By Michael Russo
Josh Harding is getting back-to-back starts. Talk about unlucky, but Matt Foy, scratched in four straight games, was supposed to play for Derek Boogaard, but Foy is back at the hotel sick.
Boogaard will miss tonight’s game because his back seized up last night. He was seen standing on the bench the entire third period. Looks like the Wild will go with seven defensemen tonight and 11 forwards because Branko Radivojevic is also sick.
There are no other bodies because Petteri Nummelin can’t be activated, so BRENT BURNS ON THE WING
Reminder, I won’t be blogging after the game as I try to catch a red-eye out of town. I’ve basically been on the road since Dec. 6. As John Denver once sang, “Country Road, Take Me Home.”
It’ll be just so nice to leave this SoCal weather. It’s been rough.
If you didn’t see Wild-Ducks highlights from last night, click on this link. Then, on the right side of the page under game reports, click the little video camera that says, “700K.”
Onto the Q&A Extra:
Great questions as always. I’m working on this at about 3 a.m. Friday morning because I’ve been stricken with what the team’s got and can’t sleep. It’s fun being a hockey writer, but this is the third year in a row that an illness that has run through the team smacked me in the face as well.
Because of this, I can’t really think very well right now (as opposed to the days where I’m super intelligent), so I apologize if you don’t see your question here or if my answers read like I’m writing in Slovak.
There were some great questions, but I’ve skipped some of the very broad ones that require deep thinking on my part because quite frankly, the nyquil and advil and coldees and all the other stuff I’ve ingested in the last 24-48 hours has left my head cloudy.
Quite honestly, I should probably hold off on this for a week, but I love risk-taking adventures, so here we go:
Secuel asks, “Would the Wild consider trading Rolston or Demitra if they thought they were going to lose them via free agency after the season, even if the team was in contention for the playoffs?”
Russo: Depends on what you can get. If it’s a mid-round pick, keep them. If it’s a first-round pick or a significant player in the future, you have to consider it. Keith Tkachuk, Ryan Smyth and Peter Forsberg were dealt for first-round picks last year and all those teams didn’t pass the first round. I assume most intelligent GMs noticed that and the prices will go significantly down by the Feb. 26 deadline. But back to your point, a few years ago, we saw with Zdeno Chara in Ottawa, the Senators kept him, lost in the playoffs and he left for Boston via free agency without any compensation. So how did that help them? This is probably a bad time to be asking me this because with the team playing lousy (although it pounded Anaheim Friday night), I have my doubts it would go far in the playoffs. So my initial feeling is by keeping Rolston or Demitra, does that even get you through the first round? So maybe you have to consider shipping them if you’re not going to re-sign them. But all this is rhetorical and premature, so I say get back to the opinionated Russo in a month or so. How about that for a scrambly, all over the place answer? See what I mean about where my head’s at?
Yoke asks, “How many Wild players have specific deals signed with companies for equipment use?”
Russo: I can promise you that no Wild player gets Sid the Kid money, but they do get money. A lot of players have deals, but there are different markets. In other words, companies, I believe, pay players more depending on the market. So Minnesota is considered a top “A” market, as is all of Canada. Why? Because your kids play hockey, so if they see Marian Gaborik and Brian Rolston using Easton sticks (which they do), they might beg mom and dad for that stick, etc. Companies don’t get that same reaction from kids in Raleigh or Nashville or South Florida. Also, it’s not like most sports where if you wear Adidas sneakers, you wear Adidas wristbands or whatever. In hockey, you can use a Nike-Bauer stick and a Mission-Itech visor and Sherwood gloves and Reebok skates. See the subliminal advertisement. I suddenly have a hankering to go to Sports Authority. I’m dizzy.
ballgame asks, “1. How were you able to get Foster to let you take a picture of his (hideously grotesque) eye for Sunday’s paper? 2. It seems as if the players and coaches to a degree place a significant amount of trust in you – almost to where it seems as if they treat you as a peer (as a professional in the sport). How difficult is it to pace the line of friend vs. journalist in order to get your job done?”
