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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Posts about Wild practice

Justin Fontaine likely to debut Friday; Lineup shuffle in the works

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 14, 2014 - 1:53 PM

The Wild had a long, workmanlike practice today at Xcel Energy Center and is about to take off from MSP for Orange County, where it will spend the next few days prior to Friday's game at Anaheim.

Good afternoon from MSP myself. The team will have an off-ice workout Wednesday, a golf outing and team dinner before ramping back up at practice Thurday in Anaheim.

Justin Fontaine looks like he will make his season debut Friday night on the right side of the Thomas Vanek-Mikko Koivu line.

Coach Mike Yeo is looking to keep his real quality Nos. 1 and 3 lines intact, especially that solid Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Charlie Coyle line. Ryan Carter said today that line reminds him of a certain Anaheim young line that helped lead the Ducks to a Cup in 2007. The names on that line -- Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner -- became eventual stars (at least two of them), and that's not what Carter's saying. He's saying the makeup, the role and the age is very similar.

Carter centered the fourth line today with Jason Zucker and Matt Cooke. Kyle Brodziak was switching in and out.

I think Carter will indeed center that line Friday and Yeo talked more today about just how much Carter knows his role and is playing it well.

Last week, I mentioned how I thought Fontaine would slide into the second line because the best that line has looked so far came with Fontaine there in training camp and the Pittsburgh exhibition game.

I started to wonder if initially Yeo would start Zucker there just because of the goal with Vanek and Koivu in the second Colorado win, but Yeo said today, "I saw some things earlier in training camp. Unfortunately Fonzie got hurt and we want to give it a little more of a go, but what we like about Fonzie is his whole life he’s sort of been in that role. You could see what he has done at various levels, the way he has had the ability to play with top players and had the ability to put up points. What I like is the way he thinks the game. That gives him a chance to read off of those two guys and make the plays that he needs to make. We saw a couple instances of that in practice, whether it was darting to a hole or making a play into space with those guys. Very hopeful that works out."

Fontaine also played the No. 2 power play with those two in practice instead of Niederreiter or Coyle. Yeo said that may not be a full-time thing, that he wanted to give them more time to skate together.

BUT, it sure sounds like that's what he's thinking to start.

"We’re trying to find the right mix there," Yeo said. "I wanted to give him a good opportunity to go in practice today. Both those guys – Nino and Charlie – had a chance to factor in on the power play, but I grabbed them before that I wanted them to really have a good focus on their penalty killing today. Nino’s really been doing a great job and I’ve been using him a lot and Charlie, I would like to get him more involved in it as well. It’s not just a power-play practice when we’re working that stuff. We’re working our penalty kill too and I just like that we’re much closer to a place where our penalty killers are penalty killers and our power-play guys are power-play guys. There’s not much crossover. The guys that go out on the penalty kill, that’s their baby and they have pride in that, and I think we’ve seen that so far and likewise on the power play."

Keith Ballard was paired with Matt Dumba today and Nate Prosser played the left alongside Christian Folin. Folin had been playing the left, but that's really not fair to a young guy to put him on his off side when he's rarely done it before. The irony is Prosser in previous years was always the healthy scratch when the Wild needed a left-shot D because Yeo didn't feel he could play that side.

Regardless, it's pretty clear the plan is for Ballard and Dumba to play one game together this weekend and Prosser and Folin the other. Subject to change, of course, but the Wild doesn't want its extra D sitting around for three weeks not playing and when the two rookies played together in Denver, they only logged 9 and 10 minutes, respectively.

Same thing for Niklas Backstrom. Again, subject to change, Yeo is heavily considering playing him in Los Angeles on Sunday. Remember, it was at LA last year that Kuemper came out of nowhere in January to sub for an ailing Backstrom and won in a shootout during a game the Wild was severely outshot.

