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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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will be in Wild owner Craig Leipold’s center-ice suite tonight to take in the Wild vs. Calgary Flames game.
But not too close.
Leipold reminded Bettman that nobody, even the leader of the NHL, can sit in the seat next to the jumpy owner during games. So Bettman will keep his distance.
Bettman did take a car ride with Leipold today thought to the Twins’ Target Field and the Gophers’ TCF Bank Stadium to tour the facilities for a possible outdoor game. He called both facilities “very, very attractive.”
The Wild didn’t take part in a stadium-series game this season (the league had four on top of the Winter Classic and Heritage Classic) in part because Leipold has been holding out for the Winter Classic. After the 2015 Winter Classic was awarded to the Washington Capitals, Leipold changed his tune and informed the NHL he would take a stadium-series game if it helps the Wild’s cause to get the NHL’s actual Winter Classic.
“Craig has been discussing with me the possibility of playing a stadium game for a long time and we discussed it again today,” Bettman said late this afternoon. “It’s something we know the club wants, that Craig wants and the fans want, and we’ll be responsive. I can’t give you a date or a venue yet. … The fans, the hockey environment, the weather, this is the State of Hockey after all … “We’re very focused on Minnesota.”
Bettman indicated the Wild would get a stadium-series game before a Winter Classic because “It’s easier to focus on because we have more opportunity to satisfy the demands.”
“I’m not making any promises” as to if the Wild will get one next season.
There has been a lot of chatter that one reason the Wild hasn’t gotten the Winter Classic is because NBC hasn’t felt the Wild can draw a national audience. Bettman didn’t confirm that, but when I asked if NBC and HBO have a say in the venues and opponents, Bettman said, “We consult with them in terms of getting their input as to what makes sense from a television standpoint.”
The NHL has indicated the league will have fewer outdoor games next season. There has been much debate that there have been too many in a short amount of time and it takes the uniqueness away.
“Despite all of the debate about what the right number is, you can’t really overdo these,” said Bettman, pointing out the six games (including Winter Classic and Heritage Classic) drew 375,000 fans.
“It has become such a big fan favorite event, such an in-market phenomena,” said, Bettman, although he agree you “don’t want to do too many” because it should be a national television attraction and “it pushed our organization to the limits.”
“We’re specializing in staff red-eyes,” he joked.
--On expansion: “There’s a lot of interest. We’re hearing from multiple groups in Seattle, … in Vegas, in Kansas City, in Quebec City. We haven’t decided to engage in a formal expansion process, but as we always do, we listen to expressions of interest. … There may be good reasons to expand, there may be not. It’s not something we’ve seriously considered yet.”
(Russo note: Expansion’s coming. The league is perfectly set up for 32. Seattle will obviously be one, and even though people always seems to poo-poo Vegas, my sources tell me this is a legit option as MGM Resorts builds an arena behind New York-New York).
--On the state of the league: “Look at the last year, we now have long-term labor peace, we have two very significant long-term major media contracts for national rights in Canada and the U.S., we sold three franchises over the summer. We’re probably the most stable and in the best position we’ve ever been in.”
--on potential rule changes, like 3-point games in the standings, etc. He said the league’s playing at 95 percent capacity in the regular season, over 100% in the playoffs, “revenues have never been higher, TV ratings have never been higher, the game on the ice has never been better followed and received and praised. … I don’t think the game’s in need of any urgent changes.”
-- On the future of the Olympics, “We went to Sochi to have a nice tournament and we did. Nobody has given any serious discussion or thought as to what we do next.”
Owners are starting to scoff at going to the 2018 Olympics in South Korea, in large part to the several injuries that took place in Sochi, the 14-hour time difference, the stopping of the momentum of the NHL season, etc. In fact, the Wild was one a number of teams that voted against going to Sochi.
“It’s not all good and it’s not all bad,” Bettman said. “It’s a balancing act and some of that balance gets affected by where the Olympics are. When we were in Vancouver and Salt Lake City, it was easy to tip the scales. When you’re in other places, not so easy.
