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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Devan Dubnyk, after taking a red-eye from Phoenix to Buffalo via JFK, arrived in Buffalo at 8 a.m. and despite the long night and early morning, he’ll make his Wild debut tonight against the Sabres.
The Sabres, the NHL’s worst offensive team, have lost a franchise-record eight in a row. The Wild is 0-5-1 in its past six and has lost 12 of 14.
The Wild will be using a mishmash blue line with Ryan Suter suspended and Marco Scandella and Justin Falk hurt. Five right-shot D’s play tonight, so as of now, the pairs are:
Spurgeon (left side for first time in his pro career)-Prosser
Blum (who has struggled every time the Wild has seen him on the left side)-Dumba
Jordan Schroeder is scratched for a third straight game.
If you didn’t see the advance stat blog that our Michael Rand wrote on Dubnyk today, check that out here.
As advertised, Dubnyk is very affable and the Wild abandoned at least for today its team policy that the starting goalie doesn’t talk on a game day.
Dubnyk, who wore his Coyotes mask and pads in the morning skate, said the trade from the Coyotes to the Wild was a “bit of a roller coaster. I didn’t see it coming. I was aware of rumors and whatnot and I was just driving home from the rink and got a call. As the day went on, it settled in and I just got more and more excited. It’s an opportunity for me to come play. The way that things were in Arizona and Smitty (Mike Smith) there and they’ve got a great goalie locked up for a lot of years, to get a chance to come somewhere and play games is exciting for me. I’m looking forward to that.”
Honestly, in my opinion, Dubnyk has to look at this as a no-pressure scenario. Just play. The Wild has struggled. The goalies have struggled, so just get in there, play and try to allow the Wild to rediscover its game.
Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is the Wild’s game started to erode once the goaltending turned south. They started to cheat defensively to protect the goalies better, they started to get down in the dumps once the bad goals started to occur and now the game is MIA. There have been signs recently in the home game against Chicago, first period against Nashville, first and second periods against Pittsburgh that the structure is still there. So maybe tonight can be the beginning of the tonic, so to speak. We shall see.
Dubnyk, who has a wife and 17-month-old, wanted to make it here for the skate so he could get as much of a normal gameday routine as possible.
He said he got a little sleep on the red-eye, but he said laughing, “I’m 6-5, so I don’t fit on planes that well. I crunched up into a ball as best as I could. I think my tailbone will be reminding me of that flight for a couple weeks to come.”
Last year was “tough,” he said. As I wrote in my coverage in today’s paper, he lost his job in Edmonton, was traded to Nashville and Montreal and ended up in the minors.
“If you asked me before the start of last season what the absolute worst outcome of a season could be, I probably wouldn’t have told you half of what happened,” Dubnyk said. “That’s the way the things can go in professional sports. It was a long and difficult season for me. I was able to take a step back in the summer and I was fortunate to get a great opportunity to go to Arizona and get to work with [goalie coach] Sean Burke and an organization that gave me full confidence and an opportunity to go in and just get my game back. To feel fortunate to have an opportunity to play in this league, you realize how quickly it can be taken away from you, whether in your control or not. And to come back and just be grateful to be at the rink every day, maybe it’s a good thing in the long run.”
Burke and I are fairly tight. I covered him in Florida. In fact, I told a story to Dubnyk today about me sharing a cab with Burke coincidentally to a morning skate in Buffalo in the final week or two of one season. Burke’s hip was a mess and he told me he was shutting it down after that game and Kirk McLean would take over.
He told me he’d go out fighting that night. I didn’t take him literally. Early in the game, Vaclav Varada came within a few feet of the crease and Burke went to town on the Sabres agitator. Just pummeled him. Burke, when I covered him, had more fighting majors I believe than any active goalie at that time.
“I don’t have that side,” Dubnyk said of Burke. “I wouldn’t pick a fight with him. I’ve seen him in the gym, so I’d probably stay away.”
