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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Late last night, I had a conversation with Kurt Kleinendorst, who lost his job Sunday night as head coach of the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines. See this blog for that news.
Following a loss to Chicago that put Iowa’s record at 2-10, Kleinendorst met with Wild director of minor-league operations Jim Mill and was informed of the team’s decision that he was being dismissed as coach. It left a sour end to Kleinendort’s 29th wedding anniversary to wife, Deon.
After finishing last in the AHL’s Western Conference last year, this was Kleinendorst’s 25th year as a hockey coach and it was by far his toughest.
Kleinendorst said he’s disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated and relieved that it’s over. He says the Wild had little choice but to let him go. Whatever he tried the past two years didn’t work with a group that wasn’t responding to him in Iowa, so now it’s his friend John Torchetti’s chance to retake the reins of a struggling team that lacks confidence right now.
Here is a Q and A with the 53-year-old who now will enjoy eight months of paid vacation:
On getting fired: “It’s interesting. I’ve never been through it. You watch your peers go through it and you feel for them because it’s not fun obviously. These are high-profile positions. At the end of the day I do appreciate that [GM Chuck Fletcher] gave me an opportunity in the first place.”
Were you surprised? “Oh no, Jim and I, we go back, and anybody that knows me, would agree that I can self-evaluate. He and I have actually been having dialogue for some time because it’s been such a struggle. Since Day One, it’s been a struggle. You can’t let something like this go on too long. I understand that. The last thing any organization wants is for their young kids to be developing in a losing environment because it’s not healthy. We tried and tried and tried. We tried pretty much everything. At the end of the day, what options are left? This is what’s left, so I get it. I totally get it. I understand. I’m disappointed, but I understand why they felt they needed to do what they needed to do. I’m completely on board with it. It’s just disappointing because generally at some point you’d expect you’d get your players to kick a little bit, and it just didn't happen and that bothers me."
Why not? Looking at your career, this hasn’t happened to you at any level? Are the kids not the right kids? “I’ve been with these guys every day. I’ve got a good idea of why, but I’m going to keep that to myself. I will say this though: This needed to be done. Now Chuck is going to know it was either the guy behind the bench or it was the players out on the ice. What is it? So at the end of the day, Jimmy, Chuck, they’re in a good situation because they will be able to determine if it was the guy behind the bench or just maybe we’re not as good in Iowa as we think we are. It’s got to be one or the other. I totally understand that. I think the time was right-you just could not let this continue to fester.”
Can Torch jumpstart this team? “Torch and I go way back. I was in Raleigh when he was that taxicab driver (see previous blog for context). I love Torch. He’s a friend. I think he’s the right guy to come in and do what Chuck and Jim need him to do, plus he’s got a relationship with some of these players already from Houston, so I think that will be helpful. He’s a no-nonsense guy most of the time. I’m a no-nonsense guy most of the time with less bite and I think this group needs that extra bite. I think they need a guy that is going to be a miserable jerk, and I think Torch can be that guy – and trust me, that’s no disrespect to Torch. He's a solid person. You have to be who you are. The year that we won the [Calder] Cup [in Binghamton], I had a group of guys that connected with me. They wanted to play for me. They appreciated to be coached the way I coach. My Calder Cup year we did have a group that responded to my approach. That's how you win. Not every team is the right fit for every coach and vice versa. This group, I think they need 90 percent jerk. Maybe that's what they deserve and that’s what he’s going to give them. I will always be true to myself and stick to what I believe in.
They just didn’t connect to you? “It bothers me. It’s not often that I have a group that isn't willing to push for me. It does come down to the willingness to do what you’re being challenged to do. We challenged and we challenged and we challenged, and most every player will tell you, we put our time in, we did everything we thought would help this group click, and it just didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen. You get to a point where you have a big cloud over the locker room, and the only way you’re going to get rid of that cloud is by winning, by making a trade or by getting rid of a coach. And in this league and at this time of the year, it’s not the easiest thing to trade players. And you don’t want to be trading assets for the sake of the American League anyway, you really don’t.”