Bettman said Russia was easy because of the hockey tradition there. He noted that’s not the same for Korea, but he added, “Nobody, nobody has begun the process of evaluating what comes next. We’re focused on our season.”
--Bettman talked about how the NHL is the leader in video review and how the other league comes to them to see how they do it. In fact, it’s been reported that the NFL wants to have a centralized video review system like the NHL.
But Bettman said they can’t review everything and coach’s challenges are problematic because “continuous play means we can’t review everything because we may find ourselves unwinding the clock. We don’t want to do anything that we can’t get right with certainty.”
He did say the NHL will “continue to study what applications we can put technology to use to help get more decisions right,” like on my gripe that goalie interference should be reviewed (for example, referee Brad Meier wiping out Keith Ballard’s goal in Vancouver on Friday even though Erik Haula didn’t touch Eddie Lack; supervisor Mick McGeough acknowledged to me that Meier erred).
“But it’s the reason our officials have the toughest job, this game is fast and it’s continuous and you don’t want to disrupt the game,” Bettman said of too many reviews and thought of coach challenges.
But Bettman said the NHL continues to try to minimize the number of referee and linesman mistakes by “coaching and critiquing and holding officials accountable.”
Wild and Calgary Flames tonight at the X.
The Wild has won five in a row at home and four in a row overall for the NHL’s longest winning streak. It’s 8-2-2 in its past 12.
Gary Bettman, the NHL’s beloved Commish, will be in the house tonight. He’s stopping over on his way back to New York from the Heritage Classic in Vancouver to get wined and dined by owner Craig Leipold, who wants nothing more than a Winter Classic (and a Stanley Cup) but has made clear he’d settle for a stadium series game if that helps his cause to get you fine hockey loving fans a Winter Classic.
I’m meeting with Bettman before the game and will let you know what he says.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North during their pregame show tonight and again during the first intermission. I’ll also me on SiriusXM at 3:30 p.m. CT.
Captain Mikko Koivu and defenseman Marco Scandella will return to the Wild’s lineup tonight from a broken ankle and sprained knee, respectively. This effectively gives the Wild its first healthy lineup since the second period of the second game of the season, although obviously Josh Harding remains sidelined and Jason Zucker is working his way back from a leg injury.
Although, and don’t freak out all you Zucker fanatics, if the Wild continues to be healthy in its top-9, my guess is Zucker returns to Iowa once he’s cleared. Koivu and Scandella being activated off IR means the Wild’s at 23 players (or three healthy scratched per night). Zucker is skating on his own daily.
Koivu is expected to center Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle tonight.
“Very excited,” he said. “It’s been a long wait. Kinda frustrating all the time after the [Jan. 6] surgery. Very excited. Little bit nervous, but that’s part of the step to take to the game. It’ll be fun.”
The Wild was 11-4-2 without him.
Koivu said, “It makes it a lot easier when you’re out and the team’s winning. It’s easier on everyone. Now I’ll try to help the team on my part. I have to be very patient with my game and go step by step and build it up again, but I’m confident it’ll go well.”
Koivu, five points from being the Wild’s all-time leading scorer, was playing at his highest level when he was injured. He had eight points in his final five games before getting hurt, including three 2-point games, including two assists on Ryan Suter’s eventual hat trick while playing on the broken ankle.
He’ll also help bigtime in the faceoff circle as the Wild’s gone from a top-5 team to 15th in the NHL in the 17 games he has missed.
Scandella will also return to the lineup. He’s excited and is trying to get used to a knee brace.
Clayton Stoner will be scratched. My guess is he would have played if a couple of Calgary’s tough guys, like Kevin Westgarth, weren’t hurt.
“We’re excited to have [Scandella] back, a guy we definitely want to get back in the groove here, especially the level that he was playing at before he got hurt,” coach Mike Yeo said. “That said, our defensive group has been playing very well lately. It’s a tough choice, but at the same we’ve got to get him going.