BUT, Yeo said, "When I talked about trying to get everybody in, [Backstrom's] part of that equation too. It’s too early to predict what’s going to happen right now. We were considering heavily putting him in last weekend, but Kuemps really didn’t give us a chance. Just going forward here, we are very conscious of trying to get him in. The schedule’s pretty light right now, but there will be a time where it will pick up and we’re going to need both goaltenders going and we just have to make sure he’s prepared for that."

Stu Bickel cleared waivers and was assigned to Iowa.

Also, if you remember back at the draft, Richard Park interviewed with GM Chuck Fletcher for a player development role. In almost a tryout basis, Park then worked development camp as a coach. Today, in a move that was coming for some time, Park was officially hired as a player development coach to work in Iowa.

Park, 38 (5/27/76), recorded 241 points (102-139=241) and 266 penalty minutes (PIM) in 738 career NHL games during 14 seasons with Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Vancouver and the New York Islanders. The forward skated in 40 career NHL playoff games, including 18 with the Wild in 2002-03 when the team advanced to the Western Conference Finals. The native of Seoul, South Korea, tallied 74 points (37-37=74) in 217 games during three seasons with Minnesota (2001-04).
 
 Park retired as a player after spending the last two seasons playing for Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland (2012-14). He was originally selected by Pittsburgh in the second round (50th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.

Wild practice: A little fun during a long wait

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: October 13, 2014 - 1:43 PM

With five days until its next game, the Wild turned Monday's practice into a spirited session of pond hockey for pros. The team spent much of the workout playing three-on-three on a compressed rink, with the nets parked just outside the blue lines. There was plenty of laughter and one-upsmanship, along with some complaining about the calls being made by assistant-coach-turned-ref Darryl Sydor.

Team Green celebrated its victory with some chest bumps and a group hug. Coach Mike Yeo said the unusual early-season break mandated a creative approach to practice time this week, one that allows the team to throttle down for a couple of days while keeping it on its toes for Friday's game at Anaheim. The Wild leaves for California on Tuesday afternoon, with Friday's game followed by a Sunday matinee at Los Angeles.

Yeo said there was a lot of "hidden work'' in Monday's practice, along with an off-ice workout. The Wild also made a roster move, putting forward Stu Bickel on waivers to make room for Justin Fontaine. Fontaine said he is fully recovered from a gluteus strain, and Yeo said there was a good chance he would play on the road trip. The coach expects to mix others into the lineup as well to ensure everyone on the roster is getting the playing time they need to be at their best.

"I'm not afraid to make changes,'' Yeo said. "This is a weekend where we have to see guys get in. If they don’t play this weekend, we're looking at three weeks into the season where guys haven’t played a game.

"This is a long season. To sit here and say we're just satisfied with where we are and what we've done, that’s not going to be the case. We've got to keep trying to work to get better. Whoever is in the lineup and wherever they're playing, they have to be ready to go.

"We don’t want guys on our roster sitting around for three weeks without playing a game. These guys, we're going to need them down the road. We've got to make sure we give them a chance to make sure they're ready to have a good season. That doesn't mean we're going to be going game after game just rotating things here, but certainly, we have to eye this weekend as an opportunity for us to make sure guys get into the lineup.''

In other practice news Monday:

--Kuemper was named the NHL's second star of the week after making 46 saves in his back-to-back shutouts of Colorado to open the season. Yeo--who seemed uncomfortable with the praise heaped on his team for its two victories--said he was happy for Kuemper but wanted him and the rest of the team to look forward. The goalie echoed that opinion.

"It's exciting to get mentioned like that,'' he said. "But I was fortunate our team played so well. I just benefited from that. It's exciting, and we'll move forward from that now. ... Just our preparation, we can't let that level drop. We've just got to stay on top of it and start looking forward to the next game.''

--Yeo said he isn't certain what Fontaine's role will be, but he does want to see him increase his scoring this season. "We weren’t playing him in skilled roles a lot of the time (last season), or in more of a scoring role. But that said, I think I'd like to see him take another step in that department this year.''   