On how he resurrected his career this year and frankly played better than Smith, Dubnyk said, “It was very simple. It was a combination of going in there with [Burke] and [Dave] Tippett and all the coaches in that organization and them just showing me the confidence right from the day I showed up there. That was never in question for me, which after a season like last year was one of the most important things. For them to show that to me was a great start and it’s real simple with Burkie. He’s a big guy, he played a similar style, so it’s about beating the play and being set for the play and being patient on your feet. He told me he had all the confidence in the world that I could stop the puck from there, so if we put in the work to be ahead of the play, then I can just go play goal and have some fun.”
Yeo said that Dubnyk looked good in the morning skate.
“We’re just excited. I know from playing against him that I really do believe that this is a guy who can come in and be successful here,” Yeo said.
Yeo said he hopes Dubnyk’s arrival would give the team confidence going into games.
“Sometimes just adding an NHL player, whether it’s goaltender or any position, it does something to the psyche, does something to the confidence, and particular with the goaltending position, and this is not to place blame on Backy or Kuemps, our game has not been good enough,” Yeo said. “I think a lot of times the goals have been going in and for whatever reason our game starts to deteriorate after we let in one or two goals and this could gives a chance to reset and focus on our own jobs.”
Yeo continued, “The way things have gone lately between Backy and Kuemps, there’s no doubt that their confidence is not high right now. Part of the fact that both guys have not been quite on top of it doesn’t really give the other one an opportunity for a break. I think one other guy coming in here and hopefully he can find his game quickly and establish himself right away, I know that it’ll help the other guys as well.”
I assume John Curry has been reassigned. He was working off the ice with injured Justin Falk as the Wild skated.
“He’s got a lot of facial hair, so he definitely matured a little bit while he’s down there,” Yeo kidded. “We know he has a chance to come in and be impactful in areas of his puck play and his execution on the back end, [especially offensively]. I definitely want to see the consistency … in his defensive game, his position, his reads and that’s what I’m excited to see. From my understanding, he’s been playing more of a controlled game and we’re going to need that from him.”
Dumba, on his goatee, said jokingly, “That’s what I was going for. I needed to grow a good goatee just like him. It’s been a good experience down there. I’ve been playing lots of minutes and I think my game’s coming in a good way. Just want to keep going on that, keep improving every day.”
On Iowa, Dumba said, “It’s been fun, get back to playing all those scenarios (power play, PK, No. 1 pair). It’s been good. With those guys down there, too, it’s been fun. A lot of guys my age and friends I’ve made over the last couple years, so it’s fun. It’s all working back to this and trying to get your game to the best it can be so you can be here.”
Suter didn’t want to talk today. He’s very disappointed the league didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt after years of clean play.
But he does have a minus-21 in his past 20 games, so Yeo said, “Mentally as much as anything, a chance to reset. We’ve talked a lot about his plus-minus and how frustrating and disappointing that is for him, [so this is a chance] to clear his head a little bit on that. But physically, we demand so much from him, especially when Marco’s been out. It seems like we’ve had one of our top-4 Dmen out almost all year long, and with that, we’ve asked an awful lot of him, especially with him coming back after being sick. So typically what we would do on a day like today, we would skate them into the ground. But we’ve instructed our coaches that he really does basically no extra work today. Tomorrow [with J.P. Parise services], another off day for him. Two good rest days.”
Yeo said Scandella is hitting the ice today. He took a couple days off because he wasn’t progressing.
Yeo said Kuemper is close, and Mikael Granlund is close. The Wild is 2-6-1 since he broke his wrist. Granlund and maybe Scandella and Kuemper will be able to join the team at Saturday’s morning skate and practice Sunday.
Again, as I wrote in yesterday’s blog, the Wild may talk to Kuemper about going to the All-Star break for a brief rehab assignment. Let’s be honest: He could use it, but he’d need to accept if the team goes that route.
Yeo said one positive: “We do have some help on the horizon.”
Sidney Crosby just gets it.
Like few other superstars in the NHL, the Penguins star understands his role as an NHL spokesman. He’ll sit at his stall after practices and morning skates and games and just talk and talk and talk to the media.