“The message to Stony is he shouldn’t expect to just get sat every game. Been very pleased with his game. We all saw what happened in Edmonton and the way he was able to come back in that game. He’s been a warrior for us. He’s been a physical presence, and we’re going to need him. This is one game. This is a decision we made for tonight.”
I did get a question asking if the Wild’s sitting Stoner because it plans to trade him before Wednesday. I know he’s in the last year of his deal, but the Wild’s not very physical from the back end and I’d think the Wild would want Stoner if it makes the playoffs. In fact, I’d think the Wild would consider re-signing him eventually. So I think this is just a decision tonight as Keith Ballard stays in the lineup.
Stephane Veilleux was expected to be scratched up front with Mike Rupp, but he will now skate in warmups. If he plays, I’d think Torrey Mitchell sits.
Devan Dubnyk was put on waivers by Nashville. As you know, the Wild almost certainly will add a goalie by Wednesday’s 2 p.m. deadline.
If you take Dubnyk, it will cost no assets. But he’s in the middle of a terrible season with Edmonton and Nashville (11-18-3 with a 3.43 goals-against average and .891 save percentage). He’s 61-77-22 in his career with a 2.90 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.
To me, he makes sense if you plan to go with Darcy Kuemper the rest of the way with Niklas Backstrom as your backup and you don’t mind having Dubnyk ride the pine as a third goalie.
Otherwise, I think you can do better via trade. Obviously, it all has to do with what the price is for guys like Jaroslav Halak and Martin Brodeur. Carolina’s also got goalies available, and there’s always Ilya Bryzgalov.
Backstrom is dealing with an abdominal injury. He’s going on the ice every day like a good soldier, but since he said it’s up to the team to divulge what’s wrong with him, it’s obviously something significant. So if the Wild knows he has got an injury that will eventually need repair, this gives more credence to why the Wild’s looking so hard for quality goalie insurance.
At this point, the net belongs to Kuemper and it should. He deserves it and has shown he’s capable (10-2-2 in his past 15 starts). He was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week today after giving up 51 of 52 shots in two wins at Edmonton and Vancouver, excluding another 7 in the Vancouver shootout.
But another goalie is bound to be here in the next two days. Again, to answer the most oft-asked question I receive from people who clearly don’t read the blogs or article, if the Wild acquires a goalie, the Wild will likely go with three goalies the rest of the way (unless Backstrom’s injury is serious enough to result in immediately surgery).
Rosters are unlimited as of 12:01 a.m. Wednesday barring you don’t go over the cap.
I have gotten a lot of questions about who could be trade bait from the Wild.
With such a bad 2014 draft, I’d think any draft pick is in play (especially Winnipeg’s second-rounder from the Devin Setoguchi trade), although Fletcher has said he’d prefer not to trade his first-rounder for a second year in a row.
I’d think Kyle Brodziak is on the block and Torrey Mitchell is expendable. Obviously, Rupp. I’d think the Wild would want to avoid trading defensemen unless it’s getting one back. Heatley has played well lately, but since he’s in the last year of his deal, he obviously would be tradable as long as a partner wasn’t on his no-trade list. Still, I’d think very unlikely. As for the prospects, it would not shock me at all if Zucker was bait IF the return was significant.
Also, another oft-asked and very good question, if you pro-rate the Wild's available cap space, the Wild could add roughly $5.5 million in players (cap, not dollars) at the deadline without giving up a player in return. If the Wild went over $5.5 million, it would need to trade a player or place Josh Harding on LTIR.
UPDATE: Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher today announced the National Hockey League (NHL) club has signed right wing Kurtis Gabriel to a three-year entry-level contract starting with the 2014-15 season.
“We’re very happy with Kurtis’ progress this year and look forward to him developing within our organization,” said Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr. “He’s a hard-working kid that brings an intriguing package of size, physical competitiveness and character.”
