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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Moments after Nino Niederreiter scored an overtime winner against Nashville to usher the Wild into last year’s Olympic break, coach Mike Yeo announced that Jason Zucker would have a “minor procedure” stemming from blocking a scorching Shane Doan shot above the right knee late in a Jan. 9 game at Phoenix.
Zucker played on the injury for a month. Behind the scenes prior to the procedure, Zucker was getting treatment on his leg before and after practices and games, and he even played some of his best hockey during that time.
Yeo, Zucker and the entire Wild organization figured the speedy winger would be back in the lineup three weeks after the procedure once the schedule resumed in Edmonton. As it turns out, Zucker did return to the ice for a few skates after the break, but he would never play again due to complications either during the first surgery or aggravation while rehabbing.
What exactly happened is still unclear, but GM Chuck Fletcher said March 20 that Zucker needed a subsequent season-ending surgery that was meant to repair a tendon in Zucker’s right quadriceps. He called it a fluky injury and one he never heard of before.
“I’m not going to go into details, but there was a complication,” Zucker said. “It didn’t go as planned on the recovery portion of it. I think all of it was not exactly as anyone thought, so I had to have the second surgery, and that was a big blow. I think we all thought it was going to be 10 days, 14 days and back. I was excited about not having to deal with it anymore and it turned out to be more serious. It was definitely tough seeing the team play and you’re not, but it was great seeing them do so well (second round of the playoffs). From that standpoint, it was awesome watching that.”
Regardless, Zucker, 22, has been skating all week with many Wild teammates and several other NHLers at Braemar and says he’s “100 percent ready to go back to normal. It was definitely frustrating, but it’s part of hockey. Good thing for me is Chuck and the guys had faith in me to give me another contract and give me another chance.”
Zucker, who has scored eight goals and four assists in 47 regular-season games and an overtime winner and an assist in five playoff games, signed a two-year contract this offseason. The first year is a two-way deal, the second year a one-way deal. In addition, Zucker still doesn’t require waivers to get to Iowa, meaning there’s no doubt he has to play his way onto the team once training camp opens Sept. 18.
However, with Niederreiter still unsigned and potential spots on the third and fourth line, Zucker says he’s up for the challenge.
“I’ve always believed that the door’s always open,” Zucker said. “Even if you have the best guys on your team, if you perform, they’ll try to make room for you if you’re playing well and doing the right things. That’s what I focused on this summer. [Thomas] Vanek’s a great addition and all the rest of the guys are great players. I hope I just can help that out.”
Zucker, who does look thicker and as fast as ever on the ice, said he dedicated himself on and off the ice this summer in an attempt to make the team.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a hockey season,” Zucker said. “I was home [in Las Vegas] for five months. I was doing rehab six days a week, I was in the gym six days a week just making sure that every little bit was ready to go for training camp. I want to do everything I can. I think I went back and watched every single game I played three times just to watch video of myself. I just wanted to do everything I could, myself, to be ready for this year. The rest is obviously how I perform in camp.”
Photo Credit: Upper Deck
As part of Upper Deck’s Heroic Inspirations campaign, Wild goalie Josh Harding will be featured on a collectible trading card he autographed and inscribed for charitable purposes. In a press release, Upper Deck said, "The goal of the card is to give people suffering from MS hope and to raise awareness for Josh Harding’s charity; Harding’s Hope."
The 2013 Masterton Trophy winner and 2013-14 NHL goals-against average and save percentage leader signed and inscribed, “My inspiration is my father,” on 25 cards that have been inserted into packs of the 2014-15 NHL® O-Pee-Chee series. Harding has signed and inscribed other versions of the card with some of his other inspirations. These additional autographed and inscribed cards will be available with a donation to the charity through the Harding’s Hope website at the start of the 2014-15 season.
As I've mentioned previously, Harding has been taking part in all the NHL skates and looks ready to go for training camp.
Good day from partly cloudy, mostly humid Minneapolis. Here's a Wild update:
1. Preseason schedule has been announced: Six-game schedule with home-and-homes (so to speak) with Winnipeg, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
Training camp is expected to begin Sept. 18.
