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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Happy Thanksgiving from the X, where the Wild practiced, including Zach Parise. He lasted the whole thing, every now and then skating up to assistant athletic therapist John Worley to talk about his bum foot.
Parise is officially listed as questionable for Friday's 5 p.m. game against Colorado -- the front of a home and home. It'll be a tough challenge despite the fact the Wild has had Colorado's number for seven years or so -- 31-11-5 in its past 47 and 12-2-2 in its past 16 in Denver.
Coach Mike Yeo wouldn't reveal which goalie would start in goal. Josh Harding practiced and if he's healthy, I'd think he starts if for no other reason than his stellar home record. I'd think Niklas Backstrom starts in Denver.
Center Mikael Granlund has been placed on injured reserve with a head injury (officially upper-body, but I'm not blind), meaning he will miss at least a week or at a minimum three games -- probably more -- after three hard hits in the past eight games.
Granlund took a head shot from Toronto's Nazem Kadri, then took a hard hit four games later from Ottawa's Marc Methot where he crashed into the boards. He missed two games, returned to the lineup last night against Phoenix and was lost 29 seconds into his first shift when he was hit high by rookie defenseman Connor Murphy as Granlund tried to deliver a check.
Yeo said the Wild didn't rush Granlund back.
"To sit here and say in hindsight that I wish he didn’t play, of course," Yeo said. "But when a guy’s cleared to play, what are you going to do? You going to say no? He was cleared to play and obviously cleared to play with the idea that we wanted to be careful and think about the big picture. Sometimes things happen."
Left wing Jason Zucker, who played three games in Ottawa, Winnipeg and St. Louis before being reassigned yesterday to make room for Keith Ballard and Torrey Mitchell, has been recalled and should stay awhile now. Zucker scored twice in Iowa's win last night at Chicago.
He was sent down Wednesday with Darcy Kuemper. They had 3 p.m. flights that were delayed, they arrived for the game vs. the Wolves at 5:30 p.m. with only airport pizza in their stomachs and beat the Wolves. Zucker was pulled off the bus headed to Iowa after the game to go to an airport hotel for sleep, then a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call to fly back to Minnesota because of the Granlund injury.
Zucker's recall doesn't fill the center need though. Charlie Coyle has played better at wing than center, although we all saw in training camp that he has the ability to play the position. He won the second-line center spot outright until spraining his knee. Granlund filled in admirably.
Besides being more of an offensive-threat at wing, Coyle hasn't done well in the faceoff circle. He has won 38 percent of his draws this season. In his last four games predominately at center, Coyle has lost 30 of 43 faceoffs and 15 of 17 the past two games.
So in practice today, Yeo experimented with Justin Fontaine, who has rarely played center in his college or pro career, as second-line center, putting Zucker on the third line and Matt Cooke, goalless since Oct. 12, on the fourth line.
Lines: Parise-Koivu-Coyle; Nino-Fontaine-Pominville; Zucker-Brodziak-Heatley; Cooke-Konopka-Mitchell.
Why Coyle back to the top line as a winger rather than second line as a center?
"The games we've been winning lately, that line has been producing," Yeo said of Parise-Koivu-Coyle. "We were forced into a situation where we had to break it up, but I think what we have to try to do is look at it in a different way and keep that line together and fill some holes elsewhere."
Yeo made clear, "I’ve got no problem putting [Coyle] at center, but I think we have to try to give that line a chance to get back to the type of dominance they were having and the success they were having. Instead of breaking them up, let’s arm those guys with what they need to lead our group. We need people to step up, whether it’s a guy coming into the lineup like Zuck or whether it’s a guy biting off a little more ice time."
On Fontaine moving to center, Yeo said, "Just trying things. Thought we'd give it a shot."
Fontaine is looking forward to the opportunity. He is 2 for 2 on faceoffs this season and doesn't practice them much.
On Zucker on the third line, Yeo said it should elevate that line with Brodziak and Heatley and give it some speed. "Heater had one of his strongest games in a long time last night," Yeo said. "He was strong on a lot of puck battles and had three really good scoring chances and one goal. We'll use this as an opportunity to continue to help him grow his game, get it back to his top level."
By the way, I questioned yesterday why the Wild wouldn't just keep Zucker here and keep Mitchell on IR. Yeo said it was because the Wild needed Mitchell because of his role as a penalty killer.
On Cooke being demoted to the fourth line, Yeo said, "Many times when players haven’t scored in awhile, they start to do things that hurt themselves. We all remember how he scored his goals." He needs to get back to "doing the right things," Yeo said.