Gabriel, 20 (4/20/93), has recorded 42 points (12-30=42), including three game-winning goals, 86 penalty minutes (PIM) and a plus-4 rating in 54 games with the Owen Sound Attack in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) this season. The 6-foot-4, 214-pound native of New Market, Ont., serves as an assistant captain and leads his team in assists, is third in PIM and fourth in scoring. He has tallied 91 points (30-61=91) and 278 PIM in 226 career WHL games during four seasons with Owen Sound. Gabriel was selected by Minnesota in the third-round (81st overall) of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
All signs point toward Mikko Koivu returning Monday night against the Calgary Flames.
Koivu, who has missed 17 games since undergoing ankle surgery Jan. 6, skated on a line with Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle throughout Sunday’s practice at Braemar and retained his spot on the top power-play unit.
Coach Mike Yeo said he had a great practice and said a few times, “we’re excited to get him back.”
Officially though, the Wild will take the decision into Monday morning to make sure Koivu’s ankle feels good after he wakes up and after one last morning skate.
In practice today, the Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville line stayed intact.
“It’s the coaches who make the decisions and players, it’s our job to create chemistry with different players,” Koivu said. “Injuries are a part of the game and you’re going to have different guys and different lines. I think with Heater, it would be easy because we’ve played a lot of games together and with Charlie, [I’ve played with him]. I think it’s a matter of time more for myself to get on their speed of the game so I can help them out.
“I don’t think it really matters right now who you’re playing with. I think every guy is playing great and we’ve had to adjust the lines all season long and every single night it’s been some combination or some individual who steps up and makes the play to get us points. It’s huge, but like I said, it’s more about me getting to the level I want to help them and it helps that I’ve played with those two guys in the past.”
Yeo likes the makeup of the line.
“It’s a big line,” Yeo said. “First off, three guys that can control the puck, three guys that are really tough to defend. Mikko’s had chemistry with both Heater and Charlie in the past, too. Hopefully there’s not too much of a feeling out process. But I just think that it gives us an opportunity to have a line that’s out there with the ability to create offense every night that’s hard to play against.”
Matt Cooke skated with Kyle Brodziak and Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula centered Torrey Mitchell and Justin Fontaine. Stephane Veilleux looks like he’d be the extra if Koivu returns.
So, basically, the trickle down effect of Koivu’s return initially would have Coyle move from center to right wing, Niederreiter to go from second line to third, Fontaine from third to fourth. Or, basically exactly what we predicted on the blog last week.
This is a good thing. Basically, as Parise said today, every team has its opening night roster every year and it never quite works out to what you want it to be all year long because of injuries.
But since the second period of the second game of the season when Coyle sprained his knee, the Wild has never had its full roster together. Against Calgary, if Koivu and defenseman Marco Scandella return, it will.
Koivu’s return makes the Wild deeper and could potentially give the Wild four deep lines.
The Wild also suddenly has two formidable power-play units. Koivu, the all-time Wild leader in power-play points, took his spot again with Parise. Coyle, to give the Wild a needed righty down low, moves to the top unit with Pominville and Ryan Suter at the points. The second unit consisted of Heatley-Granlund-Niederreiter with Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon up top. That’s three lefties down low, which could make things tricky, so it wouldn’t be shocking if Fontaine gets some time or they move Spurgeon down to that left circle position to attempt one-timers.
Suter and Spurgeon were a pair today, while Scandella was with Brodin. The third pair, if Scandella returns, will be two of Keith Ballard, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser. I don’t know how you take Prosser out the way he’s been playing, so if Scandella returns, Ballard or Stoner will likely be taken out.
Darcy Kuemper will make his 15th consecutive start.
Scandella says he’s ready, but like with Koivu, Yeo said they’ll take the final decision into Monday morning.
Monday will be the first-ever Mikael Granlund vs. Markus Granlund game. The younger Granlund will play his third NHL game. He was drafted in 2011 in St. Paul.
As for the game, Mikael Granlund said, “I feel really proud for my parents. It’s very special.”
Jason Zucker, by the way, skated on his own today.
That’s it for now. Nothing new on the goalie front. Here's my column on the goalie trade front today. I think it goes to Wednesday. If the Wild’s the only team out there really searching for a goalie, if I’m Chuck Fletcher, I use that as leverage to let acquisition prices for Jaroslav Halak or Marty Brodeur or whoever drop.
