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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Richards may shuffle deck against Capitals; Backstrom or Theodore in goal?

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: October 26, 2010 - 2:19 PM

Wild, after its team picture this morning on the Xcel Energy Center ice, had an optional practice. Nine guys skated, including rookie Colton Gillies and recouping Pierre-Marc Bouchard, plus goalies Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore.

Coach Todd Richards said he gave most the guys the day off because a lot of players got big minutes yesterday, a handful of players are still being affected by the illness that's plagued the team (Richards said some players went to the doctor after last night's game because they're having trouble keeping down food, have lost weight and are fatigued) and Richards felt he should give them a day to get their bodies right so the Wild can come back with a good practice Wednesday and get ready for Washington on Thursday.

Cam Barker skated on his own today and Richards said the team will determine in the morning if he'll return to practice. Barker has missed two games with a groin injury and he was bothered by the same problem in training camp. Chuck Kobasew, who has also been hampered by a groin injury, didn't practice and Richards said may have to be replaced Thursday by Gillies.

I asked Richards last Monday if he felt it was time to shuffle the cards and scramble his lines. He didn't want to do it before the home Vancouver game because he felt he challenged the players and when challenging players, he said his opinion was you should give them the chance to respond. They responded well against the Canucks in a 6-2 win.

The lines stayed together in Edmonton. The team didn't play well, but in a good sign, it wound up winning a game it probably would have lost last year. The team was trounced from start to finish in Vancouver and last night the Wild coughed up a 2-goal lead and lost in a shootout (would have been regulation if the Kings could hit an open net three or four times).

Now Richards said he's considering shuffling his lines against the Capitals. He says it was clear to him the Eric Nystrom-John Madden-Cal Clutterbuck was the best line vs. the Kings, but the Wild must figure out a way to get more production from the Andrew Brunette-Mikko Koivu-Antti Miettinen and Guillaume Latendresse-Matt Cullen-Martin Havlat lines.

I know Kaptain Koivu loves playing with Brunette and Miettinen, but he's not the coach. The Wild hasn't made the playoffs in two years with that line intact, so there's no reason why the trio should be made of Teflon.

Is it time to try something else? Brunette feels it's tough to gauge that because every game has been different from a flow standpoint, mostly because the penalty problems are disabling this team. We'll see what concoction Richards unveils in practice Wednesday -- if he does, but the Wild's just not good enough to not try something else once in awhile.

Jacques Lemaire probably scrambled his lines way too much and Richards probably scrambles his lines way too little.

Koivu's got to be better, and the Wild must figure out a way to get Havlat, Latendresse and Brunette rolling. Havlat's scored no goals in eight games, and while he's helped create six goals, he's not a factor right now. Say what you want about Havlat, but he's a $5 million secondary option on this team. He's on the second power-play unit, played three games in a row in the 14-minute range last week, hasn't been chosen in two shootouts. But in my mind, he's got to be given more of a significant role by Richards, or else, why have him? I think a lot of Havlat's problems is Latendresse. Havlat loves to play catch with the puck, but Latendresse has often been behind the play, which has led to some poor penalties and in and out second-line forechecks. But one big reason why Havlat, Latendresse and Brunette haven't been 5-on-5 threats is they sit on the bench for half the game sometimes because of the penalty kills.

Penalties are a controllable fix, and the Wild better fix this going into the Caps game, or the Caps' stars will light the Wild up despite the fact Washington somehow has only scored four power-play goals this season.

I talked to Richards and some players about the speed issues I see and critiqued on the previous blog. You can read that in the paper.

Theodore's new mask is in. Neat looking thing -- another Todd Miska creation. He's always had gargoyles on his mask in Montreal and Denver, so Miska put one on each side with the head being a Wild logo.

Lastly, Richards said he'll decide Wednesday which goalie starts vs. Washington. He says both have good reasons to start -- Backstrom's playing well and Theodore's a former Cap. For my money, Backstrom is a no-brainer. He's playing great and Theodore, coming off a five-goal outing vs. Vancouver, is not ready to once again be thrown in behind a fragile group facing Washington's ridiculous firepower.

That's just my opinion. I could be wrong.

"Russo Radio" is tonight at 6:15 p.m. on 1500ESPN. Tune in.

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