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 news

Wild sends Matt Dumba to American Hockey League for first time

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 29, 2014 - 11:41 AM

The Wild seriously considered sending rookie defenseman Matt Dumba to the minors for the first time two weeks ago, but suddenly, defensemen Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin got the mumps at the same time and Dumba stayed and Christian Folin went to Iowa in large part because Dumba could maybe assist on the power play.

But with Brodin having returned for the first time since Nov. 11 Friday night in Dallas, the Wild assigned Dumba to the American Hockey League for the first time in his pro career this morning.

Dumba, as well as Josh Harding, are expected to make their Iowa Wild debuts Sunday at 4 p.m. at San Antonio.

Dumba, 20, logged 4:10 in last night's overtime win at Dallas and I'm pretty sure was supposed to be scratched until Keith Ballard ended up not playing. Not sure if he was a healthy scratch or if he's sick or hurt, but the Wild has recalled Justin Falk to likely play tonight against St. Louis. But that could be just because the Wild wants Falk's 6-foot-5 frame on the back end to defend the Blues' deep, big forward corps.

Back to Dumba, he made the Wild out of camp last year, but that was in large part because the Wild wanted him to work hand in hand with assistant coaches Rick Wilson and Darryl Sydor. Because he was younger than 20, he was not permitted to be sent to AHL Houston. (His three games with Houston plus five playoff games in 2013 was on an amateur tryout after his Red Deer season ended).

When he only played 13 games by December, the Wild loaned him to Team Canada for the world juniors, then returned him to juniors after his rights were traded from Red Deer to Portland, where now Penguins coach Mike Johnston was coach and GM.

This season, Dumba had a solid training camp, especially late, and made the team. He scored one goal and three assists in 20 games, was minus-4 and had 28 shots.

He made some costly mistakes, often trying to make something out of nothing. That was especially true in a game at Montreal earlier this month. Dumba and Folin were scratched the next game at New Jersey.

The demotion to Iowa is nothing to freak out about if you're a Wild fan. He's 20. The AHL is about development and the Wild now has John Torchetti and Richard Park there, so the Wild trusts that he'll be in good hands.

It is not easy to step into the NHL as a 20-year-old, ESPECIALLY as a defenseman. It takes defensemen and goalies longer to develop. Heck, just look at Marco Scandella, who to quote Mike Yeo a few games ago is turning into a heck of an NHL defenseman at age 24.

An excerpt from my blog after the Montreal loss:

The Matt Dumba one tonight was not good. Scoreless. Everything going well. Team’s following the gameplan and trying hard to get that first goal by Carey Price.

Then Dumba, instead of doing the safe thing and getting the puck deep, tried to chip a puck off the wall. It was too soft, so instead of backing up and realizing it was going to be a turnover, he stepped in front of defender Max Pacioretty (1st big mistake) and then dived to try to keep it from getting to Tomas Plekanec (2nd big mistake).

With the Canadiens coming the other way with speed, Dumba was still picking himself off the ice at the top of the right faceoff circle in Montreal’s end. Yes, the Wild wasn’t outnumbered because Mikko Koivu realized Dumba’s error and backed him up, but it seemed to foul up Marco Scandella because his gap was poor, he surrendered the blue line to the super-fast Brendan Gallagher and 1-0 Canadiens.

Dumba played one shift the rest of the game and none in the third period.

The Wild keeps playing Dumba because it’s about development and has to experience intimidating climates like Montreal, but he’s 20 years old and erratic and hasn’t yet played a second of minor-league hockey (as a pro) even though last I checked, that’s the development league.

The question is can the Wild continue to play him when the bad has thus far outweighed the good.

Jonas Brodins don’t grow on trees. The fact that he could step into the Wild at 19 years old was special. Dumba has all the tools to be a real good defenseman, but he is too reckless at times and tonight characteristically tried to turn nothing into something, made a careless play and it led to a goal against.

Like I said, assistant coach Rick Wilson benched him from there, so perhaps a stint in Iowa is coming for Dumba.

THEN, the mumps hit and Dumba stayed.

