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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The Wild's top line of Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville and top defense pairing of Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin will make their preseason debuts Saturday when the Winnipeg Jets come to town. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, the lone uninjured regular who has yet to play, will also be in the lineup next to potential defense partner Marco Scandella.
"I think it’s the only way to really get into game shape," Parise said of playing. "You can skate as hard as you want out here, but you’ve got to start playing some games. It will be good to start tomorrow. ... It’s nice to ease into it, but at the same time, watching that game [Tuesday], I wish I had played. I think the more games you play in the preseason the more ready you are for the regular season."
Parise said he knows every player is different. I've known many veterans who hate playing preseason games, but Parise wants in to get in sync and shape. But he also understands the Wild is evaluating a lot of young players for roster spots. Also, often times in the preseason, you're playing against teams who are playing very raw, very young players looking to make their mark. We've already seen throughout the preseason some very dangerous hits by young guys who aren't even close to playing in the NHL.
So a lot of teams like to ease in their big guns.
But we'll finally see the Wild's big guns Saturday.
Yeo said Dany Heatley is in and most the roster hopefuls like Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine are in. Yeo said veterans Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Torrey Mitchell will get the game off.
Basically, since I've basically listed off a bunch of players who are playing and three who aren't, you can pretty much figure out the lineup. Yeo just said that the team still has a couple decisions to make in the bottom of the lineup.
Niklas Backstrom will start with Johan Gustafsson serving as backup. I'd guess Yeo would like to give Backstrom the full 60 since he said the rest of camp will be really about getting Backstrom and Josh Harding as opposed to going into games with set plans of playing Darcy Kuemper and Gustafsson.
Again, I know I wrote a lot about last night's impressive win at Winnipeg. System-wise and execution-wise, it was as solid a performance as you'd expect considering we're two days into camp, most the big guys were at home and the blue line consisted of Clayton Stoner, Matt Dumba, Steve Kampfer, Jon Blum, Kyle Medvec and Nate Prosser.
Stoner and Dumba were outstanding, Kampfer got real good as the game moved along and it was probably the best I've seen him play. Medvec was steady, physical and made some tape-to-tape breakout passes despite running into penalty trouble (some questionable calls). Even Blum's turnover came when the Wild was trying him out to see if he could play the left side. When the team moved him back to the right side, he was steady. And Prosser was very good for the second straight game.
There were a bunch of well-executed rushes.
Haula really was impressive to Yeo. So was Fontaine. These guys will definitely play in the NHL and are now in the conversation with Coyle, Granlund, Niederreiter and injured Jason Zucker (won't practice Saturday, either, Yeo said). Yeo doesn't want to overreact to one win just like he didn't to Tuesday's loss, but Haula and Fontaine have catapulted themselves up the depth chart whether they end up making the team at the end of camp or not.
Remember, they can't all make it out of the gate.
Yeo really is happy with Granlund's play. He's fast, is creating, he's blocking shots, he's killing penalties and "trying to grow his game." And Niederreiter, Yeo said, "He continues to go out and do a lot of the things that almost comes naturally to him with his big frame, with his skating, with his shot, with his ability to get to the net."
Yeo was very happy with Kyle Brodziak last night, as well as Torrey Mitchell, who is showing he doesn't want to be a fourth-line right wing again. Yeo admitted today that he brought them to Winnipeg because after the Columbus game, he didn't feel they were at their best and "wanted to get them right back in."
"They came out with a really strong game," Yeo said.
The Wild will make its first round of big cuts at least Sunday, but Yeo said it depends largely on the type of lineup the Wild may want to take to Columbus on Monday. For instance, maybe there's a chance the Wild wants to reward draft picks Tyler Graovac and Raphael Bussieres with an exhibition game. That's up in the air right now.
"These are guys that are likely going down to the minors," Yeo said. "It would be great to get them the experience, but we have to make those decisions based on some other things first."
In other news, former Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck will miss four to six weeks with a leg laceration after delivering a hit two nights ago in Calgary. So his opening night with the Islanders won't come for awhile.
That's it for now. I may be back later regarding another topic you all have been emailing and tweeting me about.
Coming to you from the sky over top Manitoba, where the Wild defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-1 in an exhibition game tonight.
Coach Mike Yeo called it the “polar opposite” of Tuesday’s loss to Columbus, a game where the Wild didn’t play well in any area. Tonight, Yeo said the Wild was strong in just about every area, and this was against a Jets team that played most its big guns. Yeo was able to roll lines all night (well, when Minnesota wasn’t killing a minor).
Josh Harding stopped 16 of 17 shots through two periods and Darcy Kuemper came in during the third. He was under fire as the Jets got three of its seven power plays in the first 8:09 of the third. But Kuemper stopped all 11 shots he saw.
Matt Dumba scored 7:45 into the game after defense partner Clayton Stoner fired a bullet on net that Al Montoya deflected wide. The Wild got it back to the net and after Nino Niederreiter crashed, a mad scramble ensure. Erik Haula came close to scoring, but finally after Mikael Granlund got a piece of the puck, Dumba found it between the circles and “shoveled” it home.
