There are six games left in the regular season, but there were so many Wild players Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center, it felt like training camp.
On the ice were three goalies, seven defensemen and … 15 forwards, meaning a full fifth line that included the return of Matt Cooke to practice for the first time since Feb. 1.
Ryan Carter returned Saturday, Jordan Schroeder is playing well after being scratched in eight consecutive games and Kyle Brodziak is set to return from a neck injury. That means Erik Haula was bumped to the fifth line with Cooke, back from sports hernia surgery, and Sean Bergenheim.
Haula is in danger of being a healthy scratch for the first since Jan. 29.
“Everybody’s going to have an opinion. In many cases, it’s going to be right,” coach Mike Yeo said of the tough lineup decisions. “It’s going to be difficult for us to make a wrong choice. In other ways, it will be difficult for us to make the right choice just because everybody that’s here has had an impact in getting us here.
“Everybody has had success with us at different points of the season. And everybody that’s here we feel could help us.”
Defenseman Christian Folin has been scratched in nine of the past 11 games. Defenseman Nate Prosser is close to practicing after spraining a knee. And winger Jason Zucker, who underwent surgery for a broken collarbone Feb. 12, might return to practice soon.
Depth creates issues. There are so many players practicing, the ice gets chewed up quickly. Second, Yeo wants to ensure that the 18 skaters in the next game’s lineup get enough repetitions. Also, Yeo doesn’t want players walking on eggshells each game.
“It does present some challenges as far as making sure that guys in the lineup are not worried about every single shift that they’re going to be coming out of the lineup,” he said. “And guys that are out of the lineup trying to keep them positive and motivated and ready.”
Yeo doesn’t want to touch the Wild’s first three lines. The only movable piece would arguably be Justin Fontaine, but he has 16 points in his past 22 games.
“I look at a guy like Fonzie, and there’s no reason why he should be looking over his shoulder,” Yeo said.
Schroeder played three games for the injured Brodziak and appears to have earned a spot at least initially over Haula. Carter gives the Wild a physical element, Brodziak has been one of the Wild’s best penalty killers and is the Wild’s second-best faceoff center and Schroeder has threatened with his speed. The fact Schroeder has started to kill penalties makes Haula more expendable. However, considering Haula was one of the Wild’s best forwards last postseason, Schroeder can’t let up.
Plus, Cooke hopes to return before the end of the regular season.
“The biggest thing the last two months is it hasn’t always been the same guy, it hasn’t always been the same group. Guys have been hurt, guys have floated in and out through different parts of this stretch, but the job gets done,” Cooke said. “The only way that can happen is if there’s no worry or no hesitation about the decisions that are made. If the decisions are made, everyone accepts it and takes on the responsibility of what’s given that night and moves forward.”