Last season’s shortened dash to the finish line was so unique, many players around the NHL who started poorly didn’t have a chance to step back and catch their breath.
“It just felt like you were clawing away all year long and couldn’t quite grab hold,” coach Mike Yeo said regarding the Wild’s Exhibit A of this — veteran center Kyle Brodziak.
Two seasons ago, Brodziak scored a career-high 22 goals, and was the Wild’s leading goal scorer when the team stood atop all 30 NHL teams in mid-December. But it was the hustle, work ethic, reliable defensive play and escalating leadership that caused Chuck Fletcher to extend the contract of the first player he ever traded for as general manager in 2009.
But last year, Brodziak had only eight goals and four assists in the 48-game season and most glaringly was minus-18 — fifth worst in the NHL. As a checking-line center, the Wild needed Brodziak to help shut down opposing top lines and be, as Yeo says, “hard to play against.”
Brodziak, 29, developed pneumonia last winter, lost 15 pounds and “the energy level, obviously, wasn’t there. But that was just the beginning of the year. I was able to get through it and get the weight back on but didn’t ever really fully recover my game.”
Thursday, when the Wild took the ice for the first day of training camp, Yeo pulled Brodziak aside.
“My message to him is he does not need to apologize for last season,” Yeo said. “Now, are we hoping for a little bit more? For sure we are, there’s no question. … He has a huge role on our team, I think he looks great, he’s really taken care of himself and the biggest thing for him and for us right now is just making sure his confidence is high.”
Brodziak spent the offseason trying to regroup. The former Oiler was excited to make the playoffs for the first time in his eight-year career but felt all summer that the Wild “didn’t really achieve what we were capable of achieving” and was especially disappointed with his play.
“It’s a new year,” Brodziak said, his beard in midseason form. “It’ll be nice to get back to a little bit more of a normal schedule. If you feel your game has dropped off, at least there will be some practice time to build it back up. That’s the same for the team. We’re going to have a lot more time to dial in where we need to be and where we want to be to be a good team.”
In June, Brodziak’s longtime linemate Cal Clutterbuck was traded to the Islanders.
“It was kind of a tough situation,” Brodziak said. “He gets traded, and I don’t think either of us really felt we had a good year last year. As a centerman, when your winger gets traded and you don’t have that good of a year, you kind of feel a little bit responsible.”
Yeo envisions newly signed Matt Cooke, 65 games short of 1,000 in his career, as Brodziak’s new left winger. In Pittsburgh, Cooke developed into a strong checking-line winger and penalty killer.
Before Jordan Staal was traded to Carolina, Cooke skated with Staal and Tyler Kennedy, and they were valuable during Pittsburgh’s road to the Stanley Cup in 2009.
“We’d play against [Detroit’s Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk and make them play in their own end the whole time, tiring them out,” Cooke said. “We’d spend 30 seconds in there and they’d have to get the puck, dump it in and change where they were not even trying to score a goal.
“That’s what Brodzy and I have to do. Brodzy’s a good skater, works hard, and while he’s not enormous, he has a big-body presence. I think it’s very important to play our role well.”
The first thing Brodziak noticed about Cooke was his speed. They played on a line with Torrey Mitchell in Friday’s scrimmage, the line buzzed and Brodziak scored a goal.
“[Cooke’s] a very fast skater,” Brodziak said. “Obviously, everybody knows he can be a pretty good agitator, he’s going to play physical. He’s a smart player. We’re going to be a tough line to play against.
“We’re both capable of skating, playing physical, we both think the game pretty well and hopefully we can be an effective line, whoever we play against.”