This morning was a great example. I moseyed on into the Penguins’ room after Crosby had conducted his big scrum. I asked the Pens PR guy if I could still grab Crosby to ask him about J.P. Parise. As I strolled over to his locker, Crosby was having a conversation with Brian Engblom. Soon, Dave Strader came over and the three of them were talking for several minutes.
During that time, I shot the breeze with former Wild Andrew Ebbett and Minneapolis resident Taylor Chorney.
I finally tiptoed back to Crosby and began chatting with him about J.P. and one of his favorite people, Mike Yeo, for about 10 or 15 minutes.
By the time we were done, I turned around and was stunned to realize the doors were closed and there was not one person in the room besides Crosby and I during the entire interview. I looked at the clock and it was 11:30 a.m., the start time for the Wild’s skate. So 35 minutes after Crosby had left the ice, he was still talking to the media, still wearing his gear.
That really says something right there about Crosby.
I’ll write my game notebook in tomorrow’s paper on Crosby’s thoughts on J.P. Parise and J.P.’s influence on Crosby when he played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s. Crosby told me almost every day off from school or practice, he would go to the home of Donna and J.P. Parise for a home-cooked meal with Zach.
I’ll also write my game notebook in tomorrow’s paper on Crosby’s thoughts on Wild coach Mike Yeo and how much influence Yeo had on his career as a longtime Pens assistant. He’s obviously rooting for Yeo right now to survive this adversity. I'll have all the quotes in tomorrow's paper, but a taste:
“I’m sure they’ll find a way to get themselves out of this,” Crosby said. “They’ve got a good team. You look at their team, the depth that they have, we all go through that where it doesn’t matter what you do, it seems like the puck’s in your net. It’s just a matter of fighting to get out of it. But Mike is always good in those situations. When things got tough here and we went through adversity and tough times, Mike was a big reason why we got out of it.”
The Penguins have lost six of nine (3-5-1) and have scored two or fewer goals in six of its past seven games. Crosby has 12 goals and says he just has to start burying pucks, that the chances are there. The Wild is winless in five, has lost 11 of 13 and 16 of 23.
Please give my midseason report a read on startribune.com/wild, as well as Chip Scoggins' column.
Marc-Andre Fleury, who is 21-7-4 this season with a 2.16 goals-against average, .926 save percentage and six shutouts, gets the start. He is 0-5 all-time vs. the Wild with a 3.76 goals-against average and .853 save percentage.
Niklas Backstrom, winless since Dec. 13, will make his fourth consecutive start. He has allowed 24 goals in his past seven starts and was in net when the Wild was destroyed in Pittsburgh last season. In fact, if you remember, Backstrom got the starts on all three games in that road trip because that was when Josh Harding had to have what was thought to be a “minor adjustment” of his treatment for multiple sclerosis.
ALSO, if you remember, Backstrom had to start back-to-back in New York and Philly on that trip because Darcy Kuemper, who was supposed to be recalled to start the game in Philly, got hurt in his last Iowa start preceding the anticipated callup. You honestly can’t make up the Wild’s goalie instability from a health perspective the past three years, not just in Minnesota, but Iowa.
Vanek-Haula-Fontaine (theoretically could be the second line)
Winger Jordan Schroeder and defenseman Jon Blum, on for the first two goals in Chicago, are scratched.
Yeo just continues to have to rotate amongst these same three third-pair guys with Marco Scandella and Keith Ballard hurt and the Wild having yet to make a long-anticipated move for a defenseman.
Why is Schroeder out for a second straight game after registering seven shots in the home meeting against Chicago?
Great question. I asked Yeo. Agree or disagree, here’s his rationale: “Going with the group that we think can give us the type of game that we need tonight. If we come in here thinking that we’re just going to go out and trade chance for chance and go out and drop our sticks down and try to score more goals than this team, we’re going to get killed. So we’re going with guys who understand the system, guys who have the ability to play well defensively and give them a chance to respond.”
Yeo said both Marco Scandella and Kuemper are feeling better and both guys were to hit the ice today. He said he didn’t have an answer if they’d fly to Buffalo for Wednesday’s practice, but he also said it’s doubtful and would be rushing it because neither guy has been on the ice.
