Nico Sturm scored his first NHL goal in the playoffs last season, making a seamless transition halfway through the Wild's series against Vancouver.
The team also locked him up to a new two-year, one-way contract for $1.45 million in October.
And yet Sturm still felt he would have to earn a spot in the lineup.
"I don't think anybody's going to give me anything," the forward said after re-signing.
But two weeks into the season, Sturm is settling into life as an NHLer — emerging as a mainstay for the Wild to continue the upward trajectory of his pro career.
"I just want to get better every day, and I think I'm only just starting to scratch the surface and starting to really feel comfortable in practices and games," Sturm said during a virtual interview. "I just don't want to fill in a role. I want to help this team succeed and take the next step and become a winning club."
After leaving Clarkson University to turn pro in 2019, Sturm spent most of last season in the minors, recording 12 goals and 20 assists in 55 games with Iowa in the American Hockey League. He logged just six appearances with the Wild during the regular season but was included on the team's playoff roster.
And when Sturm was inserted into the lineup in Game 3, the 25-year-old scored his first career goal the very next game.
"It was huge for his development to not only get into NHL hockey games and playoff NHL hockey games but to do it with his teammates," coach Dean Evason said. "Then coming in this year and knowing his surroundings and knowing his teammates a little bit better and knowing the pace of an NHL practice and an NHL game, playing against NHL guys and practicing against NHL guys, I think it's set him up to be ready."
Sturm missed two recent games, getting sidelined with an illness he figured was probably food-related, but he returned to action Tuesday. And against the Kings on Thursday, he was given a more prominent role — moving from wing to center between Jordan Greenway and Marcus Foligno after Evason decided to break up the Wild's dominant line of Greenway, Foligno and center Joel Eriksson Ek to spark the team's offense.
Eriksson Ek was promoted to the top six to skate with veteran Marcus Johansson and rookie Kirill Kaprizov, and Victor Rask shifted from center to wing next to center Nick Bonino and winger Ryan Hartman.
"He's got an element that we really like and that's speed and work," Evason said of Sturm. "We have seen him progress here. He had a real good year obviously in Iowa and played well in the bubble. He's a very versatile guy."
Goaltender Cam Talbot skated Thursday morning but was still idle against Los Angeles, the third straight game he's missed with a lower-body injury suffered last Friday vs. San Jose.
Kaapo Kahkonen was backed up by Andrew Hammond, and the Wild added goalie Dereck Baribeau to the taxi squad from Iowa.
"We're hoping that he'll be available to us going forward here," Evason said about Talbot.
Kings forward Andreas Athanasiou was added to the NHL's COVID protocols list Thursday and did not play against the Wild.
These COVID-related absences can be a result of several factors, including a positive or unconfirmed positive test, contract tracing and quarantine.
No Wild players were listed Thursday.
The West Division had its first postponed game Thursday, with the NHL calling off Vegas vs. St. Louis after a Golden Knights player (Alex Pietrangelo) and another member of the Vegas coaching staff entered the league's COVID protocols.
Earlier in the week, Golden Knights General Manager Kelly McCrimmon took over behind the bench for the team's Tuesday game after the coaching staff self-isolated following an exposure on the staff.