Defensemen Justin Falk and Nate Prosser will get a chance to show they're ready to contribute.
If you look at the Wild's four lines on paper and then consider there are a half-dozen players in AHL Houston knocking hard at the door, there's little doubt that the Wild is deeper at forward than in any year in franchise history.
The complete opposite might be said about its defensemen.
In the past 18 months, the Wild has reinvented its blue line, trading away Brent Burns, Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon and the team's career leader in games played, Nick Schultz.
Consider: Schultz played 743 games in a Wild sweater. Jared Spurgeon (123 games), Clayton Stoner (116), Marco Scandella (83), Justin Falk (72) and Nate Prosser (56) -- five players who could log a lot of ice this season -- have combined for 450.
Ryan Suter (542 games) and Tom Gilbert (404) will be the mainstays, with Spurgeon, 23, paired with Suter to start and Stoner, 27, next to Gilbert as Scandella recovers from a groin injury that will cause him to miss the beginning of the season.
Falk and Prosser will be expected to take the next step in their development. These aren't young pups anymore. Falk is 24, Prosser 26. Falk is starting his fifth year as a pro, Prosser beginning his third.
"I'd love to build off the chemistry that me and Pross have developed over the last couple years," Falk said. "We want to be a trusted force as a D pair. With the experience we gained last year, we want to come in and not just fill sweaters and jerseys out there, but be factors on the ice.
"We want our reputation to be shutdown guys and want to be trusted by the coaching staff that they can put us out in big situations. We'd like to have a strong year and continue to build."
General Manager Chuck Fletcher says he is willing to give Falk and Prosser that chance.
Building from within first
The assumption is the Wild needs at least one more defenseman, especially if it runs into injuries. Fletcher admits he has inquired with other teams, but he first would like to assess the play of Falk and Prosser.
Plus, the hope is Scandella and 2011 first-round draft pick Jonas Brodin, who underwent surgery for a broken clavicle in November, will be ready to play in the next two weeks.
"We feel [Falk and Prosser] have earned the right to get the first shot with the injuries that we have," Fletcher said. "They're young players that took a big step in their development, and I know our coaches are very comfortable putting them in the lineup. We like our depth on D, and when Scandella and Brodin get healthy, we'll be that much deeper."
The Wild, like most teams, will keep at least seven defensemen on the roster.
The seventh in camp is Steven Kampfer, the former University of Michigan defenseman who came to the Wild from the Boston Bruins in last spring's Zanon trade.
Kampfer, 24, has not only struggled this season in Houston (he's a minus-14 in 17 games), but he was back in the Aeros lineup for only a week after missing seven weeks because of a concussion.
He has a shot to make the Wild out of camp more so because Bloomington's Brian Connelly is injured and because he's ahead of Tyler Cuma, Chay Genoway and Drew Bagnall on the depth chart due to 61 games of NHL experience (13 for the Wild last season).
It's one reason why Matt Dumba, 19, the Wild's 2012 first-round pick, actually might have a chance to stick around instead of being returned immediately to his junior team, Red Deer of the Western Hockey League. The Wild might need Dumba, plus the team wouldn't have to make a decision on burning the first year of his contract until after he plays in his fifth game.
Yeo gives his backing
Falk and Prosser showed examples of strong play in the first half last season. But like the team, they struggled late.
"I really believe that they're ready to take that next step," coach Mike Yeo said. "There's no question that we need them to. I don't think we would go into a season asking them to do something that we don't believe that they're capable of.
"They've both spent quality time in the NHL -- not just time, but quality time playing against top players, playing against top players in key situations, playing at the most important times of the game. We know what their ceiling is, we know what they're capable of, and the next step now is to bring that in on a night-in and night-out basis."
|Chicago Cubs - M. Garza||6:05 PM|
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|Detroit - M. Scherzer||6:05 PM|
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|San Francisco - M. Cain|
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