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

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.  
 

Ten random thoughts on the Wild after Bouchard's goal lifts Minnesota to victory

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: January 29, 2013 - 11:06 PM
The Wild snapped a three-game winless streak with a 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight. Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s goal on a 2-on-1 that Bouchard basically turned into a breakaway with 5:19 left snapped a 2-2 deadlock. It was his 18th career winning goal (third all-time).
 
Just a great play all the way around. Zenon Konopka put the puck around the Wild net to Marco Scandella, who chipped it up ahead to Bouchard inside the blue line. Bouchard passed it across near the Wild bench to Justin Falk and then began flying through the neutral zone.
 
Falk sent it diagonally across the neutral zone to the far blue line for Torrey Mitchell. As Konopka dangled the blue line to stay onside, Mitchell made a soft area pass for Bouchard to accept as he flew across the line. With Fedor Tyutin back and playing the 2-on-1 oddly, Bouchard snapped a shot past Steve Mason.
 
It was the 100th career goal for the franchise’s third leading scorer all-time (330 points) mostly known for playmaking (230 assists). Mitchell got his first point with the Wild.
 
Good evening from the Xcel Energy Center press box. Rachel Blount is busy writing the game as I blog.
 
Big sigh of relief from the Wild and its fans tonight as the Wild, which played strong through two periods, again began the penalty-box march in the third period. It took four more minor penalties after taking three in St. Louis. It did give up the tying goal before Bouchard helped the Wild regain its lead, but as Niklas Backstrom said, “the PK guys played huge. They won the game for us in the third period.”
 
TEN RANDOM, OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD THOUGHTS
 
1. Wild fans got to see the real Ryan Suter early tonight. Maligned for the start to his Wild career, he played a strong all-around game, helping the breakout, leading the rush, being much more aggressive and assisting on Mikko Koivu’s first-period goal. He was paired with Jonas Brodin, who also had a solid night. Both were on for Columbus’ second-period goal to trim Minnesota’s lead to 2-1, BUT they got caught out there because of a series of mishaps in the neutral zone earlier that resulted in the initial turnover and about a 90-second shift before Mark Letestu predictably scored (was undoubtedly going to end badly with a penalty or a goal). By the end of the shift, they, like the three forwards on the ice (Mikael Granlund, Bouchard and Mitchell), were dead tired. Also, read my Suter notebook in Wednesday’s paper. Good stuff on him from St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock. Suter has points in three straight.
 
2. Brodin is so poised, smart and mobile. He made a couple defensive plays that should not in all that is right with the world be made by a 19-year-old defenseman playing his third NHL game and first-ever in Minnesota. Defensemen typically hit their strides in the early- to mid-20s. He is 19. He is a special one, folks. The real deal. And you will see him on the Wild blue line for many years. His game will only evolve defensively, and he already has two assists in three games. But in his own zone, he’s rock solid. And as he adds more strength, he will only get better.
 
3. Tom Gilbert scored his second goal tonight on a deflected Koivu shot and he looked great with Clayton Stoner. That’s a big reason coach Mike Yeo got Stoner and Gilbert back together. They were good the first couple games. Gilbert has a three-game point streak, defended real well and skated real well tonight. He led the rush a couple times and was flying.
 
4. Besides Stoner, I thought Justin Falk played a superb game. Up front, Kyle Brodziak rebounded bigtime from St. Louis’ minus-4, and was outstanding on the PK with Cal Clutterbuck. Also, this was by far Matt Cullen’s best game. Great on the PK, couple scoring chances, skated real well.
 
5. Granlund. As you can read in my notebook, Mike Yeo met with him to discuss his play away from the puck the last couple games. He had to talk to him again after the second period tonight. It was his neutral-zone decisions that resulted in that 90-second shift and the Letestu goal. He also took a third-period penalty that resulted in Jack Johnson’s tying goal. Although, Yeo forgave him for the penalty because he felt like he played a quality third. But, I think this is worth paying attention to. Granlund has not been good the last three games. The second line is completely ineffective despite Devin Setoguchi working hard the last couple games to create chances and play physically. Granlund hasn’t been good in the faceoff circle. He is getting pushed around. There’s no doubt in my mind he will be a good player in this league. But, with points so at a premium and the second line a big problem, how patient can the Wild be with Granlund if he continues to not function? Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Johan Larsson are playing real well in the minors. Do the Wild maybe at some point send Granlund back for some more seasoning and bring up one of the other rookies and put Cullen back to where, in my opinion, he belongs – center? At the very least, with the Wild below average in the faceoff circle this year, how much longer can the Wild not have Cullen taking faceoffs? He’s annually been one of the better faceoff guys in the league. I usually preach patience. But my opinion right now: I think the Wild seriously need to consider sending Granlund to the minors and calling up one of the other kids.
 