Wild coming back with Darcy Kuemper in Denver

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 10, 2014 - 3:43 PM

UPDATED

It's not a rule. It's a guideline, Mike Yeo has joked during his tenure. But the fourth-year Wild coach won't break his rule or guideline as to which goalie starts after the team shuts out an opponent.

Darcy Kuemper, concussed in Game 7 at the Pepsi Center last year when his head collided with Ryan Suter's leg, will be in the Wild cage again Saturday night when the Wild visits the Avs in its first road game of the season.

Kuemper had a relatively easy 16-save shutout in the Wild's season-opening win over the Avs on Thursday.

The Wild expects a very different Avalanche team Saturday. Just like the Wild got a jolt from its home crowd in its home opener, the Avs should get the same as they celebrate last year's Central Division title.

“If the roles were reversed and we got pounded 5-0, I guarantee we’d come out playing the same team with a little more bite,” Zach Parise said Friday. “We have to expect that from them.”

Just like the Avs Thursday, the Wild will be in the visiting room hearing all the hoopla outside.

Asked what it's like to be in that room and hear all that from past experience, Yeo said, "We just have to brace ourselves for a good challenge. It’s the anticipation of knowing that the other team is going to come out hard. They're going to come out with good energy. Sometimes that anticipation can lead to some butterflies, so we have to made sure we’re ready to start from the drop of the puck, that’s for sure."

That'll be Yeo's message during that time.

Not much else going on. Yeo also said he will likely come back with the same lineup. I wondered if he might be considering giving one of the rookie defensemen the night off for Nate Prosser, but Yeo sounded like he didn't want to change the lineup, saying it would be hard to pick anybody after Thursday's performance. This would be Christian Folin's first-ever road game.

Folin and Matt Dumba did have a couple hairy rookie moments Thursday, but Yeo said veterans made mistakes, too, but, "We’re very quick to judge and we’re waiting for them to make a mistake almost." He said everybody needs to understand there will be hiccups with the young kids and it's up to the coaches to help eliminate them, but he wants them learning in tough road environments and he doesn't want Folin or Dumba feeling that one mistake will get them taken from the lineup.

So, it sounds like Prosser and Keith Ballard won't play. Stu Bickel is also expected to be scratched, as well as Justin Fontaine, who is still on injured reserve.

At some point the Wild will need to get Fontaine in and make a roster move. It'll be interested to see whom Yeo chooses to come out because he loved what Ryan Carter brought to Thursday's game and he liked what the fourth line provided with Carter, Jason Zucker and Kyle Brodziak. Brodziak played a real good game, especially on the PK.

Speaking of the PK, much more assertive than we have grown accustomed to seeing Thursday. Colorado was shotless on four power plays.

Matt Cooke should expect to hear a chorus of boos. In case the fans forgot how Cooke knocked Tyson Barrie out of the playoffs, the Denver Post's always-inciting columnist reminded them in today's piece.

That's it for now. Please check out my two stories in Saturday's paper. Talk to you after Saturday's skates.

Darcy Kuemper gets the Opening Night start vs. Colorado

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 8, 2014 - 1:24 PM

Darcy Kuemper will be the Wild’s opening night starter against Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Jarome Iginla and the rest of the defending Central Division champion Colorado Avalanche.

Afternoon from Xcel Energy Center. If you want to talk Wild with me, please join my live chat on www.startribune.com/wild on Thursday at 2 p.m. I’ll also be on KFAN at 3:30 p.m. and on Fox Sports North at 7:40 p.m.

Remember, the 8 p.m. game is on NBC Sports Network, but Fox Sports North will have an hour pregame show.

Over on the startribune.com/wild page, you can find my NHL preview, a story on Matt Cooke facing the Avs for the first time since his knee-on-knee hit on Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie in last year’s playoffs and story on how Kyle Brodziak will try his best to tune out trade rumors this season and improve offensively.