More than likely, if today’s skate goes well, they’ll skate on their own Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and perhaps join the team for the pregame skate Saturday. The Wild most like will cancel practice Friday for the rest of the team because the team plans to attend J.P. Parise’s visitation and service.
The Wild had one of its CBA-mandated days off (four a month) yesterday. Yeo said besides some one-on-one meetings that he didn’t want to elaborate on, he purposely left the team alone to decompress and clear heads yesterday.
He said with the day off, it took a little time in the morning skate for the execution to get to where it needs to be, but “I think the guys’ heads are in the right place, and that’s the most important thing right now.”
Yeo has said this a lot lately, mentioning how players need to stop feeling sorry for themselves and come to the rink with a good attitude. You got a little taste of the glum attitudes after the loss in Chicago when some of the quotes from the Wild’s leaders were melancholy.
“It’s difficult not to feel those things and not to be frustrated and disappointed. I mean, that’s human nature, let’s face it,” Yeo said. “But that’s the challenge that we face. We have to understand how we’re going to get out of this.”
He said most importantly is work ethic and earning victories.
“Secondly, we have to pick up our defensive game,” Yeo said. “We’ve got the system to do it and the breakdowns and the mistakes that we’re making, these are not system errors or tactical errors. These are a focus or a total commitment that we need to get back to.”
Wild has had a lot of low energy games lately. Prior to the game in Chicago and after the Nashville game in which a couple Predators players told me how stunned they were that the Wild became so unenergetic after a great first period, I asked Yeo about this. He said that as much as it’s on the shoulders of the leaders to help the team gain energy, he singled out the fourth line of Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Ryan Carter for having to do a better job.
Yeo talked to the line and felt the trio did a much better job in Chicago bringing energy, momentum, offensive-zone shifts and chances. Cooke, out from Oct. 28-Dec. 20, scored his first goal (the Wild’s lone goal) since helping the Wild rally in the third period to beat Boston on Oct. 28.
“I thought that was probably Cookie’s best game that I’ve seen him play since coming off the [hip] injury,” Yeo said.
He wants that line and Cooke to continue to play in straight lines and physical and be momentum-turners and play well defensively.
Darcy Kuemper vs., I’m assuming, Alex Stalock tonight at Xcel Energy Center.
If Stalock starts, it’ll be the former UMD Bulldog’s first career start in his home city. He made 18 saves in his first career start against the Wild last month in San Jose.
If Antti Niemi starts, it’ll be a second of back-to-back for him after last night’s last-second Sharks win at Winnipeg. That win put the Wild seven back from a playoff spot, but at least the Jets didn’t get a point, too.
Nate Prosser is the latest sick Wild player. I think I mentioned the other day how all the latest stomach bug guys sit all around each other in the locker room (both goalies, Sutter, Zucker, etc.). Well, Prosser’s right there, too.
“Hopefully that’s where it ends,” coach Mike Yeo said. “It’s made its way through a lot of different people. I keep saying, ‘it’s his turn.’ But I say that jokingly. I’d like for it to end.
“You have to overcome these things. But it seems like it always happens on a game day. You prepare, you practice the day before, you have your lines or your pairings set and then for whatever reason a game day always seems to be the time when it hits us.”
Justin Falk has been recalled presumably to play for Prosser, who was playing the left side. If Falk sits, Stu Bickel would play.
Speaking of Bickel, he sprinkled the infield with an instigator 10-minute misconduct, aggressor for trying to hit Jason Demers when the fight was over and another game misconduct the other night in Dallas. I couldn’t figure out what the game was for. I confirmed that the game misconduct was for getting into a second fight at the same time he was in another.
So, not only did Trevor Daley not get a third-man in, Bickel was the one penalized for Daley holding his arms back as he got punched by Demers. Hard to get calls that wrong, but hey, it was mayhem on the ice.
Kuemper has been pulled five times since Nov. 13. Yeo will come back with him tonight and said, “Let’s write the Dallas game off completely. Aside from that, I think that he’s been very good [post-Christmas].”