Sept. 22 at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.; Sept. 25 at Pittsburgh, 6 p.m.; Sept. 27 vs. Winnipeg, 7 p.m.; Sept. 29 vs. Pittsburgh, 7 p.m.; Oct. 2 at St. Louis, 7 p.m.; Oct. 4 vs. St. Louis, 7 p.m.
Tickets will go on sale later this summer.
My guess is the Wild then heads to Duluth on Oct. 5 for a few days of practice. Just conjecture, but it fits before the opener later that week and the Wild loves the facilities and ability to do some team bonding up in UMD Country.
2. Last I heard, the NHL plans to release all schedules Sunday. Weird day to do so, but that's always a fun day. As I mentioned the other day, no outdoor game this year. The league is scaling back to one stadium series game. Also, for a change, I heard the Wild's on the road New Year's Eve!
3. I plan to host a draft/free agency live chat on startribune.com next Friday (Round 1 is later that night). Time to be announced.
4. The Wild's expected to sign undrafted free agent defenseman Guillaume Gelinas on July 1. The signing was first reported (I believe) by TVA Sports in Quebec. It's a verbal commitment right now because as of June 1, there was a freeze for undrafted North American free agents (the Wild signed undrafted forwards Brady Brassart and Zack Mitchell in March) until July 1.
Gelinas, 21, was named the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's best defenseman this past season after scoring 23 goals and 92 points in 67 games for Val-d'Or. He scored another 34 points in 24 playoff games for a team that lost the Memorial Cup to Edmonton.
Wild's trying to put an influx of skill on AHL Iowa after a very tough season in which the Baby Wild lacked skill, health and was probably too old.
Gelinas is skilled and competitive but 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, so initially the AHL will be a decent step.
So, it's a flier.
Maybe Gelinas turns out to be Jared Spurgeon, who also had a terrific junior career (139 points in his last three years; harder to score in the W than the Q, so apples and oranges in terms of stats) before not being signed by the Islanders and then going untouched through another draft.
Maybe Gelinas turns out to be Michel Periard. Who? He's just a name that kind of jumped into my head because he was of similar stature and had similar stats in the Q (100 points his last year, I think) to Gelinas probably 15 years ago. Chuck Fletcher's Florida Panthers took a flier on him and he never played North American pro hockey beyond the A.
My point: Risk-free move, but let's be realistic with expectations. Maybe he turns out to be a player. Maybe he doesn't. When the Wild signed Spurgeon, I probably put a single line into the paper. Same thing with Brassart and Mitchell. Heck, when the Wild signed Niklas Backstrom as the first-ever European free agent under the previous CBA, I put a single paragraph. All he did was become the Wild's all-time goaltending leader in games and wins.
It's just hard to know with undrafted players until the Wild gets its grip on them and has a chance to develop them.
5. The salary cap is expected to be close to $70 million when it's announced next week. The Wild's will be a shade under after a slight bonus overage. Fletcher told me during the playoffs that Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Jonas Brodin hit bonuses. Capgeek.come has it as Niederreiter and Haula earning each $212,500 for plus-minus and Brodin $425,000 for time on ice.
That's $825,000 in bonuses. But I'm told the Wild didn't go over the cap by that much, so the overage on next year's cap will be less. Either way, the overage shouldn't impact the Wild in its offseason business because Fletcher will always try to be at least $2 million or more under the cap so the team can make in-season injury callups and potential trades.
6. Lot of questions as to whether the Wild may pursue Cup champ Willie Mitchell in free agency. My guess: It makes sense if the Wild's unable to re-sign Clayton Stoner. Stoner and Mitchell seemingly would play the same role (third-pair, left-shot, physical D). As I mentioned last week, the Wild will try to re-sign Stoner, but maybe his solid postseason will allow him to cash in as a UFA more than the Wild's willing to commit. Stoner will have to decide that.
7. Some questions from you as to whether the Wild may pursue Shawn Thornton now that Boston's moving on from the rugged winger. I've heard through sources that the Wild would like to re-sign Cody McCormick, but Thornton is arguably a better, tougher player (more expensive, too), so maybe the Wild holds off on trying to sign McCormick just to see if it has a shot at Thornton. I don't see why there's a rush to re-sign McCormick, so if it were me, I'd wait to see what Thornton is thinking. I'm sure he'll have a lot of interest though.
