The Wild boasted about its improved depth all training camp.
Well, 12 games into the season, the team has managed to keep its head above water despite goalie Niklas Backstrom not starting eight games in a row, center Charlie Coyle about to miss his 11th game, top-pair defenseman Jonas Brodin about to miss his third and veteran defenseman Keith Ballard about to miss his seventh.
“A lot of other teams would have a tough time getting through it when you lose your second-line centerman, when you lose what a lot of people would consider a No. 2 defenseman, when you lose a starting goalie,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Those are significant losses. Through this point, we’ve done a pretty good job handling it.”
The 6-3-3 Wild, winners of three straight overall and four in a row at home, aims to complete a home-and-home sweep over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on Monday night at Xcel Energy Center. Goalie Josh Harding, who missed Saturday’s game in Chicago because of a strained left hamstring, is expected to skate Monday morning and back up Backstrom during the game.
But Backstrom again get the nod again, after making 33 saves Saturday for his first victory of the season. The Wild will then have three days off before the Montreal Canadiens come to town Friday.
There’s a chance at least Coyle and Brodin will be ready to return for that game.
Brodin, who has a broken cheekbone, skated on his own Sunday and is close to trying to play through the injury inside a college-style facial cage.
“I don’t think he’s been off long enough here where we have to worry about conditioning,” Yeo said.
The Wild’s focus is on Monday’s game, but with Coyle getting closer, Yeo said he and his staff began kicking around potential line combinations during Saturday’s flight back from Chicago.
It’s not as simple as Coyle just assuming his second-line center role again. Mikael Granlund, tied for the team lead with seven assists, has played well in that spot since Coyle was hurt in the second game of the season. Granlund has developed a neat chemistry lately with veteran linemate Jason Pominville, and the two connected for two Pominville goals Saturday, including the winner.
“We’ve got some guys that are not going to make it easy on us, whether it’s even a guy like Granny and how well he’s playing at center or a guy like Fonzie [Justin Fontaine] and how well he’s played up there [with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu],” Yeo said.
Yeo said one option is for Coyle to return initially to last year’s role as top-line right wing with Parise and Koivu. But then where does Fontaine go?
“But at the same time, a big centerman [like Coyle] that can skate and has skill and is smart and can compete like that is not easy to find,” Yeo said.
If Coyle returns to second-line center, does Granlund move to the wing, and if so, does Nino Niederreiter move up or down? Or, if Coyle moves to second-line left wing alongside Granlund, where does Niederreiter go and how does it affect Fontaine?
“We’re considering everything right now,” Yeo said.
Granlund has no preference, saying, “Wherever I play, I just have to keep my game where it’s been at — skating, battling and making plays.”
Similarly, when Brodin comes back on defense, Jared Spurgeon would likely slot back to the second pair with Marco Scandella, meaning the third pair would be Clayton Stoner with either Nate Prosser or rookie Matt Dumba on the right. But when Ballard returns, two defensemen will be odd men out again.
“That’s what you want,” Yeo said “You want that healthy competition and guys proving they’re a valuable part of our team.”
Dumba will play his ninth game Monday. If he plays in 10 without returning to Western Hockey League Red Deer, the first year of his three-year contract kicks in.
GM Chuck Fletcher has said that doesn’t concern him, but after Monday, Fletcher will meet with Yeo and the rest of his staff to decide whether it’s best if Dumba stays or goes.
One driving factor in Dumba perhaps sticking with the Wild is the team just witnessed how easy it is to lose two defensemen at once (Brodin and Ballard). If Dumba wasn’t in Minnesota, the Wild would have had to look for Iowa reinforcements.
“I do remember two years ago we had Brett Bulmer and we sent him back [to Kelowna after nine games] and about a week later we were saying, ‘Geez, we kind of wish we had him right now,’ ” Yeo said. “We’ve seen the last two years, depth is critical and [Dumba’s] proven to be a valuable NHL player.”