By Michael Russo
First of all, I’d really love to once again, for the umpteenth time in my two-plus years in Minnesota thank the local airline for just a delightful, wonderful, relaxing 12-hour travel day.
You’re the best, and I just can’t WAIT to get back on the road Monday morning.
I wrote this from a chaise lounge while drinking a Pina Colada in Vegas. I was relaxed until this morning and this afternoon and this evening.
Here are the Russo Q&A Leftovers for the week. This was fun, lots of great questions and we’ll be doing this throughout the season. I’m sorry if I didn’t answer your question.
GreenStar asks, If I can choose to go to one arena other than the X for a game, which one would you send me to?
Russo: Bell Centre in Montreal. What an atmosphere – loud and they’re into it from start to finish.
Ballgame asks, Keith Carney a healthy scratch three times recently. A blip on the radar or a sign of things to come?
Russo: When Sean Hill returns Nov. 18, the Wild will have eight healthy defensemen and coach Jacques Lemaire will have nightly lineup decisions to make. I think Lemaire is going to have a rotation of defensemen that see the press box – guys like Carney and Petteri Nummelin. But remember, Carney started slowly last season and wound up setting a franchise-record plus-22.
Tom in Sec. 219 asks what is different about playing center for the Wild?
Russo: In Jacques Lemaire’s system, the center is supposed to play low in the defensive zone and high in the offensive zone, often referred to as a third-man high. Usually the center is supposed to be between the circles or higher. It was most glaring with Todd White when he played here. As instructed, he’d blatantly forfeit scoring chances to not put himself out of position. It seems to me Eric Belanger gets much more freedom to join the attack, probably because he’s a lot faster than White and can recover if the puck is turned over.
elbruin asks, How do opposing teams view the “Backstrom Walk” before games? Is there any way to get a video of that?
Russo: It’s become a phenomenon and opposing players do tell me they look out for it. We’ve decided not to shoot it because he’s preparing for a game and we feel it wouldn’t be right to interrupt his focus. It’s funny, I knew Josh Harding was starting last Sunday at Anaheim because not only did a non-tranced Backstrom say hello to me during the routine, he was – almost – at normal jog pace.
Ballgame also asks, With all of the UFA’s this season, is there any trade strategy that is being put in place this early?
Russo: I think it’ll be a lot like most years for most teams. If the Wild falls out of it, there’s a chance GM Doug Risebrough trades guys. If they’re in it, there’s a chance he acquires guys. But I don’t expect any dramatic acquisitions because as I mentioned in my Sunday column, teams mortgaged the future for nothing last February and Risebrough took notice. I did find it interesting that Nashville GM David Poile was at Tuesday’s game in LA. Risebrough and Poile had a conversation, and then Risebrough, at around 10 p.m., canceled his flight home with the team and instead stayed to go to the Nashville-Anaheim game. Hmmmm.
Chris asks, Is there anyone in Houston right now other than Pouliot that could make a big impact by the end of the season?
Russo: The only person I see capable of making an instantaneous impact is Petr Kalus, who’s got a little NHL experience and looked good in training camp – other than the fact he couldn’t score to save his life. But he’s a skilled guy who can put points up once he buries that first one.
Nick in New York asks, “The “Who has the best ice” debate comes and goes. But, among you and your peers, “who has the best press facilities”?
Russo: I don’t want to bore anyone, but hey, I’ll answer the question. Xcel is outstanding – spacious press box and press room and wireless that always works. Phoenix is probably the best right now. Again, spacious press box, shelves to put bags in, big projection screens to watch replays. In the East, I love Buffalo because the outlets are on the press table. Carolina, you’ve got personal TVs so at 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., you can switch over to Fox and TBS and watch Seinfeld. New Jersey, at least when it played at the Meadowlands, is amazing because we’re actually in the stands – in the lower bowl at Center Ice. Madison Square Garden is great because we’re in the corner above the glass in the lower bowl stands. However, when the puck’s in the far zone, it’s difficult to see. Worst? Nashville has a makeshift press box in the upper bowl in the stands. Joe Louis Arena is not fun. LA, we’re way back in the upper bowl corner. I wanted to get Lasik Eye surgery in the middle of Tuesday’s game. McNichols Arena in Denver was by far the worst in my career. Upper bowl, in the stands, at the top, in one of the end zones. Greensboro Coliseum when Carolina played there was awful, too. In the stands, upper bowl. Miami Arena, when the Panthers played there, was fun, too, because we were in the stands at center ice in the upper bowl. Of course, it stunk when we’d get pelted by plastic and rubber mice during the 1996 Year of the Rat.