Russo: 1) I normally don’t get involved in photos, but I wanted a good cover illustration for the visor takeout I was writing. So when I interviewed Foster the morning of a game, his eye was gruesome. I asked if he was comfortable with me getting our game photographer, the great Bruce Bisping, to shoot him later that night in the press box. He said, “No problem,” but then I saw him at a restaurant across the street from the arena an hour later at lunch and he told me he took two self-portraits the night of the incident. I asked him if he’d email them to me and he did. Foster’s a real good guy and one of the best quotes on the team, which is why you see his voice often in the Strib.
2) It’s difficult but very important. For some reason, I’ve always been tight with many players and coaches/managers I’ve covered. I genuinely like talking to these guys so I can get funny, interesting notes for the paper. I love writing the game notebooks. The notebooks I like the most are kind of comedic, story-telling type stuff, and you can only deliver that to the fan if you’re able to converse and shoot the breeze with players. So half my time in the locker room is just going up to players with my pad and recorder in my pocket and chatting them up informally. If they tell me something that would be good for the paper, I ask if I can write it. I think players recognize the difference between a reporter who is passionate about the game, loves the sport and wants to be the liaison between the team and the fan (which to me, is my sole job), and a reporter who’s walking around searching for dirt. But you’re right, there’s a line you can’t cross and I think every player understands the job I have. I’ve told ticked-off players before, ‘As a professional athlete, you have to take the good with the bad.’ I’m an objective, impartial reporter. If you play well, I promise you I’m going to write it. If you don’t play well, I promise you I’m going to write it. Example? You all make fun of the relationship I have with Rob Niedermayer. But if you ever meet Rob Niedermayer, ask him if I was tough on him in Florida. I’d think he’d say, “Roose was very tough, but very fair.” That’s the deal: It’s a mutual respect: I have respect for their job, they have respect for mine. Sometimes it’s tough. I can go on and on. It’s inevitable to have runs-ins in my business, too. Maybe I’ll have a Russoville roundtable one day.
WildHooBear asks, “Can you recommend must have hockey books for fans and their kids? (Xmas is coming); Who do you respect as hockey writers and journalists? What are your criteria?”
Russo: Good idea. Maybe I’ll do this for next Sunday’s column. I wrote an SI for Kids book once, which you can find on Amazon (Rising Stars, Best Young Players in the NHL). But it’s very old at this point (the guys we profiled were Pronger, Kariya, Drury, Lecavalier, Elias, Thornton, Hejduk, Gomez, two others I can’t remember right now). I will tell you, I just saw an outstanding documentary called, “Ice Kings,” about the Mount St. Charles Academy high school team in Rhode Island that won 26 straight state titles. They’ve produced players like Brian Lawton, Mathieu Schneider, Bryan Berard, Jeff Jilsson, Garth Snow. I’m forgetting one. Can’t remember who. Oh, some guy named Keith Carney. You’ll be reading about this soon. As for the second part of the question, click on the Q&A archive to the right. I’m pretty sure I answered that question in the Q&A earlier this season.
Wild RoadTripper asks, “You and the coaching staff seem to be in agreement about Martin Skoula; that he is the greatest defenseman to lace ‘em up since Paul Coffey roamed the blue line for the ’80′s Oilers. My own opinion is that he may be a minute-muncher, but he is a puck-handling liability who is marshmallow soft, despite his 6-5 size. What is Lemaire’s obsession with Martin Skoula? And what does he (and you, frankly) see in him that we don’t?”
Russo: What the heck are you talking about? Honestly. I wrote one positive story on him earlier in the season when he was playing well to give you, the reader, a glimpse into how Jacques Lemaire sees him. I think it was an eye-opening piece and if you read the story closely (and I know you have because it’s been re-posted by Russoville residents umpteen times since), it explains Jacques’ obsession with him. And quite frankly, I rushed that story into the paper because I knew the potential of Skoula’s game becoming erratic again. In fact, on a funny aside, I interviewed Risebrough in St. Paul about four days before the story appeared. For some reason, I couldn’t run the story there. Then, I was going to run it in Phoenix, but Roman Voloshenko quit. So I had to hold it until LA. For two games, I held my breath every time Skoula had the puck because I wanted to get that story in the paper so badly. I just thought Risebrough’s quotes were very telling about why this guy can do no wrong in Jacques Lemaire’s mind. I feel I’m a very objective reporter. When he plays well, I write it. When he plays poorly, I write it. And I write that a heckuva lot more. So I think you’re being a little unfair about how I paint this player. And I hope you feel bad about getting me worked up. I’m highly medicated. One missed heartbeat and this blog could suddenly go from “Russo’s Rants” to “No. 2′s blissful harmony” or something like that. Here’s the Skoula story (disregard the run-on sentence in Graph #3. I must have been highly medicated then, too, or there was an editing snafu). (Editor’s note: That’s all Russo.)
