Chuck said all along he wasn’t going to do that unless he could make a legitimate offer,” Cullen said. “That’s a pretty classy move. He called me last night and we talked a little while and he said it’s a tough call to make, but he just can’t find the room to make an offer. So that was it.
 
“It was a sad night in the Cullen household last night. We were pretty disappointed, but understanding of the situation.”
 
Cullen, the former Moorhead High standout and St. Cloud State Huskies center, said he leaves Minnesota with good memories.
 
“I really enjoyed my time there,” Cullen said. “It was more than I would have ever imagined as far as playing at home and raising my kids there and being part of the organization and watching the organization grow from where it was three years ago to where it is now. I just leave with a lot of positive memories. It was a great experience for me. It was a lot of fun. Obviously, I would have liked to have won more games, but last year was one of the most enjoyable seasons playing hockey, and to go on that note, not many guys play pro hockey in their home state.
 
“Now it’s time to move on.”
 
Cullen said he doesn’t know if he’ll sign exactly Friday, but there’s been “plenty of interest.”
 
“It’s kind of interesting because all along in the back of my mind I expected it would eventually work out with Minnesota,” Cullen said. “Now it’s a completely different mindset, and I took last night to regroup and gather my thoughts and emotions and start thinking about the future here.
 
“For me, the priority is going to a place where I have a chance to win along with the family situation.
 
“Chuck was great though. He could have made this a lot more difficult than he did, but I got the strong impression that he tried awful hard, but it’s just one of those things. It’s a tough cap situation.”
 
It’s unclear if the Wild will look for a No. 2 center in free agency or just hand the baton in camp to Charlie Coyle or Mikael Granlund.
 
As for Ballard, I talked to him earlier as you saw on the previous blog, and he said Minnesota is an option.
 
It's an option now.
 
“I did need a change, so to me, the buyout is a good thing,” Ballard said. “In my meetings at the end of the year with management in Vancouver, we all agreed that however it worked out, I needed a change. It’s a funny feeling. In a lot of ways I’m very excited, but it’s disappointing that it got to this. I’m so excited for the opportunity and what’s going to come this next season.
 
“There’ been so much adversity in Vancouver the last few years, and I’ve gone through a lot. If anything my belief in myself has gotten better. Not right away. There was some up and down there, but it’s a fact, I know I can play at a high level in a long time.”
 
On playing in Vancouver, Ballard said, "It was a battle to find the right fit. I had a few injuries. It was a different role than I was accustomed to. There were a lot of different situations that took place. There weren’t one or two things that went wrong. At the same time, I really, truly loved my time in Vancouver. The guys I played with, it was a great group. It’s bittersweet right now. I’m really excited to be moving on and getting a fresh start, but it’s hard leaving people you were close to and a city and a fan base that I really enjoyed playing in front of."

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