Q&A: My sitdown with Wild owner Craig Leipold

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

First, I’ll be on with shock jock Jim Souhan Sunday morning at 10:35 a.m. on KSTP, 1500-am.

Friday, I sat down with Wild owner Craig Leipold for a state-of-the-team article, which can be read here.

I appreciate the time with Mr. Leipold, who is a busy man, and I’d like to thank Bill Robertson for arranging it. As promised, here is the full Q&A with Mr. Leipold.

In addition, if you never got a chance to read my summertime profile on Mr. Leipold, here’s the story that ran in August. His personality shines in the story, and also, this would be a good read for you because he talks about his desire to acquire top free agents in Minnesota that would help lure other top players. For the below Q&A and accompanying article, my time was limited with Mr. Leipold and I neglected to ask him about upcoming free agency plans. This is a passionate fan and owner, one who allows his GM to spend to the salary-cap ceiling (actually a few million south only because that allows the Wild to have flexibility to make moves during the year).

Q: So how are ya?
A: “A lot of sleepless nights … because of the closeness of the race, because of the uniqueness of this season is, where not only is your game important, there are other games that are just as important. It sure makes for an interesting evening no matter if we’re playing or not.”
Q: When you sit in the crowd, do you get a sense of the fans angst, their nervousness, their displeasure some nights, especially in December?
A: “I don’t know why it seems like this year has been a very, very intense year. It seems more intense than any other year I’ve had and I think it is because of the tightness of the race. I like this team. I like it a lot. We are so close in the standings, anything can happen. Clearly, I think we can still end up in a pretty good spot and frankly, I would like to get home-ice advantage. I still want to win the division. I think this team can do it. Every night is important to get to that position of winning the division. For some reason, it just seems like it’s been an unusually difficult year.
Q: I know this is your first year, but do you think that has a lot to do with the fact that these fans have been around nine years, they’ve seen the same hierarchy for eight years and the reality is sometimes things grow old?
A: “I think the expectation level is high. I think it is for me, I think as a fan. My nervousness of watching the game is as a fan, truly not as an owner. I want to win like the ‘Team of 18,000’ wants to win this game. So I don’t know whether that’s part of it. Expectations were high. I think they should have been. And I think we’re still going to achieve an awful lot this year.”
Q: The fans are very concerned about Niklas Backstrom. Can you talk about that situation right now?
A:  “No. It’s not my role to talk about it. Negotiations are going on. We like Nik Backstrom. He’s a great goalie in this league. We want to have him here. He wants to be here. Hopefully we’re going to work it out. That’s really all I know. I would hope that we could get Backstrom signed and I’d be surprised if we didn’t.”
Q: As an owner, if you can’t work it out, do you think even if you’re in the thick of a playoff race that to keep the direction moving forward that you might have to consider trading Backstrom?
A: “That’s Doug’s role and responsibility. He’ll do what is best for this franchise in the long-term, not just for the last 20 games. I think that’s the sign of a good general manager is that they do stuff for the long-term.”
Q: This team has lost players for nothing – Brian Rolston for a fourth, who knows what’s going to happen with Gaborik. It does seem like to keep the franchise moving in the right direction and accumulating assets that this is something you’d have to strongly consider if you can’t sign Nik?
A: “Yeah, but I think we always have to remember that the Gaborik issue is an injury issue. It was not a strategy or philosophy of how we ended up handling Gaborik. Our only intention was re-signing Gaborik. It is still our only intention. Unfortunately the injury caused everything to shut down. It’s our hope that we’ll still re-sign him. I think he’d like to play here. We’re not done yet.”
Q: So you really believe that there’s still a chance?
A: “I hope so. As a fan, I sure hope so.”
Q: Really?
A: “Yeah (laughing).”


Another Q&A edition

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

Good night for the Wild last night. Calgary and Nashville lost.

Incidentally, I was just eating breakfast in the concierge lounge and was chatting with referee Chris Lee. Turns out he lives in the Twin Cities. Nice guy. He’s working the game with vet Brad Watson tonight. 

I was just wondering what the heck to write my Sunday column about this week, and decided, to put the pressure on you all. 

So let’s do another Q&A edition.

Ask me Wild/NHL questions in the comment field (hopefully questions looking ahead toward the playoffs or something like that). You have until Thursday night because I typically write my Sunday columns Thursday night, Friday morning.

Please, however, in this particular blog entry, only ask questions. Don’t get into commentaries with others. It’s not easy to dissect the questions from inside the commentaries.

Please use the previous posts and subsequent ones to make comments, and I’ll be back later with a morning skate update. Wild doesn’t skate until 1:30 your time.

As usual, I’ll pick a select few for the paper. Because space is tight, I’ll probably do a longer version for Sunday on the blog.

OK. Have fun.

Q&A Extra, Part 2; L.A. Pregame Update

Saturday, December 15th, 2007

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?”

Russo: No.

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.



Q&A, Volume 2

Monday, December 10th, 2007

Good afternoon back there in the Twin Cities…

Cold front moving through San Jose. It’s down to 60 degrees. I’d put on my coat if, and you’ll find this amusing, I didn’t leave my sports coat in a rental car this morning.

Get this: I get into a rental and the battery’s dead. So I get in another, grab all my luggage, but not my coat, which I had just put in the back seat. 

And of course the car rental agency ain’t picking up the phone, meaning this’ll be a couple hundred dollar mistake.

But after a couple things that have put life in perspective in the last couple days, I’m doing my best not to sweat the small stuff.

Now, to the reason I’m on here right now. The well’s dry right now, so I figured I’d call upon you. How about another Q&A?

I will answer a select few questions during either this Sunday’s column or next Sunday’s, and some of the others here on the blog at some point.

Please post only questions on this link. If you want to continue comments and discussions and stuff like that, use the previous blog posting or subsequent ones.
Understand I’m not going to be able to answer every question and try to make your questions time sensitive since the answers won’t appear until one of the next two Sundays.

Also, understand, I may need to edit your questions for space constraints.

Practice is in an hour. I’ll be back later to update.

The team better be on time. I’m going down to Berkeley tonight.

Here’s another article in the Boston Globe with mention of Detroit chauffeur Albert Howard, who between running for President, took me to and from the airport the other day.

Q&A Extra

Saturday, October 20th, 2007

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?

Russo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five-hole

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.



Q&A Part I

Sunday, March 18th, 2007

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.