By Michael Russo
OK, sorry this has taken so long. It’s been a very busy week, but finally I’ve got a little alone time here at 38,000 feet on my back to the Twin Cities. I’ll probably only do half by the time I land here. If there’s a bunch more I don’t get to, I’ll try to do another version later in the week. But I’ll want to get this up at least.
On a flight, incidentally, packed with Wild fans who attended last night’s game. FYI, also, I’m off the next few days.
smuggla says: There’s been much discussion about bringing up John Scott, the defenseman from the Aeros to help the Wild in the playoff run. Are there any accuracies with these reports?
Russo: When Houston’s season ends, the Wild will bring players up to be around the playoff run, practice and provide depth in case of injuries. However, even if Scott’s one of them, it’s extremely doubtful he’d get in unless there’s an exorbitant amount of injuries. Jacques Lemaire is not about to use a defenseman he’s never heard of in a pressure-packed playoff situation. He’s going to go with the defensemen who got the Wild here. If the Wild has injuries in the playoffs, Erik Reitz and Shawn Belle would be first to step in.
WildHooBear says: Critiques of Hall and Moore?
Russo: Sorry to pick just one of your questions. Maybe throw some back in on a future Q&A. I like both Hall and Moore. Hall is limited with his skating, but he drives the net, is always on the puck and is responsible in his own zone. Last night in Calgary, he did a marvelous jobs just chipping pucks out any time the Wild was in trouble to at the very least trigger a line change. He gives the Wild a better “playoff type” player on the third line than Pascal Dupuis could have offered (i.e. grit). Moore, I think, will be a good player here. It just might not be this year. As we’ve seen with Todd White last season and Mark Parrish this season, it can take Lemaire awhile to warm up to players. Moore appears to be the latest example, and unfortunately for him, it comes at a time where Lemaire probably doesn’t have the time to learn the nuances of Moore’s game. Lemaire trusts what Wyatt Smith provides on the fourth line, and Smith is playing well right now. And with White, Mikko Koivu and Wes Walz ahead of Moore, he could be squeezed into a playoff depth player. But Moore can skate, is solid defensively, is an outstanding faceoff guy and clearly has offensive flair, which he showed with his two-goal night March 9 at Buffalo.
Joe says: At the end of the season do you see the Wild locking up Niklas Backstrom to a big deal and having Josh Harding as the backup and sending Manny Fernandez packing?
Russo: It is WAY too early to say for sure because so many things have to happen. First off, Backstrom has to lead this team somewhere special. There are scores of examples in the NHL of goalies that have gotten hot for a few months, then were given a big deal and failed miserably – Jon Casey, Jim Carey, Johan Hedberg, Martin Gerber off the top of my head. However, let me say, I don’t think Backstrom would fail miserably. I think this guy is 100 percent for real and will be a No. 1 somewhere next season – here or elsewhere. I really believe he’s the next big thing when it comes to goalies. Remember, Miikka Kiprusoff came out of nowhere, too. Backstrom is calm, poised (look how he reacted to that cheesy goal he allowed 32 seconds into the Calgary game), unflappable and beloved by his teammates. Lemaire says he’s never coached a goalie that works on his game more on the ice and his conditioning off the ice. When the season ends, I’m sure the Wild will investigate what it’ll cost to sign Backstrom before he becomes a free agent. If it signs him, Fernandez is certainly a goner at some point. However, Fernandez has a ticket of $4.33 million and you have to be positive you can trade him. I think there are teams that would have interest – Florida, Phoenix, L.A., maybe Philly – but it could be tough if Fernandez is still voicing concern about a bum knee. In the salary cap world, it’d be difficult for the Wild to fit both Fernandez and Backstrom, although maybe it starts Harding in the minors, let Fernandez prove he’s healthy and then try to trade him. I do think you can quality assets for him, however, remember, the Wild wouldn’t have much leverage at that point because teams would know the Wild is desperate to rid itself of his salary. Like I said, this is all different scenarios of pure conjecture. A lot of things have to happen. But Backstrom is the model of consistency, and while a month ago I think the Wild was resolved to the fact it would just have to let Backstrom go this summer, I don’t think it can do that anymore. I know it’s tough for the Fernandez fans to admit, but this guy absolutely saved the Wild’s season. His statistics are spectacular, and there’s no debating rationally his 14-3-2 record in Manny’s absence.
Egad says: Is the coaching staff concerned at all about consistency at this point in the season? A team that can look as bad as this one looked against San Jose and as good as this one looked against Buffalo makes me nervous.
Russo: I have to preface this by saying I did not see the San Jose game, but I understand the Wild was flatter than a pancake. I really think though you need to take that game and throw it out the window. If I remember, the Wild played in Vancouver on a Sunday night. The team spent the night, left the next morning, landed Monday afternoon in Minnesota and was dragged to practice. To me, it’s no shock it didn’t have legs in a Tuesday night game to San Jose. I know fans want to discount travel because these are a bunch of millionaires flying in first-class seats and staying in posh hotels, but sometimes, that’s a valid excuse. I really think that performance can be thrown out the window. And quite frankly, I would say the Wild’s consistency the past two months has been remarkable, especially on the road. This team plays an unbelievably proficient, efficient game on the road. Look at Vancouver. Down 2-0 immediately, falls back into its system and recovers dramatically. Last year, this team would have caved if it gave up a goal 32 seconds into a game like it did in Calgary. Instead, it rallies together for a big win. With eight of nine to finish the season at home, it sounds funny, but the goal better to be to repair its home game because it hasn’t been as consistent.
newfan says: Is it just me, or has Brent Burns become one of the better d-men on the squad and the TV face of the team?