Interesting dynamic to this year's draft. The free-agent interview period begins Wednesday. This is a new wrinkle thrown into this CBA where teams are allowed to court July 1 pending free agents, bring them to cities to check it out, etc. Well, the entire NHL will be in Philadelphia from Wednesday-Saturday night or Sunday morning, so one wonders if the draft becomes a free-agent recruiting party.
It certainly makes sense for agents to bring their free agents to Philly and line up meeting after meeting.
Fun practices, lawn games, bonding, a pig roast! It's all over as the Wild packed up its golf clubs and lake attire and returned to the Twin Cities this afternoon to gear up for Thursday's season opener at the X against the Los Angeles Kings.
"It’s time for sure," coach Mike Yeo said after the Wild practiced in front of a few thousands fans here today at AMSOIL Arena, which has a FIREPLACE overlooking the stands (I've already hired a contractor to install one in the wall behind press box seat 45 in the middle of the Wild press box at the X).
"This has been a great trip, but bottom line, we have to make sure we’re ready for Thursday now."
Today was a hard practice, lots of battles and tactical stuff. Tuesday will be more execution, running through routes, handling pucks and making sure players are up to speed for the opener.
As a reminder, I will host a live chat at 2 p.m. Thursday on www.startribune.com/wild, so please join and come armed with questions.
If you missed today's NHL preview coverage, please also go to www.startribune.com/wild for my Eastern Conference, Western Conference and playoff predictions OR purchase a Star Tribune.
Here are the articles:
Mikko Koivu shows his human side when talking about his newborn daughter and the coming season
The NHL is realigned and raring to go tonight with three games; Wild's ecstatic to be in the Central but would have to get through Chicago and St. Louis in the new divisional playoff format.
Here's a look at the NHL's offseason changes, from players changing teams to the coaching carousel to the playoff format.
Some highlights of today:
-- Fans were excited to see the Wild on the ice today and even gave the team a nice ovation after practice ended.
“We were all saying, we’ve never ever gotten applauded for a practice,” defenseman Ryan Suter said.
-- Yeo on the Duluth turnout (many kids) at practice on a Tuesday morning: “I didn’t know that today was a holiday. No school here today (laughing). I think it’s awesome. The turnout here, this trip has been great. That’s why we came back.”
-- Zenon Konopka’s got his first shiner of the hockey season and it wasn’t from a fight, since he didn’t get into any scraps in the preseason. Blindfolded, he apparently connected head-first with assistant coach Darryl Sydor in a lawn game or team-building thingamajig.
-- Injured Mike Rupp skated before the team the past few days and will start the season on injured reserve after offseason knee surgery. He says it’s getting stronger and he plans to skate with the team the next few days.
“I need to start doing different things that I can’t do by myself out there,” Rupp said. “I feel in my head it won’t be too long.”
-- Mikko Koivu joined the team after spending Sunday and Monday with his fiancée and newborn daughter. He looked good with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
-- Speaking of Pominville, he got a text after practice letting the former Buffalo Sabres captain know that Thomas Vanek is the new Sabres’ home captain and Steve Ott the new Sabres’ road captain.
Said Pominville: “I think it’s weird. They’ve done [the rotating thing] in the past. I don’t know if it’s their way of doing it. It just feels a little weird to have a couple guys. Usually you want that one guy.”
I got some funny tweets on Twitter from Wild fans saying this now cinches the fact the Wild signs Vanek next summer, since you know, the Wild seem to love themselves some former captains (Parise, Pominville).
-- Speaking of Pominville Part Deux: The Wild and Pominville, 30, have been talking about a contract extension since before camp began. It obviously hasn’t been signed yet and the season starts Thursday.
I hear the Pominville camp is looking for a long-term deal north of $5 million per – something the Wild has been trying to crack down, especially since the team wants to make certain in a few years it can afford to re-sign potential key entry-level expiring guys like Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin and because next summer, it would like to potentially pursue a top free agent, maybe one who used to star at the University of Minnesota.
Pominville is still hopeful he can sign an extension by Thursday and would “prefer” not negotiating during the season.
