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

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate, Wild training camp 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."

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