6. Because of the lack of special teams in the first two periods, Yeo was able to roll four lines pretty much and got some good shifts from Darroll Powe, Konopka and Mitchell. Powe jumped to Mitchell’s defense when Colton Gillies gave him a couple extra shoves for Powe’s liking. And when Suter got slashed by Derek Dorsett, Konopka skated right up to him on the ensuing line change and was later out there on the second line when Dorsett was on the ice. They nearly fought, but Konopka said one of Columbus’ coaches screamed from the bench for Dorsett to desist. Konopka and Dorsett played together in Syracuse and Konopka said Dorsett is basically his “little brother,” but he knows he cannot be slashing Suter.
 
7. Wild still has secondary scoring issues. The Wild’s top line created the first two goals tonight. Bouchard’s goal was the first from a forward not named Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu or Dany Heatley since Opening Night. The Wild’s 16 goals have come from six players – five forwards.
 
8. Parise’s five-game point streak came to an end and his 200th goal was wiped out by Toronto when it was ruled his second-period tally was punched into the net. He was real good as usual though.
 
9. The Wild has to stop taking penalties in the third. Almost ruined another game and frankly, if they do it Wednesday night against 6-0 Chicago, it’ll be cooked. The entire Blackhawks staff was at the game. Big test Wednesday.  Wild has an 11 a.m. meeting but no morning skate.
 
10. Linesman Thor Nelson left the game in the second period due to concussion-like symptoms after being struck by a puck. Nelson had major concussion issues last year. He will see NHL referee medical trainer Dave Smith, who I know well from when he was trainer in Florida, and head of officials Terry Gregson (Doug Risebrough’s brother in law) will work to reschedule some of his upcoming games, NHL exec Mike Murphy tells me.
 
Talk to ya Wednesday

NHL cancels games through Dec. 30

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 10, 2012 - 1:20 PM

UPDATED

This afternoon, the NHL canceled the Dec. 15-Dec. 30 portion of the 2012-13 season. But, ... we're at the point in the lockout where we find silver linings in game cancelations!

This means the Wild can potentially open with its traditional New Year's Eve game!

In all honesty, it wouldn't be far-fetched.

Talks broke off Thursday with the NHL allegedly taking everything proposed last week off the table and an infuriated Gary Bettman huffing, puffing and overheating during a 40-minute news conference. This came after Don Fehr, knowing full well that the meeting with the league just went and ended poorly, stood behind a lectern minutes later and portrayed to the hockey world that there were so many agreements, the lockout was bound to end soon.

But, one would think the league would cancel games beyond Dec. 30 since there's allegedly no hope and things ended so poorly.

Dig deeper and nott a whole lot more in fact, these sides are closer to a deal than not provided 1) the NHL's moderate owners that Fehr and the players so enraged last week didn't really move to the hardliner column; 2) the league puts that $89 million "Make Whole" money back on the table and other proposals.

To do that, the players apparently have to agree to a 10-year CBA with an eight-year mutual out-clause, five-year max deals (seven if you re-sign your own players, a proposal Bill Daly said is the hill the owners would die on) and 5% max variances in salaries in every contract.

I still think the transition rules (buyouts, etc.) and how the salary cap is calculated will be a bit tedious to negotiate, too.

But the two sides made contact this past weekend and it sounds like they're trying to get together. And that always goes well.

So, don't think the emotional roller coasters are over in this excruciating lockout. There's bound to be a few more.

In the meantime, the cancelations mean 526 games scrapped from the schedule, as well as the Winter Classic and All-Star Game. That's 42.8 percent of the 2012-13 campaign. This means at max, it can now be the 12/31/12-13 campaign.

Catchy, ain't it?

Wild coach Mike Yeo, who has been making the rounds with area coaches during the lockout, is down at the Timberwolves today meeting with Rick Adelman. The big objective? Since the NBA had to have a shortened training camp last year once their lockout ended, Yeo wanted to get some tips and thoughts from Adelman.

-------------------------------

The Gophers, who blew a three-goal lead to tie Colorado College on Saturday, then spent all day yesterday getting home because their plane was diverted to Omaha, is fourth in the USCHO.com poll.

