St. Louis didn’t just outscore the Wild in last April’s playoffs. The Blues were more physical, too. Their big, strong defensemen dominated corner battles and controlled chaos in front of the net, making things easier for red-hot goaltender Jake Allen.
After that first-round exit, Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher turned an eye toward adding size and toughness when he made roster changes.
Enter Marcus Foligno, a 6-3, 226-pound winger whose friends call him “Moose.” With that big fella in the fold, seven of the Wild’s 12 forwards are 6-2 or bigger and weigh more than 209 pounds. For comparison, Thursday’s season-opening opponent, Detroit, has three forwards with that much size, and Saturday’s opponent, Carolina, has one.
“We have a big team now,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “It’s funny, I remember a couple years ago the big joke was we don’t have enough small jerseys for the team. But now we’ve got some big boys and some boys that play hard.”
Foligno scored 13 goals and delivered 279 hits for Buffalo last season, ranking fifth in the NHL in that latter category. In his very first preseason game for the Wild, he dropped the gloves and fought Winnipeg’s Brendan Lemieux.
Last season, 6-3, 236-pound Chris Stewart had the most fights of any Wild player (10). Foligno had nine for Buffalo.
“I think [Foligno’s] presence will make everybody tougher,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Stewie was always looking for a guy [to be a second enforcer]. He would have done it by himself, and he did do it by himself, but it’s always nice to have a little bit of a cavalry with you.”
The trade that brought Foligno to the Wild included players big and small. Fletcher sent 6-foot, 180-pound forward Jason Pominville and 6-3 defenseman Marco Scandella to Buffalo for Foligno and Tyler Ennis, a 5-9, 165-pound veteran whose stature is similar to that of former Wild forward Jordan Schroeder.
Ennis has “a little edge to his game,” Wild assistant coach John Anderson said. “You know, he’s not afraid to go bumping, and what does he weigh, a little bit more than a Kleenex or something? But I love that he’s gritty.”
Another forward gone from last season is 6-foot, 193-pound Erik Haula, who went to Las Vegas in the expansion draft. The Wild re-signed similar-sized Matt Cullen and have lanky Joel Eriksson Ek centering the third line. The 6-1 Eriksson Ek added about 10 pounds of muscle over the offseason, bringing him to 206.
One of the Wild’s two go-to lines could be nicknamed The Tall Trees, with Eric Staal (6-4, 209 pounds) centering Nino Niederreiter (6-2, 216) and Charlie Coyle (6-3, 221). Those three combined for eight points in Saturday’s final preseason game against Dallas.
“If you’ve got big guys who are slow, it’s noneffective,” said Staal, who led the Wild with 28 goals last season. “But we’ve got guys who are big and can move, which makes it difficult to defend over the course of a full year.”
The Wild’s other top line has 6-3, 215-pound Mikko Koivu centering two of the team’s smaller forwards — Mikael Granlund (5-10, 185) and Jason Zucker (5-11, 187). The gelling of that line helped turn Minnesota into the Western Conference’s No. 2 seed heading into the playoffs.
“There’s two ways to be aggressive: either through speed and puck pressure, or physical play,” Fletcher said. “A guy like Foligno is a beast on the forecheck. He can skate, he can arrive, and when he arrives he hits hard.
“And yet, you also have guys like a Zucker who can pressure with the speed and hunt down pucks and really pressure defensemen that way. You need both speed and size. I think we’ve got maybe a little bit better balance this year than last year, but time will tell.”
Boudreau saw plenty he liked, just in that final exhibition game against Dallas. Foligno delivered a crushing first-period hit. Kyle Quincey, the team’s new 6-2, 210-pound defenseman, clobbered anyone who touched goalie Devan Dubnyk. And when Dallas’ Antoine Roussel tried mixing it up with Suter, Stewart rushed right over to Suter’s defense.
“I loved that,” Boudreau said. “It’s nice to know you’re going to have support if people try to push you around.”