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 Rookies

Red-hot Wild keeps growing as a team, climbing the standings

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: March 21, 2013 - 5:23 AM
Don’t look now, but the Wild has won four in a row overall, four in a row on the road, swept a 3+-game road trip for the first time since Jan. 2011 and for the first time in history won three consecutive road games by 2+ goals each.
Big 4-2 win tonight in Detroit. There seemed to be misinformation out there all night that this would be the Wild’s first win in Detroit in 14 games. It was the Wild’s first regulation win in Detroit in 14 (Jan. 3, 2006), but it was actually the Wild’s fourth win here in 14 games.
Nevertheless, the Wild typically doesn’t play well here, just like it didn’t play well in Vancouver before ousting the Canucks 3-1 on Monday. Could this team actually vanquish the 10-year demons in Dallas? That’s right, the Wild hasn’t won in American Airlines Center since 2003. Well, it’ll have two kicks at the can next week (Monday and Friday).
But, as coach Mike Yeo and player after play said after tonight’s win, this is a completely different team than year’s past. It has come together impressively since Feb. 9, going 13-5-1 in the past 19 games to sit atop the Northwest Division. It has won nine of its past 12 and is getting contributions everywhere.
Every line has an identity. It has scored 18 goals in the past four games. The blue line is playing great, especially effortless Ryan Suter and his ice-in-his-veins partner Jonas Brodin. Suter leads all NHL players in ice time, Brodin leads all NHL rookies. The power play has scored 11 times in the past 12 games and has climbed to 14th in the NHL. The penalty kill ranks fifth.
And Niklas Backstrom has just been awesome, going 12-3-1 in his past 16 starts and now sitting tied for second in the NHL with 15 wins. So much for being exhausted.
The best part of this team right now: The been-there, done-that attitude. Suter scores in Colorado? It’s followed up by a tiny little fist pump. Win a big game in Detroit? And player after player essentially says what Backstrom said, “It’s two points tonight. Next game comes fast. We just have to move on.”
Same stuff was said in Vancouver. There was no big party in the locker room after winning in Vancouver for the first time since 2009.
“You’ve got everybody going out and playing our game and playing hard, and that’s a good feeling,” Yeo said.
Asked if the Wild may look back at this road trip as a big breakthough, Yeo said, “I sure hope not because we’ve been doing a real good job at just looking at what’s right in front of us.”
Tonight, Devin Setoguchi scored two goals. He now has goals in four of the last five games, a five-game point streak and 11 goals and 18 points in the past 19 games. He now shares the goal scoring lead with Zach Parise after going scoreless in his first 10 games.
Mikko Koivu scored the eventual winner, Kyle Brodziak scored and Pierre-Marc Bouchard had two assists for his third consecutive multi-point game. Huge turnaround for Bouchard to escape the doghouse. He now has a four-game point streak since being scratched in three straight. Matt Cullen also extended his point streak to six games.
Brodin was great again. Charlie Coyle brushed off a dirty Niklas Kronwall head shot by helping set up Koivu’s winner with a great wall play to trigger a Brodin-led 2-on-1 with Parise. Backstrom made a season-high 36 saves.
The Wild was outshot 38-19, but not indicative, Backstrom said. He went 17 for 17 in the first period and said the shots were to the outside.
A month ago, the Wild would have said its legs were predictably mush after flying across the continent on Tuesday. No more excuses, said Suter. It’s about accountability.
“The main thing is everyone is ready to go from the start of the game no matter who it is,” Setoguchi said. “When you’ve got everyone going and every line jumping, it just makes it that much easier to go out there and play for everyone else.”
On winning in Vancouver and Detroit, Brodziak said, “Over the years, the wins in these two places have been few and far between. We feel really good about our team right now. We feel confident with any line we put out there, any d-man that we put out there, Backy obviously in the net. Everyone seems to be finding their stride. We’re playing the system well, everyone’s battling hard, our confidence is up as well.
“Saying that though, we can’t be satisfied. We’ve got to keep working hard and doing the things that got us to this point. We want to keep growing as a team.”
Anyway, read the game story on www.startribune.com/wild and also the notebook on why the Wild must be cautious adding big contracts the next little while. This, like the trade deadline story in Wednesday’s paper, are must-reads in my opinion if you want to understand as a Wild fan why the Wild can’t go out the next few years and sign and trade for every big name in the NHL.
That’s it for me. The Wild, which by the way had its bus break down on the way to the airport after the game, has the day off Thursday. Kent Youngblood has practice Friday. I’ll talk to you Saturday from the X before and after the San Jose game. And of course, follow me on Twitter please at www.twitter.com/russostrib. You may even see me at the X for the WCHA Final Five. Can’t wait to watch.