Boston College is back to 1, followed by New Hampshire and Notre Dame. North Dakota is 8, Denver is 11, Nebraska-Omaha is 13, St. Cloud State is 17 and Minnesota State-Mankata is 20.

The Gophers are also ranked fourth in the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine poll. In fact, it's the same top-3 with North Dakota 8, Denver 10 and UNO 14. The Gophers are off until the Mariucci Classic Dec. 29 (Air Force) and Dec. 30 (Boston College).

-------------------------------

The Houston Aeros' six-game winning streak ended last night with a 3-2 loss to Peoria. Charlie Coyle and Chay Genoway scored for the Aeros. Jason Zucker still leads all AHL rookies with 12 goals, is tied for the league lead of all players with six power-play goals and leads with two overtime winners. The Aeros are fourth in the West, play San Antonio Tuesday, at Charlotte Friday and Saturday and home vs. Oklahoma City on Sunday.

 

Don Lucia gets nostalgic; Lucia on son, Wild prospect Mario Lucia; Jason Zucker clutch again

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 8, 2012 - 3:37 PM

Tonight in Colorado Springs (8 CT), Don Lucia will coach his final game there for some time because of the Gophers heading into the Big Ten next year.

Before I get started, I just wanted to let you know that we have a Faces of the Lockout package running in Sunday's newspaper. There will also be a video package online. We all know about the owners and players in this dispute, but the lockout affects so many more innocent parties. We talked to a few.

Also, Chip Scoggins has a great column in Saturday's paper on the dismay of many fans, something that should alarm the Wild and NHL and NHLPA. Also, Kevin Duchschere looks here at the businesses affected near the arena. 

 

Back to Lucia: He coached the Tigers for six years and 166 wins. He guided them to two Frozen Fours.
 
Last night, the Gophers won 4-2 behind two goals from Sam Warning (he returned last week after missing nine games with an injury), one from hometown boy Tom Serratore and an empty-netter from Zach Budish. Erik Haula had two points and now has points in 11 straight. Adam Wilcox made 24 saves and is now 10-2-2 for the 11-3-2 Gophers. Serratore had the team over to his family’s home for dinner Thursday night.
 
Lucia took the CC job when his wife, Joyce, was pregnant with their youngest child, Mario, who is now a freshman at Notre Dame and a Wild draft pick.
 
But Joyce, a native of Fairbanks, refused to leave Alaska until Mario was born.
 
“I still kid her about that,” Don Lucia said, laughing. “She didn’t think there was anybody who could deliver a baby in Colorado, so there was no way she was leaving without Mario getting a 574 Social Security number from Alaska.”
 
The Lucias had sold their house, so they lived for awhile in a motorhome. Mario was born on Aug. 25, a Thursday, Don Lucia remembers. The family left town the following Tuesday for a 3,000-mile trek south in the motorhome to Colorado Springs.
 
“So Mario lived in Alaska for five days. I don’t think he remembers much of it,” Lucia said. “I used a joke back then that my wife had a premonition we were going to win the league because she was giving me the finger all the way to Colorado, along with all of my in-laws.
 
“It was a trail of tears when we left Alaska with her mom and dad and everybody there. ... I’d be driving late at night and they’d be sleeping in the back. I’d be up by six heading out on the Alaska Highway and they’d be bouncing on the beds when we hit those bumps.
 
“We literally pulled into Colorado Springs the Sunday before Labor Day.” As their house was being built, the whole family lived in a two-bedroom apartment with no dishwasher or washer and dryer.
 
“But I have nothing but great memories of my time there. It was one of the best periods of my life,” Lucia said.
 
--------------------------------------
 
Speaking of Mario Lucia, he is red-hot. The CCHA Rookie of the Week last week after a three-goal weekend, the 2011 Wild second-rounder had a goal and assist last night in a 3-2 Irish win over Michigan State.
 
Lucia now has five goals in seven games since returning from a broken tibia and ankle injury.
 
He was also invited to the U.S. world junior training camp, something a few weeks ago Don Lucia told his son may be tough because he had just come back from the injury.
 
“He wasn’t happy to hear that,” Don Lucia said. “I told him, ‘You have a couple weeks to prove yourself. We talked every day at night on the good ole FaceTime on the iPad. So he was excited to make it, as should be. But now there’s another step for him. He’s one of 15 or 16 forwards to make the team.
 
“But I know how hard he’s worked in his rehab to get back to playing at a high level.”
 
