When Mikael Granlund came back from wrist surgery in the first game after the All-Star break in Edmonton, coach Mike Yeo was asked how excited he was to have essentially his full team back together for the first time since training camp (excluding Josh Harding and Keith Ballard).
That lasted one game.
Justin Fontaine strained his groin the next game in Calgary, Matt Cooke played his final game the game after that in Vancouver before sports hernia surgery and now the Wild has a couple big injuries to overcome.
In devastating news for breakout left-wing Jason Zucker, the lightning-fast 23-year-old will undergo potentially season-ending surgery for a second consecutive year. Almost exactly a year after the first of two knee operations that ended his 2013-14 season, Zucker will need surgery on a broken collarbone. He got jolted while racing for a puck by Vancouver's Luca Sbisa.
The timetable for recovery is three months, coach Mike Yeo said tonight before the Wild’s game against the Winnipeg Jets.
Also, gritty left wing Ryan Carter will miss more than a month with an upper-body injury that I believe is a shoulder injury. He crashed loudly into the end boards a few minutes before Zucker's injury when checked by Vancouver's Yannick Weber.
“This is where guys are going to have to step up,” Yeo said. “Nino [Niederreiter] got his season off to a great start and I feel like his last couple games have really been coming along. I feel like Charlie [Coyle’s] game has been really coming along. We’re going to need a guy like Fonzie (Fontaine), who’s been in and out of the lineup a lot this year, we’re going to need someone like him to step up now and deliver some important minutes and play some important games for us. I’m hoping the new guys that come into the lineup are able to bring some energy and play an important role to our team. But it’s got to be by committee. We’re missing Carts and Zuck and … Matt Cooke, it’s three real important penalty killers, it’s three guys that have real important roles on our team and those things are not easily replaced.”
Zucker, who is second on the Wild with 18 goals (tied for 10th in the NHL with 17 even-strength goals) and fourth on the team with 116 shots, had accepted the organization’s tough love the past few years admirably. Up and down I-35Z or the Zucker Expressway like a yo-yo, Zucker worked exhaustedly this past offseason to ensure he made the team out of camp and recovered from what he initially thought would be a minor knee procedure last season.
He made the Wild as a fourth-liner, never griped and slowly bit more and more ice time off until the point he played most recently on a dynamite line with Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville.
“We push our young players hard,” Yeo said. “The reason for that is you only get one chance to do things right with these young players. And [Zucker’s] a guy that I think is a perfect example of it, the way he’s worked for his opportunities, the way that he’s learned how to compete night in and night out, the way that he’s learned how to play without the puck and to see the consistency that he brings now, it’s a huge loss for us.
“I’m disappointed for our team because he developed so much chemistry with Mikko. I thought that line with Pommer and Mikko, they haven’t been getting a ton of goals, but their chances, their play has been outstanding coming out of the break. I just feel like [Zucker’s] progress was so high this year in all areas of the game.”
Niederreiter, who scored on his first shift on Koivu’s line last night against Vancouver, will be on that line tonight against the Jets.
Jordan Schroeder will move to his off wing and play on the left of Coyle and Kyle Brodziak. Callup Brett Sutter, who had two assists in a Dec. 29 Wild win at Winnipeg, will play the left side of Erik Haula and Fontaine, who returns tonight from a groin injury.
Stu Bickel and Christian Folin will be scratched. Devan Dubnyk, who has won a career-best six in a row, will make his 11th consecutive start with Darcy Kuemper backing him up. Niklas Backstrom will be scratched for the second time in eight games.
The Wild is vying for a seventh consecutive win tonight and looks to move within a point of a playoff spot and four points of the Jets with three games in hand.