“I don’t want to really talk during the season,” Pominville said today. “I don’t want it to be a distraction for me and the way I play, and then you’re always thinking. If you know they’re talking and things aren’t going the way you want it to go, then you’re thinking, ‘Oh, are they not wanting to sign me anymore?’ I don’t really want to have that distraction, so hopefully it can get done before [the seaspn]. If not, there’s still a lot of time.”
So you still hope it gets done by Thursday (I don’t hear well or comprehend)? “Hopefully something gets done and they keep talking and we can work it out. If not, we’ll see where it goes from there.”
How close are you guys (one source of mine says they’re not too far apart)? “It’s tough to say. Tough to say because they’ve talked on and off. They can go on a stretch where they talk four or five hours and get it done in a day or so or if you’re in no hurry, it can go a couple weeks without talking. We’ll see where it leads us, but we’re hopeful.”
The NHL has experimented all preseason with hybrid icing after league GM's recommended the rule change back in June. After a survey among NHL Players' Association members (i.e. the players) this past weekend, hybrid icing has finally been approved in the NHL.
The NHL was the only league that had a full-on race for the puck.
As Wild fans know, former Wild defenseman Kurtis Foster sustained a horrific injury in March 2008 in San Jose when he was hit from behind accidently by now-Wild winger Torrey Mitchell as Foster went back to touch up an icing.
Foster broke his femur and it sent his career into flux. In a class move, former Wild GM Doug Risebrough re-signed Foster even though Risebrough knew Foster wouldn't be close to ready by the next season. But it gave Foster motivation to rehab and he indeed worked his way back to play the final six games of the 2008-09 season.
Foster's injury led to a slight rule change -- a two-minute minor if a player going back to beat out an icing hit his opponent with the sole purpose of not going after the puck.
But Foster, now playing in the KHL, had long campaigned for no-touch or hybrid icing, particularly after Carolina's Joni Pitkanen broke his ankle in several places late last season. If you remember, an angry Foster sent me a flurry of comments he asked me to tweet and write at the time.
Well, Pitkanen's season is over for Carolina and his career is in jeopardy. I texted Foster a little bit ago, but it's late out in wherever he is over the ocean. When I hear back, I'll add his thoughts.
Here is the press release:
NHL TO IMPLEMENT HYBRID ICING FOR 2013-14 SEASON
NEW YORK/TORONTO (September 30, 2013) -- The National Hockey League
Players’ Association (NHLPA) and the National Hockey League (NHL) announced today that
Hybrid Icing will be implemented for the commencement of the 2013-14 regular season. The
Hybrid Icing rule had been tested during the 2013-14 preseason.
“After testing hybrid icing during the preseason games, the players participated in a
survey and a majority of teams supported this rule change in an effort to make the game
safer,” said Mathieu Schneider, NHLPA Special Assistant to the Executive Director. “We are
hopeful that the implementation of the hybrid icing rule, which is a middle ground between the
old rule and no-touch icing, will help minimize the incidence of Player injuries on icing plays.”
The Icing Rule now reads Rule 81.1 – Icing:
For the purpose of this rule, the center red line will divide the ice into halves.
Should any player of a team, equal or superior in numerical strength (power-play)
to the opposing team, shoot, bat or deflect the puck from his own half of the ice
beyond the goal line of the opposing team, play shall be stopped. For the purpose
of deflected pucks, this only applies when the puck was originally propelled down
the ice by the offending team.
For the purpose of this rule, the point of last contact with the puck by the team in
possession shall be used to determine whether icing has occurred or not. As such,
the team in possession must “gain the line” in order for the icing to be nullified.
“Gaining the line” shall mean that the puck, while on the player’s stick (not the
player’s skate) must make contact with the center red line in order to nullify a
For the purpose of interpretation of the rule, there are two judgments required for
"icing the puck". The Linesman must first determine that the puck will cross the
goal line. Once the Linesman determines that the puck will cross the goal line, icing
is completed upon the determination as to which player (attacking or defending)
would first touch the puck. This decision by the Linesman will be made the instant
the first player reaches the end zone face-off dots with the player's skate being the
determining factor. Should the puck be shot down the ice in such a manner that it
travels around the boards and/or back towards the end zone face-off dots, the
same procedure shall be in effect in that the Linesman shall determine within a
similar distance as to who will have touched the puck first.
