Evening from Xcel Energy Center, where I still sit at 8:30 p.m.
The most common question I received on Twitter this afternoon (and now evening) understandably is, “how will the lines shape up?”
The answer: I don’t know, but I’ll tell you on Twitter (@russostrib) around 10:40 a.m. Tuesday and on here soon after.
Coach Mike Yeo isn’t saying yet probably because he has yet to tell some undeserving soul that he’ll have to come out of the lineup initially for Chris Stewart. That’s just the fact of life when you acquire a player of Stewart’s ilk. I will get more into my opinions a little lower on this here blog.
Stewart is expected into the Twin Cities around 11 tonight and plans to make his Wild debut wearing No. 44 against the Senators, coincidentally one of the teams that were rumored to be hot after Stewart since the moment he was traded from St. Louis to Buffalo last year at this time in the Ryan Miller blockbuster.
Yeo said this morning he was optimistic Marco Scandella would be able to play against Ottawa, but GM Chuck Fletcher said a few hours ago Scandella is questionable and he anticipates that Jordan Leopold will make his Wild debut in a No. 33 sweater. Also, remember, Sean Bergenheim is expected to make his home debut Tuesday.
First of all, this Stewart trade was surprising. Everything I was hearing is the Wild had no interest because the price was unbelievably high all year long. But this was the very unique case where, "if the price drops, call me.”
As I’ve written a thousand times, Fletcher and Buffalo Sabres Tim Murray are the best of buds. They were together in Florida and Anaheim, and as you know by now, San Jose and Buffalo have been Fletcher’s two favorite trading partners. The past two trade deadlines, Fletcher acquired Jason Pominville, Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick from the Sabres. This morning, on his way to Wild headquarters, Fletcher phoned (Canadian verb) Murray and told him if the price shot down for Stewart, he’s sure Murray had his number in his cell phone.
Stewart had been the most rumored player in the NHL to be on the trading block for months, and Fletcher first started talking to Murray last summer, he said. But the price was never the right fit until Murray, who had a few deals fall through while maybe overreaching, called Fletcher with about 10 minutes left before the deadline. Buffalo agreed to pay half his salary, and Fletcher sent Murray another second-round pick, this one in 2017. Even Fletcher joked he always seems to send the Sabres seconds. But he refused to part with this year’s second.
As I quickly wrote on the previous blog, Stewart is a gamble only because he has long gotten under the skin of coaches for myriad reasons. Here are a few stories from Buffalo documenting that by Bill Hoppe.
But, Fletcher said, “As the season goes on, you get to know your team, you learn about your team. I think we’re a very fast team, we have a lot of skill. I like our depth, especially now. Probably the one fair criticism you could level at us is our lack of size. And Chris is a big, strong guy who brings a lot of toughness to our team, but yet he’s a player that has contributed offensively, can play on the power play, can really shoot the puck, he’s willing to go to the net. And we think with the type of players we have on the team, his skill set really complements our group really well.”
Basically, Fletcher feels Stewart can help the Wild compete against the more rugged teams in the West, especially the rest of the way when the Wild faces St. Louis three times and Winnipeg, L.A., and Anaheim once more each.
Plus, if the Wild gets the first wildcard spot, it could be facing the Ducks in the first round.
As I mentioned above, the lines. What to do, what to do?
First of all, somebody will be unhappy Tuesday. And whatever Yeo decides, some fans will agree, some will disagree. The decision won’t be easy.
If you would allow me, for your own sanity and health, I do suggest you don’t freak out too much because 1) When Yeo changed the lines heading into that Calgary game a few weeks ago, you know the same lines for the most part that have brought more balance to the Wild lineup than at any time I have covered this franchise, many fans freaked out then!!! 2) With so many games this month and with injuries being the nature of the beast in the NHL, whatever the lines are Tuesday will change at some point and whichever unlucky, undeserving player comes out will play again at some point!
So, the lines. Fletcher says it’s up to Yeo.
I have no clue what he’ll do. There are several ways to go here, and I’m talking out of my fingertips just as thoughts come to my mind.
1. Take out one of the fourth-liners of Erik Haula, Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine, but that trio has been the best line the past two road games, combining for four goals. Also, Haula and Brodziak are bigtime fixtures on a penalty kill that is 43 for 44 in 16 games since the All-Star break. And Fontaine, it seems whatever line he’s on lately is the one that churns the best.
2. Take out Jordan Schroeder, which would be a real shame because he has brought speed and offense to the Wild lineup. But if you take Schroeder out, it would cause the least upheaval in your lineup because the fourth line stays intact, you can keep the first and second lines intact and just slide Stewart into a big third line with Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle.
3. Sit Sean Bergenheim, which wouldn’t be fair either. But that way you keep your fourth line intact, keep that real good Niederreiter-Coyle-Schroeder line intact, keep what was a good Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville line in Colorado together.
4. Yeah, I saw many of your thoughts on Twitter. Sit Thomas Vanek. Doubtful to say the least. My concern with replacing Bergenheim with Stewart on a line with Mikko Koivu and Vanek would be foot speed. Stewart’s speed used to be real impressive, but some have criticized that in recent years. We will see for ourselves.
But this is why my gut says unless Yeo is willing to take somebody out from that fourth line, Schroeder could be the poor odd guy out to begin with because then Stewart slides into the third line and Bergenheim stays with Koivu and Vanek.
5. Although, I can't get this out of my head and maybe he does fiddle with top three lines, puts Stewart with Parise and Granlund to add some size there, puts Vanek and Pominville together (previous chemistry) with Koivu, puts Bergenheim on one of the wings with Niederreiter and Coyle and keeps fourth line intact. I actually like these lines the best.
You think this is complex, wait til Matt Cooke, Ryan Carter and maybe Jason Zucker return.
AGAIN, WHATEVER YEO DECIDES, DON’T FREAK OUT (yet)!
I asked Fletcher about messing with the chemistry that has been so good (this team is fast, defensively-structured, hard-working, balanced, on pace for the most goals in franchise history).
“Assuming we’re healthy. We have three games in four nights starting [Tuesday], a bunch of back to backs. A very rigorous schedule the rest of the way,” Fletcher said. “It increases our depth, it increases our size, it improves our experience and that will be up to Mike. I’d rather have a lot of options than not enough. Our depth has certainly been tested in various areas this year up front and on defense. This was sort of the last opportunity to improve our depth prior to the end of this season. Hopefully this is a big upgrade for us. You never know when you make a trade – there’s risks. But adding Bergenheim with his speed and physicality and energy and adding Stewart with his size and proven track record of being able to contribute offensively as a power forward, I think those two elements have really improved our team.”
He added, “Our players are adaptable. They’ve moved. The great chemistry and the lines that were put together in October when we were winning are completely different than they are now. There’s going to be injuries. I know the coaches were very comfortable adding Chris. Competition is good, depth is good. The most important thing is we just need to keep winning games.”
Fletcher said he did his homework on Stewart, is comfortable with what he heard and after talking with him today, he’s incredibly motivated because this is a contract year. Stewart, again, can become a free agent July 1.
“It’s obviously been a difficult season for him in Buffalo in terms of the wins and losses,” Fletcher said. “He knows of our team quite well from playing against our team in Colorado and St. Louis. I know he’s excited to play with the group of players we have and be in a playoff race and compete hard for wins and making the playoffs, but also for a new contract. I like where he’s at in terms of how we feel he’ll perform for us.”
Stewart was excited. He talked right before his flight to Minnesota from Tampa, where the Sabres were for the second trade deadline in a row.
“Minnesota has always been one of my favorite places to play. The fans there have been great and coming to that arena, they’re always fired up and ready to support that team. Being on the other end of it now, I’m sure it’ll feel a little bit different, but exciting.
“It’s going to be a great challenge. I look forward to it. It’s a fresh start and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Adding my size and my physicality to that lineup, I think that’s something they’re looking for.”
“I’m a big guy, a power forward, I have some pretty good speed and I like to play a hard-nosed game and get in the corners there and on the forecheck and create turnovers.”
He said, “Zach Parise reached out to me earlier. We have a mutual friend in Chris Porter, who is one of his good friends, so he reached out to me and said he was happy to have me on board and looks forward to meeting me [Tuesday].”
Fletcher basically said the size factor of Stewart was most intriguing: “I thought last year after we added Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick, we really needed Matt's goal scoring down the stretch, but Cody’s size and physicality really helped our team. I hope Chris can do the same. Maybe Chris is a hybrid between the two where he can chip in offensively and produce, but also bring that size and make us a little harder to play against. Again, we really like our team, we like our players, but that was probably an area we were a little deficient in.”
As for Jordan Leopold, I know a couple former Sabres like Pominville and Vanek were excited. The three lived on the same block in Buffalo.
Fletcher said he’s been talking to Columbus’ GM Jarmo Kekalainen for weeks about Leopold, but every time he thought he was on the verge of trading for him, another Blue Jackets injury occurred on their blue line.
“We were looking for depth, looking for a left shot defenseman and looking for a guy that has played in the playoffs and can move the puck. We want our defense to be mobile and have the ability to move the puck and his skill set certainly has those abilities in net. He’ll provide depth and a guy that we know can play and certainly he’s a player that has had a lot of success in this market and was eager to come home. I think we’ll get a lot out of Jordan Leopold.”
On daughter Jordyn’s viral letter (see previous blog), Fletcher said kiddingly, “I saw it today. A tremendous letter. After that, the pressure was immense. You can certainly feel for the family. Very good writer. In fact, we may have an opening on our communication staff. I’m telling you, it was a pretty powerful letter. She hit on a good few points. Again, we’re excited for Jordan. He was a star here in high school and a star in college and is very familiar with all of our players from the summer, from skating with them and skating with a few of them. We think it’ll be a good fit. You can’t have enough experienced, you can’t have enough defensemen.”
On Zack Phillips’ minor-league trade for Jared Knight, I hear Phillips asked to be traded because he read the tea leaves and knew he had no chance of ever playing here. As I’ve mentioned before, tons of skill, but no foot speed and many questioned his commitment to the game, especially off the ice.
“He’s very young and still a talented kid and hopefully he can find his way in Boston because he is a talented a kid,” Fletcher said. “But sometimes these things happen. Knight, similar thing has happened where he’s sort of hit a wall in Boston and probably needs a change and sometimes these trades can work well for both things. We’ll see. We need a lot of improvement in Iowa. It’s been a very, very disappointing season, so this will get the ball rolling down there and we’ll continue to address what we need to do to make that team better.”
OK, I’m out of breath. That was a long blog after writing three articles for the paper. I’ve got to try to get out of here and get some errands done because I need to be at the arena all day Tuesday and have an early flight to D.C. on Wednesday.
I will be on KFAN at 10:15 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission Tuesday and likely a podcast with Jim Souhan on souhanunfiltered.com at some point Tuesday afternoon, probably around 2:30 or 3. I’ll let you know.