Yeo means the whole team stunk in front of Kuemper on Saturday, so he’s not pinning that loss on Kuemper’s play.
I’m doing my game notebook on Alex Tuch for tomorrow’s paper. I talked to Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr about the 2014 first-round pick and analyst Pierre McGuire, who says he watched every game of the world juniors and knows his game well.
Lastly, Clayton Stoner, the Wild draft pick who signed a four-year, $13 million deal with Anaheim July 1, took some potshots at the Wild in an Orange County Register article here.
“I didn’t like the way it was run in Minnesota,” Stoner said. “They kind of just give one defenseman all the minutes and the rest suffer. And I wasn’t happy there. I don’t think the minutes displayed how I was playing. It was more of the just the way things were run there.
“That being said, I wanted a new opportunity. A new chance. Bob said that there’d be a good chance here. Everything so far has been good, if not better than I thought it would be.”
Yeo said, “I don’t have any comment on it. … I don’t think that Suts played 59 minutes of every game.”
The quotes were interesting though and paint a picture of what at least Stoner was thinking when he played for the Wild. The comments come at an interesting time also when Suter hasn’t been playing well and when the Wild seems hesitant to put Marco Scandella into a bigger role on a power play.
But, to be fair, it’s hard to say the Wild only gives the ice time to Suter when the Wild has three defensemen in the top-21 in average ice time per game in the NHL (Suter, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon).
Also, while Stoner’s average ice time took a significant hit last season at 13 minutes, 20 seconds per game, he is averaging 17:36 this season with Anaheim – less than he averaged in 2013 with the Wild (18:13 a game) and exactly what he logged in 2011-12 (17:36). In his career with the Wild, he averaged 16:12 per game.
Regardless, the Wild misses Stoner’s size, ruggedness and physicality, especially with Keith Ballard out indefinitely. I said last July and August after the Wild missed out on Willie Mitchell that the Stoner haters would see there was a void missing despite the occasional turnover.
Darcy Kuemper gets the start for a second consecutive night here in Dallas this evening. Kuemper stopped 34 of 35 shots last night at home in a win over Toronto.
This is Kuemper's third career start and first this season in a second of a back-to-back. He is 1-1 with a 2.88 goals-against average and .891 save percentage.
The Stars have won three in a row and seven of eight.
Yeo explained his decision by saying that Kuemper has played well in this building (2-0 this season and a huge third period last game after surrendering a 3-0 lead) "and we’re hoping he can do more of the same. Part of it as well with Backy coming off the sickness is we haven’t had a lot of practice time here. Didn't have a skate this morning. That factored into the decision, but more of it revolved around Kuemper really."
I'm pretty sure Backstrom wasn't able to skate this morning, and if he were to start, he would want to take shots. There's a rule that won't permit a team to skate within eight or nine hours (can't remember right now) after arriving in a city and the Wild had mechanical issues that delayed they're departure last night from MSP.
Delta had to get a new plane and the team arrived in Dallas shortly before 2 a.m. and at the team hotel at 2:45 a.m.
"That’s stuff you’ve got to deal with," Yeo said. "It’s still better than the American League and riding buses and getting in at 4 o'clock in the morning."
On an aside, a couple players told me it was a white-knuckle flight. Bad storms in the area and in the middle of the flight last night. "It was scary," Jason Pominville said.
As Yeo joked, "But we landed. We're OK."
Jason Zucker, after missing four games with the stomach bug, will return to the lineup. Stu Bickel, who played in the other two wins at Dallas, will play forward. Justin Fontaine and Tyler Graovac will come out.
I never asked the lines, but Yeo is obviously keeping the first (Parise-Koivu-Pominville) and third lines (Nino-Haula-Coyle) intact, so we'll see the second and fourth lines in warmup. Zucker makes sense to slide into Line 2 with Kyle Brodziak and Thomas Vanek, but Yeo may want to ease him in and start him on the fourth line. So perhaps Matt Cooke or Ryan Carter will start on the Brodziak-Vanek line.
