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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Nik Backstrom gets tonight's start at Phoenix; Jon Blum to make Wild debut for struggling Keith Ballard

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: January 9, 2014 - 2:16 PM

Niklas Backstrom will get the start tonight against the Phoenix Coyotes, Marco Scandella, who missed practice Wednesday, will be in the lineup, Keith Ballard will be scratched and Jon Blum will make his Wild debut.

Those are your answers to all the Wild lineup questions that were heading into the pregame skate.

Afternoon from Glendale, where the Wild visits the Coyotes tonight at 8 p.m. CT. I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission.

If you didn't see, I did a story on GM Chuck Fletcher's attempt to get his players to wear foot protection. That story can be read here. In recent games, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon and Scandella have all suffered injuries from being struck by pucks. Fletcher is bringing in somebody next week to custom make shot blockers for players.

I talked to Scandella this morning, and he will definitely try one out. He used to wear shot blockers, but he found them hitting the ice on crossovers and the second he took them off, he felt quicker and lighter on the ice. That's the issue most players have with them.

Coach Mike Yeo has made the decision to start Backstrom tonight. Despite some abdominal soreness lately, he hasn’t missed any practices, looked good yesterday and Yeo has decided to come back with him despite Darcy Kuemper’s 39-save (plus four in the shootout) performance in Tuesday’s win at Los Angeles.

Bit of a surprise.

Backstrom (4-9-2 with a 3.15 goals-against average and .896 save percentage) has won two in a row for the first time this season but has given up three or more goals in seven of his past eight starts. Yeo said the decision is not unlike Coyotes coach Dave Tippett coming back with Mike Smith despite Thomas Greiss’ shutout Tuesday against Calgary.

Smith (15-10-8 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .911 save percentage), who will represent Canada in the Olympics likely as their third goalie, has three wins in his past 16 appearances, no wins since Dec. 21 and has allowed three or more goals in nine of those 16 appearances.

“We’re very happy with the game Kuemps played,” Yeo said. “It’s very important for us. There’s a very good chance that as this weekend goes on that we’ll see him in the net again (Wild has back-to-backs home vs. Colorado on Saturday and in Nashville on Sunday), but for this game, going with the veteran guy, I think, is important.”

The ninth-place Wild are tied in the standings with the eighth-place Coyotes with 51 points, but Phoenix has three games in hand, so tonight is a very important contest.

The Coyotes are 10-3-3 in 16 games against Minnesota since 2009-10.

There was a point where Backstrom was a Coyotes killer. He’s now 13-10 in 23 appearances against them with a 2.18 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

Blum, 24, a first-round pick by the Nashville Predators in 2007, will make his Wild debut. He’s excited after playing all season in Iowa. He’s now essentially the Wild’s extra defenseman with Matt Dumba assigned to Portland and Spurgeon hurt.

He has played 91 games for the Predators and at the time of his recall was tied for the Iowa scoring lead with 17 points in 31 games and tied for first on Iowa with four power-play goals (although my guess is we see Jonas Brodin and Justin Fontaine at the points of the second power-play unit tonight).

This will be the 6-foot-1, 188-pound defenseman’s first NHL game since April 27, 2013.

Yeo wants to see a “steady presence, a guy who defends well and makes a good first pass. He does have experience. He’s played in the league. He’s a right-shot, which was important for us. I think having a right-shot on that right side will help some of the execution problems that we’ve had a little bit lately. He’s got some sneaky skill.”

Ballard, a former Coyote, will be scratched for the second in three games. He had a real rough go in L.A. He was turning pucks over and iced the puck four times (although Erik Haula beat out one to wash it out, but that one by Ballard which came a few feet short of the red line happened right in front of Rick Wilson, who sends the D on the ice). His final shift was a chaotic one that is logged as 2:15 by the off-ice officials. He didn’t play the final 32+ minutes.

“I’ll grab him and the message is going to be very simple: ‘just take a game here, take a deep breath,’” Yeo said. “There’s been ups and downs, but by no means are we giving up on him. We still feel he’s a huge asset to our team and we have to work with him and try to get things back to where he’s feeling good and confident.”

Ballard talked to me about his struggles last week. Those comments can be found here.

Since missing nine games with broken ribs (his second injury of the season), he has no goals and two assists in 19 games. He’s a minus-13 in those 19 games with no +1 or better games.

“We’ve put him in kind of an uncomfortable position playing the right side,” Yeo said. “If we can, when we get him back into the lineup, I’d like to get him back on the left side. That’s where he’s played his best hockey for us this year. If you’re fighting it and you’re playing the off side as a defenseman, you feel the pressure a little more, you don’t see your options quite as well and you’re making a lot of plays from your backhand.

“It’s up to us try to get that confidence back in his game and put him in a position where he can be successful.”

This isn’t good. The Wild signed Ballard for a number of reasons, but one big one was because he had experience playing the right side.

Now, the Wild has put him in an uncomfortable position? The other confusing thing is Yeo saying he wants to get him on the left side when he returns. I don’t think he’s playing in front of Ryan Suter, Scandella or Clayton Stoner, so my guess is Ballard either sits for awhile if Blum proves his worth or when he returns, he’ll be back on the right side.

So Ballard and the Wild better figure this out.

No update on the health of Spurgeon, Parise or Josh Harding, Yeo said. Fletcher said no update yet on the severity of Brett Bulmer’s knee injury, but he does have at the minimum a high ankle sprain and will miss a good chunk of time.

Talk later.


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