Wafer asks, How much does Jacques have in the tank for coaching? He’s signed a long-term deal, but is there any chance he might retire early? And if so, who can we expect Risebrough to look to?
Russo: Hey, you never know, but Jacques is a young 62. He clearly loves coaching and teaching. His practices are innovative and you can see he genuinely enjoys it. I just don’t see the energy disappearing any time soon, but hey, you never know. If he did retire, and Kevin Constantine’s still in the organization, that’s the place I think they’d start.
smuggla says, I found it interesting that the Wild and PMB went for a one-year deal during the offseason. He seems like a player who is either on the cusp of greatness, or destined to be branded as a player who has trouble producing against more physical opponents. My guess is it’s a situation where both PMB and the Wild believe this will be a defining year and his next contract can reflect that. What if anything as far as you know is PMB doing to make himself more productive against physical opponents? Also, if he maintains his current pace and becomes a 100 point player, will the Wild have trouble re-signing him?
Russo: I would just say this: The Wild signed Bouchard to a one-year deal and Mikko Koivu to a four-year deal, so it’s clear to me whom it feels is a big part of the future. I do think the Wild often wonders about Bouchard’s size, and after last year’s playoffs, whether he can be effective in the playoffs. Bouchard is two years away from unrestricted free agency, and his next contract will reflect that. If he explodes, I certainly think the Wild will have difficulty re-signing him. The Wild, and Bouchard himself, want more consistency, and you’re right, this is a huge year to determine his long-term future in Minnesota.
Duke asks, Given the reported problems with the new Reebok jerseys (excess sweat, poor construction), is there any chance of switching back to the old sweaters? Or should we get used to these?
Russo: Well, this is the NHL, so they could very well go back to the old way (foot in the crease rule, changing the size behind the nets, etc). But the NHLPA signed off on these, and as much as Boogaard has complained about them ripping and players have complained of the insane amount of sweat that gets trapped in their equipment (especially the gloves), some players love them. Brian Rolston, for example, says he sweats more, but because they’re so much lighter, he feels faster.
DJ asks, Beyond the Wild question. I admit my other favorite team is the ‘Yotes…my in-laws live in AZ and I go out there to visit often that is how I got hooked on them…do you see Gretzky sticking out the rebuilding process they are under or do you see him stepping away, or being let go?
Russo: I talked to him last week, and he certainly seemed like he wanted to stick it out when he talked about the rebuilding plan. But whether he gets tired of it, I could definitely see that happening. It’s not fun out there right now. Fans aren’t coming and the arena might as well be out in the Grand Canyon.
vant0037 asks, The Wild defensive core has been criticized at times as “soft,” but yet they still seem to get the job done. What impact do you see tough guy Sean Hill having once he returns?
Russo: If he’s as good as he was last year, he’ll have a big impact. But after not playing for seven-plus months and the first 19 games of the season, it’ll be interesting to see if he’s lost a step. And as rugged as Hill is, skating has never been his strong suit. The common feeling out in the NHL circles among scouts I’ve talked to is Hill was bad in Florida because Roberto Luongo is a poor puck-handling goalie. So opposing teams used to dump the puck to skate around Hill and Luongo couldn’t negate it. On Long Island, Hill was very good, the feeling being because Rick DiPietro is one of the league’s best puck-handling goalies. So we’ll see how Nik Backstrom and Josh Harding offset Hill’s skating problems. But physically, he’d immediately be the Wild’s most physical blue-liner. Remember, the Wild signed him for the end of the season, not the beginning, as Risebrough likes to say.
Joe H asks, Do the owners and board members of the NHL honestly think expansion (to Las Vegas, Kansas City, etc.) would be a good idea?
Russo: There is growing talk about it, but there are too many struggling franchises as it is. But a lot of people I speak to think expansion is down the pike, especially Vegas. I’m in Vegas now, and right behind my hotel is the new arena hockey fan/Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer is building. I also feel Winnipeg and Quebec City could certainly support franchises today, especially with the Canadian dollar worth as much as it is now. But I think expansion would be a mistake. Relocation makes more sense to me.
Nick in New York asks, Who’s your favorite Niedermayer?
Russo: As you’ve pointed out often NiNY, it’s Rob.
GreenStar asks, Do you find it easier or harder to write in a traditional hockey market compared to a non-traditional one such as Florida, leaving the weather out of it.