Intoblivion asks, “Assuming we can sign only Rolston or Demitra at the end of the year, which do you think is more likely and why?
Russo: Again this is premature. I think I’ve made clear in print that I’d pick Rolston, but again, this all depends on where this team goes and how much they want. If Rolston and Demitra each want 5 million buckeroos, the Wild might have to let both go. Both aren’t playing particularly well right now. If Rolston comes down in price, I’d keep him in a heartbeat. But this could be his last contract and he’s been underpaid (by NHL standards) the last three years. It’ll be interesting to see how Demitra plays if and when he gets back to left wing.
Joe H asks, “How likely is the return of Peter Forsberg to the NHL?”
Russo: Seems doubtful now after he practiced in early November with the Swedish national team and his ankle swelled up like a grapefruit again. I know he was reportedly very dejected about his NHL future.
Dampland asks, “With many people discussing Derek Boogaard and his diminishing role as the enforcer for the Wild, I wonder how this will affect some of the big bruisers in the Wild farm system, specifically Matt Kassian and John Scott. Do these players have the talent to skate regular shifts, or are they a possible victim of the enforcer’s shrinking ice time?”
Russo: One thing Aaron Voros and Todd Fedoruk has shown is that Boogaard is awfully one-dimensional. Voros and Fedoruk both can play regular minutes and will fight on occasion. Boogaard hasn’t gotten to that point yet. This is why I’ve written a number of times in the past that it’s extremely important for Boogaard’s long-term future in the NHL for him to turn himself into a player who can play regular minutes. The same goes for Kassian and Scott. I think the day and age of the heavyweight who plays three minutes a game is gone. So if they want to play in the NHL, they have to do a whole lot more than fight.
Tom asks, “We heard Benoit Pouliot had a great camp. He did not make the team, but could be used now, why hasn’t he been playing in Houston much?”
Russo: He had been out with a hamstring injury. He’s back now and Halelujah, he scored for the first time last night.
Engine37 asks, “It seems like Lemaire has a great deal of confidence in the Wild’s newest member, Todd Fedoruk. While I realize the Wild picked him up to get ‘tougher,’ how did Fedoruk get into such a position of favor with Lemaire so quickly? What is the thinking behind playing Fedoruk (he’s been getting about 10 minutes of ice time per game lately) while Foy, Boogaard, Radivojevic and others sit?”
Russo: I think this is just a case of fresh meat. Lemaire sees something new and likes it now. Fedoruk is one of the better skating grinders in the NHL and Lemaire feels he creates space for his linemates.
Jeff asks, “If the Wild were to trade a defenseman or 2 for a center, does Jacques have enough faith in Belle or Reitz to call either one up?”
toivo asks, “Do you think DR’s threat of ‘jobs on the line’ awhile back with the Fedoruk pickup had any substance to it? I know we’re talking about guys like Branko and Foy being on the bubble, but to me that doesn’t really count. I’m talking someone significant. What do you think?”
Russo: I agree a lot of it was for shock value. It’s tough to make trades in today’s game. Everybody wants to talk money before you talk substance, so it’s hard to make any significant moves until you get closer to the trade deadline. So I think it was a scare tactic. We’ll see. But management wanted to send a message to the players that it’s essential they play more physically if it wants to compete with its contenders. And the players have been more physical since, no doubt.
SaminMpls asks, “Multiple reports in the hockey press have Anaheim’s Andy McDonald available for trade because of the Ducks need to dump salary following the return of Scott Niedermayer. Considering the Wild’s desperate need for another center, and McDonald’s relatively reasonable $3.3m salary, what are the odds of Risebrough making a serious offer for him?”
