COLUMBUS, OHIO – Knowing full well how many youngsters are vying for roster spots, Jason Zucker understands it doesn’t take much to slip down the depth chart with the Oct. 3 Wild opener creeping up.
Zucker said his strained groin “felt absolutely perfect” during Sunday’s practice, but the 21-year-old left wing also admitted he felt an urgency to get back onto the ice with Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula knocking on the door.
“But at the same time, I have to look out for myself,” Zucker said. “There’s no point for me coming back early and not being at my best. … If I wasn’t 100 percent, that would just make me look even worse.”
Zucker is expected to play in Monday’s exhibition game against Columbus. Coach Mike Yeo said Zucker looked great in practice and “didn’t lose his speed.”
Zucker was hurt on his first shift against the Blue Jackets in Tuesday’s preseason opener. He tried to fight through it, but during the first intermission, the Wild decided to pull him for precautionary reasons.
He was having a good camp before getting hurt, so you can imagine his disappointment to be off the ice the past four days.
“Once I felt it, I knew it wasn’t good and I was not happy about it,” Zucker said. “You always want to be playing no matter what the situation is.”
Granlund out now
Zucker might be back, but now Granlund’s hurt. Yeo said Granlund sustained a “slight upper-body injury” during Saturday’s preseason win over Winnipeg.
Yeo says it’s “nothing big,” but Granlund won’t play in Columbus.
Josh Harding will start for the Wild. He made 16 of 17 saves through two periods in Thursday’s victory at Winnipeg. Defensemen Keith Ballard, Clayton Stoner, Matt Dumba, Nate Prosser, Steve Kampfer and Jonathon Blum are expected to play. Up front, Niederreiter, Fontaine and Haula will get another look, while the veteran line of Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell also will play.
Veteran center David Steckel, an Ohio State alum and Columbus resident, will play. He’s on a pro tryout. Youngsters Tyler Graovac and Zack Phillips also will travel, but only one of the two likely will play.
Coyle gets to rest
One youngster who will get the game off is Charlie Coyle, who is having a fantastic camp. Coyle scored his second goal of the preseason Saturday, but Yeo was especially thrilled that Coyle won 12 of 15 faceoffs.
“It’s big for us to get that confidence in him, but it’s bigger for him,” Yeo said.
Yeo continues to be impressed by Fontaine and Haula, who are intriguing because not only are they skilled, but they’re so reliable defensively that they could conceivably fill third- or fourth-line roles.
Fontaine, 25, had a terrific practice Sunday with Coyle and Dany Heatley.
“Makes plays,” Yeo said. “He doesn’t have huge size and doesn’t have lightning speed, but he has very high hockey intelligence. This is his first taste of the NHL and he keeps getting better.”
Decision time on Gabriel
The Wild will have to decide in the next week whether to sign 2013 third-round pick Kurtis Gabriel or return him for his overage year to Owen Sound of the Ontario Hockey League.
Gabriel will attend the Iowa Wild’s training camp first. Gabriel, 20, is a hard-nosed, 6-4 late bloomer. General Manager Chuck Fletcher seems to be leaning toward returning him to Owen Sound, where Gabriel could develop offensively and perhaps be named captain rather than being a third- or fourth-liner in Iowa.
He has been back on the ice the past two days in Minnesota’s training camp after an injury.
“I’ve just kept my eyes open watching,” Gabriel said. “I’m focused on trying to make the Iowa Wild and having the Wild make a tough decision as to where I should be.”