Russo: Much easier writing here. As you all know all too well, I loved covering hockey in Florida and for the newspaper I worked at. But like anything you do, you want to feel what you’re doing is important, and the indifferent attitude down there toward the team was getting to me. Here, because there’s so much interest and there are so many knowledgeable fans, it energizes me everyday. If I didn’t love hockey, I would have stayed at my old paper and covered something else. But if you want to cover hockey, this is the city to do it and the newspaper to do it at.
DJ asks, If you were the commish, what one change to the league if any would you make?
Russo: Put the sport back on ESPN – somehow, someway.
Midwest Product asks, “Will the [NHL’s off-ice officials] at the X ever get the shot count right in a game? Will they ever even come close? Why do they insist on shorting each team on so many shots in every game? Do they follow some sort of “shots off the rebound don’t count even if they’re clearly on net” rule?
Russo: Is this Manny Fernandez? Be honest. The off-ice officials at the X do shots by the letter of the law – shots that are on net between the posts, under the crossbar. And yes, they irritate the heck out of players, coaches and management like no other building I’ve been in. Both locker rooms, they’re the focal point of constant postgame chatter. But if you read the rule book, they’re about the only off-ice officials that follow the rule of what a shot on goal actually is. At other buildings, goalies could dislocate a shoulder stretching to catch a puck 10 feet wide, and it will always be registered as a shot – which is ridiculous.
Adam asks, A lot of fans get down on Johnsson because he is one of the highest paid players. Yet, fans would have destroyed DR if he had not signed a top FA D-man before last year. Compare Johnsson to others the Wild could have signed (Jovo, Blake, etc.) in terms of $ and performance.
Russo: Hey, you look at the money spent by Phoenix on Jovanovski (I know the Coyotes are trying HARD to trade him), what Boston spent on Chara and what LA spent on Blake, and the Wild, believe it or not, did better. The reality is the Wild have an outstanding transition hockey game, and a lot of the reason is Johnsson and his ability to get the puck out. The Wild also gave up the fewest goals against last year, and he led the team in ice time. As I’ve written often, from his own goal line to the opposing blue line, he does his job. Inside the blue line, he’s done little. But I think people who call him a bust need to be more rationale and say to themselves, “who could the Wild have gotten during that summer?” If he made $3 mill a year as opposed to $4.85, I don’t think anybody would have a problem with him.
Adam also asks, Is Pouliot playing C in Houston?
Russo: When he plays, yes. But he’s already been a healthy scratch down there.
Lemmiwinks asks, Do you think the new NHL Network channel will help/hurt the leagues PR problem? Would getting a deal done with one of the ESPNs, ABC, CBS be a better alternative?
Russo: This has nothing to do with the other. First of all, the NHL Network isn’t new. It’s been in Canada. Now we can see it in the United States, and it’s a tremendous station. Not only do they show live and old hockey games, but they have an outstanding nightly analytical/highlight show. The NHL should be on ESPN because ESPN controls the sports world, and if ESPN doesn’t care about hockey, the average sports fan doesn’t.
HormelRowofFame Guy, What does JL not like about Kurtis Foster’s game? Is it that he thinks he could be better than he is, or does he really see flaws in Foster that he doesn’t see in Johnsson and Nummelin?
Russo: Jacques wants more out of Foster. He’s a 6-foot-5 defenseman with a cannon for a shot who’s mobile. He wants him to use that more often – size and shot. I think Foster can be a solid defenseman, but I do feel he needs to be in night after night to develop. He’s still a young guy. But you listen to Jacques’ recipe with Sheldon Souray that I wrote a few weeks ago, and it sounds a lot like Jacques’ Foster template. Play, sit, play, play, play, sit. Souray’s a $5 million a year defenseman now.
BLF asks, What do you think the chances are for Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne and Peter Forsberg to sign with a team mid-season? And, do you think this could be a trend for veterans who have a history of injuries or simply do not want to go through the 82 game grind?
Russo: Unfortunately, Roger Clemens annual do I retire, don’t I retire debate is becoming epidemic. I think Scott Niedermayer will definitely return after Dec. 1. Why Dec. 1? Because the Ducks can’t squeeze him under the cap right now. I think Forsberg also will be back in the NHL. Selanne, on the other hand, has said he hasn’t even been skating. So we could have seen the last of him, which is a shame, because he’s a great player and wonderful dude.
4four4 asks, Russo since you seemed happy in southern Florida covering the Panthers why did you leave for St.Paul?
Russo: To cover hockey in a hockey market.
Cartoma asks, What is it that made Matt Foy have to clear waivers before he could be sent to Houston? Age? Years played in Houston? Years since he was drafted?