Today was a long, long practice with a ton of teaching moments. Yeo interrupted practice a lot with whistles, saying afterward, "there's a couple parts of our game that have slipped and we have to try to get it back."
There is no morning skate Friday because of the early game. I'll be back with you after Yeo's 2:45 p.m. availability. I will also be on Fox Sports North during Friday's Wild Live pregame show and first intermission.
Wild fans #freezucker campaign (which I believe is ripped off from Allan Walsh's former #freesykora campaign) came to fruition this morning when the Wild recalled Jason Zucker from AHL Iowa to presumably play tonight against the Ottawa Senators.
Torrey Mitchell appeared to injure his left leg last night in Montreal.
Zucker has been Wild fans' BFF for some time, and he's not even from Minnesota. But Wild fans fell for Zucker because of speed, finish and goals like this:
Zucker seemed to be a shoo-in to make the roster before training camp began, but the emergence of Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter cost Zucker his opening night gig because Zucker would be a waste on the fourth line. Zucker also strained his groin at an inopportune part of training camp. He so wanted to make the team that he probably pushed himself back onto the ice when he was still sore. The rest of camp he lacked that burst we've grown accustomed to seeing.
Zucker burst onto the scene last year with some big goals for Minnesota (four goals, one assist in 20 games) but went the final 10 regular-season games without a point before scoring the overtime winner in Game 3 against Chicago. He also hit the post in overtime in Game 1. Zucker has driven the Wild a bit nuts with his defensive-zone play, ability to read defensively and lack of puck support in the offensive zone.
That's what he was sent to Iowa to work on and he has played well lately. I watched a lot of Saturday's 1-0 loss by Iowa and I thought Zucker was great.
Zucker, 21, has tallied four goals and eight points, including three power-play goals, in 12 games with Iowa this season. Zucker played one scoreless game for the Wild earlier this season. He has recorded seven points (4-3=7) in 27 career games with Minnesota.
The Wild didn't have a morning skate today, so the lines are unknown. I'd think you'd want Zucker in a scoring role, so if that were the case, maybe he goes to the second line and Niederreiter moves to the third and Justin Fontaine the fourth. Of course, if you do that, you're fiddling with a second and third line that's been going pretty well in recent games.
We'll find out later. No confirmation yet, but the hope is for Josh Harding to return to the nets. Talk later.
Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner, coming back from a leg injury, was just supposed to skate on his own today before the team practiced. But he felt so good after doing so that he joined the Wild and took part in practice.
And that means there is a chance Stoner could return to action Tuesday against Toronto. “We’ll see how it goes as far as tomorrow,” coach Mike Yeo said.
His return would be big. Because Keith Ballard, who has missed two games with an upper body injury, was put on injured reserve Tuesday.
Here are other items from today’s practice:
--A Toronto writer at practice today, doing a story on Josh Harding, asked Yeo if he felt goalie Josh Harding should be considered for the Canadian Olympic team.
“I do,” Yeo said. “Absolutely, I do. You look at numbers, you look at stats, you look at wins, he’s certainly made a case for himself. You want players to put themselves in a position where they’re opening eyes and getting attention from other people. I think he deserves that.”
Harding is first in the league in goals-against (1.22) and tied for first with two shutouts. He is second with a .947 save percentage and seventh in wins.
Harding, who is battling multiple sclerosis, is not talking about that condition this year. Indeed, his play has pushed that issue to the back burner, something Yeo emphasized today.
“The thing about him is, if it wasn’t for all the questions I get on a day-to-day basis, I’d probably forget about it, to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “What impressed me about him? Last year it was always there, because we had to learn so much about it with the doctors. We had to have so much communication with him and with the trainers, just how to deal with it. This year it’s almost been a non-issue. He just comes to the rink and he’s just another player. He’s gone out and played at such a high level you almost forget it’s there. We’ll never forget what he has to deal with. But, at the same time, it’s impressive the way he comes to the rink. We don’t talk about it, and he doesn’t want us talking about it.”
--As expected, Mike Rupp, who has yet to play this season after having off-season knee surgery, will put in a conditioning stint with Iowa Wild. “He’ll play there Wednesday and Friday,” Yeo said. “And we’ll get him back here.”
Again, the news of the day:
-- Judging by today’s potential lines for Friday’s game against Montreal, Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu will be split for the first time under coach Mike Yeo. This is an attempt to get more 5-on-5 scoring throughout the lineup and create three scoring lines. Parise and Koivu have each registered four even-strength points in 13 games.
