In the waning weeks of the regular season, the Wild relied on minor league call-ups and a recent graduate from the college ranks to fill out its defense.
But the back end’s experience level rose dramatically during its first practice of the postseason Monday at Xcel Energy Center, as Jared Spurgeon joined the group for the first time since he suffered a partial right hamstring tear March 13.
“I looked like the youngest one,” Spurgeon said.
With more than 500 games of NHL service scattered across eight seasons, though, the 28-year-old is the elder statesman of the pack, following Ryan Suter’s absence because of a season-ending right ankle fracture.
And the poise Spurgeon could offer the unit during its playoff series against the Jets would be a major lift to the Wild if he is able to suit up for Game 1 Wednesday at Winnipeg.
“That’s what you hope for, what you’re striving for,” he said.
Spurgeon had not been cleared to play yet when he got on the ice Monday, but he was scheduled to be evaluated after practice. He acknowledged he isn’t 100 percent but felt good after skating and didn’t tweak his hamstring.
“It was fun to be out there,” he said.
While his addition would improve the Wild in a host of ways, the team doesn’t want to insert Spurgeon into the lineup if he’s not healthy.
“I kid him about wanting him to play so badly,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “But at the same time, I always find myself correcting myself and saying, ‘Jared, we’d love to have you back. But I don’t want you back unless you feel comfortable being back.’ ”
Spurgeon skated next to Carson Soucy, who flashed calmness in three games last week before getting returned to the American Hockey League. His size also helped him merit another call-up Monday.
“With the first game out of the way, I think that was kind of the most exciting thing for a while,” Soucy said. “So if I can manage that, hopefully I can manage the first game of the playoffs and then keep the confidence rolling.”
Soucy’s mobility alongside Spurgeon’s soundness all over the ice could be an effective combination.
“He makes the game easy to play with because he’s always going to be in the right spot,” Soucy said of Spurgeon. “I’m going to do the same and keep my game simple, and hopefully we can work well with each other.”
As big a thrill as it is for Soucy to be playing for the Wild, it was almost as exciting for the rookie defenseman to be a spectator Saturday at Xcel Energy Center. Soucy, who played for Minnesota Duluth, cheered on the Bulldogs as they beat Notre Dame 2-1 for the NCAA championship.
“It was awesome,” said Soucy, who made his NHL debut on April 2 and was called up by the Wild on Monday. “I was there with my cousin and a lot of close friends. [The Bulldogs] have been close the last couple years, so it’s nice for the coaching staff, and it was good to see.”
Wild assistant coach Bob Woods continued Monday to mourn the victims of the bus crash in Canada that killed 15 players and staff members from the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. Woods’ family farm is located near Humboldt, Saskatchewan, and he still has ties to the team and the area.
He received some small measure of comfort at Monday’s news that Broncos defenseman Xavier Labelle had not died, as authorities originally reported. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said Labelle and teammate Parker Tobin had been misidentified, and Labelle survived, while Tobin did not.
“[Labelle] is actually a kid I drafted in Saskatoon,” Woods said, referring to his time as coach and general manager of the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades. “… That was a little bit of hope, but it’s somebody else’s tragedy now, so there’s mixed emotions.”
Woods played junior hockey for the Nipawin Hawks, the team Humboldt was traveling to face in a playoff game when the crash happened Friday. He frequently traveled on the highway where the accident occurred.
“It’s a dangerous area,” he said. “Any time two roads cross in Saskatchewan, you’ve got to be aware of what’s going on. That was probably my biggest fear when I was coach and GM there.”