In Thursday’s Star Tribune, our Wild preview, which includes a big piece on Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter, my 4 keys to this season, a notebook on Kuemper starting, a Jim Souhan column and a whole lot more.

Kuemper gets the start. Last year’s Game 3, 4, and 6 winner (three goals allowed) against Colorado went 2-0 in the preseason in three appearances with a 2.20 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.

Niklas Backstrom went 1-1 in three games with a 2.42 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

Coach Mike Yeo said it’s “to be determined” whether Backstrom starts Saturday’s game at Colorado, “but we don’t want him sitting around for a long time. Based on his history in that building, based on the fact that we play two games and don’t play for a week after that, I would say in a perfect world, that’s what we would do. But we don’t always operate that way either.”

That means if Kuemper is dynamite in the opener, he’d probably come back with Kuemper. But he also doesn’t want Backstrom getting stale and, as I think I mentioned on the blog the other day, Backstrom is 11-3-1 all-time at the Pepsi Center with a 2.04 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. That’s his most wins in any rink.

Backstrom is 24-7-3 all-time vs. the Avs with a 2.25 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.

“We should feel comfortable with either guy in the net,” Yeo said.

Thomas Vanek and Ryan Carter are the only players set to make their Wild debuts Thursday. No player is making his NHL debut.

The lines tomorrow appear to be:

Fwds

Parise-Granlund-Pominville

Cooke-Koivu-Vanek

Niederreiter-Haula-Coyle

Zucker-Brodziak-Carter

Stu Bickel and Justin Fontaine will be scratched. Fontaine (glute) has practiced all week but missed much of camp.

D

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Dumba-Folin

Keith Ballard didn’t practice today after taking a shot to the chest yesterday. He was walking gingerly off the ice today, but Yeo expects him to skate in the morning. Still, Ballard and Nate Prosser won’t play.

On Matt Dumba and Christian Folin, two rookies, playing together, Yeo said Ryan Suter will see shifts with both those players, as well as Jonas Brodin.

But, Yeo said, “I’m not afraid of putting those guys out there right now. I don’t expect them to play perfect games, and we shouldn’t panic if they make one or two mistakes. We have to give them a chance to develop and to grow. We have confidence that they’re going to play a solid, reliable game, but I also don’t expect it to be perfect.”

On finally starting the season, Yeo said, “This time of the year is always the same thing; just can’t wait to get going. You’re always excited for camp to start and then a week into it you can’t wait for camp to end and to get going. As much as anything else, I’m just excited about our team. … We hopefully come into this season with a little bit of swagger, a little bit of attitude. Recognize how hard it is, but we should also be confident.”

Ryan Carter likely to make Wild debut Thursday; A look at the Wild's lines

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 7, 2014 - 3:32 PM

Newly-signed Wild forward Ryan Carter arrived in the Twin Cities from Newark at around midnight last night and was on the ice with his new team, the Wild, for its 10 a.m. practice today.

Carter played on the fourth line with Jason Zucker and Kyle Brodziak and is expected to make his Wild debut Thursday night when the season opens against the Colorado Avalanche. He’ll wear No. 18.

Good afternoon from Xcel Energy Center.

I meant to put this on yesterday’s blog, but if you want to refresh your memory, here are some features I have written in the past on defensemen Christian Folin and Matt Dumba, who is expected to be the Wild’s third pair against the Avs on Thursday (8 p.m. game). Both are pretty good profiles, the Folin one coming before his NHL debut last season and the Dumba one coming the night he was drafted two years ago.

Today’s lines:

Forwards

Parise-Granlund-Pominville

Cooke-Koivu-Vanek

Niederreiter-Haula-Coyle

Zucker-Brodziak-Carter

Extra: Bickel, Fontaine (practicing; looks like he'll miss the opener for precautionary reasons due to glute injury).