Wild looks to keep it rolling tonight in Detroit; Trade deadline, Haula scuttlebutt

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: March 20, 2013 - 11:25 AM

Tonight in Detroit, the Wild looks to sweep a road trip of 3-or-more games for the first time since Jan. 4-8, 2011, at New Jersey, Boston and Pittsburgh.

The Wild did have a five-game trip last year split into 4 and 1 where it won the first four games before returning home for a day and continuing the trip. But that technically still is considered a five-game trip, plus, since the loss Dec. 13, 2011, was in Winnipeg and that loss began the Wild's nose-dive-of-a-century, it shouldn't count just for that alone.

The Wild has won three in a row in regulation (COL, at COL, at VAN). It last won three in a row in regulation in the final five games of a seven-game winning streak Nov. 28-Dec. 10, 2011. Minnesota has won three straight on the road for the first time since a seven-game road winning streak Nov. 13-Dec. 10, 2011.

Niklas Backstrom vs. Jimmy Howard tonight. Mike Rupp and Tom Gilbert again skated this morning but won't play. Coach Mike Yeo says neither is 100 percent, and Rupp did leave the ice early shaking his head negatively to athletic therapist Don Fuller.

Nate Prosser gets a second consecutive game, meaning Brett Clark continues to wait to make his Wild debut.

Patrick Eaves won't play after being hit with a puck in practice. The Red Wings have recalled Gustav Nyquist.

Tonight's game is on NBC Sports Network. Doc, Edzo and Pierre at the mics.

Hopefully you saw today's article here on the trade deadline. Obviously a lot can change in 13 days, especially if there are injuries. April 3 is the deadline. The Wild's in San Jose. I am doing this out of memory, but I'm fairly sure the other time the Wild was in San Jose at the deadline, they didn't make a move (2009, Doug Risebrough's last deadline).

The two facets of today's article are 1) GM Chuck Fletcher says he is not trading Matt Cullen and Niklas Backstrom and indicated that while he's interested in talking to them about extensions, since there's no pressure to get it done now, he'll wait 'til the end of the year to talk to both; 2) He doesn't want to block the development of the Wild's youngsters and part of development is getting a playoff taste. In 2006, that's what Anaheim did with a couple rookies named Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. They won a Cup the next year.

In other words, there's different steps to development and Fletcher feels it would be a shame to make a move that would lessen or eliminate the roles of Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker and thus "skip" a necessary step of development. So I wouldn't expect a "rental" trade for say a first-line right wing or top defenseman.

I still believe Pierre-Marc Bouchard is still on the block, and knowing Fletcher, he would be interested in making what he likes to dub "hockey trades." (i.e. Nick Schultz for Tom Gilbert).

On Cullen/Backstrom, my gut says the Wild will want to extend Cullen. Before the year, I felt this would guaranteed be his last year because they'd need his spot to open a door for a kid, like Mikael Granlund or Johan Larsson or Brett Bulmer. But, you know what? You can't have all kids, Cullen can still play, skates like a 26-year-old and has been as important of a forward for the Wild as any other the past five weeks.

As for Backstrom, you can't just hand the reins to two rookies next year. You need a quality veteran who can start games and mentor. With Josh Harding's health uncertainty and the fact that they'd have to sign a veteran anyway because of what I initially said, I think you re-sign Backstrom if you can for a quality price on a short-term deal.

