Happy new year from Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild held an optional practice Thursday. Fourteen skaters, plus goalies Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper, participated--including a couple of players who had been missing recently.
Jonas Brodin and Jason Zucker both practiced at full speed. Brodin, who has missed two games with a head injury, said he feels great; coach Mike Yeo is optimistic Brodin will play Friday against Toronto at Xcel as long as Brodin still feels good Friday morning. Brodin has been skating by himself or with Backstrom, who also is feeling good again after missing three games because of the stomach bug that has been working its way through the team.
Zucker is a longer-term project. He said after practice that he has never been hit so hard by an illness as he was by this nasty norovirus. Zucker didn't eat for two days and didn't get off his couch for three or four days; he missed three games, and Thursday marked the first time he has skated since falling ill on Dec. 27.
Zucker said he felt better than he anticipated during Thursday's practice, but Yeo said he knows conditioning will be an issue, and there is no timetable for his return.
Speaking of returns, forward Tyler Graovac was sent back to Iowa after Thursday's practice. He impressed Yeo in the first two NHL games of his career, and both Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher stressed that Graovac's reassignment had nothing to do with the quality of his play. Fletcher wants the 21-year-old center to continue developing in the minors by playing a big role regularly, and Yeo plans to bring center Erik Haula back into the lineup Friday.
Yeo made it a point to say he hopes Graovac's debut puts a little heat on some veterans."We look at how far he’s come along, and we're very encouraged,'' Yeo said. "I hope that he's pushing some guys, because we know he can come in and play. And we're talking about a big, skating centerman who can create and has the ability to make plays. So we're encouraged with where he's at.''
The coach also wants to see how Haula responds to being benched for three of the past four games. Yeo has seen improvement in practice, he said, but stepping up in a game presents a new test.
"The defensive part of his game has to be there,'' Yeo said. "He has to be a guy that’s difficult to play against, in terms of being positionally sound and taking away time and space from players. On top of that, more than anything else, it’s the compete in the hard areas.
"Every player has to play the game with a physical element. What Erik Haula brings physically is going to be different than what Stu Bickel brings physically. But they have to bring what they bring. That’s what I'm looking for.''
Yeo declined to say how he plans to deploy his goalies in back-to-back games Friday (at home against Toronto) and Saturday (at Dallas). But Backstrom is ready to go if he is called upon to start.