Questions abound about the Wild’s season opening roster: Will Zach Parise be ready health-wise? Can Luke Kunin usurp fellow young center Joel Eriksson Ek? Is there a roster spot and enough salary cap room to sign veteran Daniel Winnik?
The season starts next Thursday in Detroit, and as General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Wednesday, “The next week will be critical.”
Resting most regulars, the Wild got pounded by a combined score of 9-2 in preseason road losses at Colorado (Sunday) and Dallas (Tuesday). Coach Bruce Boudreau, who missed those games following the death of his brother, Bryan, returns Thursday morning.
After trimming the roster to 26 players, with at least three cuts still to go, Fletcher noted that the lineup for the final two preseason games will be heavy with regulars. The Wild plays St. Louis on Thursday night in Kansas City and faces Dallas again Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.
Once the regular seasons starts, the Wild plays five of its first six games on the road, and Fletcher stressed the importance of a good start.
“If we can get through those games OK, then we’re in good shape because we’re knocking a lot of road games out right away,” he said. “You just don’t want to fall behind quickly.”
One of the Wild’s two bread-and-butter lines is intact, with Mikko Koivu centering Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker. But the other one has a new addition, with Tyler Ennis, instead of Parise, joining Eric Staal and Nino Niederreiter.
Parise missed the first week of training camp because of a back injury. He was limited in practice Wednesday, working on a line with Matt Cullen and Ryan Malone.
In one drill, Parise skated the length of the ice and back with those linemates before sitting out the next two repetitions, with another forward taking his place. Parise also left the ice about 15 minutes before practice finished.
Asked if he’s concerned Parise could have an issue that lingers all season, Fletcher said, “You never know, but he’s getting better and better.” The GM said Parise came to camp in great shape, adding that he “looked quicker to be honest with you … compared to last year.”
Fletcher said the next step for Parise will be getting cleared for contact. Fletcher also gave a telling answer when asked if the six-time 30-goal scorer will be ready for the Oct. 5 opener.
“Well, I’m sure that’s his goal if you ask him,” Fletcher said. “To me, it’s an 82-game season. You know, I’d take 70 or 75 games right now.”
With Parise sounding iffy, at best, for the opener, there’s a chance the veteran could start the season on injured reserve. That’s a seven-day minimum commitment but would save salary cap room, which might make it easier to keep the 6-2, 210-pound Winnik, one of the NHL’s best penalty killers.
Winnik, 32, made $2.25 million with the Capitals last season and scored a career-high 12 goals.
“I’ve had some conversations with [Winnik’s agent] Pat Morris,” Fletcher said. “We’ll continue to talk, and just see what their expectations are.
“It’ll depend on how Dan plays, our cap, our roster, our health. So it’s not just about Dan, it’s about everything around him, too.”
On Wednesday, the Wild had the 19-year-old Kunin centering a line with Winnik and Chris Stewart. Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Eriksson Ek centered Marcus Foligno and Charlie Coyle — a pairing penciled in as the third line coming into camp.
But Eriksson Ek got banged up at the prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., earlier this month and didn’t play in the Wild’s first three preseason games.
“Missing some time certainly slowed him down,” Fletcher said. “I mean, he had a great rookie camp. He was playing really well.”
Fletcher said Eriksson Ek and the 19-year-old Kunin aren’t necessarily in “direct competition” for the same roster spot. But Kunin has continued building off his strong offseason, even in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss at Dallas.
“We’ll continue to see what makes sense for [Kunin] long-term,” Fletcher said. “Last night [in Dallas] was one of those games where we had a lot of guys not show up and Luke Kunin did. He’s a character kid.
“He’s already earned the respect I think of the coaches and the players. He’s going to be a big part of our future. In the short-term, we’ll just have to see how it plays out here in the next few days.”