How tough was it with the Wild’s top-end prospects being in the NHL most of your tenure and guys shuttling back and forth because of injuries? “The NHL, we all know, is the best league in the world, but the hardest league to coach is the AHL in my opinion. No. 1 you’ve got a bunch of guys that don’t want to be here and a bunch of them who don’t think they should be here. That's an interesting dynamic in itself. You’ve got guys at all different developmental levels. You’ve got your veteran guys that get it, you’ve got your middle of the road guys that some get it and some don't but think they do, and you’ve got your young, developing guys that are just happy to be in the locker room. I mean, it’s a tough, tough league to coach, and that’s what makes it such a great challenge. But there are some good pieces here for sure. Justin Falk, Brett Sutter, Stephane Veilleux played their hearts out for me and are the veteran depth guys that every NHL team needs: Mark Hagel, Zack Mitchell are all in. Listen, when you’re winning, you’re not going to find out anything about anybody-not when things are going well. Anybody can be a good boy and a positive person and be uplifting when things are going your way. It’s when things aren’t going your way when we’re really going to find out about ourselves. Justin Falk is an unbelievable character. Brett Sutter is an unbelievable character. Stephane Veilleux is an unbelievable character. These are guys, that fought for me and their teammates every day, and as a coach, I respect that and appreciate that.
“You’ve got a third of your group, your core leaders, you've got your middle third and then you've got your bottom third. Your bottom third is generally your young kids, the middle third are the group of guys that could go either way. What we weren’t able to get to was, we had a really strong upper group, but we just couldn’t get the middle group to come up and join them, and because of that, you can’t get the bottom third to get pulled to the middle. But Falky, Sutter, Steph, I can’t express enough how much I appreciate them for what they did. Justin has come far. He's the one guy that I will walk away feeling the best about. In some very difficult circumstances, he's a guy that stepped up, did everything I asked of him. He wanted to be part of the solution and was a guy who was pulling for me, trying to make it work, and his game grew the most. Isn’t that how it is supposed to work? Listen, put in the time, work hard and grow. Crazy how that works. He’s taken a big step in getting back to the NHL. And Sutsy, you wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”
Can Torch turn this around though? “They’re bringing in the right guy. Don’t expect him to flip it in a day. The guys are just not in a good place right now. It’s more than likely going to take a little time.”
What’s next for you? “I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I feel bad that this didn’t work out. If there could have been a comedy of errors in a bad way, it would have been the start to this season- nothing went our way. It was almost like it was never meant to be-if you believe in such things. I have a daughter who is a grad assistant coach in Vermont at Castleton College so I’m going to go out and spend some time with her. We’ve got a place out in Park City I will get out there.
“When I left on Sunday, I was disappointed and embarrassed. I always feel that your teams are a reflection of you, and this team was by no means a reflection of me. It was difficult to get this group to buy in to what I needed them to do and I own that. I won't pass that off on anyone. I was disappointed, and in the end embarrassed for the way we were playing, but I was also relieved that it was over. It was like we had tried everything and it wasn’t happening-it happens. Time to move on from a bad experience. Plenty of good coaches have been let go and come back to have success. [Devils GM Lou Lamoriello] taught me to be a good self-evaluator and I believe I do. I know everything that needed to be done and what I could control was done.
“I’m going to take some time. I won't come back to coaching until my belly’s burning and I'm excited to get behind the bench again. My belly’s not burning right now. Hockey is a great game and coaching’s such a great profession. I’ve got something to offer. We'll just have to wait and see where that will be.”
With the Iowa Wild off to an American Hockey League-worst 2-10 start after finishing last in the Western Conference a year ago, Kurt Kleinendorst is out as head coach of the Wild’s minor-league affiliate, sources say.
The Wild has tabbed John Torchetti as Kleinendorst’s replacement, according to sources, and he will be on the ice to coach the Baby Wild during Tuesday’s practice. Torchetti, 50, who won a Stanley Cup as a Chicago Blackhawks assistant in 2010, returns to the Wild after coaching the Houston Aeros to back-to-back postseason berths. He was supposed to relocate with the team to Des Moines, but he exercised an out clause to take a job in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League last year.