Defense

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Dumba-Folin

Extras: Ballard, Prosser

Goalies

Backstrom

Kuemper

On the lines, coach Mike Yeo feels the young kid line has shown good chemistry together. “Again, I expect it to be fluid all year and that’s because we’ve got more pieces. We’ll try different things, and if it’s not working, we’ll switch it up again. If it is working, then we’ll leave it alone.”

To start things, he wants Cooke with Vanek and Koivu because Cooke has speed, goes in straight lines, hounds pucks, can recover pucks for those guys and can go to the net. Basically, play a simple game and do the work.

Yeo really likes the idea of Coyle and Niederreiter together on the same line – two big bodies with the speed element of Haula. “We’re interested as much as anything to see how that line goes out.”

Added Yeo, “However you want to call it, our first, second or third line, I want them all pushing each other. There’s no reason why our so called third line, why they can’t be our best line on a particular night. Likewise with our second and first lines.”

-- Again, 100% guess, but I think Backstrom starts the opener, but again, just a total guess. Just putting myself in the position of the coaches: It’s the home opener. Both goalies looked good in the preseason. Backstrom looks quick and healthy and pain-free. And he’s the vet, the all-time leader in wins. The goal is Backstrom can resurrect himself this season, so I think they reward him with the hope opener.

I don’t think there’s a wrong decision though.

Yeo said today he would love a drama-free year at the goalie position. He said he would love for both goalies to push each other, but he also wouldn’t mind one jumping out to the forefront and seizing the No. 1 job to make it a no-decision as to who starts on a nightly basis.

In Wednesday’s Star Tribune, I’m writing a story on Matt Cooke, who is playing Colorado in the first two games of the season for the first time since his seven-game suspension for kneeing Avs defenseman Tyson Barrie. Cooke is also the Wild’s second-line left wing in practice this week.

I’m also leading my notebook on Kyle Brodziak and his thoughts going into a big year of his career. He is in the last year of his contract and coming off two downs years (two years ago offensively and defensively, last year mostly offensively).

Also, my NHL predictions are in Wednesday’s paper. What’s your opinion as to where I should put the Wild?

-- Carter looked good today.

Yeo said, “I saw a lot of things that we’re hoping to see from him in games. Was able to pick up systems quickly, showed that he’s a good defensive and physical player. I liked what he was showing on the penalty kill and once we get into game time, I’m expecting him to bring some good energy too.”

Carter was outstanding for the Devils skating with Stephen Gionta and Steve Bernier during their run to the 2012 Finals.

Zach Parise, Carter’s pal, is excited to have him back as a teammate.

“He was awesome during that playoff run we had,” Parise said. “Really competitive guy. Plays hard, plays gritty, the type of player you need to have in your bottom-six forwards. He’s good on the PK. Just a responsible, solid all-around player.

“He’s the type of player that sometimes when games are dull, your team’s flat and you need a momentum shift, he’s the type of guy who can give you a spark. He’s going to fit in really well for what we need.”

-- Forwards Cody Almond and Stephane Veilleux cleared waivers and were assigned to AHL Iowa. Almond told me he would take a day to decide whether to report to Iowa or return to his team in Switzerland.

If he chooses to leave, the Wild can either assign him to Geneva with the ability to recall him or place him on unconditional waivers.

-- Power-play units today were:

Parise-Granlund-Pominville-Dumba-Suter and Niederreiter-Koivu-Vanek-Spurgeon-Brodin with Folin and Coyle interchanging in both.

“What’s our second unit? What’s our first unit?” Yeo said. “That’s my message to our guys right now. Every goal we scored in the preseason, it was a different combination of guys out there. There’s no question we have more parts, more competition, but that’s what makes us a better team.”

So Yeo expects the units to be fluid with different combinations.

“We have better hockey players from top to bottom,” said Yeo, saying that with flexibility and different parts, the Wild can be “more dangerous and less predictable because of that.”

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