I just wouldn't expect big splashes at the deadline or even free agency for awhile. I will write more about this in the paper Thursday, but the big reason is the Wild has to make sure it can afford the future cap hits on second contracts for their kids.

Defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson just got a six-year deal worth $5.5 million a year coming out of his entry-level deal from Phoenix. This could very well wind up being the Jonas Brodin comparable if he continues to evolve offensively. Coyle, Zucker, these guys could get big second deals.

It's imperative the Wild doesn't put itselves in positions where it has a tough time re-signing their kids. This wouldn't preclude them from picking up players or signing players on short-term deals, but it very well could preclude them from signing or trading for huge names. Like I said, I'll write more about that in the Thursday paper.

But, embed this in your brains for awhile whenever you want to ask me, will the Wild go after X and X and X the next few deadlines and free agency periods.

Brodin made his NHL debut in this building in January. Very excited to be back and to be playing so well.

Lastly, there's a report from a web site in Finland that Karpat Oulu is trying to sign Gophers center and Wild draft pick Erik Haula. I'm sure he gets offers like this all the time, but the Wild isn't worried. This is a Finnish kid that came to America to play high school and college. His goal is obviously to play in the National Hockey League.

After the Gophers' year, the Wild will talk to Haula to see what he wants to do. My guess is the Wild signs him (Houston bound), but this is honestly a guess. The Wild doesn't want to answer Haula questions right now out of respect for the Gophers. The Wild doesn't want to cause the Gophers and Haula any distractions.

Rookies, veterans alike lift Wild to big win and spot atop the Northwest Division

