Young Wild players have thrived vs. Oilers peers

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSOMRUSSO@STARTRIBUNE.COM
  • Updated: February 20, 2013 - 12:17 PM

During the lockout, Houston was 6-1 vs. Edmonton's top minor league team in the AHL.

 

Facing a team that features such young stars Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan-Nugent Hopkins and Justin Schultz could have even the savviest NHL vets quivering in their skates.

But when those talented Edmonton Oilers players skated for Oklahoma City during the lockout, the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate in Houston beat them six of seven times.

That confidence might come in handy Thursday when the Wild visits Edmonton. Youngsters Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Johan Larsson or even goalie Darcy Kuemper, if he plays, shouldn't be intimidated.

"Our team, for some reason, came to play against [the Barons] every time," said Zucker, who had five goals in five games against Oklahoma City. "A lot of it is because they had the Halls and Eberles and Schultzes. Everybody was pretty excited to play against them and wanted to shut them down, even though it's really hard to shut them down.

"You don't want to be seen as a group that can't play with NHL players, and frankly, they had an NHL power play. The Oilers' first power play was basically in Oklahoma City. We took that as a challenge."

The lockout ended Jan. 6, yet Eberle still leads the American Hockey League with 51 points in 34 games. Schultz still leads all AHL defensemen with 48 points in 34 games.

The Oilers had a team-record 56 shots in a 6-4 victory over Colorado on Saturday -- remarkable for a franchise that employed Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and Paul Coffey.

Edmonton has a surplus of young talent. Eberle and Schultz, the highly coveted free-agent pickup from the University of Wisconsin, are both 22. And the Oilers have the past three first overall picks in the NHL draft in Hall, 21; Nugent-Hopkins, 19, and Nail Yakupov, 19. Plus, there are 2009 first-round pick Magnus Paajarvi; Sam Gagner, who had an eight-point game last season, and leading goal scorer Ales Hemsky.

"They're young, and they're hungry, and they play that way every night," Wild coach Mike Yeo said.

Kuemper and Nugent-Hopkins were teammates for two seasons in Red Deer of the Western Hockey League.

"Ryan reminds me of Granlund," Kuemper said. "Their vision and playmaking abilities are very comparable. He's sneaky fast, too. Hall and Eberle are so, so fast. Speed kills nowadays. If you have speed, you can create a lot of space, and all three of those guys have it."

Yeo said the key Thursday will be reacting the right way when the Oilers' skilled players threaten to score. In Houston, John Torchetti tried to get the same checking line -- Justin Fontaine, David McIntyre and Nick Palmieri -- out against Eberle, Hall and Nugent-Hopkins.

Typically, especially on the road when Yeo won't get the last line change, the Wild uses the Mikko Koivu or Kyle Brodziak lines in key defensive situations. But Yeo said it'll take a concerted team effort to play the right way with and without the puck.

Granlund and Larsson each had six points against Oklahoma City, Granlund in four games. Brodin played only two games against Oklahoma City because he broke his collarbone when checked behind the net by Hall on what Brodin called "a good hockey hit."

"But I've seen enough of them to know we just have to play tight against their guys and don't give them so much time to make plays," said Brodin, who missed 10 weeks because of his injury.

Added former Oilers defenseman Tom Gilbert, who loved the "great challenge" of facing the young stars in Edmonton practices, "They're all dynamic. They've all got so much energy, so it's just a matter of being aware. It's crazy to think how young they are and how well they're doing in the league."

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