For clarification, the determining factor is which player would first touch the puck,
not which player would first reach the end zone face-off dots.
If the race for the puck is too close to determine by the time the first Player reaches
the end zone face-off dots, icing shall be called.
The puck striking or deflecting off an official does not automatically nullify a potential icing.
Good day from beautiful Duluth and the terrific AMSOIL Arena, where there's quite a few banners hanging from the rafters -- Tommy Kurvers, some guy named Brett Hull, a national championship banner from 2011.
There's also a picture of this guy -- the great UMD goalie of all-time and longtime Wild goalie coach, Bob Mason.
Just an fyi: I will be hosting a live online chat on www.startribune.com/wild on Thursday at 2 p.m.
Today was Justin Fontaine Day at AMSOIL. The former Bulldogs national champ returned here as a bona fide NHLer and the local press was waiting with open arms.
Being a 25-year-old rookie and newbie inside the Wild dressing room, you can tell Fontaine is just a tad uncomfortable with all the attention he's getting.
"It's always good coming back to your college town," Fontaine said sheepishly.
His teammates got a kick out of the building manager blaring the arena's horn when Fontaine scored a shootout goal toward the end of practice. They threatened to fine him.
"That was a nice touch," coach Mike Yeo said of the loud noise that echoed through the college barn.
Fontaine will make his NHL debut on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings as a left winger on the fourth line with Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell.
"Coming back would be nice, but the idea that you're coming back and you just survived final cuts to stay with an NHL team, I think it's got to be really exciting for him now," Yeo said.
Fontaine had two solid years in Houston and worked hard off the ice to get his body in tip-top shape. Yeo was asked why it took so long for Fontaine to arrive after signing as a free agent in 2011.
"Part of it is paying your dues and developing in the minors," Yeo said. "This is the best league in the world. Obviously he had a great college career, but like most players, there are other things you have to learn to make that next step. You've got to give him a lot of credit because he's improved in all the areas he needed to improve on and he's now ready to make that step."
Yeo likes Fontaine's versatility and noted that even though he was a top-line player in college, but there are only so many of those in the NHL. He said if a player wants to be really smart, he "would get good at all aspects of the game so they can fill in on any role."
Yeo likes that Fontaine can move up in the lineup if there's an injury or an underperformer.
Captain Mikko Koivu remained in the Twin Cities with his fiancee and newborn daughter. He will join the Wild tonight in Duluth for practice Tuesday. Kyle Brodziak was lost for part of practice today because he fell to the ice and then conveniently took a puck to the forehead. He bled badly but was stitched up and back out on the ice in a jiffy.
The Wild's currently golfing after a light practice today. Yeo plans to get right back at it Tuesday with a hard practice to gear up for Thursday's opener against Los Angeles.
Last time we were in Duluth, Josh Harding hurt his ankle if I remember correctly at the team-building exercise the day before. Jim Mill, the Wild's assistant to the GM and now Iowa GM (was Houston), had to tend goal. Yeo noted the upgrade today in goal with Harding and Nik Backstrom on the ice but said, "mind you, it hurt the confidence of our shooters today" that Mill wasn't out there.
One other funny line. Zach Parise, with a gigantic smile, was asked his memories of Duluth: "I remember all they had to do was get one point off us for the  MacNaughton Cup and we swept 'em. It was awesome."
WILD PREGAME FESTIVITIES THURSDAY
The Wild will host pre-game parties at Xcel Energy Center
before its games on Thursday, Oct. 3 and Saturday,
Oct. 5. Fans are encouraged to attend the free events
from 4:30-6:30 p.m. outside Gate 2. The parties will
include live music by Five Man Advantage, NHL Alumni
autographs, face painters, food and drink featuring the
Budweiser Ice Bar, a Hockey Lodge retail booth, a KFAN
100.3 FM booth and the University of Minnesota Drum
Line. Additionally, on Thursday only, FOX Sports North
will have a promotional booth, while KFAN’s Dan Barriero
will broadcast live from 3-6:30 p.m.
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