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: March 11, 2013 - 12:01 PM
The Wild ushered in the second half Sunday night with a very impressive 4-2 win over the rival Vancouver Canucks to at least for now take over the top spot in the Northwest Division.
Minnesota, now 9-2-1 AT HOME (revised), got a huge first goal right off the hop 24 seconds in by Zach Parise, had great jump from the start and rolled from there. Things got hairy when Henrik Sedin made it 3-2 1:02 into the third. One could tell it was going to get tension-filled when the Wild couldn’t capitalize on three 2-on-1’s in the second period, but the Wild responded well and continued to stick with the gameplan.
Finally, after a tremendous Charlie Coyle shift in which he evaded and bounced off defenders to help set up Parise’s second goal (read more about this impressive shift in the game story on www.startribune.com/wild), the Wild skated to the victory.
“Pretty impressive weekend all around,” coach Mike Yeo said, referring to Saturday’s win at Nashville, too. “I know I felt pretty good going into game looking at our leaders. I had a real good feeling.”
I’ll say. You’ve got to hand it to Yeo, who not long ago was under siege by the media and many fans. Along with his coaching staff and of course the players, he’s got this team turning the corner and heading the right direction. And he definitely knows the personality of this team because if you read my pregame blog and tweets, it was very, very, very crystal clear that he had a certain confidence about the type of game the Wild would bring two hours before the game.
He vowed the team would put it all on the line and his pregame talk was all about the “opportunity” to make a statement and catch Vancouver in the standings.
Parise scored two goals and an assist. Matt Cullen, who played another strong game, set up another Jason Zucker tap-in goal (more on that goal below). Jared Spurgeon scored the Wild’s sixth power-play goal in seven games for the eventual winner and had an assist on Parise’s first goal. Ryan Suter logged another 26:33 (light night for this guy), assisted on two goals, including Parise’s ice-breaker, and extended his point streak to seven games (one off career-high). Niklas Backstrom got the nod in consecutive nights and made another 25 saves. This guy continually gets victimized by the world’s flukiest goals, often somehow deflecting off Suter initially. Backstrom said he can laugh about em when they’re winning.
Jonas Brodin again was awesome. Coyle just keeps getting better.
“This was a fun game because you had young kids going out and doing their thing and older guys and veterans going out and doing their thing,” Yeo said.
Yeo loved the Wild’s response shifts after goals against, loved how the Wild came out and rallied around captain Mikko Koivu when 10:49 into the game, Alex Burrows was being Alex Burrows and got into it with the fiery Finn. All heck broke loose after.
That Mike Rupp-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell line continues to be real good. They play in the offensive zone and generate momentum. When the Wild struggled earlier in the season and last year, it was because shift after shift was in the defensive zone. Hemmed in the zone, chip it out, change. Then the attacking team attacks and you’re in your zone for another 30 seconds.
The fourth line continues to do that to other teams, and that’s what the fourth line did the shift before Coyle almost single-handedly set up Parise’s second goal. Rupp, a pro’s pro who plays his role to pretty much perfection, says the best defense is playing 200 feet from your net, especially in the second period when there’s long changes. The line keeps it simple and is one Yeo has full trust in.
“The amazing thing about that is they’re starting a lot of times in their defensive zone and Z (Konopka) with his faceoffs, that’s a huge asset to me as a coach and to our team, when you can put them out there and they can play against top lines and you can put them out there in defensive zone situations, and not only can they shut them down and play defensively, but they can execute, get to the offensive zone, play down there,” Yeo said. “Now we’re freeing up our skill lines [to play in the offensive zone].”
Every line is getting an identity now (even though the third line did struggle at times tonight). Struggling Pierre-Marc Bouchard may continue to be the odd man out until the Wild somehow is able to trade him or there’s an injury to get him back in.
Mikael Granlund has been scratched in four of eight games. He’s struggled to find his right role all year and with all four lines having Yeo’s trust right now, can the Wild continue to scratch him? Or, would it benefit him to send him to Houston so he can play and rediscover his confidence and dominant game?
I asked Yeo in the postgame: “I haven’t had a chance to think about that. I just want to enjoy this one right now,” he said, laughing. “We’re very focused on what is most important for this organization for us right now and for our group right now. But we’re also aware about what’s going on in the future and he’s a big part of our future, a huge part of our future, and we’re definitely aware of that. We’ll do whatever we can to try to help his development, make sure we’re not hurting it in any way.”
Frankly, I think it’s time he goes back to Houston and gets top line minutes. He’ll be back soon enough.
On Coyle, who was just terrific, Yeo said, “I feel like his game keeps getting better. He continues to play with consistency, and because of the way he plays the game, it allows him to do that. He’s not a high-risk player. He’s so strong on pucks that he can muscle guys off and take a look and make sure he’s making a tape to tape pass, not a force play. I believe he has the ability to keep getting better.”
Parise raved about Coyle tonight, as did Koivu.
I did want to mention Zucker’s goal. Tremendous work ethic by the line, which includes Devin Setoguchi. Zucker fought off a hook at the top of the left circle to drop a puck below the goal line for Matt Cullen. The veteran wheeled past Jason Garrison (who has been terrible for the Canucks and was in the middle of most bad tonight) to the opposite side of the net and whizzed a cross-crease pass for Zucker’s tap-in.
Zucker said, “I don’t think I’ve had tip goal like that in a game. Now I’ve had three this year. It’s nice having linemates like that.”
So don’t look now, after so much angst this first half, the Wild’s coming together, looking more like a team, sticking to the system and getting some regular line combinations.
The Wild won’t practice Monday. I will be live in studio on KFAN starting at 9:20 a.m.
Other tidbits:
It was Parise’s 25th career 3-point game (his hat trick try at an empty net just missed) and he scored in consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 25-27. He leads the Wild with 11 goals and is second to Koivu with 19 points.
Backstrom is now 10-6-3 in his career in the back end of consecutive starts. He doesn’t make them often. He also snapped a personal 0-6-1 streak against the Canucks. The Wild play them a week from Monday in Vancouver.
Suter is now tied for second among defensemen with 17 assists.
Koivu now has a four-game point streak and leads with 20 points.
Zucker is a team-best plus-4.
The Wild is 8-3 when it scores first and that’s happened four games in a row.
I mentioned this in the notebook, but after scrambling to get a half-dozen goalies into Houston’s lineup last season, Aeros General Manager Jim Mill is once again scouring the depth charts.
Both of Houston’s goalies are in Minnesota: Matt Hackett and now-injured Darcy Kuemper. So naturally, on the first day of Hackett’s recall, Shorewood native John Curry was injured in a shootout at Charlotte.
In Sunday’s rematch, Cody Reichard, picked up from ECHL Stockton, backstopped the Aeros to a 5-2 victory, while Mill signed ECHL South Carolina’s Jeff Jakaitis, a former Rochester Mayo standout, to a professional tryout to back up. He is the Aeros’ fifth goalie of the year. The Aeros are fifth in the AHL West.
“Just when you think you have the depth and have it figured out, a goalie goes down in a shootout?” Mill said. “So you get the list out, start making calls to get a goalie into to Charlotte for a 3:00 pm game and oh yea we lose an hour - Daylight savings time!”
Again, no practice Monday. Barring news, no blog. Talk to you Tuesday, and of course, on Twitter.

