Younger Wild players step up, raise Yeo's expectations

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 5, 2014 - 11:01 PM
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The Wild's Mikael Granlund (64) sailed around Capitals goalie Braden Holtby on Saturday night.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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Keith Ballard looked to his right, and in a row sitting at their stalls were Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jason Zucker and Brett Bulmer.

Straight across from Ballard were Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund. As Coyle and Granlund tore the tape off their socks, goalie Darcy Kuemper walked across the room and placed his mask over his locker as Nino Niederreiter cooled off to his right.

“I guess this makes me the old guy,” Ballard, 31, said after Saturday’s morning skate.

The locker-room scene really was the perfect snapshot of just how young the Wild has gotten.

Scandella and Kuemper are 23. Granlund, Coyle, Niederreiter, Zucker and Bulmer are all 21. Brodin is 20. All dressed in Saturday’s 5-3 victory over the Washington Capitals. Only Kuemper, the Wild’s backup on this night, didn’t play a significant role.

Overshadowed by Ryan Suter’s first career hat trick and becoming the first defenseman in the NHL to record a hat trick since 2011 were the performances of the Wild’s “kids.”

Brodin played a steady 25½ minutes after a tough first shift. Scandella, other than a three-game bump in the road on a recent road trip, continued his string of solid games.

Up front, Niederreiter and Zucker each scored big goals, Coyle won puck battles to help set up two goals and Granlund played what coach Mike Yeo called, a “very mature game” by stepping up with captain Mikko Koivu first hobbled by and eventually lost because of an injured foot.

The Wild was off Sunday. Koivu will see team doctors Monday morning and the team will have an update afterward. Koivu was struck on the inside of the right foot by Nicklas Backstrom’s dump-in and was said to be in a lot of pain and limping badly afterward.

The team leaves Monday morning to begin a two-game road trip in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Zach Parise, who has missed six games and counting, and Jared Spurgeon, who missed his first of what will be many Saturday, are already sidelined by injuries from blocking shots.

After Saturday’s game, Yeo, unsolicited, began praising Granlund’s game (assist, two blocked shots, 11 of 15 faceoffs won; 28 of 42 the past four games). It had the sound of a coach expecting to get bad news regarding Koivu’s injury.

“Faceoffs, blocking a big shot at the end of the game, composure in his D-zone,” Yeo said of Granlund. “You don’t replace a guy like Mikko … if he comes out of the lineup. You don’t replace a Parise, you don’t replace even a Spurgeon, but other guys get an opportunity and they need to step up.

“We’re putting these guys on the fast track and they’re responding. They have to keep doing it, though. We have a big road trip coming up here, and we have to keep this going. We’re going to ask a lot of these kids on this road trip and we have to find ways to win hockey games. We’re going to rely on those guys.”

Added Torrey Mitchell, “Those guys play a huge role on our team. We depend on them big time. That’s no secret. They bring a lot of energy and we need them to keep going.”

Comings and goings

The Wild reassigned Bulmer to Iowa on Sunday, perhaps an indication that injured Justin Fontaine will be able to play Tuesday.

The Wild also may have needed the roster spot if it plans to recall a center like 22-year-old Erik Haula if Koivu can’t travel. The Wild also might want to bring an extra defenseman with Spurgeon hurt.

As of Sunday night, the Wild said it hadn’t yet decided if defenseman Matt Dumba would return to the Wild or be assigned to Portland of the Western Hockey League. Dumba and Team Canada finished fourth in the World Junior Championship.

Originally, it seemed all but guaranteed that Dumba would return to junior, but with Spurgeon hurt, the team could look for Dumba to provide depth.

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