LOS ANGELES - James Sheppard is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Sidelined all year by a broken left kneecap, the 2006 first-round draft pick has been cleared to practice. He boarded the Wild's charter bound for Southern California on Wednesday afternoon to take part in a couple morning skates.
"I was actually kind of stressed because I forgot how to pack," Sheppard said, laughing, after the team's optional practice Wednesday morning. "It's just kind of cool to get out of Minneapolis with a purpose, not just to go home and visit the family, and to do something I love and something I've worked so hard at.
"I'm going to be really excited to have a morning skate in a visitor rink. ... It's a good day."
This doesn't mean Sheppard is anywhere close to playing. It means, as General Manager Chuck Fletcher said, that Sheppard is "simply progressing to the next stage."
Sheppard, 22, is still suspended from the team for his pre-training camp all-terrain vehicle accident and remains on nonroster injured reserve. He would have to be cleared to play by Monday's trade deadline for the Wild to even put him on waivers and send him to Houston.
But that seems a long shot since Sheppard said he still has endurance issues, and there's not a lot of muscle built up yet on his left leg. If he can eventually return, it would help the team's depth. But that likely won't happen while captain Mikko Koivu is sidelined by a broken finger.
"I think that's a little short-term for me," Sheppard said. "I don't think that's realistic and not that I'm not going to set goals, but I'm going to let my body tell me I'm ready."
Sheppard said he's taking things day to day and will be "cheering really hard so the boys make the playoffs," and maybe he can return around that time.
"He's put in a lot of hard work to get to where he's got," assistant coach Dave Barr said. "It's just a matter of involving him with the team a little more and helping him mentally get ready as well as physically.
"It's tough to jump in when you've missed all training camp, all preseason and all regular season because the level of play is quicker and quicker and harder and harder. So it's going to be difficult."
Brodziak ill; Barker hurt
The Wild's depth at center took an even bigger hit Wednesday.
With Koivu already out, Kyle Brodziak didn't travel with the Wild to California because of illness. It's unclear if he will be able to fly commercially Thursday or Friday. The team recalled center Jed Ortmeyer to make his Wild debut. Koivu was put on injured reserve to make room on the roster.
Ortmeyer, a former University of Michigan standout, has played 306 NHL games and was signed Jan. 1. He was a Masterton Trophy finalist last year, an award won by Jose Theodore.
Also not making the trip was defenseman Cam Barker, who injured himself during Tuesday's game. Instead, the Wild called up Elk River's Nate Prosser, who played three games last season, for the first time this year. Barr called Barker's injury "mid to upper body" and said the Wild just felt it needed an extra defenseman because of the trip out west.
• Former Wild defenseman Shane Hnidy has joined the Boston Bruins on a tryout.
• Goalie Niklas Backstrom has given up one goal or fewer in six of his past eight starts and three in a row. His .929 save percentage ranks second in the NHL, and his 2.24 goals-against average is fifth among goalies with 35 or more games.