COLUMBUS, OHIO – Tuesday will be the final day in training camp for perhaps as many as 20 Wild players.
“I want to make sure we get as close to our [opening night] group as possible,” coach Mike Yeo said after the Wild improved to 3-1 in the preseason Monday with a 2-1 shootout victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena. “We might have a couple more decisions to make. But it’s time to really focus in and zero in on our group.”
Two youngsters who will undoubtedly survive Tuesday morning’s mass cutdown will be Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter.
Zucker, 21, in his first game since straining his groin in the preseason opener, scored the shootout winner, assisted on Keith Ballard’s third-period tying goal and most impressively caught Yeo’s eye by hustling to beat out an icing to force a late power play that extended into overtime.
“He has moments in these games where he’s able to create chances, able to draw penalties, and that’s the kind of player he is. And that’s huge,” Yeo said. “I didn’t like his first period. I thought that he got stronger in the second period and in the third period, he changed the game.”
Niederreiter, 21, the fifth overall pick in the 2010 draft, got a look on the right side with checking-line forwards Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. If Zucker and Charlie Coyle wind up as Dany Heatley’s linemates, Niederreiter had to show the Wild brass that he can play a third-line role if he has any shot to make the team.
Niederreiter, known more for his scoring, had five hits, often came away from board battles with the puck and is getting stronger without the puck every game, Yeo said.
Defenseman Matt Dumba, 19, had a tough night. It started on his second shift when he turned the puck over and was forced to take a holding penalty. He screened goalie Josh Harding on Columbus’ goal and he had a nightmarish second period where he looked rattled.
Yeo met with Dumba during the second intermission and told him, “What I’m really looking forward to is how you respond this period. I didn’t like his first two periods at all and I really liked his third period. Given the way he responded, it shows a lot of maturity.”
Yeo said he thinks Dumba felt the pressure to perform and once he got off to a bad start, he got into quicksand. Dumba was paired with Ballard, who had an eventful night trying to cover up for Dumba’s mistakes.
“Ballard was patient with me,” Dumba said. “As a young guy, I have to find consistency.”
It would be surprising if Dumba was a roster casualty Tuesday, especially when the Wild can play him up to nine games before returning him to Red Deer of the Western Hockey League without it burning a year of his contract.
Hoping to catch on
David Steckel, a resident of Columbus and an Ohio State alum, had three shots, two shorthanded chances after thieveries and blocked two shots.
Steckel, 31, a veteran of 419 games with four teams, is on a pro tryout.
It will be difficult for Steckel to make the team, though, with the amount of youngsters vying for spots and the fact that forwards Zenon Konopka and Jake Dowell are on one-way contracts (they must be paid their NHL salaries in the minors).
If Steckel isn’t signed by the Wild or another NHL team, he likely will sign an AHL contract and play for the Iowa Wild while he waits for an opportunity in Minnesota or elsewhere.
“Every day I’m motivated to play, especially not having a contract,” Steckel said.