Russo: Already gone, and the Wild couldn’t really take on his salary until later in the season. I agree the Wild is desperate for a center and he’d be a great fit.
HoustonSTH asks, “Were the Wild in the running for Jussi Timonen (just picked up by Dallas for a conditional pick in 2009)? If not, why not? The Wild have slipped defensively and quite honestly some of the play by the defensemen has been less than stellar. The Wild don’t seem too eager to call up and D from Houston so Timonen might have been a nice fit.”
Russo: I think you’re mistaking Jussi with Kimmo Timonen, who’s also on Philly and was Nashville’s captain.
MNslappy asks, “How much input does Jacques Lemaire have on personnel decisions that the team makes during the season after camp breaks? Does the GM solicit the coaching staff’s opinion(s) about roster moves, potential trades, etc.?”
Russo: He solicits his opinion, but I don’t get the impression Jacques has much input. Risebrough has his two assistant GMs in Tom Lynn and Tommy Thompson and a professional scouting crew led by Blair Mackasey that Risebrough leans on.
DP asks, “Did you get your jacket back?”
Russo: I did. Unfortunately, I bought almost an identical one for the San Jose game before finding it at National the next day. Hey, you can’t have too many blazers.
DP asks, “It hasn’t been discussed on this blog in a while, but the current point system that awards more overall points for games that go into OT than games that end in regulation is completely illogical. Is there any talk at all of revisiting this system or does the league think it is great?”
Russo: Nope. The league put the kibosh on this over the summer. There was a lot of talk about making three points for a regulation win, two for OT/shootout win and one for OT/shootout loss so every game was worth the same. But the league did some study that said the standings wouldn’t have changed dramatically.
Dice asks, “As a Gopher homer, how does the Wild feel about the development of Danny Irmen? I’d like to see him replace SRV (Stephane Veilleux) next year.”
Russo: I’ve got to be honest. I haven’t asked about him in a while. I will in the next few days. But I know they’ve always been high on him, and I really felt he had a good start to camp. I was surprised he was sent down so soon.
Nick in New York asks, “What is your favorite Wild memory/story from the time you’ve been covering them?”
Russo: Nick, ask this again at a later date. I love questions like this, but let me think of a few. I don’t have that ability at this moment, ha.
Rob L asks, “Does Brian Rolston still possess the capability to score on a shot that is not a slapshot? Ever since last year’s All Star game, it seems he has become a one-dimensional player (“Give me the puck so I can take a slapper”). This has hurt his production and consequently hurt the team. Have too many people been in his ear telling him how great his slapshot is?”
Russo: I think he possesses the same shot. It’s just too hard to score on those consistently anymore, although Rolston’s one of the few in the league that can score from way out. The other night against San Jose, the Sharks packed all five guys into the box to protect the front of the net. Rolston, twice that I remember, wheeled around the side and skated to the top of the zone prepping to unleash his cannon. The San Jose winger never even considered coming out at him. The defender just stood in his collapsed position. That makes it almost impossible to shoot from high in the zone anymore because either you’re going to get your shot blocked or you’re going to have to intentionally misfire at the net in hopes of missing bodies. To me, Rolston’s still a huge weapon.
Eric K asks, “Early in the season there was talk about schedule changes. Now that the future schedule has been changed to include playing everyone at least once, is there still any talk about changing the division that the Wild plays in? Being a transplant to Minn and not growing up with the Stars’ rivalries, I think it would sad to lose the new rivalries that they have forged.”
Russo: The Wild would love to change to the Central, but this won’t happen for a while, if at all.
Eric K also asks, “At the end of last year there was so much talk about the Wild not winning faceoffs, have any of the additions to the roster made a significant impact in this stat?”
Russo: Well, the Wild finished 28th last year. It ranks 29th this year at 47.6 percent. So, no. But that has a lot to do with Mikko Koivu’s injury and Wes Walz’s retirement. Pavol Demitra and Brian Rolston haven’t been good in the circles while playing center. Dominic Moore’s at 52.4 percent, which ranks 33rd in the NHL.
Mike B asks, “We hear that Rolston and Demitra ‘don’t like’ to play center because of the defensive responsibilities. What are the chances of Veilleux learning the center position?”