Russo: I don’t know about the face time because I never get to watch the games on TV, but it wouldn’t surprise me. He’s a charismatic, funny, very intelligent guy. And you’re dead-on that he’s become of the Wild’s top defensemen lately. I think we all need to remember he’s 22, and it takes a long time for defensemen to develop. Drafting a top-end defenseman requires patience. It’s quite the investment. Often times, teams give up on these guys way too early and regret it later – Chris Pronger from Hartford, Ed Jovanovski from Florida, etc. But as I wrote last week, the Wild has finally stopped messing with his head by flipping between forward and defense. Burns has all the tools to be a stud – size, speed, great shot, long reach, hockey sense. Chatting with Burns recently, it’s become very apparent to me just how vital Keith Carney’s presence has been to his development. Not only has Carney been the Wild’s steadiest defenseman, he’s a role model in this room. The way teammates talk about Carney, it reminds me about how teammates talked about Joe Nieuwendyk. I don’t think I’ve covered too many players more respected by his teammates than Carney. If you were in there, you’d see how much he’s adored. And Burns is No. 1 on that list. He completely looks up to Carney and credits him for much of his play.
kj says: Why isn’t Dominic Moore being utilized more and Todd White utilized less? Is Lemaire’s post-game comment about Kurtis Foster a ‘message’ for him to step it up in practice?
Russo: I answered Moore above. As it’s been well documented on my Blog with White, I just don’t get the criticism he receives. Is he flashy or spectacular offensively? No. But he’s a competent playmaker who can be exceptional defensively. Just watch how many times a game White gets his stick on a pass in the neutral zone to completely ruin an opposing attack. Let’s put it this way: If White’s not re-signed – and he may not be because GM Doug Risebrough is going to stay away from unrestricted free agents until he’s got Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Mikko Koivu signed – watch how fast White gets a job. As for Foster, I’m trying to remember the comment you’re referring to, but if it’s the “million-dollar shot” comment from last weekend, the message was to shoot the puck. Foster’s slap shot is second on this team to Brian Rolston. Lemaire wants Foster to blast away.
toivo says: Is Brian Rolston at 100% He doesn’t seem to be.
Russo: You’re right, he wasn’t the same since the All-Star break, although it certainly looks like he’s back. He looked tired and is nursing something because he’s been getting treatment often lately, but he had a fantastic road trip. Even Edmonton, which was the only game he didn’t score in, he had lots of energy. At this time last year, he hit a bit of a wall, too. It’s been a grind the last month and remember, he’s 34. But the one thing I’ve learned covering this team, if I were a Wild fan, Rolston would be the last player I’d worry about.
Wild RoadTripper says: Do you EVER have a good road trip? I would be really afraid to be near you on the road.
Russo: Fellow passengers just looked at me alarmed because I just laughed hysterically. Trust me, I love the job, but at this time of year, traveling gets old, especially when you’ve been on the road for 17 of the last 19 days and wake up not knowing what city you’re in. Now, instead of whining to my editors and telling all my friends about my travel escapades, I have you all. So thank you. In all honesty, I’m just kidding around most the time. Trust me, like I’ve said here before, I know I’ve got it lucky. I’ve been a sportswriter for 16 years. My only other job was at Toys R Us at age 16. I quit five months in.
NIH says: After Boogard, who would you rank as the 5 best fighters on the Wild?
Not too many fight after Boogey, but Carney used to drop the gloves a fair amount. I’d like to see Manny in a goalie fight. That could be entertaining. In all seriousness, Stephane Veilleux is a pretty fearless guy. Wes Walz fought Tyson Nash last year, which was impressive. Nick Schultz fought Tony Amonte, which was humorous. I once covered Mark Parrish in Florida drop the gloves with, I believe, St. Louis’ Ricard Persson. As I told Parrish after that game, it’s always entertaining covering two Swedes in a battle.
ceber says: What’s a typical practice like? Do you see a lot of the same drills day after day? Or does Lemaire change up the practices like he does the lines?
Russo: I would say that Jacques’ practices are the most innovative I’ve ever covered. When I watch other teams practice – or when I covered Florida – it seems coaches have a routine and do the same drills every day. Jacques changes practices up depending on what the Wild needs to work on. He once told me that when watching video, if the Wild is struggling in a certain area, there’s always a drill to be invented that would mimic exactly what the team needs to work on.
ballgame says: If you were commissioner for a day, what would be your most important issues to tackle – reallignment? schedule? Simonesque thuggery? TV deal? Any, All, or None?
Russo: TV deal, no question. ESPN equals legitimacy and exposure, and the NHL needs both.
Db says: There was an article on ESPN about Rolston and the possibility of him leaving after after his contract is up next year. Has there been any talk about his status or is it to early to speculate?
Russo: If ESPN wrote this, it took it from me. Here’s the story I wrote prior to March 8 Boston game.Jim Polkowski says: Mike, maybe it’s time to start discussing the potential first round opponents. If the Wild finish 3rd who would guess they might see in the first round? San Jose or Dallas? If they happen to finish 5th I would hate to see them face Detroit. I would rather finish 6th and take our chances with the Canucks in the first round. Or do you see a 7th/8th finish in which case we would probably see Nashville or Anaheim. Your thoughts.
Russo: I just have this feeling the Wild’s headed for a first-round matchup with Vancouver, which would be exciting. There’s so much drama there with Kevin Bieksa, Matt Cooke, Alexandre Burrows. And the Wild seems to be in Roberto Luongo’s head. But let’s be honest: We can dissect matchups all we want, but in this conference, there’s no easy matchup. The Wild has beaten Nashville for fun this season, but stuff like that is thrown out the window come postseason. The same can be said for how easily Detroit has handled Minnesota. If the Wild enters the postseason on the same high it’s on now, I think teams will fear the Wild.
We’re landing now…There are a lot of very good questions still. I’ll try to do some more later in the week.