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 new year from Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild held an optional practice Thursday. Fourteen skaters, plus goalies Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper, participated--including a couple of players who had been missing recently.
Jonas Brodin and Jason Zucker both practiced at full speed. Brodin, who has missed two games with a head injury, said he feels great; coach Mike Yeo is optimistic Brodin will play Friday against Toronto at Xcel as long as Brodin still feels good Friday morning. Brodin has been skating by himself or with Backstrom, who also is feeling good again after missing three games because of the stomach bug that has been working its way through the team.
Zucker is a longer-term project. He said after practice that he has never been hit so hard by an illness as he was by this nasty norovirus. Zucker didn't eat for two days and didn't get off his couch for three or four days; he missed three games, and Thursday marked the first time he has skated since falling ill on Dec. 27.
Zucker said he felt better than he anticipated during Thursday's practice, but Yeo said he knows conditioning will be an issue, and there is no timetable for his return.
Speaking of returns, forward Tyler Graovac was sent back to Iowa after Thursday's practice. He impressed Yeo in the first two NHL games of his career, and both Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher stressed that Graovac's reassignment had nothing to do with the quality of his play. Fletcher wants the 21-year-old center to continue developing in the minors by playing a big role regularly, and Yeo plans to bring center Erik Haula back into the lineup Friday.
Yeo made it a point to say he hopes Graovac's debut puts a little heat on some veterans."We look at how far he’s come along, and we're very encouraged,'' Yeo said. "I hope that he's pushing some guys, because we know he can come in and play. And we're talking about a big, skating centerman who can create and has the ability to make plays. So we're encouraged with where he's at.''
The coach also wants to see how Haula responds to being benched for three of the past four games. Yeo has seen improvement in practice, he said, but stepping up in a game presents a new test.
"The defensive part of his game has to be there,'' Yeo said. "He has to be a guy that’s difficult to play against, in terms of being positionally sound and taking away time and space from players. On top of that, more than anything else, it’s the compete in the hard areas.
"Every player has to play the game with a physical element. What Erik Haula brings physically is going to be different than what Stu Bickel brings physically. But they have to bring what they bring. That’s what I'm looking for.''
Yeo declined to say how he plans to deploy his goalies in back-to-back games Friday (at home against Toronto) and Saturday (at Dallas). But Backstrom is ready to go if he is called upon to start.
Mike Yeo’s Wild vs. Todd Richards’ Blue Jackets on Wednesday night at Nationwide Arena.
The NHL’s most sickly team vs. the NHL’s most injured. The Wild will try to silence that obnoxious cannon of theirs.
Columbus, devastated all season by injury, is riding high right now, going 9-1-1 in its past 11 after losing 15 of its previous 17. Nino Niederreiter’s junior linemate, Ryan Johansen, leads the team with 22 assists and is tied with Nick Foligno with 31 points.
Foligno, expected to play his 500th game Wednesday, is tied for sixth in the NHL with 17 goals and tied for first with nine power-play goals. The Blue Jackets’ power play ranks fourth, by the way, and they have power-play goals in seven of the past nine games.
The Blue Jackets rank 27th in goals against (3.18), rank 26th in shots per game (27.8) and 27th in shots against per game (33.7). Sergei Bobrovsky, AKA, is the stud in goal, is returning from illness and has been good in his previous games against Minnesota. He is 3-1 against the Wild with a 1.68 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.
Wild has lost 16 of 23 visits all-time to Columbus and played one of last season’s worse games there, a 4-0 defeat.
The Wild’s coming off a hard-fought, well-played 3-2 win at Winnipeg.
Darcy Kuemper will get the start. He is 4-6 on the road with a 2.42 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. At home, he is 7-4 with a 2.86 goals-against average and .876 save percentage. #weird.
This will be the Wild’s third attempt to get to .500 on the road after starting 2-6 on the road. The Wild has won six of its past nine road games (8-9).
Same lineup is expected Wednesday, meaning Erik Haula will likely be scratched for the second straight game and third time in four games.
Defenseman Jonas Brodin (head) is feeling better and had a doctor’s appointment today, and GM Chuck Fletcher told me it makes no sense to fly him here and risk his health. So perhaps Friday’s game against the Maple Leafs is a possibility.
Niklas Backstrom (sick) is feeling much better and coach Mike Yeo said the team was even considering flying him to Columbus even if it was just to skate Wednesday morning. Yeo said the quicker the Wild can get him back onto the ice with the team, the quicker he can return. Remember, the Wild has back-to-back games this weekend with a big division game at Dallas on Saturday. So if Backstrom can’t play, Kuemper will either have to play back-to-back or John Curry would have to get his second start.
