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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Yeo has Fletcher's support; Today's line juggling; Tutorial on Wild's "system"

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: February 8, 2013 - 3:30 PM

 

The Wild turned the page on a disappointing 4-1 loss Thursday to Vancouver with an energetic practice today at St. Thomas Academy.
 
Zach Parise missed practice because he is sick, but the Wild expects that he will be able to play Saturday against Nashville.
 
Mike Yeo wouldn’t say who starts, but my guess is Josh Harding.
 
First, at some point the Wild needs to throw him back in the nets after that bad game against Chicago, one Harding told me was “common sense” to pull him with a 2-1 deficit. “The boys pulled me out of it.”
 
Harding played the last 20 minutes against the Canucks and stopped all six shots he saw.
 
Second, Niklas Backstrom had a tough game last night – plain and simple. We can talk on and on about the Wild not scoring, but Backstrom gave up four goals on 16 shots and this was not your typical Wild-Canucks game where Backstrom was peppered. The Canucks, in the entire game, attempted 34 shots – 22 on net.
 
The Wild, other than the Jannik Hansen's breakaway, limited Vancouver’s chances.
 
In Phoenix, the losing goal came on a juicy rebound. Last night, two of the goals came on juicy rebounds or, in the case of the second goal (winner), after Backstrom didn’t freeze a puck earlier in the sequence. Backstrom probably needs a game off.
 
With Parise out, the lines were juggled today. Yeo said Devin Setoguchi deserves to move up after two good games, so he’ll play on the second line with Dany Heatley and Mikael Granlund. Matt Cullen will play on the third line with Cal Clutterbuck and Kyle Brodziak.
 
The first line today was Pierre-Marc Bouchard with Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle today. If Parise plays, which is expected, that has to mean Bouchard, who has been MIA the last three or four games, will be on the fourth line with two of the following three: Mike Rupp, Zenon Konopka or Torrey Mitchell.
 
It looked to me like defenseman Nate Prosser, scratched the past six games, will be back in because Marco Scandella played some blue-line shifts today with forward Matt Kassian.
 
GM Chuck Fletcher gave a vote of confidence for a lack of a better term today to Yeo and the coaching staff, saying, “Absolutely” when asked if he’s got to let things play out for the 4-5-1 team.
 
“Mike and the coaches are doing a very good job. We’re giving up almost five shots a game less than we did last year and we’re doing a good job. We’ve got a lot of pieces to juggle in a short amount of time. We’re trying to find chemistry and frankly we can’t get caught up in the angst and outside opinions and reaction. We just have to stay focused and concentrate on doing a better job and executing at a better level.
 
“If the effort is there, eventually things will turn.”
 
I asked Fletcher about all the criticisms of fans regarding Yeo’s “system,” but before I get to Fletcher’s response to that, I just want to point something out. Trust me, I watch six or seven games a night, travel to every building in this league. The Wild plays the same system as virtually every team in the league. Breakouts are similar, neutral-zone forechecks are similar, style is similar if not identical to other teams, including some of the most successful.
 
Fans that tweet me daily are agitated with the dump-and-chase. Hey, I hear ya. Like it or not though, this is what this league has become. I understand where this looks counterproductive. The goal is to have the puck, so why when you have the puck, do you intentionally give it away only to exude effort in an attempt to get it back?
 
That’s a subject for another day. But I promise you, like Vancouver last night, the Wild’s first option through the middle of the ice is to make a play. Players are not being instructed to dump the puck every time they cross the red line. But like virtually every team in this league, they are told that if there’s no option to make a play, if the defense is standing up at the blue line to the point there’s no way into the zone and/or you’re going to turn the puck over at the offensive blue line, the option is to dump the puck because the free ice is behind the opposing D.
 
BUT, where things are breaking down for the Wild is once they dump that puck, forwards are not doing a good enough job retrieving the puck. It’s either because of bad dumps or players are just not put pursuing the puck with enough oomph or digging the puck out with enough grit.
 
If you’re dumping and chasing, forwards must be committed to getting on their horse and going to get the puck back. It takes battle, it takes puck support from all five guys on the ice, especially the forwards. The Wild has to get better in this area or it will be completely counterproductive because then what happens is the first period last night – dump the puck, retreat, dump the puck, retreat, and there’s never any sustained pressure in the offensive zone.
 
Which Wild forward is the model of dumping and actually chasing? The answer is Parise. And he’s the Wild’s best offensive player! He doesn’t chip the puck deep because he’s told he has to by Yeo. He does it because after years of playing in Jersey and in the playoffs, it’s engrained in him. But again, after Parise chips the puck, who’s the one skating like a bat out of you know what to get the puck back? The answer is Parise.
 
Regardless, I asked Fletcher about the “system” complaints and he said, “Almost every team in the league plays the same way. It has nothing to do with the system. It has to do with confidence and execution. Sometimes you get focused on shots on goal and scoring goals and plus-minus and you let other parts of your game slip. The important thing is to stick with it. The 10 games are over. It’s in the past. Our record’s our record. It’s a reflection of what we’ve done and not what we did will do. We have to remember today is a new opportunity. Today is a good practice, lots of energy. The players have to keep working on executing better. The coaches have to keep looking at tape and making some adjustments. The bottom line is we just have to get players playing at the level they can and a lot of that is confidence.”
 
Fletcher said it is critical though that players don’t start cheating because they’re pressing to score goals. He says that has not happened yet and that is a concern because once that starts to happen, everything goes south.
 
“We have too many good players for it not to turn. Obviously players are struggling with confidence right now. Things will turn, they always do. Players will play to their level.”
 
Fletcher noted he has to be patient. “Look at the amount of changes we’ve had. Look around the league, the majority of the teams that are having success right now have had a lot of continuity. They’re teams that brought back a lot of their top players and were able to step in a season with a shortened training camp and hit the ground running. A lot of the teams that are struggling are teams that made more changes. The bottom line is we have good players. That’s not to say that you’re not going to look to make an adjustment here or there, but I’m not sure introducing more change is going to help us get more stability. We believe in these players and we’ll keep pushing through.”
 
Fletcher said the Wild has players with a proven track record of scoring. That’s a subject for debate I guess. Obviously scoring doesn’t come easy to these players. It’s been four years now. The Wild don’t have a lot of natural goal scorers other than Parise and Dany Heatley, who is on the backside of his career. So the Wild must get grittier. It must get numbers to the net. And it must start taking lessons from teams like the Canucks and throw pucks at the net!!!
 
Amen.
 
I better write for the paper now because I want to get up to St. Cloud and take in tonight’s Gophers-Huskies game. Chip Scoggins will also have a column in Saturday’s paper.

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