This is Michael Russo's 18th year covering the National Hockey League. He's covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005 following 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. Michael 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.
Also find Russo on Facebook.
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Good afternoon from the Twin Cities. Late blog for a morning scrimmage, I know, but I was distracted by the Dolphins-Vikings game. Twice the Dolphins coughed up the football immediately after Brett Favre interceptions, and alas, the Vikes still couldn't pull it out.
Purple is 0-2. When's Donovan McNabb available again?
Speaking of the Dolphins, I showed off downtown Minneapolis to the Phins media contingent last night. Fun, fun reunion with some old pals, reminding me how lucky I've been to work in two great sports markets with great colleagues at great papers. Tonight will be another reunion. For 10 years, I covered the Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel with colleagues Brian Biggane from the Palm Beach Post and David J. Neal from the Miami Herald.
We had went toe to toe competitively for a long, long time, yet we managed to put business aside and stay friends. They now cover the Dolphins, so we're doing dinner with the old agent of original Panthers captain Brian Skrudland. Should be a lot of laughs.
Enough about me, but last night put me in a nostalgic mood.
News of the day:
-- Pierre-Marc Bouchard got the go-ahead from a Denver doctor to ramp up the intensity in skates and the fitness room. He skated before today's practices with assistants Dave Barr and Darby Hendrickson and the goal now is to get into game shape. His head felt fine afterward. His legs and lungs were a bit heavy though.
Right now, he'll skate for a few days with the coaches before practice. The next step will be to join the team in practices, then start taking some contact.
There's no timetable as to a return, but Bouchard said his goal is still to be ready by the start of the season.
"He's excited. We're excited," coach Todd Richards said.
More on this in the paper.
-- Amazingly, with so much going on in town Sunday, 2,500 Wild fans made their way down to the X for this morning's scrimmage. I predicted a white rout, and rout they did -- 5-1 over the green team.
Nick Schultz got things started 13 seconds in off a pass from Twins season-ticket package partner Andrew Brunette. They must have spent the summer diagramming the play from Target Field. It worked to perfection.
Robbie Earl tied it for green from Clayton Stoner, but that would be all she wrote for the greenies.
Jon DiSalvatore from Carson McMillan and Brent Burns; Brunette from Antti Miettinen and Mikko Koivu; Burns from Koivu (great goal) and McMillan from Petr Kalus. Josh Harding got the win, playing the first half for white.
In reaction to Bouchard hand-picking Burns for his eventual first contact in training camp, there'll be a funny quote from 'ol Burnzie in tomorrow's paper, too.
-- I always say to people, Schultz reminds me a lot of Rob Niedermayer, whom I covered for awhile in Florida. As nice as can be, as mild-mannered as there is, but for some reason, there's something about these guys in scrimmages that always ticks the absolute you know what out of opposing "teammates."
For the last few years, Schultz has gone head-to-head with Petr Kalus, but they're now teammates in training camp, so Kalus is taking out his normal Schultz aggression on Nate Prosser, who by the way is having none of it. Prosser stood up to the intense Czech in both the last two days, which impressed me bigtime.
Today, Schultz got Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz to focus much of their energy on him after Schultz checked Nystrom, who did much of his own hard checking today on opponents, too. Nystrom and Staubitz went after Schultz a couple times, and later, Schultz became incensed when Guillaume Latendresse took a run at him a few seconds after he gave up the puck. But afterward, Schultz put it all behind him and said it was just competitive people being competitive. So did the other two, too.
-- The players got more and more crabbier as the scrimmage went on. Staubitz, taking exception to a hard hit from roster hopeful Justin Falk, dropped the gloves with the big defenseman. Remember, Staubitz, acquired for a draft pick from San Jose on the day of the NHL Awards ceremony (I remember because I was in Vegas), has had 20 fights in 82 NHL games.
Staubitz is a tough, good skating cookie, and he's only played forward for two years after spending his entire junior and minor-league career at defense. The one great strength of the Wild this year should be those third and fourth lines with good skating, hard-working guys like Nystrom, Staubitz, Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, John Madden and as of now Chuck Kobasew.
I'll write more about Staubitz and Nystrom in Monday's paper. Incidentally, I'm digging the new room. Lots of good quotes in there, including the four new guys -- Matt Cullen, John Madden, Nystrom and today, I learned, Staubitz.