Wild and Toronto Maple Leafs tonight. Leafs have lost five of their past seven. Wild has lost 11 of 17 (6-7-4).
What’s more, the Wild is 0-1-3 in its past four at home and 2-3-4 in its past nine at home.
I'll be doing another Podcast with Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan today at 3 p.m. at souhanunfiltered.com. Listen live or later on, please.
I'll be on KFAN with Dan Barreiro at 4:30.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Jonathan Bernier. Leafs are without Joffrey Lupul and Peter Holland and Nazem Kadri, who ran around like a madman last year in Minnesota (Mikael Granlund and Niklas Backstrom), is questionable.
The Wild’s sick bay got another patient. Brett Sutter, who’s stall is next to the goalies and right across from Jason Zucker, has THE BUG!
For that reason, Tyler Graovac, who was in Iowa long enough to do laundry, was recalled and may play tonight if Zucker can’t.
Coach Mike Yeo said Zucker is “definitely an if” tonight. Yeo doesn’t want to throw Zucker in if he’s not healthy enough to play after one practice in eight days. So it sounds like instead of easing him in on the fourth line, Yeo may give him another game off at least.
Regardless, with a game tomorrow in Dallas and the stomach bug still around the team, the Wild needed an extra player with Sutter sick.
Zucker said the flu is like nothing he has experienced before. This norovirus sounds very similar to the swine flu that destroyed the Wild lineup in Nov./Dec. 2009.
Erik Haula is back in tonight after being scratched in three of the past four games.
Yeo has subtly mentioned the past few days that Haula’s conditioning is an issue. I picked up on it in Columbus and mentioned it then. Today, I asked Yeo more about it and I think we finally figured out one of the handful of players Yeo indicated back in camp wasn’t in good enough shape.
“It’s something I talked to him about earlier in the year because I noticed right from the start of the year [he was] taking shorter shifts and taking a little longer for him to recover from his shifts,” Yeo said. “Since he’s been a healthy scratch, we’ve had two very, very challenging skates for him. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be right back to where it needs to be. So it’s something that has to continue to be worked on. What I expect from him is to go out and compete hard. I’m not asking him to go out and score three goals tonight. But I’m asking him to be a factor in the game in a positive way and help our team find a way to win a hockey game.”
Yeo wants better defensive play from Haula and mostly for him to find a way to make his speed more of a factor.
“More than anything just the overall compete and battle and urgency in his game,” Yeo said.
Jonas Brodin (face into boards) is returning tonight and will be reunited with Ryan Suter. Brodin had a funny quote this morning where he said it was “my bad” because he fell when hit.
Jared Spurgeon is back with Marco Scandella and Nate Prosser will play the left side of Christian Folin.
Sources say the Wild is actively shopping for a left defenseman. Remember, last year, anytime Prosser was scratched, Yeo said it’s because he couldn’t play the left side. Now he’s playing that side almost every night with Keith Ballard hurt. Christian Folin is a right shot and the Wild, like Folin, doesn’t want to put a young kid like Matt Dumba in an uncomfortable position on the left side.
Nino-Haula-Coyle (yo-yo’ed back to the right)
If Zucker doesn’t play, Graovac will center one of those bottom two lines and Carter will likely move to the wing.
Niederreiter and Coyle have to be better. Niederreiter is trending the wrong way and was just bad early in the Columbus game. And Coyle followed one or two good shifts with one or two bad ones every game lately.
Leafs are struggling but are dangerous on the counterattack.
They have scored 19 goals and given up 26 in the 2-5 streak, so they can score but are susceptible defensively. As you know, former Gopher Phil Kessel and Orono resident James van Riemsdyk are their most dangerous players, especially with Lupul in Toronto.
Yeo said Wild had a long video session of all its mistakes lately. During this 11-loss-in-17-game stretch, the Wild has basically lost nine one-goal games if you take out the empty-net goals. So Yeo said it’s all about making that one extra play offensively or defensively to win a hockey game.
Attention to details, little things were the essence of Yeo’s coach-speak this morning.
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