Jacques Lemaire dressed 20 players during the Wild's preseason opener with the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday night, but he had one goal in mind: "To look at the kids."The kids" would be forwards Danny Irmen, Petr Kalus and Matt Foy and defenseman Erik Reitz.
Of course, by the time the ugly 6-1 trouncing was complete, the Wild coach had another goal in mind: to find a forward to play with Pavol Demitra and Marian Gaborik.
Lemaire said he sees Mikko Koivu centering Branko Radivojevic and Mark Parrish when the season opens Oct. 4 against Chicago. On the second line, he wants Eric Belanger to center Brian Rolston and Pierre-Marc Bouchard.
"But on top there, I've got to solve that problem first," Lemaire said. "I need to find a winger there, or a center."Problem" is the operative word.
The Wild essentially flipped Belanger for Todd White during the offseason. While the team feels Belanger is an upgrade to White, the Wild didn't upgrade the depth of a position considered the team's biggest weakness last season.
Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough conceded as much two weeks ago.
"If I can accelerate one growth in one position in our organization, I'd like to accelerate that position," Risebrough said at the time.
Lemaire is clearly worried. Sure, it's early -- only five days into training camp -- but thus far no player has made a strong enough bid to win the much-coveted spot alongside the talented Slovaks.
"Maybe I'm wrong here, but what I've seen so far with Belanger with [Demitra and Gaborik], I don't know if he's going to fit there," Lemaire said. "I think he fits better with Butch and Roli. [Belanger] plays close and he likes the give-and-go all the time and Gabby doesn't do that and Pavol doesn't do that a lot. They do it among each other but not the three of them.
"So I would love to get a center. That's what I'm looking for at first. Get a center and put [Demitra] on the wing."
But so far, other than veteran Wes Walz and bubble player Dominic Moore, the only center that conceivably has a shot to play on the top line is 19-year-old James Sheppard. And Lemaire labeled his camp Tuesday morning as "OK."
The two other youngsters who have a shot to play on the line are 20-year-olds Kalus and Benoit Pouliot. But they are both wings, meaning Demitra would have to play center, which could hinder his offense in Lemaire's system.
The skilled Kalus got some looks on the line Tuesday, and while he looked good, he blew two golden chances into gaping nets.
"He's missed goals through the whole camp and I wish for him to get a few goals," Lemaire said. "Maybe it would put him back on the confident side and maybe he will do even more. But I like the way he plays. He tries hard. The only thing, the open nets, he's got to put the puck in."
Pouliot originally was supposed to play Tuesday, but he missed the game while he attended to a drunken-driving arrest from last summer, sources say. Pouliot couldn't be reached for comment and team officials wouldn't comment.
But after a disappointing training camp last September and an unfulfilled season in Houston, Pouliot has had a strong camp thus far.
"Pouliot's played better at camp than last year," Lemaire said. "We'll see. He might have a try there."
As for the "kids," Foy, 24, was the most noticeable Tuesday. He assisted on Demitra's second-period goal and made himself known all night by bulling into the offensive zone on the forecheck.
"Your goal is to play in the big leagues," said Foy, who's played 28 NHL games the past two years and led Houston in scoring last season. "I don't know, this is probably one of my last chances here."
Like usual, Irmen, 23, the popular former Gopher and energetic checker, demonstrated a willingness to hit and play in traffic. He did leave his feet on one shift (a no-no in Lemaire's system) to block a shot and it resulted in a redirected Red Wings goal.
"I felt I played all right, but I've got to play better than that," Irmen said.