Again, Wednesday at 12:01 a.m., you can go over the 23-man roster as long as you don’t go over the cap ceiling. So the Wild could very well carry three goalies the rest of the season. If the Wild has three goalies, that means one won’t dress every game. That could create an interesting dynamic, but the Wild doesn’t seen too concerned. As Fletcher always says, “I just want to win,” so he’s not going to worry about feelings.
And as we learned in the playoffs last year when suddenly Kuemper was playing games because Backstrom and Josh Harding got hurt, you can never have too much depth. It’s better having more players than too little.
Speaking of depth, remember when the Wild was always a Mikko Koivu injury away from disaster every year? Pretty impressive that the team, which is 13-4-2 in 2014, is 11-4-2 without him. Says so much about the improved depth of the team and the job the Wild’s youngsters have done to this point.
As Parise said, maybe all the long-term injuries the Wild has had this year, from Koivu to Parise to Harding to Spurgeon to Coyle to Granlund, has made the Wild a better team for these final 21 games.
The Wild has signed Calgary Hitmen free-agent center Brady Brassart to a three-year entry-level deal and I hear the team is close to signing hard-nosed prospect Kurtis Gabriel, 20, a 2013 third-round pick, to his three-year, entry-level contract. An announcement on that should come in the next couple days.
Brassart, 20, has scored 33 goals and 75 points, including 10 power-play goals, six game-winning goals, a plus-17 rating and 90 penalty minutes in 62 games with the WHL Hitmen this season. The 6-foot-2, 196-pounder leads Calgary in scoring, is tied for first in assists and second in goals and PIM.
“Brady has had a strong overage season and we are very happy that he chose to sign with the Minnesota Wild,” said assistant general manager Brent Flahr in the press release. “He’s a good-sized center that plays a mature two-way game. He can play in all situations and we look forward to his transition to professional hockey next season.”
As for Gabriel, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound forward is the fourth-leading scorer with 11 goals and 40 points in 52 games for Owen Sound in the Ontario Hockey League. He will officially turn pro in the fall.
If you remember, the Wild faced a tough decision in training camp as to whether or not to sign him then and send him to Iowa or return him to Owen Sound for his overage year so he could play big minutes and a big role for Owen Sound. I think they're happy with its decision.
Gabriel is a character kid, very physical, tough and, most intriguing, has size.
In fact, that's the most intriguing thing about the Wild's next rung of prospect forwards. The Wild's not the biggest team in the world, so it's made a conscious effort the last few drafts to add players with size.
They have Gabriel, Brett Bulmer, Tyler Graovac, Raphael Bussieres, Adam Gilmour, Mario Lucia and Avery Peterson off the top of my head. Add Brassart now, too. I'm just talking forward. Defense, guys like stud Gustav Olofsson, Daniel Gunnarsson, Carson Soucy and Nick Seeler are all big.
Obviously, Matt Dumba plays physically, too.
Wild's got the day off today before practicing Sunday in St. Paul. They're coming off a big four points on two games in two nights to Edmonton and Vancouver.
They were running on fumes in the third period in Vancouver, but Darcy Kuemper stood tall and the work ethic exuded on the ice was beyond impressive.
Since becoming the Wild’s No. 1 goalie Jan. 7, Kuemper is 10-2-2 with a 1.94 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. He has made 14 consecutive starts, has won four in a row (four goals allowed) and is 11 for 11 against shooters in two victorious shootouts.
Again, it'll be interesting how Chuck Fletcher proceeds as Wednesday's deadline arrives. The Wild is in the market for a goalie.
Buffalo would love to trade Jaroslav Halak to Minnesota, so we'll see if anything evolves there if the price is right. I know I indicated last night that there may not be a lot of interest, but he's 28, has put up good numbers throughout his career and with the Wild's goaltending situation, there's no doubt the Wild's in the market for a goalie. Halak's numbers are stellar (24-9-4 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .917 save percentage), but there's always the question of how much is that to do with Ken Hitchcock's system.