This weekend may be pushing it to play Backstrom no matter how much better he’s feeling. Remember, he basically started to get sick in that game at Chicago two weeks ago, so he has got to be pretty depleted right now.
Jason Zucker, no change in his sickness, Yeo said. He just has no energy and is doing the same with the stomach bug that’s invaded the Wild.
Yeo liked Kuemper’s game against the Jets and he said again today this is what the Wild needs consistently from Kuemper and Backstrom.
“We need both guys healthy and we need both guys playing well,” Yeo said. “You can point to a lot of different areas where we may not be completely on top of our game, but nobody plays perfectly and you don’t win without really good goaltending in this league. That’s the reality.
“The way Kuemps played last night is very encouraging, but him like our whole team, we can’t be satisfied with one game and have to look to build off it now.”
I talked to Marco Scandella, who’s riding high with confidence right now, and Ryan Suter, who admitted that his confidence is a little shaken lately with a slew of minuses and no goals since opening night.
Remember though, he had no goals in the first 40 games last year and then scored five in four games around this time of year. He said if they come in bunches, he hopes it starts and he gets a little of what Scandella’s got. Everything Scandella shoots seems to be going in these days, and he talked to me about a shorter stick he’s using and a new technique this year. I’ll put all that in the paper.
“I’m just trying to fire it hard every time,” said Scandella, who has nine goals, four in the past six games and a league-leading 0.3 goals per game (for defensemen). “I have a lot more confidence this year in my shot. In junior, I felt I had a lot of confidence in it. I got a lot of good looks and I was taking good windups. Once you get to pro hockey, it’s harder. But now I’m getting back to finding my groove and I try to shoot as hard as I can. I know I have a good shot, I know it’s a hard shot. Now I try to put everything into it every time.”
On his play recently, Suter doesn't seem to be overly concerned, but he says he just needs to work hard to get back to his A game. He admits the good news is things can only get better from the Winnipeg game. But he definitely seemed to be beating himself up today.
In the first 20 games, Suter had 10 assists and was plus-13 in 29:14 a night. In the past 12 games, he has 11 assists and is minus-11 in 30:23 a night.
But he says that’s just the nature of the team losing and when the team loses, with the amount of shifts he plays, he’s bound to be on the ice for goals against.
Yeo did say he may lower Suter’s ice time a little to try to help him out and he did say again today the Wild coaches are considering Scandella for No. 1 power-play duty. However, he said that doesn’t necessarily mean Scandella would replace Suter. He said he has no problem using two lefties at the top to change up the look.
More on this in the paper.
Nate Prosser and Stu Bickel had a few notable turnovers last night, but Yeo liked their game overall. Bickel is an interesting cat. For a bruiser, he looked great jumping up in the play in the Winnipeg game and last night his stretch passes created a few opportunities.
Yeo gave Prosser a mulligan for some of the giveaways last night because he said it’s not easy for a righty playing the left side.
“Those guys, they’re hard to play against. That’s what I like,” Yeo said. “Guys come around the net, they’re going to feel it. It shouldn’t be a comfortable place for people to go. [Bickel] brings that element and Pross too. I think when teams are too comfortable, it makes it too easy to execute.”
Yeo also liked Tyler Graovac’s initial game.
“For a young kid, there’s a lot of things he needs to learn as far as details. These things take not only days but probably more like years to get on top of.” But Yeo loved his size, speed, skating ability and hands. He nearly scored a goal, made a great play to the blue line to set up one play and pickpocketed a guy in the neutral zone to trigger a quick transition in the first periods. Still raw, but he should become a player one day. He only won 2 of 10 faceoffs, so the Wild will have to gauge that and perhaps keep him from key defensive zone draws.
From my pal at the Columbus Dispatch, Aaron Portzline:
Hartnell - Johansen - Morin
Calvert - Dubinsky - Tropp
Foligno - Wennberg - Skille
Cracknell - Chaput - Boll
Johnson - Savard
Tyutin - Prout
Connauton - Wisniewski
Bobrovsky in net
scratches: goloubef, leopold and maybe a forward recall later today.
RW Jack Skille (head) is probable. RW Cam Atkinson (shoulder), C Boone Jenner (back), C Artem Anisimov (triceps), D Ryan Murray (knee), C Mark Letestu (groin), RW Nathan Horton (back) and LW Brian Gibbons (knee) are out.
