Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Wild practice: Coyle back in lineup Friday as new lines debut

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: October 31, 2013 - 3:48 PM

With a second consecutive day of practice before Friday's game against Montreal, the Wild spent Thursday morning getting used to the new line combinations coach Mike Yeo instituted Wednesday. No one was happier than Charlie Coyle, whom Yeo confirmed would rejoin the lineup Friday.

Coyle had missed 11 games because of a sprained knee. Thursday, he centered a line with one familiar face--left wing Zach Parise, a former Coyle linemate--and had Justin Fontaine and Dany Heatley taking turns on the right side. Coyle also worked with the first power-play unit, joining Parise and Mikko Koivu with Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville at the points.

Coyle said he could feel the knee getting better every day as he did workouts and physical therapy. Lots of time on the bike kept his conditioning from slipping, though he said his legs were not quite in game shape because he couldn't do a lot of "stride stuff'' on the ice. "That was the hardest part,'' Coyle said. "I'm on the right track.''

He also likes the new lines because "there's a little of everything on each line.'' That's just what Yeo was going for. The coach said Thursday that even though the new combinations don't feature a clearly defined checking line, strong defensive play throughout the lineup means that role can be played by any threesome. With everyone taking responsibility in that area, Yeo felt he could mix and match freely in an effort to spark more scoring.

"Part of the reason behind it is we feel we have anybody we can put out against anybody,'' Yeo said. "If (Mikael Granlund) was not playing as well defensively as he has ... He's proven he can be on the ice against anybody and defend against anybody. Likewise, there's no reason why (Coyle) shouldn’t be very effective at that, too. (He has) a big body, he's a smart hockey player, he moves well. He understands the structure we play with, so we expect him to be like that. And obviously Mikko, we have no concerns about him going against top guys. We should feel comfortable with any line going out against anybody.''

Much of Thursday's focused, fast-paced practice was dedicated to developing familiarity with the new groupings. In addition to the Coyle line, the others are: Matt Cooke-Granlund-Pominville, Nino Niederreiter-Koivu-Kyle Brodziak, and Fontaine/Heatley-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell.

One issue Yeo will have is transitioning between the power play and even strength. He's mixing things up there, too, using players from several different lines on both units. The second unit features defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Keith Ballard at the points, with Niederreiter, Granlund and Heatley.

"That’s tricky,'' Yeo said. "It's something we'll have to look at a little bit there and keep an eye on. It's something, certainly, we discussed. If you have a line out there for 40 seconds and they draw a power play, that’s going to be pretty tough. To have a tired player go out there, that doesn’t benefit anybody. We wanted to try that today, and we've got to figure some stuff out. We have to make sure we use this opportunity to try to figure out what are the best options for us.''

While Yeo sounded as if he is leaning against playing Jonas Brodin on Friday, he said Ballard is expected to play. Brodin continues to recover from a broken cheekbone; he said Thursday that he feels pretty good and is excited to get back in, but Yeo reiterated that he doesn't want to play him until he is certain he's ready for the long haul. Ballard missed seven games because of a concussion and appeared ready to go Thursday.

Yeo had special praise for what Ballard brings to the power play. "He's got the mobility to walk the blue line to be able to open up shooting lanes, and he's got a good shot through to the net,'' Yeo said. "He's got his head up. He's walking the line. He made some nice reads as far as when to move the puck, when to distribute the puck, and when there's a (shooting) lane, he's taking that shot. And I like that.''

Other notes from practice:

--Yeo said he isn't concerned about Coyle's conditioning, because he wasn't out long enough to develop any real rust.

--The players, Yeo said, have responded positively to the line changes. "The guys are excited and anxious to try it out,'' he said.

--Coyle, a native of the Boston area who played at Boston University, admitted he didn't follow the Red Sox closely this season but got on board for the World Series victory. "After everything that's happened,'' he said, in a reference to the Boston Marathon bombing, "it's nice to see (the Sox championship) happen.''

--If you go trick-or-treating at the Konopka residence tonight, you could see Hoppy the bunny wearing one of two costume choices: a pumpkin or a lion. "He loves it,'' Konopka said of his rabbit's penchant for dressing up in Wild sweaters and other outfits. "He won't shut up about Halloween.''

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