With Mikael Granlund placed on injured reserve Thursday, Mike Yeo needs a new second-line center. So on Thursday, the Wild coach essentially threw some names in a hat and pulled one out: a player who has rarely played center in his career.
Nevertheless, when the Wild opens a home-and-hom e series with Central Division rival Colorado on Friday, Justin Fontaine is expected to move from his natural wing position to center between Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville.
How did Yeo choose Fontaine, who other than a few shifts here or there with the University of Minnesota Duluth and Houston Aeros has barely played center?
“Just trying things,” Yeo said.
Charlie Coyle won the second-line center spot outright in training camp, but after Coyle sprained his knee, Granlund took over and the second line took off.
This season and last, Coyle has played better at right wing than center, and the Wild’s top line with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu always seems to churn when Coyle’s at right wing as opposed to Pominville.
So Yeo would prefer to keep Coyle at top-line right wing and fill holes elsewhere.
“I’ve got no problem putting him at center, but I think we have to try to give that line a chance to get back to the type of dominance they were having,” Yeo said. “Instead of breaking them up, let’s arm those guys with what they need to lead our group.”
Parise, who missed Wednesday’s game against Phoenix with a bruised foot, practiced Thursday with Koivu and Coyle and is listed as questionable for Friday’s game against Colorado.
With Granlund out at least three games (injured reserve means at least seven days) because of an apparent head injury, Jason Zucker was recalled from AHL Iowa less than 24 hours after being reassigned. He practiced on the left side of Kyle Brodziak and Dany Heatley on Thursday, while Matt Cooke, who hasn’t scored a goal since Oct. 12 (21 games), was demoted to the fourth line.
Yeo hopes Zucker’s speed will complement two big bodies.
“Heater had one of his strongest games in a long time [against Phoenix],” Yeo said. “He was strong on a lot of puck battles and had three really good scoring chances and one goal. We’ll use this as an opportunity to continue to help him grow his game, get it back to his top level.”
Zucker has been like a yo-yo between Iowa and Minnesota. He played three mostly solid games during his recent call-up, but he had to be reassigned Wednesday to activate defenseman Keith Ballard and right wing Torrey Mitchell off injured reserve.
Zucker had a 3 p.m. flight Wednesday to play the Chicago Wolves, arrived at the arena at 5:30 p.m. with only airport pizza in his stomach, scored two goals and then was pulled off the bus after the game because the Wild summoned him back to Minnesota with Granlund hurt.
He had a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call Thursday to fly back to Minnesota for practice.
“It’s not the easiest, but I’m not going to complain about being up here,” Zucker said. “If I have to go down for a day, and that means I’m coming right back, then so be it, I’ll take it just to be up here playing.”
Granlund could miss some time now. He has taken three shots to the head in the past eight games, getting hurt Wednesday 29 seconds into his first shift after missing two games.
Yeo said the Wild didn’t rush Granlund back.
“To sit here and say in hindsight that I wish he didn’t play, of course,” Yeo said. “But when a guy’s cleared to play, what are you going to do? You going to say no? He was cleared to play and obviously cleared to play with the idea that we wanted to be careful and think about the big picture. Sometimes things happen.”
Zucker, who suffered two concussions last season, one with the Wild, feels “horrible” for Granlund.
“I know exactly what he’s going through,” Zucker said. “It just drains you emotionally, mentally, everything. It’s tough. I hope he gets better soon