DENVER – When he was among the final cuts at Wild training camp, getting assigned to the minors to start his first full-length professional season, Nico Sturm pinpointed Christmas on the calendar.
If he could be back with the Wild by then, that would be great, he thought.
But Sturm didn't just rejoin the team ahead of his target date. He has taken advantage of the opportunity to increase his comfort level in the NHL, a smooth transition that has helped the Wild weather the absence of captain Mikko Koivu because of injury.
"I'm happy," Sturm said. "I can learn a lot from both leagues. Obviously, I have different roles depending on where I'm at. But I still have a nice learning curve ahead of me, and I'm excited now to be here and get these games under my belt."
After getting returned to the American Hockey League ahead of the three-day holiday break, Sturm was recalled from Iowa on Friday morning and was back in the lineup against the Avalanche — resuming his post between wingers Jordan Greenway and Luke Kunin and winning seven out of nine faceoffs in 14 minutes, 52 seconds of ice time in a 6-4 win for the Wild.
"He was dynamite," coach Bruce Boudreau said. "He works so hard. He's tough to play against."
Sturm's line was particularly effective Monday in a 3-0 win over the Flames, combining for a goal — a finish by Kunin that Greenway and Sturm set up — and registering nine shot attempts.
"He's always on the right side of the pucks doing the right things," Kunin said of Sturm. "I think he's getting more comfortable and making a few more plays. I thought we had a few good looks."
Sturm's assist was his second in four games since he made his first appearance Dec. 17; he also had an assist Dec. 19 in Arizona. In 25 games with Iowa, where he takes on more offensive responsibilities than with the Wild, Sturm has six goals and 12 points.
Although the 24-year-old didn't start the season with the Wild, Boudreau expected Sturm to surface at some point on the heels of a strong showing at camp.
"He's gotten better every game and more acclimated to everything else," Boudreau said. "So I think he's done fine in the position he's in."
With the Dec. 24-26 mandatory off days per the collective bargaining agreement, the Wild didn't travel to Denver until Friday morning, taking off from the Twin Cities at 8 a.m.
Although flying into a city the day of a game isn't unusual for exhibition play, it isn't typical during the regular season. But players settled into their normal habits after a morning skate at Pepsi Center.
"It just feels different right when you get in," goalie Devan Dubnyk said. "Obviously, everybody's a little stiff from the plane ride and up early. But it's one of those things once you get off the ice and from here on out, it's a regular routine.
"You get to the hotel and do the same things, so I think it's more just the first bit of the morning and the skate's a little longer. So obviously, you feel it a little bit more. But three days off is not the longest thing ever, so you usually grab it back pretty quick."
The team is hopeful Koivu, who has been sidelined since Dec. 3 because of a lower-body injury, will participate in practice Saturday. Boudreau thought Koivu would skate Friday in the Twin Cities.
"If he rejoins practice and makes it through practice," Boudreau said, "I'm sure he's getting closer to returning."
Wild prospect Alexander Khovanov had an assist and two shots in 17 minutes, 32 seconds of ice time in Russia's first game of the IIHF World Junior Championship on Thursday, a 4-3 loss to the Czech Republic.