Kleinendorst, 53, was informed of the Wild’s decision by director of minor-league operations Jim Mill after Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Wolves. An announcement is expected Tuesday morning.
The Iowa Wild, despite such prospects as Tyler Graovac, Kurtis Gabriel, Zack Phillips and Brett Bulmer and skilled players like Jordan Schroeder, Michael Keranen and Zack Mitchell, averages only 2.25 goals per game, has allowed 3.8 goals per game and has won once at home.
Johan Gustafsson is off to a 2-6 start with a 3.70 goals-against average and .884 save percentage.
It’s been more and more clear the past few weeks that General Manager Chuck Fletcher was growing increasingly displeased with Iowa’s play and was worried about the development of some of its prospects would stall.
After the latest loss Sunday, Kleinendorst was quoted on Tom Witosky’s Twitter account (@toskyAHLWild) regarding the season’s tough start, “Trust me I know. It hurts. It is not pretty. Obviously, it is a huge, huge reflection on me.”
Assistant coach Steve Poapst and the rest of Iowa’s staff was retained.
Kleinendorst, a Grand Rapids, Minn., native, came to the Wild after coaching the University of Alabama-Huntsville for one year. The longtime New Jersey Devils assistant coach was a finalist for the Aeros’ head-coaching position in 2010. It went to now-Wild coach Mike Yeo instead, and Kleinendorst was hired by the Ottawa Senators to coach their AHL affiliate in Binghamton. Coincidentally, Kleinendorst’s Baby Sens rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to beat Yeo’s Aeros before Yeo came to Minnesota.
Torchetti, 50, coached CSKA Moscow last year after having an out clause in his Wild contract with the Aeros. At the time, Fletcher said Torchetti couldn’t pass up a “huge deal,” but he apparently left after one year because of the unrest politically in Russia last year. Torchetti went 32-20-2 in Moscow.
Torchetti's Houston Aeros went 75-51-26 in two seasons. He has been an interim head coach with the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings (so he has been through transitions before) and has been an assistant with Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Chicago.
He has got almost 20 years of pro coaching experience, spending time in the ECHL, CHL (Coach of the Year in 1995 in San Antonio), IHL (Coach of the Year in 1998 in Fort Wayne), AHL and NHL, and was also a minor-league general manager.
From my Torchetti hired blog a few years back:
He’s a former minor-league goal scorer who got his career started playing for Rick Dudley for the old Atlantic Coast League’s Carolina Thunderbirds in the mid-80s. Dudley used to drive the buses and Torchetti would sit in the front seat and stay up every night ‘til 3 or 4 in the morning talking hockey and life with Dudley. They’ve been tight ever since.
When Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr ran the San Antonio minor-league franchise for Florida, Torchetti was the head coach and they became good friends.
Torchetti is a guy who worked for free in his first coaching job in Greensboro. On the side, he drove a taxi to earn a living. He hails from Northeast and has the thickest Boston accent you’ve ever heard, so get ready for that.
With a little sliver of time at home before resuming their road trip, the Wild practiced Monday morning at Ridder Arena--and nearly the full roster was on the ice. Winger Matt Cooke (lower body) was still out, but upper-body injury victims Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon both skated. The biggest surprise was seeing goalie Josh Harding, who broke his foot in September and practiced for the first time this season.
Parise, Spurgeon and Harding all will travel with the Wild to New Jersey for Tuesday's game, the last of a string of three on the road. Coach Mike Yeo said none of them will play, but he wanted all three to continue skating with the team as they move forward with their recoveries.
All were wearing red sweaters during practice, but none took it easy. The threesome participated in all drills, and each looked like they were well on the road to a return.
"I was happy to get the news they would be joining us for practice, and they looked good,'' Yeo said. "The bottom line is that we had to get through today. This was a big step. They looked good in practice.
"We'll talk some more with them, but we plan on bringing them on the road--not with the expectation they’ll play, but to give them a chance to hopefully get back sooner. So we'll let them skate with the group, and this is a good first step.''
