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.

Also find Russo on Facebook.

Email Michael to talk about hockey.

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

NY Mets 8 FINAL
Atlanta 2
Philadelphia 3 FINAL
NY Yankees 1
Detroit 5 FINAL
Baltimore 4
Toronto 4 FINAL
Pittsburgh 1
Cincinnati 2 FINAL
Cleveland 4
San Diego 3 FINAL
Seattle 4
Chicago WSox 6 FINAL
Los Angeles 4
Kansas City 13 FINAL
Texas 2
Oakland 9 FINAL
San Francisco 2
Wisc-Milwaukee 0 FINAL
Milwaukee 8
Arizona 6 FINAL
Colorado 3
Univ of Minnesota 1 FINAL
Minnesota 3
New York 82 FINAL
Indiana 105
Phoenix 105 FINAL
Orlando 100
Cleveland 120 FINAL
Toronto 112
Utah 84 FINAL
Boston 85
Charlotte 115 FINAL
Brooklyn 91
Denver 100 FINAL
Minnesota 85
Detroit 85 FINAL
New Orleans 88
LA Lakers 94 FINAL
Miami 100
Philadelphia 118 FINAL
Oklahoma City 123
Memphis 102 FINAL
Houston 100
Sacramento 85 FINAL
San Antonio 112
Milwaukee 93 FINAL
Golden State 102
Portland 98 FINAL
LA Clippers 93
Ottawa 3 FINAL
Winnipeg 1
NY Rangers 1 FINAL(OT)
Detroit 2
Pittsburgh 1 FINAL
Colorado 3
Montreal 1 FINAL
Anaheim 3
Longwood 65 FINAL
Presbyterian 61
Campbell 64 FINAL
Gardner-Webb 72
Liberty 70 FINAL
UNC-Asheville 80
Ohio State 77 FINAL
Penn State 67
Maine 66 FINAL
Albany 83
Duquesne 81 FINAL
Fordham 66
George Washington 67 FINAL
George Mason 51
Tennessee 78 FINAL
LSU 63
Notre Dame 71 FINAL
Louisville 59
SE Missouri St 74 FINAL
Morehead State 79
St Francis-PA 73 FINAL
Mount St Marys 58
Hartford 63 FINAL
New Hampshire 67
Wagner 68 FINAL
Robert Morris 91
Long Island 70 FINAL
St Francis-NY 79
La Salle 50 FINAL
Saint Josephs 55
Providence 79 FINAL
Seton Hall 66
UCF 45 FINAL
South Florida 74
Binghamton 57 FINAL
Stony Brook 62
UMBC 39 FINAL
Vermont 66
Sacred Heart 85 FINAL
Bryant 91
Richmond 56 FINAL
Massachusetts 53
Wake Forest 51 FINAL
Duke 94
Purdue 66 FINAL
Michigan State 72
Miami-Florida 67 FINAL
Pittsburgh 63
St Bonaventure 64 FINAL
Saint Louis 48
New Mexico St 69 FINAL
TX-Pan American 48
Houston 68 FINAL
Tulane 63
Howard 62 FINAL
NJIT 71
TCU 70 FINAL
Oklahoma State 82
Cincinnati 56 FINAL
Tulsa 47
USC 74 FINAL
UCLA 85
Miss State 56 FINAL
Vanderbilt 66
Utah State 53 FINAL
Wyoming 76
St Johns 67 FINAL
Marquette 51
SIU Edwardsville 66 FINAL
Eastern Ill 78
Air Force 66 FINAL
Fresno State 68
Nebraska 57 FINAL
Illinois 69
Colorado State 78 FINAL
Nevada 62
Boise State 68 FINAL
San Jose St 51
San Diego St 60 FINAL
UNLV 58
Oregon 65 FINAL
Oregon State 62
UC Santa Barbara 98 FINAL
Hawaii 90
Toledo 64 FINAL
Northern Ill 68
Wake Forest 69 FINAL
Boston College 53
Eastern Illinois 35 FINAL
UT Martin 68
Austin Peay 69 FINAL
SIU-Edwardsville 72
Virginia Tech 57 FINAL
NC State 56
Massachusetts 55 FINAL
St Bonaventure 49
Auburn 71 FINAL
Florida 49
Penn State 63 FINAL
Indiana 68
Clemson 53 FINAL
Georgia Tech 80
Davidson 63 FINAL
La Salle 74
Loyola-Maryland 46 FINAL
Lafayette 58
Boston U 48 FINAL
Colgate 58
Coll of Charleston 58 FINAL
James Madison 107
Delaware 76 FINAL
Elon 77
Drexel 58 FINAL
Northeastern 42
Hofstra 75 FINAL
UNC-Wilmington 76
Towson 56 FINAL
William & Mary 68
Miami-Ohio 55 FINAL
Akron 67
Ball State 85 FINAL
Central Michigan 69
Buffalo 55 FINAL
Bowling Green 47
Western Mich 65 FINAL
Eastern Michigan 74
Ohio U 69 FINAL
Kent State 56
Youngstown St 62 FINAL
Cleveland State 73
Illinois-Chicago 54 FINAL
Wright State 74
Alabama 56 FINAL
Vanderbilt 66
Detroit 60 FINAL
Milwaukee 56
Purdue 58 FINAL
Wisconsin 56
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who is doing the best job coaching a Minnesota pro sports team?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT