Update: In Josh Harding's second start with Iowa on Saturday night, he had to leave a game at Charlotte after two periods due to dehydration, GM Chuck Fletcher said on Sunday. Harding allowed two goals on 21 shots and got the loss.
The Wild, which has the day off Sunday before returning to the ice Monday at Ridder, had a very interesting practice today at Xcel Energy Center.
It was a good workmanlike practice, one that pleased coach Mike Yeo after Friday’s painful loss to Anaheim.
“Just wanted to make sure everybody’s heads were in the right place,” Yeo said. “I liked our practice a lot today. Some battle areas, some wall play, some things that we know we can be better at. Our guys had a good focus. It was an emotional loss last night, a difficult one, but we moved past it quickly.”
Yeo met with several players one-on-one before and during practice, including struggling Thomas Vanek, who after a couple promising games at Dallas and home against St. Louis, had two bad, turnover-filled, shotless games in a row.
Yeo and Vanek were very transparent regarding their chat, and more on that in a sec.
First, the news of the day:
1. Captain Mikko Koivu missed practiced with what Yeo called a “very, very minor strain” and he’s expected to practice Monday. Koivu was around doing an off-ice workout and it doesn’t appear to be anything serious.
2. Ryan Suter practiced. The hope is he can practice Monday and return Tuesday against the Islanders.
“He’s a tough farm boy,” Yeo said. “I think he’s not going to want to stay out for too long.”
3. The goaltending. I’ll write more about this for Tuesday’s paper, but Darcy Kuemper has been pulled from three of his past four home starts with a .755 save percentage and 5.37 goals-against average in those games. Other than the third period against Winnipeg a few weeks back, Backstrom has been good in his past six starts/appearances.
“We haven’t determined our starting goalie, but the way [Backstrom] has played lately, it gives him a very good chance” to start Tuesday, Yeo said.
On Kuemper, Yeo said, “I just know he’s capable of more. The good games that he has played lately have been response games. It’s like there’s a different approach or mindset that he has going into [those type of] games, so if it’s something preparation wise, if it’s something that we need to do differently, whatever the case is, we need to find a way to make sure that he’s prepared and ready to go every game at the level he needs to be at.”
The problem with response games is it means you’re coming off a lot of bad ones. Yeo wonders if it’s attitude.
“If you look at the best stretch of hockey he played at the start of the year, he could have been in the minors for all he knew. He was trying to prove himself, he was trying to win the No. 1 job and so if that’s something -- I don’t want to put things into his head, but he’s got to figure it out how to play his best hockey.”
Again, Yeo said subtly, “Looking at [Backstrom], I know that he’s ready to go back in the net.” I took it as he’s not sure Kuemper is. But he said he would talk more with goalie coach Bob Mason and decide. “We always like giving players a chance to respond, but at the same token, Backy has been playing well.”
4. Yeo had what he called a “great talk” with Vanek before practice. Vanek has two goals and 12 assists this season and 39 shots in 25 games. Fourteen of those came in two games, so he has 25 shots in 23 others, including one or none in 16 games.
He has not scored a goal at 5-on-5 this season.
Yeo said there are a number of factors why, from Vanek bouncing from line to line to not working hard enough to the off-ice gambling issue that has been stressing him out.
Yeo: “I have no problem saying, it’s been public knowledge, but this stuff that he’s trying to deal with, I don’t want to say it’s a huge distraction, but it’s got to be weighing on him. There’s no about that. There’s the fact that he came [back to Minnesota] and he’s putting pressure on himself, he’s been bouncing around from different lines, he’s off the top PP now, there’s a number of things that could lead to him not feeling good about his game and so whatever the case is, today the message was pretty simple, ‘what are you doing when you’re a good player and what do we have to do to make sure you can control the things that you can control?’”
The message from Vanek? Put me back in a top-6 role. So today in practice, Vanek no longer skated on the third line with Nino Niederreiter and Kyle Brodziak.
Vanek came out of that meeting with Yeo and ended up on the top line with Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund. That is where he is expected to play against his former Islanders on Tuesday.
That second line, provided Koivu practices Monday, will be Jason Zucker-Koivu-Jason Pominville; Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Erik Haula; Ryan Carter-Kyle Brodziak-Justin Fontaine.
“I was really encouraged with the practice Thomas had today and for me that’s where it starts,” Yeo said. “This is not something that’s going to magically appear in Game 1. Even if he has a great game [against the Islanders], even if he has a few points, I want to see a good month of real good hard practice, more consistency through the games and then it’ll come for him.
“The message was, ‘you do those things and we’ll take care of our part.’”
Yeo said Vanek was “very receptive. He really wants to do well. I don’t care who you are, a veteran, young kid, it’s always more difficult for a skilled guy to get out of something like this. … If they’re not scoring goals, they’re not feeling good.”
Still, this is not like a normal slump. It is beyond clear by just using our eyes that Vanek’s problems stem from not shooting, turning pucks over, not skating hard consistently and not working hard enough.
“I’m not defending all those aspects. We’ve talked about those things,” Yeo said. “It’s not like he’s trying not to work. It’s just other things get on your mind and you forget about the little things and, quite often when I talk to players, not just him, quite often they actually think they are working hard and that’s because they don’t see the other parts of their game that are missing.”
So why reward Vanek with a first-line role?
“Zach is a guy with his work ethic, with his instincts, with his skill, he has a chance to make guys around him better,” Yeo said. “Thomas is too important for us. The easy thing to do is say it’s not working [and cast him aside], but then we’re not doing our job. If it’s not working, we have to look at what can we do differently. We’ll continue to try to find answers.”
So, Yeo has made it clear to Vanek he wants work ethic and good habits starting in practice. Yeo liked Vanek’s game against Dallas and St. Louis.
“Things didn’t go well the last couple games, so let’s get it back,” Yeo said.
Vanek admitted that he is putting a lot of pressure on himself.
“It is what it is. It’s hasn’t been a great start for me,” Vanek said. “I feel like I’m making plays for my linemates, but right now it’s not one of those slumps where I’m getting chances after chances. I’m more of a setup guy right now, but I have a good opportunity now with Granny and Zach and I’ve got to make the most out of it.
“Today I think was a good work day. I tried to get to the net and find those guys. Hopefully I can find my game again with those two guys.”
Vanek knows this is indeed his chance. It’s very clear that he made it very clear to Yeo that he can’t score consistently in a bottom-6 role. So Yeo is giving the veteran the benefit of doubt and putting him on the top line even though he arguably doesn’t deserve it.
In return, Vanek knows he needs to get it done.
“I don’t want to use an excuse, but when you play on one of the lower lines, for me it’s a different situation,” Vanek said. “You don’t get in the game as well as you want. Some guys are great with it. You look at a guy like [Ryan] Carter who doesn’t play a lot, but he just does it. I’ve got to be better at that. Now being with two guys who make plays and score goals, I’m excited for the opportunity.”
Vanek also admitted the off-ice gambling issue has weighed on him. A link to a big story the Buffalo News just published can be read here.
“I can’t change it. I can’t do anything about it. Obviously it’s a story. It’s nothing I’d wish upon anyone and I’ve dealt with this since the summer and made amends to it. Is it something I’m happy keeps coming up? Obviously not. But for me the best way to get out of this is to play good hockey and find my groove.
“It’s not fun to deal with. Hopefully it’s over with now and I can find my game again.”