-- Charlie Coyle will return Friday after missing 11 games from a sprained knee.
-- Keith Ballard will likely return Friday
-- Jonas Brodin practiced today and is questionable Friday. The Wild doesn’t want to put him in a bad spot with his broken cheekbone. He says he felt good today, so we will find out Thursday if he’s back on his regular pair with Ryan Suter. Today he skated with Matt Dumba, who will be a healthy scratch Friday. Brodin is sporting a full face shield as opposed to the cage. He didn’t like the cage. His face is looking better than it was when originally clocked by that puck.
-- No goalie decision for Friday, but if Josh Harding is healthy, it’d be surprising if he doesn’t return to the cage (eight goals in nine games vs. Niklas Backstrom’s 3.42 goals-against average and .871 save percentage in six appearances.
-- Stephane Veilleux is on waivers and will be assigned to Iowa if he clears Thursday.
-- Dany Heatley and Justin Fontaine were rotating in and out of the Parise-Coyle line today and the fourth line. Just the fact that Heatley’s in conversation for the fourth line is glaring.
-- Just an fyi: Rachel Blount will be covering the Wild for us Thursday, Friday vs. Montreal, Saturday and Sunday morning. I'm in a wedding out of town and will return to cover Zach Parise's first game against New Jersey on Sunday.
-- If you didn't get to read, here's my fun profile on Zenon Konopka and his wine label/bunny rabbit. Good pics, too.
Here are the lines and D pairs again. The big thing is the Wild’s not going with the conventional top-3 lines. Koivu is not on the "third line" if I didn’t make that clear on original blog. The Koivu/Coyle lines should be 1/2 or 2/1 in ice time still. The way things have gone all season, Koivu's and Kyle Brodziak's lines always lead in ice time. The "second line" centered by Mikael Granlund is usually third in ice time.
Matt Cooke-Granlund-Jason Pominville
Fontaine/Heatley-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell
Mike Rupp is being rotated into line rushes every other rotation.
Defense pairs are
Marco Scandella-Nate Prosser
I'll be interested to see how the heck Yeo works the power plays, particularly after they expire. If he goes with the first/second units the way they've been, he's got forwards sprinkled from every line on both units.
Here is Mike Yeo:
New lines: Potential line combinations. Try some stuff out. See how it works.
Parise/Koivu: We’re trying some stuff. We know that those guys are very good together and dangerous together. We want to see if they can click with some other guys and strengthen our whole group. Obviously both guys are great players and both guys are threats any time they’re on the ice no matter who they’re with.
Needed Coyle back to make move?: It’s not like we’ve been sitting here waiting to make that move. We’ve been real happy with both guys. With Charlie here, there’s more guys in play. We’re looking at 5-on-5 production and how can we have at least three lines that are a real threat to score. That was the basis for what you saw today
Heatley/Fontaine, how will you decide who's up with Coyle line, who's down with Konopla line: Who’s playing the best? It’s pretty much that simple and that’s the same for everybody. We’ve got more competition, more guys, another healthy guy that we feel is a threat to contribute on the offensive side of things and that gives us the freedom to shuffle things a little bit more.
Start with dany there?: I don’t know.
Mikko: Part of the idea of switching them too is those guys, we’re playing against Chicago, who are they going to throw on the ice against them? They’re going to get their top matchup, they’re going to get Toews, who’s one of the top defensive guys in the league. With Charlie out the way we’ve had our lines, it’s been a little easy for teams to match up against us. There’s a big difference in this league playing against top defensive pairings, playing against top defensive forwards. Now we’d like to think that we’re spread a little bit more where you might have to pick your poison.
Mikko: He can easily have five or six more points right now. He’s been doing a lot of great things. This is not by any means an indication that we’re not happy with him or his game and likewise for anybody through the lineup. This is something that we all said right from the beginning of the year, right, that we wanted to see more line combinations, so let’s not turn it into that just because we’re trying a new line that we’re not happy with the way things are going.
Nino/Cooke?: I think if you look at every line right now the way we’ve got it, we’ve got skill on each line, we’ve got a big body, we’ve got a guy that should get to the net. We’ve got a little bit of everything on every line. If we’re going to make a switch with Mikko – not to say that Cookie is not a skill guy, but Nino is a guy that should be a top offensive threat. He’s a guy with hands, … with a shot, … can skate, handle the puck, is strong on the puck. When we’re looking at Mikko, we’re trying to really identify what he needs to be successful because again, he’s still going to be playing against the best players out there and he needs to have the right pieces around him.