The Wild doesn't have a morning skate today. I am currently on a flight home to Minnesota. We will talk to Yeo at 4:45 about today's move. It's expected to be Niklas Backstrom vs. Jake Allen tonight.

Kent Youngblood will be writing the game story for tomorrow's paper. I'll be at the game to write the notebook, get a Sunday for Monday story (day off tomorrow), tweet and probably blog.

Lastly, some Twitter notes from working on my Excel files today:

Betty Jo Leipold, mother of Wild owner Craig Leipold, passes away at age of 89

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 22, 2014 - 3:05 PM

I wanted to express my heartfelt condolences to Wild owner Craig Leipold and his entire family after their beloved Betty Jo Leipold, Craig's mom, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 89.

Betty Jo was married to her husband, Werner "Lefty" Leipold, for 65 years.

Betty Jo was in great health, but she had a cardiac arrest during hip surgery resulting from a fall in a parking lot walking into church Thursday, Craig Leipold said.

Leipold left after the Wild's game in Philadelphia on Thursday night to be with her.

"She was the kindest, nicest lady you could ever meet," Leipold said. "The family is devastated."

In early October, Leipold invited some reporters down to his suite to watch an exhibition game. Columnist Jim Souhan wrote a column on the Leipold family that can be read here.

Here is Betty Jo's obituary.

My thoughts are with the entire family.

Josh Harding clears waivers, assigned to AHL Iowa

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 18, 2014 - 11:25 AM

Josh Harding, who many expected to be the Wild's No. 1 goalie prior to the season, has cleared waivers and been assigned to AHL Iowa.

Until Monday, Harding was on non-roster injury status due to a broken foot sustained the Sunday before training camp. Medically cleared Sunday, Harding's suspension was lifted Monday and he was placed on waivers.

Statistically the NHL's best goalie until he had his treatment of multiple sclerosis adjusted in mid-December 2013, one assumes the fact he hasn't played since Dec. 31 and/or or the uncertainty with his condition scared teams off. That's because financially, Harding wasn't that big a gamble.

General Manager Chuck Fletcher explained Monday that he understood making Harding available to 29 other teams was a risk, but he felt a two-week conditioning stint made no sense.

“The reality is Josh hasn’t played in a game since Dec. 31,” Fletcher said Monday. “He missed training camp and the first month-and-a-half of the season, and that’s a lot of time for any player to miss. Our main goal now is to help him successfully regain his form of last season, and assuming he clears waivers, we felt this move would best help facilitate that.”

“There’s really no sense in putting a timetable on how long it’ll take him to get ready. This move allows us to just give him the time that he needs to get his game back. He needs to play games.”

Drafted 38th overall in 2002, Harding made his NHL debut in 2005-06. The 30-year-old is 60-59-11 in 151 career games with a 2.45 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and 10 shutouts.

His career has been largely hindered by injury and illness, from hip and knee surgeries to being diagnosed with MS in the fall of 2012.

Harding missed most of the 2013 season with complications from MS but played five playoffs games after Niklas Backstrom was injured in warmups prior to Game 1 against Chicago.

Last season, Harding reeled off 18 wins and had a league-best 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, but he couldn’t play after Dec. 31.

Harding is owed $1.65 million the rest of the season (prorated from $2.1 million). When Harding is in Iowa, the Wild will have to pay his NHL salary there but will be charged a cap hit of $760,000 (not his $1.9 million cap hit) or roughly $5,200 per day.

This is not necessarily the end of the line for Harding. If and when the Wild needs him or his game his ready, he can be recalled. But Darcy Kuemper can't be sent to the minors without waivers anymore and Niklas Backstrom can't be sent to the minors because of a no-move clause.

Fletcher said Monday, “We didn’t have interest in carrying three goalies on a 23-man roster, particularly with the mumps or whatever the heck it is ripping through us. We’ve had two situations now with [Christian] Folin and [Marco] Scandella where they haven’t had to go on IR, so roster flexibility played a part in this.”

The Wild has the day off and will practice Wednesday in St. Paul before flying to Philadelphia to begin a three-game road trip.