The Wild did not allow the media to speak with Parise. Spurgeon said he resumed skating three days after his injury--which happened when the defenseman slid awkwardly into the boards during the Wild's shootout victory over San Jose on Oct. 30--and hasn't lost much conditioning. "I'm just waiting for everything to strengthen back up, and we'll go from there,'' he said.
Harding found out Sunday that he was cleared to practice. He said he felt good and has been working on his rehabilitation since shortly after breaking his foot.
"It was great seeing all the guys again and getting that competition back,'' Harding said. "Just challenging yourself to stop every shot, just going out there and doing your job. This was another step. Whatever I can do to help this team out, that's the next step.''
Yeo said he anticipates the near-return of Parise and Spurgeon will serve dual purposes. It will give the team an emotional lift, and it will be "a motivator'' to players who realize their roles could change when those two stars re-enter the lineup.
The biggest change Yeo wants to see in his team is more mental fortitude when things don't work in its favor. "We're not really that far off,'' he said. "There are stretches where we’re thought out very, very good. But the ability to stay with it for 60 minutes, we've got to be a little bit stronger between the ears. We've got to be a little bit tougher mentally.
"Things are not always going to go your way. The puck might not go in when you get chances, or the other team might get a bounce, might get a break and then score. That’s why you play a 60-minute hockey game.''
Wild’s in a bit of a pickle and now will be desperately trying to grab control of losing streak and attempt to stop a spiral downward.
That 7-3 season-opening record and dominant play is history. The Wild’s 7-6 now thanks to three losses in a row by a combined score of 11-2, the latest coming by a 4-1 score tonight here in Montreal.
The Wild’s struggling to score. It can’t stop giving up goals (23 in the past seven games, which isn’t Wild hockey). And it’s playing without three significant pieces – Zach Parise, the team’s heart and soul and go-to scorer, Jared Spurgeon, who was off to a fabulous start and is so, so, so important to the team’s puck possession game, and Matt Cooke, who plays hard-nosed hockey, kills penalties and was a key contributor to a fourth line that was scoring until the very moment he left the lineup.
The Wild’s also playing two rookie defensemen who two games in a row on the road made significant mistakes that helped turn scoreless games upside down.
The Matt Dumba one tonight was not good. Scoreless. Everything going well. Team’s following the gameplan and trying hard to get that first goal by Carey Price.
Then Dumba, instead of doing the safe thing and getting the puck deep, tried to chip a puck off the wall. It was too soft, so instead of backing up and realizing it was going to be a turnover, he stepped in front of defender Max Pacioretty (1st big mistake) and then dived to try to keep it from getting to Tomas Plekanec (2nd big mistake).
With the Canadiens coming the other way with speed, Dumba was still picking himself off the ice at the top of the right faceoff circle in Montreal’s end. Yes, the Wild wasn’t outnumbered because Mikko Koivu realized Dumba’s error and backed him up, but it seemed to foul up Marco Scandella because his gap was poor, he surrendered the blue line to the super-fast Brendan Gallagher and 1-0 Canadiens.
Dumba played one shift the rest of the game and none in the third period.
The Wild keeps playing Dumba because it’s about development and has to experience intimidating climates like Montreal, but he’s 20 years old and erratic and hasn’t yet played a second of minor-league hockey even though last I checked, that’s the development league.
The question is can the Wild continue to play him when the bad has thus far outweighed the good.
Jonas Brodins don’t grow on trees. The fact that he could step into the Wild at 19 years old was special. Dumba has all the tools to be a real good defenseman, but he is too reckless at times and tonight characteristically tried to turn something into nothing, made a careless play and it led to a goal against.
Like I said, assistant coach Rick Wilson benched him from there, so perhaps a stint in Iowa is coming for Dumba.
The Wild did tie the game when Thomas Vanek, who twice earlier in the game and once the previous shift neglected to shoot in an attempt to set up Jason Pominville. Third time was a charm when Vanek saucered a beauty to Pominville circa 2011 for Pominville’s fourth of the season and 11th of his career against his hometown Habs.