-- I think Falk's got a shot to crack the roster. Marco Scandella, after two days, looks to me like he'll need some time developing in the minors with Darryl Sydor. Like Tyler Cuma last year against Rick Nash in Columbus, Scandella's head was spinning trying to deal with Koivu, Brunette and Miettinen today.
Scandella not only was suspended last year in juniors, but he then got a appendicitis. So he's missed some hockey, and because he doesn't need waivers, I bet he goes down for some development with Cuma as long as the Wild remains healthy on the back end. So, Clayton Stoner's got No. 6. No. 7 to me will be either Falk, Prosser, who looks good and even though he's inexperienced at the NHL level, remember, he's 24, or Drew Bagnall.
And since the Wild will at least take eight D to Finland, maybe two of those three stick until the Wild at least returns to the States. I spent today really watching the young D. I'll spend tomorrow or Tuesday really looking at the young forwards vying for spots.
-- Koivu, Brunette and Miettinen line hasn't lost chemistry since April, and the Cullen, Latendresse, Marty Havlat looked very promising today. I think coach Todd Richards should just leave this line assembled for awhile to let the chemistry transpire.
-- It's taken one scrimmage for Brett Bulmer to show he's a pain in the butt to play against. The 2010 second-round pick might be Kristian Huselius skinny, but the guy's got guts and got into a chirping match with Cal Clutterbuck after one collision, which was undeniably rated NC-17. Very good sign for the youngster that will soon return to his junior team, Kelowna. Remember, Bulmer was the only 2010 top draft pick that was in Traverse City. No Granlund, Larsson or Zucker. Heck, no Haula, and the Wild still won the title, which is a good sign for the future. It seems at the very least the Wild's filling what was a barren cupboard of young talent.
-- Marek Zidlicky missed his second day today with a strained hammy, which allowed tryout Colton Jobke to play. Good opportunity, and he held his own and showed he's a very smart defenseman. At 18, he'll soon return to Kelowna also, but this is a free look at the undrafted free agent. Technically, the Wild can sign any of these tryout kids, from Jobke to Josh Caron to Brandon Buck to Jared Spurgeon, and they wouldn't count toward the Wild's 50-man reserve list. Their contracts would slide. All you'd have to pay is their signing bonus, and then if you like them, you don't have to waste a draft pick on them next June. For a team trying to add more and more young talent, I bet this is very much in the cards for some of these kids.
OK, I should write for the paper. Richards wasn't overly in love with today's scrimmage, which he felt lacked structure. He was considering scrapping tomorrow's scrimmage and practicing instead. We'll see. Talk to you Monday.
Good afternoon from the mothership -- Star Tribune headquarters, where people always know something's up when I actually walk in the building. It's just so rare.
Typically it's just a meeting with the editors, but today it was laptop issues.
Better now than Opening Night, which happened to me last year in Columbus when my laptop was hit by the same nasty virus I got today. Luckily, the crack Blue Jackets PR staff hooked me up with a laptop and IT guy, making what could have been a nightmare into a very slight blip (other than the awful game story I wrote after not watching half the game).
The office has been pretty quiet -- the calm before the storm with the Twins and Vikings playing downtown tonight at the same time. Chip and Judd have been hard at work chatting with Star Tribune readers, Kent Youngblood's been on the phone working stories and it only took me two hours to install a printer to print out my expense report.
Last night, I drove out to Eden Prairie to Velocity Hockey Center to watch the 3-on-3 tournament organized by Octagon Player Agency. Very fun time, with the red team beating the white team 22-21. Red was led by Wild players Brent Burns, Nick Schultz, Cal Clutterbuck and Cam Barker. Burns spent the night showing off with a ton of sweet plays. Schultz was scoring on breakaways and dekes.
In fact, there was a beautiful 2-on-0 between Burns and Schultz -- a scenario we probably won't see a lot once the Wild get started. Coach Todd Richards loves his defensemen getting involved in the offense, but a Burns-Schultz 2-on-0 might even be too much for the coach nicknamed inside the locker room, "Moose."
Chris McAlpine, the former player, now agent, was named Red MVP by Burns. He paraded a garbage can around the rink when it was over. McAlpine scored a really nice goal off a Schultz feed, swung and missed on a slap shot after Keith Ballard sneakily slashed his stick from the white bench, nearly decapitated a small child with his blade after the broken stick, jokingly snapped at colleague Ben Hankinson when the white team coach gave himself the authority to wave off a late red goal and most impressively, didn't accidentally tweet his cell phone number like he did last year.