Lucia, by the way, said 16 because the U.S. is considering inviting one more forward to camp after this weekend. The Gophers’ Travis Boyd is a contender for that extra spot.
 
---------------------------------------
 
The Houston Aeros continue to be red-hit. They won their sixth in a row last night with a 2-1 overtime win at Texas.
 
Who scored the goal? None other than the clutch Jason Zucker, the Wild’s third 2010 second-rounder. It was Zucker’s AHL-leading second OT winner this season.
 
Defenseman Kris Fredheim also scored a goal and Matt Hackett made 35 saves. The Aeros are now fourth in the West heading into Sunday’s home game vs. Peoria.
 
Zucker’s goal, coming off a back-hander, was his 12th of the season, which is tied for fourth in the AHL and first among all rookies. Hackett is now tied for third in the AHL with nine wins.
 
---------------------------------------
 
No NHL/NHLPA news as of yet. My guess is both sides will try to get this bad boy back on track again the early part of the week.

What will Backstrom do for encore in Sunday's charity game?

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: October 27, 2012 - 1:03 PM

Happy Saturday everybody. If you want to get a bit of a hockey fix and listen to me talk NHL (lockout) and Gophers, I’ll be in studio with Dan Barriero on Sunday from 10-11 a.m. on KFAN (100.3 FM). 

Last night in Chicago, “Champs for Charity” raised more than $300,000 for the Ronald McDonald House when a bunch of locked-out NHLers, including the Wild’s Niklas Backstrom, Ryan Suter and Jake Dowell, entertained a soldout Allstate Arena. The game was reportedly the brainchild of hard-working checker Adam Burish and agent Bill Zito.

In the game, Backstrom, much to the glee of the crowd, actually beat Craig Anderson on a penalty shot with a suave, top-shelf wrister (see below).
  
 
Also, apparently Patrick Kane beat Backstrom in the shootout with a similar super-slow move he used to score against Backstrom in a real game last season (only with a back-handed finish in the charity game).
 
Remember, Sunday night at 7 at Mariucci, a bunch of locked-out NHLers, headlined by Zach Parise and Suter, here plan to put on a show during a game and auction to benefit Defending the Blue Line. Tickets can be purchased in advance for $20 at mygophersports.com. If you wait ‘til the door, it’s $30.
 
What will Backstrom do for an encore after Friday's snipe? We know he'll tend goal, but will he also play forward, do handstands in the crease, drop the gloves, drive the Zamboni?
 
In the game will be Wild players Parise, Backstrom, Suter, Dowell, Clayton Stoner, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Kassian, Justin Falk, Darroll Powe, Stephane Veilleux, Kyle Brodziak, Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler, Colorado’s Erik Johnson, Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk, Vancouver’s Keith Ballard, the Islanders’ Kyle Okposo, Pittsburgh’s Paul Martin, New Jersey’s Ryan Carter, the Kings’ Davis Drewiske, Washington’s Jack Hillen and Matt Hendricks, the Rangers’ Stu Bickel, San Jose’s Justin Braun, Ottawa’s Mike Lundin and Jimmy O’Brien, St. Louis’ Chris Porter, Anaheim’s Dan Sexton, Calgary’s Tim Jackson and former Wild fan favorite Wes Walz.
 
Doors open at 6. There’s a pregame ceremony at 6:45. The National Anthem will be fittingly performed by the locked-out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra. Fans are entered in a raffle for prized and game-worn jerseys will be autographed and auctioned off after the game.
 
Should be a blast, and it’s for a good cause.
 
 
Couple other notes:
 
-- Locked-out Wild captain Mikko Koivu is back with TPS in the Finnish Elite League and is already piling up points. In a 5-3 loss to Ilves in his debut two days ago (see below), Koivu scored twice, had five shots and logged 25:07. In today’s 4-3 overtime, Koivu scored the overtime winner on his seventh shot to lift TPS to a win over Blues (or is it the Blues?). TPS is second to last in the 14-team SM-liiga.
 
Check out Koivu's grand entrance through smoke in his return Thursday (his 2 goals start at 3 minutes):
 
 
If you saw last night’s blog, I have info on there about Tyler Graovac’s huge night (leads OHL with 14 goals) and the Aeros’ win at Oklahoma City.
 
Houston is at home tonight against Milwaukee. Mikael Granlund is now tied for second in the AHL in rookie scoring with eight points. Granlund and Charlie Coyle are tied for second among AHL rookies with three goals each.

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