Wild's comeback falls short in Anaheim

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: March 2, 2013 - 12:42 AM

As Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said after Anaheim's 3-2 win tonight at the Honda Center, the Wild "vastly outplayed" the Ducks in the final two periods "but we just hung on."

Unfortunately for Minnesota, it spotted the Ducks, who are off to their best start in club history (15-3-1), a 3-0 lead. It wasn't like the game here Feb. 1 when the Wild was literally pinned in its zone for pretty much 55 minutes.

Tonight, the Wild paid for not being crisp with the puck in the first period. Turnovers, being caught in between, and Ryan Getzlaf and Teemu Selanne gave Anaheim a 2-0 lead.

But the Wild dominated the second. Jonas Hiller kept the Wild, 6-3-1 in its past 10, at bay despite some bigtime chances. Then a puck deflected off Ryan Suter's skate and into the crease under Darcy Kuemper, and Matt Beleskey shuffleboarded (made-up verb) it home for the eventual winner.

Kyle Brodziak scored 29 seconds into the third and Devin Setoguchi followed, but the Wild could never get the equalizer despite a late power play against a team that's won eight in a row at home.

The Wild controlled the last 10 minutes of the game after assistant coach Rick Wilson shuffled the D pairs, some of which weren't sharp -- like for a rarity, Suter-Jonas Brodin. Jared Spurgeon, who had a strong game and was the only plus Wild player in 27:47 of ice time, played with Suter and Brodin with Nate Prosser, and momentum came.

No momentum came from a late power play. Brodziak was on the No. 1 unit, and that stemmed from the change in Phoenix where they threw him out there and Spurgeon scored the eventual winner. They're doing it for the net-front presence, but I still would like to see more flash on the power play, maybe more of a shooter, like I don't know, AHL power-play stud Jason Zucker!

Judging from the tweets, fans are clamoring, too. I understand that Yeo is limiting his ice time at 5-on-5. All coaches do this with rookies who may not be playing the system to a T. But I think it's time the kid gets some power-play time. Yeo said last week he was hesitant because the veterans deserve first shot. But the power play ranks 25th in the NHL and the Wild doesn't score enough 5-on-5 to continually be wasting must-score power plays.

But other than the first period, I liked the Wild's game tonight. The Wild was all over a terrific Anaheim team. The effort was outstanding. It just paid for some careless plays with the puck in the first.

Couple things: The Wild is spending the night here in Anaheim, flying home Saturday and not practicing. So there may be no blog if no news.

The temperature for Sunday's game against Edmonton may have been dialed down. Taylor Hall, who injured Cal Clutterbuck in Edmonton last week, left tonight's game at St. Louis with a reported hamstring injury.

So there's a chance Hall and Clutterbuck won't play at the X on Sunday, which also may kill the story I've been working on!

Clutterbuck definitely won't play. Yeo doesn't have an update yet as to how he's feeling, but even if Clutterbuck is perfectly healthy, he hasn't practiced or been on the ice with the team in eight days. So, he's not playing Sunday.

Kent Youngblood is covering the game Sunday, by the way, although I'm sure I'll still be there tweeting up a storm.