Hankinson was hilarious, wearing a golf shirt, shorts and sandles while coaching, screaming at his players and yelling at goalie Cory Schneider that he wanted him to get more involved with the offense and "a good night for you will be four assists."
The white team had guys like Andrew Brunette, Ballard, Paul Martin, Dustin Byfuglien, Matt Carle, Stephane Veilleux and Mark Stuart. Martin and Ballard were awesome. Brunette had about 10 points. In fact, you've got to love 3-on-3 because during one sequence, Ballard and Brunette combined for three goals in like 30 seconds.
You know it's hockey season when I'm roaming a postgame locker room from a charity game. Ballard was jokingly heckling me, but as I told him, I waited the mandatory five-minute "cooling off" period. So, no angry, outspoken quotes from anybody. The white team cooled off by the time I got in there.
The event was for a great cause. Proceeds benefit Team Bisch, in support of Cohasset Elementary Kindergarten Teacher, Jackie Bischoff, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.
I'm told 225 tickets were sold, raising over $5,500. The highest game-worn jersey auctioned off was Big Buff's, which went for $225.
Just a really fun event down there. Tons of kids, who had a great time watching and getting autographs from their favorite players.
That's really about it. Things will be cranking up soon as Sept. 17 training camp opening fast approaches.
Really cool Nick Schultz mailbag is on wild.com. My favorite question is the last one from some guy named Kris, who resides in Schultz's tiny hometown of Strasbourg, Saskatchewan. Same spelling as Nick Schultz's brother, Kris, strangely enough.
Youngblood here. Wild coach Todd Richards, assistant coach Dave Barr and video coordinator PJ DeLuca finally did something Richards has wanted to do since being named head coach: attend a Vikings practice.
It wasn't just about being a fan. Richards said he is, and that part of it was fun. But it was more about observing how Vikings coach Brad Childress and his staff approach preparation for a game.
"We thought about doing this last year, but we didn't have a lot of time," Richards said. "This year we had some time to get down here to see exactly what the Vikings staff does to prepare for the day. It was very gracious of the coaches, Brad and his staff, to allow us in."
That included getting to Winter Park early to sit in on some meetings. Then Richards, Barr and DeLuca went out into the hot mid-day sun to watch the Vikings go through a relatively brief practice.
"We watched how they prepare, how they do things," Richards said. "We had a chance to witness some other things, too. It was a chance to see how things are done in a different sport."
And while the sports are obviously very different, there are some things Richards said he was able to take away from the experience. For example, how coaches relate to their players. Or how organized things have to be to get all the stuff done that needs to get done as an offense, defense and special teams prepares for a game.
"There are things that you can take from it," Richards said. "How you go about your day, trying to get your players to play a certain way, communication with the players. I was very impressed with the organization the coaches have. I was impressed by the meetings, the efficiency with which they went about their day."
For Richards, it was time well spent. "I truly enjoyed it," he said. "From a coaching standpoint and from a fan standpoint. It was great."
Great news. If all continues to stay on track, Pierre-Marc Bouchard won't be behind me in the press box this season critiquing my typing skills.
I talked to the upbeat Wild playmaker this afternoon and Bouchard continues to progress. He's been skating at least twice a week for three weeks now, and today was taking part in yet another skate with some of the Montreal NHLers. Typically, he'll do the full 30-45 minutes of drills and at least 15 minutes of the scrimmage. He wears a heart monitor to make certain he doesn't go above 150-160 beats per minute.
So while he's definitely pushing himself, he's trying to pace himself, too. He's yet to experience contact and that'll probably wait until training camp.
Bouchard said he's still a little rusty, but he's pleased with how quickly he's rediscovered his skill level.
Now, Bouchard does say he still experiences periodic symptoms, specifically some fatigue and pressure in the head. But he'll sit down with the Wild once he gets to town around Labor Day to discuss a direction going forward. He said it might be something he has to just deal with, and he said the first real test will be when he's hit.
He said his goal is to be on the ice by the time training camp begins. The first on-ice session is Sept. 18 -- or three weeks from Saturday.
