The coach shuffled players on different lines, looking for the best fits as the season nears.
Minus the silver hair and the cool French accent, Mike Yeo called on his inner Jacques Lemaire on Wednesday night and juggled lines as if he were throwing numbers at a dartboard.
“I had dice. I just rolled the dice every shift,” the Wild coach joked.
There was a method to Yeo’s madness during a 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Blues in the Wild’s second-to-last preseason game.
Dressing a lineup that could resemble the Wild’s opening-night version a week from Thursday against the Los Angeles Kings, Yeo wanted to see different players on different lines.
Yeo used probably a dozen line combinations. Wingers Zach Parise and Jason Pominville skated with centermen Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle. Nino Niederreiter saw shifts on all four lines. Justin Fontaine played on three lines. Torrey Mitchell played on the third and fourth. And Jason Zucker played mostly on the fourth.
“It’s kind of fun playing with a new guys every shift,” Coyle said. “I don’t mind it.”
He didn’t look as if he did. Coyle scored a beautiful breakaway goal off Ryan Suter’s home-run pass 38 seconds into the third period for the eventual winner. The virtual lock to be second-line center has scored three goals in four games.
“I can’t say anything negative about his camp,” Yeo said of Coyle. “He’s been outstanding. The challenge for him is to keep it going.”
Mitchell scored a shorthanded goal in the third period and Matt Cooke scored in the first when his snap shot caromed high into the air, fell to the ice and was kicked in by goalie Jaroslav Halak.
“I wish we’d save those [lucky] goals for the regular season,” cheering owner Craig Leipold cracked.
The Wild got unlucky later. Niederreiter scored a water bottle-popping power-play goal in the third, but the referee and goal judge missed it and even though there was an NHL-employed video review judge in-house, there’s no video review in the preseason.
Goalie Niklas Backstrom had a strong night, making 33 saves as the Wild improved to 4-1 in the preseason.
Zucker, penciled in as the eventual second-line left winger before training camp, called Wednesday’s game a “statement game for not only myself, but a couple other guys too that need to get a spot.”
Yeo, however, “wasn’t crazy about [Zucker’s] game. … I thought Nino and [Fontaine] took advantage of their opportunities more.”
Before Wednesday, it felt as if Mikael Granlund might be the odd forward out. He didn’t play against the Blues.
But Yeo said Granlund still wasn’t 100 percent from an “upper-body injury” and that he will play in Friday’s preseason finale in St. Louis. After Zucker’s play Wednesday, Friday will be huge for Granlund.
“We’ll give him that opportunity to take the ball and run with it,” Yeo said.
With spots at a premium and two cuts to come (one likely to be David Steckel), Yeo was asked if he would consider dressing a youngster such as Granlund in a fourth-line role to open the season. After all, Zucker and Niederreiter saw shifts there Wednesday.
“If it was, then probably the makeup of that fourth line would be a little different,” he said. “Maybe the makeup of our fourth line is a little different than the conventional fourth line, that maybe we put some younger, more skilled players on there, and they have little bit of bigger role [such as power play in addition].”
For this to happen though, the Wild would have to put a player on a one-way contract through waivers (Zenon Konopka or Jake Dowell) and be willing to pay his NHL salary in the minors. This is barring a trade, and Konopka has been on the block for some time.
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