I'm off to Chicago on Monday, but on Monday before my flight, I will be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN from 9-noon. I'm sure there will be plenty of hockey guests.

Take care.

Tension mounting for slumping Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 7, 2013 - 11:51 PM
The anxiety around the Wild right now is frankly unreal.
“Oh yeah,” Ryan Suter said when asked if he senses it after a 4-1 loss to Vancouver. “It’s not fun right now. Things aren’t going well.”
This is the type of thing you hear in the middle of a midseason swoon, but this season is so condensed, it feels like the season’s been going on for weeks.
In a shortened season, every loss is magnified and feels like the end of the world. And right now, these three losses the Wild has experienced successively have created an unbelievable tension in the air.
We’re 10 games in. It feels like 60.
Just think of what has happened since last Friday’s one-sided loss in Anaheim.
Charlie Coyle was recalled. Devin Setoguchi and Mikael Granlund was put on the fourth line. Darroll Powe was traded for Mike Rupp. Loss at Phoenix. 25-minute player-only meeting. Setoguchi still on the fourth line. Granlund scratched. Loss to Vancouver.
Last season, coach Mike Yeo tried everything to hoist the Wild out of its 50-game, injury-filled swoon. He played bad cop. He played exasperated cop. He played good cop. He played consoling cop.
He’s done that this week alone. After sending pointed messages left and right to a few underperformers, his next play tonight was to play the psychologist, saying this is the Wild’s adversity and the team will be better for it and the guys who aren’t scoring goals – Setoguchi, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Cullen, even Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Dany Heatley – “it’s like, ‘OK, 10 games, no training camp, no exhibition games, it’s a clean slate for those guys right now. Clean slate.”
He tried everything last year and it didn’t work. He’s trying the same cards this year, but reminds, this is a very different group than last year’s one littered with minor leaguers late because of injuries.
Most disconcerting tonight is that a team that has all the reason in the world to be desperate and play with urgency showed no fire in the first period.
Scary: Zach Parise said the Wild didn’t show up tonight. Ryan Suter said they came out dead. Mikko Koivu said “I think we were right there” and the Canucks did the “little things.”
Yeah, like shoot in the first period.
Zenon Konopka tried to spark his team with an early fight. Koivu and his line worked its butt off every shift. But there were no sustained forechecks, no shift after shift momentum, little physicality and no shots.
One would think you’d figure out that throwing pucks on net is a good thing when Vancouver threw two harmless looking ones at Niklas Backstrom and scored. The Wild? Three shots in the first. Absolutely unbelievable.
And then, turnovers galore began.
Then the second started and the Wild again was completely lifeless the first five minutes until the fourth line of Konopka, Rupp and Setoguchi had a big shift. Finally, that filtered to the first line and boom, shift after shift, the Wild buzzed, created chances, forced icings, drew two power plays.
But as usual, the team that’s scored 21 goals in 10 games couldn’t finish. And as hard as the Wild always tries to score, the opponent seemingly needs no effort to tack on goals and the Canucks did that with two in a 1:35 span to send the Wild off with a 4-0 deficit after.
The fed-up fans let the Wild have it.
I got tons and tons of questions regarding Yeo’s future on Twitter. I’ve gotten them all week.
Is his seat getting hotter? Undoubtedly. This is the NHL after all and it was the team that made it clear that this was the year to take the next step. They created the expectations by using the signings of Parise and Suter to sell, sell and sell some more.
"We all feel pressure. We want to win," Yeo said.
Now, it’s got to be a helpless feeling when you’ve had a six-day training camp and you have a laundry list of fixes needed and there’s just no practice time to address these issues.
But those are all excuses at this point and fans don’t care. I’d say these next four games in six nights (including a back-to-back at Calgary and Vancouver) are huge for this team, its season and its coach.
I know the personality of this team. I’ve covered this league long enough. This season has the capability to take a nosedive these next four games.
The lack of fire early tonight by many, especially the veterans, was alarming. And sorry: It’s an indictment when two rookies – Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin – are arguably two of the best players on the ice. Not good. Not good at all.  


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