Wild defenseman Marco Scandella said that in tough times, the key to avoiding self-pity is to have a short memory. His team took that slogan to heart Sunday, bringing a cheerful mood and a strong work ethic to a morning practice at Xcel Energy Center.
The Wild's numbers were further reduced Sunday, thanks to norovirus and injury. Defenseman Jonas Brodin and center Mikael Granlund, both injured in the third period during Saturday's 4-3 overtime loss to Winnipeg, did not practice and will not travel to Winnipeg for Monday's rematch. Granlund was placed on injured reserve, meaning he will have to sit out at least one week. Winger Jason Zucker and goalie Niklas Backstrom, still feeling the effects of a stomach bug, also did not practice and won't be on the trip.
Forwards Tyler Graovac and Brett Sutter were recalled from Iowa late Sunday afternoon to help fill a roster that had dwindled to 11 forwards and six defensemen. Graovac, 21, leads Iowa with 12 goals and is tied for the team lead with 24 points; he would make his NHL debut if he plays Monday. A seventh-round pick in the 2011 draft, he will wear No. 53. In September, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher called Graovac--a skilled, 6-4 center who is strong on his skates--the most improved player in the Wild organization.
Sutter, 27, had one assist and two penalties in two games with the Wild earlier this season.
Defenseman Justin Falk was sent back to Iowa on Sunday morning. He finished minus-1 in 9:44 of ice time Saturday and lost the puck just before Winnipeg scored the winning goal.
Yeo said he didn't have any further information on the severity of the Granlund/Brodin upper body injuries or any indication of how long they might be out. He expects to know more tomorrow.
The line combinations Sunday were Parise-Koivu-Pominville; Niederreiter-Coyle-Vanek; Cooke-Haula-Fontaine; and Carter-Brodziak-Fontaine.
Goaltender Darcy Kuemper was feeling better Sunday and looked fine and fit in practice. Kuemper, who had just recovered from a bout with norovirus a week earlier, ate some bad chicken Friday night before going to bed. He lost eight pounds during a sleepless night and could not play Saturday, forcing the Wild to call up Curry from Iowa. "Luckily, it was just food poisoning,'' said Kuemper, a bizarre statement that pretty much sums up how lousy the Wild's luck has been lately.
Expect Kuemper to get the start Monday at Winnipeg. He did follow his coach's instructions and unplug his brain from hockey during the three-day Christmas break, returning home to Saskatchewan for some family time.
"I think that was good for everybody,'' Kuemper said. "When things aren’t going well, they can wear on you a bit. It's good to get your mind off things and come back refreshed.''
In looking at his decimated lineup, Yeo said he expects Nate Prosser to be able to fill in for Brodin--particularly in the Winnipeg rematch, which should be another hard-hitting game. It will be harder to make up for Granlund's absence.
"When you look at what we're losing, it's difficult to replace that,'' Yeo said. "We're losing a skilled centerman, a guy that’s playing an important role offensively but also is able to contribute to the defensive part of the game as well in his own zone. We have to look at what we're losing and try to fill those voids. Looking at the back end, we do have a guy like Nate Prosser who's here, who has been in the lineup, who can fill in for us.''
Yeo also praised his team for its good spirits Sunday after a difficult defeat that extended its winless streak to five games. He and the players reiterated after practice that they felt Saturday's game was a step forward, despite the outcome.
"For the way that guys are feeling, they put a lot into practice today,'' Yeo said. "Practice was very good, which is what we need right now. This is where we're at, and this is what we have to deal with. And we've got the character to get through this. We just absolutely can't have anybody hanging their heads here, allowing disappointment or frustration or anything to get in the way of what we're still capable of.''
The Wild, 5-5-3 (13 out of a possible 26 points, .500) in its past 13 overall and 2-2-3 (7 of a possible 14 points, .500) in its past seven at home, looks to enter the NHL’s 3-day holiday break with a win Tuesday (6 p.m.) against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers, behind surprising NHL leading scorer Jake Voracek who was named the league’s Second Star of the Week today, have won two games in a row on an eight-game road trip. Voracek leads the league with 44 points and is tied with teammate Claude Giroux for first in the NHL with 30 assists (Giroux is third in NHL scoring with 40 points).
Mikael Granlund didn’t practice for a second day in a row and is questionable against the Flyers. Coach Mike Yeo said it’s not the mumps. He said he would have to feel considerably better Tuesday in order to play.
Yeo wouldn’t say which goalie would start. Also, GM Chuck Fletcher told me Keith Ballard won’t need surgery to repair three facial fractures, but he is out indefinitely.