Chuck Fletcher explains Josh Harding waiver move; Injury updates

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 17, 2014 - 1:53 PM

As reported on the previous blog here, goalie Josh Harding has been medically cleared to return and was placed on waivers today at 11 a.m. CT by the Wild.

The Wild will find out at 11 a.m. Tuesday if he clears waivers. If Harding does, he’ll be assigned to AHL Iowa.

I gave my opinion on the previous blog as to what I think happens, but part of me is still wavering because on second thought, if you’re a team with goaltending issues, maybe you take the gamble despite the multiple sclerosis uncertainty. After all, Harding was the best goalie statistically in the NHL when he had to be pulled from the lineup last year.

Harding’s salary is $2.1 million with a $1.9 million cap hit, so that isn’t that big a risk.

An update on the previous blog guesstimates, if Harding is claimed Tuesday, a team would carry a $1.48 million cap hit the rest of the year (that’s prorated because we’re six weeks into the season).

If he clears and is assigned to Iowa, the Wild would carry a prorated portion of $975,000 while on loan. That would be a cap hit of $760,000 or roughly $5,200 a day. Now that he is off suspension, for today, the Wild carries his full cap hit, which is $10,000 per day. 

Salary-wise, he is owed $1.65 million the rest of the year even if he plays in Iowa. The Wild has plenty of cap space, so this decision wasn’t motivated by cap or financial reasons.

General Manager Chuck Fletcher has landed in Toronto for today’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, so I was able to speak to him by phone.

Fletcher said he met with Harding face-to-face last night and explained to him the team’s reasoning. He said he left it with Harding that the two would talk again Tuesday if he clears waivers, but Harding gave him no indication that he wouldn’t report to Iowa (Harding has declined comment on the situation through the Wild PR department.

“His focus and goal is to get back and be a quality NHL goaltender again, so it’s another step for him,” Fletcher said. “I think that’s where his focus is right now. I don’t assume there will be any issue.”

Asked why he went the waiver route as opposed to sending Harding to Iowa on a two-week conditioning stint, Fletcher said, “The reality is he hasn’t played in a game since Dec. 31. He missed training camp and the first month-and-a-half this season, and that’s a lot of time for any player to miss. Our main goal now is to help him successfully regain his form of last season, and assuming he clears waivers, we felt this move would best help facilitate that. There’s really no sense in putting a timetable on how long it’ll take him to get ready. This move allows us to just give him the time that he needs to get his game back.

“A two-week conditioning stint, that to me made no sense. He needs to play games. Let’s just get him to Iowa and get him going and not have any artificial timetable attached to it. Things change so quickly as we’ve seen the past several seasons with any situation, never mind our goaltending situation. So our thought right now is let’s just get him down, get him a part of the group and let him get a chance to get his game going, so when we do need him, he’s ready to go. We’ll see how things play out.”

If the Wild loses Harding, the Wild’s only other goalies available down there are John Curry and Johan Gustafsson. Fletcher said if the Wild loses him, it’ll create a different set of circumstances that the team will have to look at, like maybe Ilya Bryzgalov as insurance.

But, Fletcher said, “We didn’t have interest in carrying three goalies on a 23-man roster, particularly with the mumps or whatever the heck it is ripping through us. We’ve had two situations now with [Christian] Folin and [Marco] Scandella where they haven’t had to go on IR, so roster flexibility played a part in this. This is the best move, to get him playing without any artificial timetable attached to it.”

Harding, 30, was drafted by the Wild in the second round in 2002. He is 60-59-11 all-time with a 2.45 goals-against average, .918 save percentage and 10 shutouts.

As for practice for the Wild (which has won three in a row heading into a three-game road trip to Philly, Tampa Bay and Florida), coach Mike Yeo said Erik Haula sustained a charleyhorse last night and he expects him to be able to practice Wednesday and play in Philadelphia on Thursday.

He also hopes defenseman Jonas Brodin will be back for Thursday. He was in this morning and the Wild got him out pretty quickly. His jaw is pretty swollen still, Yeo said. “He is progressing. The way he skates, the way he plays the game. I don’t think he’ll need too much [practice] time before he’s able to come in and help us.”