“It was kind of nerve-racking being down that low as a defenseman, but when I saw everybody collapsing, I went down there,” Dumba said. “It was cool.”
Bryan Little tied the score off a Jon Blum turnover, but even then, it was all Minnesota. The first 15 minutes of the second was all Wild, too.
Finally, Charlie Coyle and Kris Foucault scored 30 seconds apart for a 3-1 Wild lead. The Wild had a 25-11 shot lead at one point, but the Jets would unleash the next 13 shots on Harding and Kuemper. They could never get closer, and finally Steve Kampfer’s 140-foot empty-netter iced the game.
Lots of solid performances out on the ice, especially by some of the young kids going for spots.
Haula, who played wing, had one assist, five shots, was fast and just did all the “little things” in his own end. He often created quick transitions with linemates Granlund and Niederreiter.
“First NHL game, and I mean, you can tell he’s a confident kid,” Yeo said. “He’s confident, but he’s modest. He’s got a really good attitude. I just, I was very impressed with him. And I think it showed. We’re putting him in 4-on-4 situations, we’re putting him in penalty kill situations late in the game. The more you watch him, the more you get to trust him.”
The line spent much of the night in the offensive zone and was fast.
Justin Fontaine had a strong night. Just hustled all over the ice on a line with Coyle and Dany Heatley. Coyle’s goal with Heatley was a pretty one after a Jets turnover in Minnesota’s end in large part because of that hustle I talked about with Fontaine (Yeo: "what a shift"). Coyle and Heatley flew out of the zone on a 2-on-1. Coyle passed to Heatley and Heatley gave it back as Coyle put it into a completely-wide open net.
“I almost went past the net,” Coyle said.
Dumba was solid all night with Stoner, who had a great game. Dumba credited Stoner with talking to him all night, both on the ice and on the bench.
The kids were real good, and so were many of the veterans that are battling for spots and ice time. Remember, Stoner could be adversely affected if Dumba makes it.
Torrey Mitchell, who wants that third-line right wing spot but could be going up against Niederreiter or even Granlund, was flying (four shots) and solid all night with Kyle Brodziak. Brodziak had a tough night in the faceoff circle but was good everywhere else. Looked like the Brodziak of old – skated well, quick transitions, reliable defensively, all over the puck.
Zenon Konopka, who has the highest faceoff winning percentage since he’s been in the league among active NHLers, won 15 of 20 faceoffs.
“Young kids, you know that they’re coming in and they’re really playing for something,” Yeo said. “What I liked is the way our older guys came in and were playing for something too. They showed they want to be ready for the season.”
There are a handful of spots and there won’t be easy decisions for the brass, especially when you see how well all the roster hopefuls played tonight.
“Everyone competing with each other, it’s going to push each other and in the end make the best team,” Coyle said. “It’s awesome to see guys fighting for spots going head to head.”
This morning, Yeo said the Wild won’t rush to conclusions.
“It’s continuing the process and the evaluation of it,” Yeo said after the victory. “This is what we said after last game, we played a poor game, and we weren’t going to rush to decisions and now we played a very good game tonight, but we’re not going to rush the decisions on that, too. But I will say, a lot of guys helped themselves tonight.”
The game didn’t count, but in the first game with both teams in the same division, the rivalry seemed to continue from two years ago and has all the makings for a good one. Lots of skirmishes, the pace was good.
Early in the third, 6-foot-5 defenseman Kyle Medvec got Mark Scheifele with a high hit on a Winnipeg entry. I never saw a replay. Some were saying elbow, some were saying forearm. Yeo felt it was a clean hit.
The Jets’ Anthony Peluso jumped right in there and later Evander Kane (minus-3, seven shots, 10 hits tonight) tried to goad Medvec into dropping his gloves. Besides being a great player and one of the league’s fastest, he’s also strong as an ox. Medvec skated away.
“We hopefully get under a lot of people’s skin,” Yeo said. “If we’re playing the right way, then we should be pretty frustrating to play against, and I felt we did a good job frustrating them in a lot of areas tonight.”
Yeo was very happy with the PK (7-for-7) and Harding and Kuemper.
Harding said, “I’m more happy with how the team played, how they responded to the challenge. This isn’t an easy situation, you fly day of the game, they dressed a good team and they’re at home, and I thought that everybody top to bottom did great. The veterans did an unbelievable job leading this club and the younger guys, they proved their worth. Strong showing by everybody.”
On his game, Harding said, “It was great to get back in there. I want to get cleaner on a couple things.”
The Wild practices at 11 and 12:30 Friday. Rachel Blount is writing a Keith Ballard story for Saturday’s paper and will probably blog as I work ahead and sit down with a player. I’ll be with you Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Tuesday and Thursday next week, same thing. Rachel will probably write the daily stories I have lunch with a couple players.