Russo: Cartoma, I can’t give you the exact reason because there are tons of different rules and my collective bargaining agreement is at home, but the answer is all of the above. It’s a combination of position, experience, NHL games played and age at signing. Waiver rights can be anywhere from three to six years after, and Foy fits somewhere in there.
GreenStar asks, Has there ever been discussion of making the referees available for a presser after games? Here is my thinking on why this would be important. The refs are a part of the game as much or more so than the coaches and players yet we never get to hear their side of the action. It would be nice to get a ref’s reasoning for why calls were made or why they weren’t.I think we’d all have a better appreciation of what they do. Now we have no idea what they are thinking so we are left to believe they are morons.
Russo: Never been any discussion. We do have the right to send one pool reporter to the ref’s room to get their side if there’s a controversial call, etc. But we’re not supposed to use it to ask why did you call that cross-check and not that hold. A pool reporter, by the way, means if I’m the guy that interviews the refs, I have to share the quotes with the other reporters at the game (i.e. Associated Press, visiting beat writers, St. Paul Pioneer Press).
Chris K asks, I am wondering about the language barrier, What countrymen have the hardest time adapting to the English (US) French (Canada) language. I know in your article about Mikko Koivu you wrote about his Brother Saku having something misconstrued when talking to the media because of the language barrier between their native language and either French or English. Is it harder for Finns or Slovaks, or Russians etc.. to adapt?
Russo: One of the things that amazes me about the Europeans is how quickly they adapt. Two years ago, it was almost impossible to hold a conversation with Koivu. Now he’s a chatter box. I remember I used to ask Jaroslav Spacek questions and he’d give me an answer to something I didn’t ask. Now, he’s fluent. Valeri Bure speaks perfect English without an accent almost, partially because he’s married to former Full House actress Candace Cameron. Pavel Bure’s English is great, but he’s got a thick accent. Some athletes speak English well when it’s convenient for them. Radek Dvorak never could answer questions after a game, but when he was without a contract about eight or nine years ago, he told me quite clearly he wouldn’t show up in camp without one. I find usually it’s the Russians who struggle the most at first. Finns, Swedes, they are taught English in school. I was playing poker for a long time yesterday with these two Finnish guys/hockey fans, and you would have thought they were schooled in the U.S. I was talking to them about Finnish hockey players, the emergence of Nik Backstrom, the Koivu Bros. for hours, and it was their FIRST TIME in the United States. It’s amazing, quite frankly.
Chris M, What are the chances of seeing Marian Hossa coming to Minnesota next year? What are Gaborik and Demitra’s feelings on this issue. Also, if he did come to the Wild do you think JL will keep the trio together?
Russo: Zero to doubtful. And yes, Gaborik and Demitra would love it, although Demitra does not like playing center in this system.
Mort says, I am a Chicago native and might still be a Blackhawks fan instead of a Wild fan if the Hawks management treated their fans as well as the Wild do. So here is my question: Do you anticipate any significant changes with the way the Chicago Blackhawks are run or marketed since the passing of their owner? Will Chicago fans get home games on TV?
Russo: I do think starting next year the Blackhawks will be on TV. I’m almost positive. To have such a bright, young team with guys like Pat Kane and Jon Toews and not showcase them is insane in the membrane.
Russ asks, What happens to the hats after a hat trick?
Russo: Thrown out.
Balls, Was Doug Risebrough lying when he said that he’d make space on the rostor for someone who deserved it (i.e. Pouliot, Kalus)? Quick aside, there’s no way you can tell me with a straight face that Radivojevic or Matt Foy deserves to be on this team more than either of those two.
Russo: You make your own judgment on Risebrough’s contradictions. I just reported a few Sundays ago that he said one thing and did another. But circumstances change, and they wanted Sheppard here to develop him and it was clear Foy would be a cheap, press-box fixture and it didn’t make sense for Pouliot and Kalus not to play (in their eyes). As for Pouliot, they clearly didn’t want to reward him for such a bad year last year. Everytime they mention Pouliot, they say he needs to learn how to be a pro. There’s clearly issues there that the Wild is concerned about, and he’s already been scratched in Houston. I think they want Kevin Constantine to whip this guy into being a legit NHLer. As for your second statement, I can very much tell you with a straight face that Radivojevic deserves to be here over the two you mentioned. Everybody has roles on the team, and you can’t have a team full of skilled, non-physical guys. Radivojevic, while he’s got weaknesses and isn’t near the “physical, nasty” player the Wild made him out to be, fills a role on that checking line. If he wasn’t here over Kalus or Pouliot, that would be a glaring hole. Again, Foy is here because he’s a cheap fill-in now and again. He wasn’t going to prove anything more in the minors, so the Wild didn’t want him taking ice time in Houston from kids they’re trying to develop.
