The loss of Ryan Suter to a season-ending right ankle fracture carved a crater-sized hole at the top of the Wild’s depth chart on defense.
It also created the possibility the Wild rolls out a top six for its first-round playoff matchup against the Jets that features predominantly homegrown talent — a look that’s in line with the composition teams are targeting.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for these players to play in the playoffs and the NHL,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “That’s a great experience, and we feel that they can help us, that we can win with these guys.”
With the price tag for acquiring defensemen in the trade market or free agency typically steep, drafting and developing options in-house seems to be the best strategy for sustainable success — a model the Wild certainly has embraced.
When the current management regime took over, it noticed the way the game was trending and homed in on defensemen who could skate and move the puck.
Cue Jonas Brodin, a smooth skater and an elite puck mover who was drafted 10th overall in 2011. Matt Dumba, a right shot, was added a year later with the No. 7 pick.
But these aren’t the only qualities that matter on the blue line.
“You gotta have mobility,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “You gotta be able to move the puck quick, and then when you get the combination for that and being able to clear people in front of the net and box out, then you’ve got the perfect combination.”
In 2011, the Wild also drafted Nick Seeler and two years later brought in Carson Soucy — both fifth-round picks who offered the size and strength the Wild was seeking but not at the expense of being able to get around the ice effectively.
It took until this season for each to earn an opportunity with the Wild, but neither was overwhelmed by the stage. Seeler has established a regular role, and Soucy impressed in his abbreviated look following Suter’s injury before getting returned to the American Hockey League. It’s likely, though, he’s back in the mix come playoff time.
“What really stood out to our group is their maturity and their competitiveness,” Fletcher said. “They’re both really highly competitive people that just sort of relentlessly pursued their goal of playing in the NHL. Not a lot of fifth-rounders make it, and for both of these kids to be in the NHL now speaks to their character.”
Louie Belpedio became the latest to make his NHL debut, Saturday in the Wild’s regular-season finale in San Jose.
Not only are these youngsters trying to help stabilize the blue line amid Suter’s absence, but they’re also auditioning for jobs next season.
“That’s what helps the chemistry of our back end right now is we’ve all gone to development camps with each other,” Dumba said. “We’re all around the same age.”
But this isn’t a lineup full of novices.
The new top pairing of Dumba and Brodin has more 700 games of combined NHL service. Jared Spurgeon, who Boudreau hopes will be ready to return for Game 1 of the playoffs after suffering a right hamstring tear last month, is a veteran, and so is Nate Prosser.
And although neither of the latter two was drafted by the Wild — Spurgeon was selected by the Islanders in 2008 and Prosser went undrafted — both were identified and added by the Wild early in their careers.
This mix only seems to further reinforce the importance of cultivating defensemen, with the Wild’s efforts in that area about to be on display at the most critical juncture of the season.
“It’s great that they’re getting experience,” Fletcher said. “But we also obviously are in a pretty competitive situation. But they’re players we believe can help our team win.”
• The Sedin twins dazzled with their offensive skill and unique chemistry for years, and their final NHL home game was no different. On Thursday Henrik set up Daniel for the overtime winner, sealing a 4-3 win for Vancouver over Arizona — a fitting finish for two elite scorers and playmakers who headlined the Canucks for 17 seasons. They announced on Monday they were retiring at the age of 37.
• The field of candidates for this season’s Hart Memorial Trophy as league MVP seems deeper than it’s been in years, a reflection of how many teams are enjoying successful seasons. Anze Kopitar has eclipsed 90 points with the Kings, and Nikita Kucherov has shined with the Lightning. Evgeni Malkin (Penguins) and Claude Giroux (Flyers) also had terrific seasons. It might be tough, though, to trump the impact of the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon and the Devils’ Taylor Hall. Their teams have been wildly competitive after each finished last in its conference a year ago. They look like the front-runners for the award.
• What a neat scene in Washington on Thursday night, as Predators players huddled around a cellphone to catch the end of the Panthers-Bruins game, a 3-2 win for Florida that clinched the Presidents’ Trophy for Nashville as the league’s top point-getter. The distinction continued a whirlwind year for the Predators, as they parlayed the final wild-card berth in the Western Conference last season into an invite to the Stanley Cup Final. And now, after falling short to the Penguins, they’re favorites to win it all — a nod to their ability to combine drafted talent with timely outside acquisitions.