But with the Wild less than a minute from getting out of the second, 1-1, rookie Christian Folin’s turnover led to Lars Eller’s go-ahead, momentum-turning goal. There were a lot of mistakes on that shift. Folin’s was just the last, but he also had issues in Ottawa.
By the 6:04 mark of the third, it was 4-1.
The third goal, the Wild had a gripe with and coincidentally I have been working on an article on incidental contact for Monday’s paper.
Jiri Sekac made it 3-1 and Darcy Kuemper was unable to make the save because Brandon Prust pushed him inside the net. However, referee Kelly Sutherland didn’t rule it incidental contact because he was already calling Nino Niederreiter for an interference penalty because he felt Niederreiter checked Prust onto Kuemper.
The Wild was very frustrated because in the previous home game against Pittsburgh, Mikael Granlund was arguably pushed onto Thomas Greiss and Mikko Koivu still had a goal wiped out because of incidental contact. Earlier this season, Jan Hejda pushed Niederreiter onto Semyon Varlamov and Charlie Coyle had a goal waved off for incidental contact.
I’ll get more into this in Monday’s paper, but again, Sutherland didn’t rule incidental contact here because he was calling Niederreiter for a delayed penalty all along.
The Wild was upset. Ryan Suter told the ref, “You’ve got to know the play,” meaning know Prust’s MO.
Yeo in the postgame said, “We’re losing games similarly to the way that we did last year at this time. You’d like to think some of the lessons that we learned that we would use that right now. I feel we have to learn some of those lessons again.”
Yeo was frustrated because the Wild was executing the gameplan well, “it’s a 0-0 game and there’s no reason to change. I felt that we did.”
On the Dumba mistake, Yeo said, “I don’t want to pin this just on him. This is a young kid, he’s learning lessons. But that said, that was similar to our whole group. We want to be aggressive, we want to go after the next goal, but you’ve got to make sure you don’t give up the first one, too. As the game wore on, as we got impatient with our process, we started to get away from [our gameplan]. It’s not good enough.”
On the fact that Parise, Spurgeon and Cooke may not be coming to the rescue, Yeo said, “I’m going to use the night here to sort it out. There’s a couple different directions we can go. I feel we can get very hard on certain individuals right now and take that approach or the other flip side is we have some young kids who are definitely pressing. You can see it in some of our execution, some of the plays – whether it’s nerves or tension. Whatever the approach is we’ll find the right one.”
Pretty sure he’s talking about guys like Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle, who was minus-3 tonight.
“We’ll be a better team at the 20-ghame mark than we are right now,” Yeo promised. “This has to be about learning and sometimes when you face this adversity like we saw last year, that makes you better.”
Suter said, “We’ve played a soft game. First period tonight, we played a good north-south hard game the way we need to play. Second period, we got away from that. We made a mistake and then we started not finishing checks. We’re an easy team to play against when we play that way. If you want to have success, you have to stick to the gameplan.”
On the mistakes by Dumba and Folin, Suter said, “It’s a tough game. It takes time to learn. It’s unfortunate, but those plays happen to everybody. It’s not just those guys. We all have to be better. It’s too bad. We had such a good thing going and now we’re kind of getting away from what we were building.”
Koivu said, “It’s on all of us. … They get the goal, and we feel that we’re playing good, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to find another notch. That’s why on the road it’s tough. You have to bear down every single shift. It doesn’t matter what the score is, you have to play the way we need to play to win some hockey games, and right now we’re not doing that.”
The Wild’s got a mess on its hands right now, and it’s up to the healthy players and coaches to get themselves out of it.
That’s it for me. The Wild’s heading back to Minnesota as I write, will take Sunday off, practice at the U on Monday and fly to New Jersey afterward. Rachel will cover Monday’s practice because I’m heading to New York on Sunday to work on two big NHL stories you’ll see in the future, including Sunday night where I’ll be watching the league’s slate of games from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety war-room.
Lastly, goose-bump night here at Bell Centre watching the great Guy Lapointe, the Wild’s chief amateur scout, get his No. 5 retired and see his banner reunited with the “Big Three,” Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. I wrote about it in Saturday’s paper but also wrote a column on Lapointe in Sunday’s paper, so please check that out. Here’s the end of tonight’s ceremony.