If Brodin can’t play Thursday, the Wild would likely recall a defenseman again because Yeo prefers Stu Bickel at forward.

Yeo said he has no update on Matt Cooke’s status. “Just not progressing as quickly as we had hoped,” Yeo said. He has missed nine games.

I'll be on KFAN in studio at 9 am Tuesday. Also, no practice Tuesday, so I'll blog after I hear about Harding at 11ish. 

Josh Harding's team suspension lifted, placed on waivers by the Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 17, 2014 - 11:16 AM

The Wild has activated goalie Josh Harding off non-roster injury status and suspension today and placed him on waivers for the purposes of getting to AHL Iowa.

Harding hasn't played since Dec. 31 (multiple sclerosis last season, then broken foot sustained in an off-ice incident days before training camp), so assistant GM Brent Flahr said a conditioning stint didn't make sense because Harding is going to need a lot of time to practice and play -- more than the maximum on a stint.

I reported a few days ago that GM Chuck Fletcher told me he was considering the waiver route.

Keeping three goalies on a 23-man roster wasn't an option, Flahr said.

Frankly, that wasn't a healthy scenario either, in my opinion. The last thing the Wild needs is Darcy Kuemper looking over his shoulder at Harding, who isn't close to returning. When Harding's game is ready, the Wild will assess its goalie situation then, so this is not necessarily the end of the line for Harding in Minnesota.

I cannot imagine Harding is claimed off waivers. Not only is his health an uncertainty and not only hasn't he played in almost 11 months, the other 29 teams don't have the experience of how to deal with his MS.

I obviously could be wrong, but Harding's treatment and the protocols in place behind the scenes is something the Wild has a firm grasp of but other teams don't. In other words, this is not a normal circumstance where a team just simply picks up an injured player. There needs to be a little expertise on how to deal with him, but we'll see.

Harding is in the final year of a contract worth $2.1 million. If he clears, a prorated portion of $975,000 ($1.9 million cap hit minus $925,000) would count against the cap, but the Wild has plenty of space. Harding would be paid a prorated portion of his $2.1 million in the minors if he clears.

Harding, the NHL's Masterton winner two seasons ago and the Wild's Masterton nominee last season, was leading the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage at the time of his medication alteration last winter.

Days before breaking his foot, Harding sat down with the Star Tribune for an interview at his home. In the story, Harding discussed how great he felt on and off the ice and how he was looking forward to this season.

“It’s one of those summers where everything clicked and I feel even better than I did last summer and feel like I’m in better shape,” said Harding at the time. “With the year of knowledge of what I’m dealing with, with a different mind-set and different mentality about what I did this offseason, I think it’s definitely going to help out tremendously.

 “I just feel … great. Physically, mentally, knowing everything that’s been working for me, I believe I’m going to show I’m capable of playing a full season. I just feel … great.”

Last year, Harding was in the midst of a sensational season, reeling off 18 victories by Dec. 17 before missing a road trip for what even doctors felt would be a minor adjustment to his treatment.

That season, one in which Harding had a 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage, would be stopped in its tracks. He returned to start two games, including one where he clearly wasn’t right and the Wild blew a three-goal lead to the Islanders. He didn’t play again after Jan. 1 – the second season in a row he missed significant time due to the debilitating illness.

It’s clear Harding had a relapse.

“Without going into big details, one plus one equals two. The changing of the medication, the changing of the treatment over the Christmas break, things happened and things happened quick,” Harding said in September.

But Harding had been feeling great since the springtime and came close to returning in the playoffs. Conditioning was the only reason why he couldn’t. Even Harding has said the only thing that has kept him from being an everyday No. 1 is health. Even before being diagnosed with MS, Harding was often derailed by injuries, whether it being to his knee or hip.

Asked what his biggest objective was this season, Harding didn’t hesitate: “To stay healthy the entire season and be available for every game and give the team whatever they need from me and try my best and have fun while I do it.”

That changed a few days later when he broke his foot.

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