I also talked to coach Todd Richards today, who's very excited about the potential return of Bouchard. Remember, Bouchard, who averaged 56 points a season the four years prior to last year, so Richards calls it like a July 1 free-agent addition.
Richards feels very confident that the Wild's a playoff team, especially with the upgrade at center this summer, the addition of Bouchard and just the total work ethic and defensive improvement by adding guys like Matt Cullen, John Madden, Eric Nystrom and Brad Staubitz.
"It's been a long offseason," said Richards. "The moves that we've made, we're excited about. We felt we needed to get stronger up the middle, and we did that. The guys we signed -- Staubitz and Nystrom, they make our team a lot better, and obviously Bouchard. So that's even more reason to be excited. We feel like we're a playoff team, and we're looking forward to Sept. 17."
Also, Richards will be at Winter Park on Tuesday to watch the way the Vikings coaching staff does things. Later in the week, he may also get together with Don Lucia and the Gophers' men's hockey staff.
"The more people you talk to in the coaching world only makes myself and my staff better. So it's a chance to experience a couple different things."
The Bouchard article will appear in Saturday's paper.
From the Canada Hockey Place, where the Switzerland beat Belarus in a shootout and Canada crushed Germany. Slovakia-Norway fans are flooding the arena now. Czechs and Latvians are playing at a different venue.
The USA will play the Swiss at 2 p.m. CT Wednesday live on NBC. The Swiss needed a shootout to beat a scrappy Belarus team this afternoon, and the Swiss plays the US tough in the tournament's first game and took Canada to a shootout. So they won't be a cakewalk, especially with Jonas Hiller in net and former Wild players Hnat Domenichelli (three points) and Julien Sprunger (two goals) playing well. Roman Wick leads the Swiss with five points. Hiller's played four games and has a .897 save percentage and 2.80 goals against average, but that's bogus because shootouts count in there.
The Americans were loose today and heard Brian Burke's honest words Tuesday loud and clear. Coach Ron Wilson informed them Burke wasn't pleased at Tuesday's practice, then informed them that no No. 1 seed's won gold since 1988.
You can read the article in the paper, but lots of good stuff from today's availability. Lots of real good quotes on the US side, from David Backes to Brooks Orpik to Patrick Kane to Erik Johnson to Bobby Ryan and on and on and on.
Now Chuck Fletcher's just got to trade for two of them and I'll be a happy beat writer. It's all about the quote for moi.
The Germans might have awoken a sleeping giant tonight with Canada. The red and white just trounced 'em. Even when it was 1-0, it felt like 10. When it was 3-0, it felt like 30.
Roberto Luongo was barely tested, no matter was the "Louuuuuuuuuuuuuuu" birds would have you think.
Canada outshot Germany 39-23, with Jarome Iginla scoring two more goals (hat trick early in the tourney), Eric Staal having three assists, Duncan Keith playing great (two assists) and Sid the Kid scoring one. The Iginla-Staal-Crosby line (newly assembled) looked great.
Shea Weber, who's got the hardest shot maybe in the NHL, took a howitzer tonight that went through the netting and out so fast, nobody seemed to realize until they went to video review. Well, NBC's Eddie Olczyk noticed. He saw it with the naked eye because as he told me during the second intermission, "I ate a pound of carrots last night."
Now Canada faces powerhouse Russia with one going home. You can read the article on that, focusing on Sid the Kid vs. Alex the Ovechkin.
Couple good quotes:
Babcock on starting Luongo over Brodeur: "I think his bank account shows he’s a pretty good goalie. I know every time we play him, he puts up this wall.”
On picking Sidney Crosby to take a penalty shot over Rick Nash, who was hauled down (Olympics you can pick anyone to take penalty shot): "It's just math. The stats show Crosby has a better chance to score than Nash."
Luongo on replacing Brodeur: "Twenty years from now, if we win, nobody will remember who played goal, but they will remember that we won."
Iginla on Russia: "We can play rough and tough style, too. I'm not worried about that. We imagine it'll be physical and intense. I can't wait."
Wild owner Craig Leipold is in the house, and he doesn't look stressed. No rolled up game notes at least. The NHL's brought in all the Board of Governors for an all-expenses trip here (except food and nightcaps, I think).
Wild resume practice Wednesday. What's the Wild? Vikings scribe Chip Scoggins will be there to cover for me.
OK, that's it for me. Talk to you Wednesday.
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