Russo: It’s awfully hard to turn a player into a center this late in his career and Veilleux’s strength is flying in on the forecheck, something he couldn’t do as a center in Jacques’ system.
Mike B asks, “At season’s outset, the plan was for Sheppard to not play every day, yet here he is after the loss of Walz and Koivu. Is Risebrough looking to find another center or are he and Lemaire pleased with Sheppard playing every day?”
Russo: As I mentioned earlier, it’s not easy making trades now. There’s no doubt Sheppard’s getting valuable experience though. But the Wild isn’t strong enough at center. I’d look at Edmonton’s Jarret Stoll. Just one name that has intrigued me that I’ve seen available. But he’s a restricted free agent at the end of the year.
sawhockey asks, “How many frequent flier miles do you attain in an average year and do you get to use them yourself do you have to give them to the paper?”
Russo: About 100,000-200,000 miles (including bonuses). When I worked in Florida, I’d get almost 400,000 Delta miles a year because there’s tons of ways to get Delta bonus miles. I keep the miles. No doubt, an incredible perk of the job, especially because I can use them during my off time in the summers.
Cam asks, “Are most of the Wild players using wood or composite sticks?”
Russo: Pavol Demitra is one of 17 players in the NHL who uses a wooden stick. The rest of the Wild players use composite sticks.
Beadwench asks, “Since nobody has convinced anybody that we should retire Wes Walz’s number, has the Wild been thinking of honoring his contributions in another manner such as a yearly award for the player who most contributes to the team in terms of work ethic, grit and leadership?”
Russo: I asked Risebrough if this is a possibility or perhaps Walz even working for the team. He said it’s premature to think about it.
BDS asks, “With the retirement of Walz, the Wild is short at the center position. In a perfect “Wild” world where DR can trade for a star like Lecavalier or Sundin, would such player be able to thrive (i.e continue to put up points) in JL’s system? If not, what type of center would.”
Russo: You know, I do wonder after seeing Demitra falter so badly lately. I mean, remember, Demitra and Rolston were centers when they came here and they’re not even close to offensively successful in this system. I do wonder if the Wild would ever be able to get a top offensive-minded center to come to Minnesota with Lemaire as the coach.
Rob asks, “Is there an unwritten rule among players about fighting with a visor? It seems like some players (like Keith Ballard) drop their helmet with their gloves while others (I thought somebody from Vancouver did this earlier this year vs. the Wild) keep it on.”
Russo: It is unwritten. James Sheppard was telling me just last week in fact that since visors are mandatory in junior, when two heavyweights fight, they typically remove their helmets. I’ve seen Iginla do it. I do think it should not only be an unwritten rule in the NHL, it should be a rule. It’s dangerous – plain and simple.
sauzatime asks, “Considering the Wild are no longer an expansion franchise in terms of talent (no jokes please), and that few other coaches do it, what’s your opinion of the “line-shuffling” Lemaire does with his teams?”
Russo: This is overblown, and I have to admit, a lot of it is our fault because we write about this a lot. But watch games, every coach scrambles their lines and Lemaire seems to be doing it less often, at least in the course of games, this year.
Dan asks, “It’s no secret how big blogs have become as far as a media element goes in relation to the NHL, and hockey in general. Some teams, like the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals, have gone so far as to invite “established” bloggers to sit in the press box and view the games, and even ask questions during post-games in order to bring a new light to the blogging role. What are your thoughts on a.) the influence of blogs on the NHL, and b.) could you see more teams following the Isles and Caps lead as far as letting fan bloggers into a press-capacity?”
Russo: I think this is a slippery slope and I discussed this with “Eklund (hockeybuzz.com)” over lunch at last year’s All-Star Game. I think the NHL needs to establish some sort of blogger access policy, whether it’s a certain amount of hits or page views or some criteria to be considered a member of the press. I don’t think every person with a blog should be allowed in a press box or should be able to ask questions in a news conference or roam the locker room afterward. Many bloggers are fans and aren’t going to grasp the impartiality necessary to sit in the press box (i.e. not cheering, etc.) and walking the locker room (“No Autographs Please”). But I do think blogs are part of the new era we live in and it’s imperative that a sport like hockey, which needs all the exposure it can get, figures out ways to open its doors to bloggers.