We'll see how things play out if the price is right. There's no doubt Fletcher and Sabres GM Tim Murray are talking.
There's Martin Brodeur (could be a good mentor for Kuemper), Cam Ward and his exorbitant contract, maybe Tim Thomas if Florida's willing to move him, Ilya Bryzgalov.
We shall see.
The Wild is 13-4-2 in 19 games in 2014 heading into Monday's game vs. Calgary, a game Kuemper's parents will be in attendance for.
Entering tonight, the Wild has a seven-point lead for a playoff spot, but it's idle from Tuesday to Friday, so Monday's two points would be key.
Anyhoooo, that's it. I have to board a plane. As expected John Curry and Steve Kampfer were returned to Iowa.
Talk to you Sunday.
The Wild will sleep tight tonight on its four-hour charter back to Minnesota, one that’s supposed to land close to 5 a.m.
In a taxing, taxing game, its second in 24 hours, the Wild hung on for a 2-1 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks tonight to gain a seven-point edge on a playoff spot.
Zach Parise scored the lone goal (his 20th through Dany Heatley’s screen, and 11th on the power play, which is tied for third in the NHL) in regulation – lone goal because referee Brad Meier thought he saw something that didn’t occur and wiped out a Keith Ballard equalizer earlier. And Darcy Kuemper, playing for the second time in two nights after shutting out Edmonton, made 30 saves and wasn’t beaten by one Canucks shooter in a seven-round shootout.
Justin Fontaine, in the seventh round and on his first NHL shootout attempt, beat Eddie Lack for the shootout winner.
Kuemper, who has started 14 in a row, is now 10-2-2 in his past 15 starts with a 1.94 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in that stretch. He’s showing zero signs of cracking and tonight won the Wild a game. The Wild battled hard and deserved what it got, but Kuemper was playing behind a very tired team the last half of the game and stole one, maybe two points.
So if you’re Chuck Fletcher, what do you do? If it were me, I’d ride out Kuemper but go out and get some insurance because of Josh Harding’s absence and Niklas Backstrom’s abdominal issue.
Lots of rumors out there tonight that Buffalo will try to flip Jaroslav Halak, whom it acquired from St. Louis today in a package for Ryan Miller, to Minnesota. There’s no doubt Fletcher’s good buddy Tim Murray will try. The impression I got internally though today from the organization is it has little interest in Halak.
The Wild has inquired about Cam Ward and Martin Brodeur and has had Ilya Bryzgalov offered to them. There’s also Tim Thomas.
It’ll be interesting to see how Fletcher proceeds because while the Wild needs another goalie as insurance, but how do you not continue to go with Kuemper as the No. 1?
Huge PK by the Wild, which hasn’t allowed a power-play goal in six consecutive games, in overtime. Kyle Brodziak, Nate Prosser and Matt Cooke were the men on the ice. The three gents did a terrific job keeping Vancouver to the outside and staying in lanes. Cooke and Prosser blocked shots and Kuemper made one save. That also helped get the Wild the extra point.
The big controversy of the game came in the first when Meier, despite staring at the crease from 15 feet away, somehow thought Erik Haula made incidental contact with Eddie Lack. He waved off Keith Ballard’s goal. Replays showed there was zero contact, and ref supervisor Mick McGeough, in attendance, told me during the first intermission, “In my estimation, I think the goal should have counted. It was a good screen by [Haula]. He wasn’t in the blue when the puck entered the net, so it met the criteria for a good goal.”
Haula said, “I think [Meier] made a mistake and he was confident he made the right call. All the coaches said it wasn’t even close. I never touched the goalie. All that matters is we got two points though.”
Gutsy effort by the Wild to hang on tonight. Yeo loved the work ethic and the mental toughness to overcome a shortie and disallowed goal. Everybody worked their butt off.
That’s it for me. I'll be on KFAN at 10:20 a.m. Saturday.
The Wild has the day off Saturday. Barring news, talk Sunday.
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