Scott R. asks, Assuming the progression of Harding and Backstrom continue for the next two years, who do you think the Wild would keep? Harding is always billed as the future in goal, but if you’ve got a stud like Nik, do you trade him for talented players or let Harding net us some prospects?
Russo: This is way premature and I don’t want to trigger a flurry of panic, but your wavelength Scott is identical to mine. Backstrom’s on a two-year deal. Harding is going to be an outstanding goalie, and he’s just 23. I think Backstrom is an incredible asset to have, and it would not shock me in the least if next summer or next season the Wild does entertain trade offers for him. If you have somebody like Harding waiting in the wings who is undoubtedly capable of being a No. 1 goalie, I think it would be stupid – again next year – not to at least investigate what kind of value you can get in return.
Scott R. also asks, Do you believe offer-sheets will become commonplace or do you think that cap space will become an issue and ultimately deter them?
Russo: Scott, great questions. I think it’s something you always need to be aware of, which is why it’s important to have guys like Chris Snow, whose job it is to constantly pay attention to what other teams can and cannot do, like offer sheets. For instance, last summer, Doug Risebrough was aware that there were only four or five teams that could genuinely come after a Mikko Koivu. Those teams needed to have a combination of the cap space AND the unencumbered draft picks. That means if you’d have to give up a first, second and third as compensation for taking a player but traded your second for 2008, you can’t give up your second in 2009. You’re simply out of the game. That’s why last summer, when so many agents were threatening that they were negotiating offer sheets, I knew it was hogwash. I remember an agent told a reporter in South Florida that he was working with four or five teams on an offer sheet deal for Stephen Weiss in late July. The reporter called me to ask my opinion, and I told him, ‘Don’t buy it. There’s not even four or five teams left that have the cap room AND the draft picks.”
Denny asks, Which Wild player deserves more credit than he gets?
Russo: Nick Schultz. The guy does his job every night. He set up Eric Belanger’s winning shortie in Phoenix and Brian Rolston’s winner in Phoenix by aggressively winning puck battles along the wall. This is stuff that isn’t necessarily seen on the scoresheet (although he got assists on both this time) but stuff he does most nights. He durable, reliable and if the Wild don’t ante up, will be doing this for somebody else next year.
Cam asks, Where does the term “Five Hole” come from?
Brandon asks Other then your great work with the Star (Russo note: thank you, thank you), can you give us some websites/blogs you’d recommend to get more great information on the NHL?
Russo: I have to be honest. I don’t go to the rumor sites often because I’m in a notes pool with writers from every market, so I know what they’re writing weekly. But Spectors does the best job of compiling all the trade rumors every day (www.spectorshockey.net/rumors.html). TSN.ca/nhl is outstanding for keeping up to date with stories, looking at highlights, looking at player info and injuries. They also post Canadian Press stories by Pierre LeBrun, and he’s just an outstanding, plugged-in hockey writer. NHL.com is quite good for videos and features. I’d also read anything Hockey Hall of Famer Jim Matheson writes in the Edmonton Journal. Even though you all were irritated he didn’t pick your Wild to make the playoffs, he’s as good as it gets and has been a mentor of mine for 12 years. I also think the Philly Inquirer’s Tim Panaccio is also one of the best hockey writers in America. And if you want extensive, great hockey coverage, the Calgary and Vancouver papers also devote tons of pages a day.
Peter Rothmeier asks, Is the Wild really considering holding training camp next year in Trencin, Slovakia?
Russo: First of all Peter, I like that you referred to the Wild in the singular form. The Star Tribune would hire you in a heartbeat. They’re considering it, as well as sites throughout Minnesota (Duluth, etc.) and at UND in Grand Forks.
Beadwench asks, Is music playing in the locker room and how do they choose what kind to play? Do the players listen to music when they are working out?
Russo: After many wins a few years ago, they played this awful Madonna song. Can’t remember what it was. Marian Gaborik often throws in the sound system this Slovak music, which annoys everybody. Usually it’s U2 or something like that now. The system is next to Josh Harding’s stall, which used to be Manny Fernandez’s. Manny had a good collection of music. And yes, the players are listening to music when they work out.
OK, this was fun. We’ll do it again soon.