Brodin regular pair tomorrow? We’ll see, we’ll see. We have a lot of healthy defensemen and we want to make sure that when we get him back, we get him back for good. I don’t want to put him in a bad spot. He looked good today and that’s a good first step and we’ll see how it goes tomorrow.
Ballard? He looked good. I’d be surprised if he’s not ready to go by Friday.
Granlund/Brodziak? One thing with Charlie being out is we saw Granny emerge a little bit. We kind of only slotted one position available between him and Charlie at the start of the year, but the way that he’s been going lately, he’s proven that he can be a dangerous guy playing at the center-ice position because of his speed, … the way that he distributes the puck, … the way he’s been able to carry the puck and make plays through the middle of the ice. We want to give a chance to continue to develop that. Again, it’s probably going to be fluid for a little while here. I hope that these lines stay together for the next month, but I’m not sure that that’s going to happen. We’ve got moving pieces. We’ve got a guy like Brodzy who can move back to center, guys like Charlie and Granny who can both move to wing and guys like Zach who can still play with Mikko or Pommer and likewise. To sit here and say these is going to be our lines for the long-term, we’re trying something. We’ll see how it goes.
What’s it say that heatley’s even an option for the fourth line? I don’t even want to turn it into a story. We’ve got a lot of good players and you know what, he’s also an option for a very good line. This is not about individual players right now. We think on every line we’re going to have a good mix of skill and guys who are going to be hard around the net and guys that should be able to complement each other.
Dumba? No decision right now. If he played his best game, we were not going to overreact one way and if he played his worst game, we were going to overreact one way. We were just going to judge this as a whole and we’ll keep going day-by-day and see what happens.
Fair to say Dumba scratched Friday? Yeah.
Practice Schedule? This is good for us. … We haven’t had the quality practice time in the last couple weeks and that’s big for our group, for how we play the game, but also for individuals feeling good going into every game. You saw we had a hard practice today. It was good tempo, guys were skating, guys were making plays, but there was certainly a focus on making sure that guys were leaving the ice tired today.
Goalie decision? No
Coach Mike Yeo says Josh Harding is feeling better today, but the Wild won't bring him to Chicago as not to risk his "lower-body strain" that flared up during Thursday's 3-1 win over Carolina.
The Wild has recalled Johan Gustafsson to make the trip and back up Niklas Backstrom Saturday. Remember, Backstrom was injured moments before Game 1 of the playoffs last year when he sustained a sports hernia that knocked him out of the first round and required surgery.
Backstrom isn't 100 percent yet, but he says he has to "find a way" Saturday night.
The Gustafsson recall is nothing against Darcy Kuemper, who gave up three goals on seven shots in Toronto last week. Kuemper's been on a yo-yo and it's his turn to start Sunday for Iowa against Grand Rapids. So since the callup is for a backup role here, Kuemper stays in Iowa to play and Gustafsson is called up.
It's as simple as that. He also apparently isn't quite 100 percent from something that happened in last night's game.
Gustafsson was pulled in last night's game for Iowa but gave up only one goal in roughly his first 120 minutes of the season there. He is 2-0 with a 1.99 GAA and .935 SP and one shutout for Iowa
Keith Ballard, who has missed five games with a head injury, practiced today and is "feeling better than yesterday." He will not fly to Chicago and acknowledged that he had concussion-like symptoms and whiplash.
Charlie Coyle practiced today and looked good. He is not on the trip and is doubtful for Monday, too, against Chicago. With practices scheduled Thursday and Friday, perhaps Friday's game against Montreal is a target.
Jonas Brodin wound up not skating today because Yeo said why push it since it's not like he'll be back in a few days. Right now it's just a matter of the swelling going down so he can look down and see the puck. Maybe Friday is a target, too. Monday is unlikely.
Mike Rupp also practiced today again. I'll toss Rupp quotes on his comeback in Sunday's paper. I talked to him yesterday.
Big test for the Wild Saturday as its faces Chicago for the first time since the playoffs. The Wild felt like it was chasing the puck for much of that series. This year the Wild's been a team its opponent is typically chasing. So we'll see how it goes against Chicago.
Same lines in Chicago as the Wild finished vs. Carolina. Dany Heatley on Kyle Brodziak's line, Nino Niederreiter on Mikael Granlund's line.
By the way, Wild will wear its road whites Monday in the second end of the home-and-home against the Hawks.
Talk to you Saturday after the morning skates in Chicago.
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