Afternoon from the press room at Xcel Energy Center. I’m back in town and it appears as if nothing has changed.
The Wild, which battles back seemingly nightly in the third period (the continued comebacks are commendable, but they only keep happening because the Wild falls behind almost EVERY game), rallied again in the third before losing in overtime to Nashville. I’ll look up the overall numbers, but the Wild has rallied in four in a row now to tie at some point in the third.
Get five goals on Pekka Rinne, you have to win, so a lot of focus the past few days has understandably been on the below-average goaltending of Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom.
That is fair. Kuemper has been pulled in four of his past five home starts.
The Wild has allowed a league-low 26.5 shots per game and 820 in 31 games. Yet, the Wild’s save percentage is .898. It’s PDO (save percentage plus shooting percentage) ranks 25th. Kuemper’s .903 save percentage ranks 52nd in the NHL, Backstrom’s .901 ranks 55th (tied with Vancouver’s Ryan Miller).
According to war-on-ice.com, Kuemper has the fourth-worst even-strength save percentage in the NHL at .897 and second-worst adjusted save percentage (measures shot quality) at .887. Backstrom is seventh-worst there at .899.
The Wild has scored 89 goals in 31 games compared to 72 through 31 games last year. That’s 17 more goals and four fewer points in the standings than 31 games last year, so that tells you something right there.
Last year, whichever goalie the Wild put in there was interchangeable. This year, not so much.
So Yeo said, “Clearly our defensive play is not where it needs to be right now.”
In other words, Yeo knows the goalies need to be better, but he says the defense in front of them and the details of the Wild’s game haven’t been up to par either.
“I’ve never been one to single out a player,” Yeo said. “I always believe it’s a team game. I always believe that’s generally not something that helps players feel better. But I’m not going to sit up here and say that we don’t need a higher save percentage and we don’t need to give up less goals a game.
“That goes without saying. But we’re not helping the situation with some of the play in front of our goalies. You look back to last year and how many goalies came in – whether it was Backy, whether it was Bryzgalov, whether it was Kuemps, take your pick -- we were able to throw different goalies in there and they were able to play well, and that was a credit to those guys, but that was also a huge credit to the structure and the system and the players playing in front of them. That’s what we have to get back to.”
Yeo said, “There’s a lot of details in our game that are missing. Our changes lately, they’ve been terrible. We’re so focused on scoring a goal, … we’ve been stretching our shifts, we’ve been taking longer shifts. We’ve been changing at the wrong time, we’ve been hurting the guys that are coming on the ice because of that and we’ve been giving up goals against because of our changes.”
So Yeo wants more discipline to the Wild’s game.
“We need some mental toughness right now,” Yeo said. “We have to fall back on the things that we’ve done effectively before and the things that have made us a tough team to play against. You have to trust that your teammates are going to do all those little things. And you have to trust that if you do all those things that the result that you do badly want will be there for you.”
I’ll be writing about the goalies mostly in Tuesday’s paper. If you’re expecting a new one to come to the Wild’s rescue, I wouldn’t count on it. Good, capable goalies don’t just become available in the middle of a hockey season, and again, Kuemper cannot be sent to the minors without going through waivers and Backstrom has a no-move clause. So unless the Wild’s willing to carry three goalies – an option, but one that will create little flexibility – it’ll be hard to just add a goalie no matter whom it is.
Goalie names rumored to be on the trade block include Cam Ward ($6.3 million cap hit this year and next, and he is not the same goalie he once was), Viktor Fasth (his save percentage stats are right around Kuemper and Backstrom, so is it really an upgrade?), maybe Martin Brodeur once Brian Elliott is back (severe downslope of career), Michal Neuvirth, maybe James Reimer.
Also, look at the Miller trade last year. It would take a king’s ransom likely to get a big name, and that sure worked out for St. Louis, didn’t it?
Basically, the Wild needs to figure this out with its current cast of characters (and again, Josh Harding is out of the picture due to sadly effects of multiple sclerosis again).
I talked to Ryan Suter, and he said, “Every team goes through ups and downs. Every team that’s trying to be an elite team year after year, you go through things before you can get to that stage. These are growing pains. I feel we have the right group of guys here. We need to start playing as one from our goaltending out, we have to be better.”
On the goalies, Suter said, “They have to be better. They know that. But we have to help them better. Early in games, we have to be better to limit the chances to get them into games. They want to be better. I know they do. They’re working hard. It’s not like they’re coming to practice and taking it easy. They’re working hard. We just have to be better as a group. The faster we get it figured out, the better off we’ll be.