The Wild plans its first big round of cuts (won’t be the roster hopefuls) Sunday as Iowa’s camp opens Monday. The top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville and defensemen Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon are expected to all play their first exhibition games Saturday at home against Winnipeg.
The Wild, wearing its new white sweaters, will face quite the test tonight when it plays in Winnipeg – now a Central Division rival – tonight at MTS Center at 7 o’clock.
NOT TELEVISED, so stop asking. Follow me on Twitter at @russostrib. Can also be heard on KFAN.
The Jets will be playing a pretty experienced lineup including former Wild winger Devin Setoguchi, former Panthers (my first #flareference of the new season) All-Star Olli Jokinen, captain Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian and BIG BUFF.
Al Montoya and Michael Hutchinson between the pipes.
The Wild’s traveling party is in this blog (the team departs this afternoon). Josh Harding, wearing his new Wild toque mask, and Darcy Kuemper are expected to split the game.
In an effort by the Wild to get more skill on one line, Erik Haula, a center in college except for the few weeks last week when he played with a broken finger at the U, will play left wing with countryman and pal Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Haula should be back at center Saturday against Winnipeg – a game where the top line and top D pair will debut.
Charlie Coyle will center Dany Heatley and I believe Justin Fontaine tonight.
The last time the Wild traveled to Winnipeg was in Dec. 2011. The Wild had won seven in a row and was first in the league. In a sensational, intense game, the Wild lost 2-1. Zach Bogosian hit Pierre-Marc Bouchard from behind with about a minute left and concussed him. Matt Cullen got sick during the day and had to fly home.
Guillaume Latendresse was rushed back from a concussion, scored the lone goal and was concussed again the next night – a loss to Chicago in which Mikko Koivu got hurt and Marek Zidlicky returned from an injury to disrupt a cast of six defensemen that had played great for three weeks.
Wheels came off the season. (Good memories, eh?)
Coach Mike Yeo wasn’t happy with today’s morning skate by the tonight’s cast. He stopped the skate at one point and lit into them.
“Ice was bad, and we can live with some bobbled pucks and missed passes, but going offside or mental mistakes, you can’t have that,” Yeo said.
On facing a strong Jets roster tonight, Yeo said, “Great test. I’m glad that we’re facing a lineup like this. First off, for our older players, for guys that we’re trying to gear up for the season, you want them going out against the top competition, but for a young player getting an opportunity to earn a spot here, … tonight if somebody plays really well, that shows really well for them.”
Big game for the kids again vying for spots, the Granlunds, Haulas, Niederreiters, Matt Dumbas and Fontaines. Also a big game for a guy like Clayton Stoner. If Dumba makes the team and the Wild’s healthy at the end, that’ll leave Stoner battling for playing time if one assumes Marco Scandella and Keith Ballard are in the top-6 initially.
Jason Zucker did not skate today. He tweaked his groin Tuesday, came in for treatment during Wednesday’s day off and the Wild plans to play it safe with him.
That’s it for me. Just an fyi, tonight’s postgame blog will likely be posted after midnight. After the game, I’ll need to rush out of the rink to catch a flight, so I’ll write it on the plane and post after I get home.
Here is an updated list of Wild player/prospect Twitter accounts – well, the public ones, not the secret ones. This is in no particular order. On a few of these, you may have to learn Swedish.
What's so fascinating, and I learned this at the 2011 draft combine when I attended to prep for the draft the Wild was hosting, it's something like 75% of all prospects are on Twitter publicly now (and probably more in 2013). Yet, when it comes to NHL vets, it's still a low percentage.
It's emblematic of how social media and Twitter particularly has become the norm this generation and why athletes on Twitter will only grow as young players become established NHLers.
As always, you can follow me at www.twitter.com/russostrib. You'll want to tonight if you want updates from the exhibition game in Winnipeg, for instance.
Here we go:
The Wild has put out its roster for Thursday’s 7 p.m. exhibition game at Winnipeg.
Goalies Josh Harding and Darcy Kuemper are expected to split the game against the Jets.
Twelve of these 13 forwards will skate: Dany Heatley, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter (feature on el Nino from today), Kyle Brodziak, Torrey Mitchell, Stephane Veilleux, Zenon Konopka, Justin Fontaine, Carson McMillan, Erik Haula, Zack Phillips and Kris Foucault.
Six of these seven defensemen will skate: Clayon Stoner, Nate Prosser, Matt Dumba, Jonathon Blum, Steve Kampfer, Kyle Medvec and Jon Landry.
The game is not televised. I will offer game updates on my Twitter (@russostrib) account and the game will be called on KFAN by the great Bob Kurtz and Tom Reid.
No update on Jason Zucker today as the Wild has the day off. But he tweaked his groin last night, and with lots of camp left, you can bet the Wild will play it safe.
The Wild will skate here Thursday morning before the group scheduled to travel to Winnipeg departs in the afternoon.
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