Mike Yeo planned to talk with veteran defenseman Keith Ballard after the morning skate to make sure he was still feeling good, but the Wild coach’s expectation was that Ballard would play his second game of the season and first since Oct. 17 tonight when the Wild visits the Montreal Canadiens.
Good afternoon from the Bell Centre press room.
The Wild looks to avoid its first three-game losing streak of the season against a struggling Canadiens team that has only two shootout wins in its past six games and hasn’t won in regulation since Oct. 25.
Darcy Kuemper will make his first road start since the five-goal third period against the Rangers six games ago and he’ll go against Olympic gold medalist Carey Price.
The Canadiens rank 27th offensively in the NHL with 2.07 goals per game. They have scored six goals in the past six games, which is stunning since they’re a fast team with a lineup that boasts Max Pacioretty and PK Subban, two guys who have registered hat tricks in the past against the Wild.
This will be a battle of the 28th-ranked and 29th-ranked power plays tonight. I’ll let you guess which team is ranked 29th.
Wild chief amateur scout Guy Lapointe will have his No. 5 retired by the Canadiens tonight. In a long overdue ceremony, Lapointe’s jersey will reunite with the fellow “Big Three” defensemen Larry Robinson and Serge Savard.
Reminder: the game starts at 6:30 p.m. CT even though it’s listed at 6 p.m. The ceremony starts at 5:30. Fox Sports North ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++’s coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Wild Live. KFAN’s pregame show starts at 6:15.
The Wild will be on the bench during the ceremony. Coach Mike Yeo conferred with the team’s leaders and the team decided it would only be right if the Wild players were on the bench. First of all, Yeo said, no team puts on a better show during pregame ceremonies than the Canadiens and it would be good of the Wild to witness part of the great history that is the Montreal franchise. Second of all, Yeo noted how good of a man Lapointe is and how he had a big influence in drafting many of the Wild’s players.
"We should all understand how lucky we are to be part of something so special like tonight,” Yeo said.
Yeo talked to the Wild about the ceremony. Warmups will be afterward, so Yeo said that will allow players to get their legs under them and their minds on the task at hand.
“We have to find a way,” Yeo said.
As I said, Ballard is expected to return. Nate Prosser will be scratched. Prosser had played nine games in a row.
Yeo is not happy with Prosser’s game lately. He was on for the power-play goal against in Ottawa, made the mistakes that led to the Brandon Sutter and Joe Thornton goals against Pittsburgh and San Jose and on for all three goals in Boston.
“He’s not quite there right now,” Yeo said when I asked why Prosser sits over rookie Matt Dumba. “What we’re looking for from Pross is reliability and making sure goals aren’t going in the net when he’s on the ice. I’m not pinning that on him right now, but at the same time, his game is not quite there.”
As for Dumba, Yeo said, “[Jared] Spurgeon’s absence creates a void on the power play. For a team that hasn’t had a whole lot of success on the power play to make an understatement, it’s tough to take guys out that give us a chance to get one.”
Dumba has 17 shots the past five games and second among Wild defensemen with 23 (one behind Marco Scandella and one ahead of Ryan Suter).
Also, Yeo said, “I know what Pross is going to be,” and indicated that part of Dumba’s development if the Wild’s going to have him on the team right now is to play in environments like Montreal. In addition, Yeo said, “Part of when you’re making up a lineup, you have to make sure your lineup is prepared for the type of game it’s going to be and this is going to be a skating game tonight,” which is why Yeo wants Ballard and Dumba playing over Prosser.
My guess is the Wild will really watch Ballard’s play and his ice time. He missed eight games with an illness and is just getting his energy back, so if he struggles or looks sluggish, I’d think we’d see Suter and Scandella double-shifted at times with Folin and Dumba maybe interchanging.
Lines for the Wild expected to be:
See yesterday afternoon’s blog for more on tonight’s game and of course the articles in today’s paper on players needing to step up with Spurgeon, Zach Parise and Matt Cooke out and the Guy Lapointe piece. I’ll also have a column on Lapointe in tomorrow’s paper.
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