“I remember last year at this same time we were struggling and things were going downhill, and then we came out of it. Hopefully we can do the same here.”
On the urgency level, Suter said, “Every time you look, other teams are winning and we’re not. You definitely feel that pressure. But there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to try to get the next one. Once we get one, hopefully we can build off of that. We had a solid game against Boston and we blew it. We played a good game. We should have won that game. And then you score five goals against Pekka, you should win that game too. We’re not playing a complete game and we have to be better.”
I got Kuemper alone and he said, “There’s no question about it that me and Backy as a whole, we need to worry about ourselves and get ourselves ready. Just as a team, we’ve got to get back to playing defensively as a unit. If we’re not all on the same page, some breakdowns start happening. I don’t think we’ve been quite on top of that. It starts with the goaltending, but I think everyone as a whole, we need to tighten up.
“Me and Bax, we’ve got to focus on ourselves and be better and give our team a better chance to win every night. I think if everyone gets back to the way we were playing, we’ll be alright here.”
On him personally and his struggles, Kuemper said, “I’ve been playing good hockey on the road. It seems like lately at home there’s been bad luck. You’ve just got to reach back on some older times. This is a building I’ve had a lot of success in and I just have to look back and reflect on those times and get some confidence back here.”
Jason Pominville concurred that it’s frustrating when the Wild has continually shown an uncanny ability to rally in the third and yet isn’t finding the final ability to win routinely. He said the Wild has to figure out a way to grind out a 2-1 win and stop getting in these run and gun games. He said they’ve been way too loose.
Personally, I think the Wild has lost a lot of the detail in its game because it constantly has to open up to rally in these games because it constantly falls behind. And again, that does also have to do with goaltending and how they must be better early in games.
Nothing can derail a team more than goaltending.
But Pominville said, “We’ve got to clog it up defensively. Look at the start of year, puck possession was great, we didn’t play much in our zone. Now we play more in our end and turning pucks over. We have to get back to being tighter defensively.”
Backstrom said, “It’s about winning. Sometimes you start to think too much about winning instead of doing the work and thinking about the way you have to play to win.” So he said the team has to get back to the level of play it should be at and the wins will take care of themselves.
But he said, “We goalies, we have to be better.”
More on all this in Tuesday’s paper. I also hope to talk with Fletcher Tuesday for a state of the team chat.
I'll be on Fox Sports North ++++++++ during Tuesday's game and in the pregame show and I'm filling in for Barreiro on KFAN on Friday from 3-6 p.m. I'll also be in studio with Paul Allen at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Mike Yeo didn't want to spoil the mood. After the Wild's outdoor practice Sunday in Roseville, the coach was asked two questions about how the team would move on from its 6-5 overtime loss the previous night. "Are we going to keep talking about last night, guys?'' he said, with some impatience. "I don't want to talk about last night. We can talk about that tomorrow. To me, this (outdoor practice) is what we're dealing with today.''
Several hundred people showed up to see the practice at the John Rose Oval. The morning after a painful loss to Nashville, the Wild entertained them with a slow-speed four-on-four scrimmage in the snow. Players shoveled off the rink, laughed and joked, posed for a team photo and spent some up-close time with fans.
The fun, lighthearted day seemed to lift the mood of a struggling team. Goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who was pulled Saturday after allowing three goals on 14 shots, was all smiles after feeling the love of the overflow crowd. Kuemper had missed his previous scheduled start when he spent two days sick with a stomach ailment, but he said that didn't affect him Saturday.
"You're still trying to gain back your energy level, but that didn’t have anything to do with what happened,'' Kuemper said. "I actually felt pretty good. I thought I was making good saves last game. You just have to keep doing the right things, keep practicing hard and make sure you keep having fun out there.''
Zach Parise, who has noted his team's frustration at its inability to gain ground in the standings, also appreciated the back-to-childhood vibe of the day. Looking ahead to Tuesday's home game against Philadelphia, he's hoping to see the Wild straighten things out before a three-day Christmas break. A pair of games against Winnipeg awaits after that, giving the Wild another shot at knocking off a Central Division rival.
"There are a lot of things we're doing pretty well, and a lot of things we have to improve on,'' Parise said. "But like we were talking about last night, we've got to start closing that gap. We don’t have any other choice than to hit the reset button.''
Mikael Granlund, who became ill just before Saturday's game and sat out, did not practice Sunday. Yeo said "he'll be fine.''
Here are some photos from the outdoor practice.
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