A month’s worth of lineup tinkering might have had the desired effect.
It’s not often that a team — or, to be accurate, it’s not often the Wild specifically — is so secure with its position in the standings that it can enter into a few weeks’ worth of experimentation two months before the playoffs.
But that’s what coach Bruce Boudreau and General Manager Chuck Fletcher did this past month while moving Charlie Coyle back and forth from right wing and center, flipping Erik Haula between third- and fourth-line center, giving youngsters Alex Tuch, Gustav Olofsson and Mike Reilly looks and kicking fourth-line center Tyler Graovac, as it turned out Monday, temporarily to the curb.
Since Tuch’s NHL debut Feb. 4 in Vancouver signaled the start of the lineup examining, the Wild is 6-1-1 and has strengthened its cushion atop the Western Conference standings.
Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks — the Wild’s last game before players leave for their five-day “bye” — the Wild is seven points ahead of Chicago for the Central Division title and seven points up on Chicago and San Jose in the West.
Tuesday’s lineup will look different again. Based on Monday’s practice, Coyle will move back to right wing next to Nino Niederreiter and Eric Staal, Haula will move back to third-line center between Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, and Graovac, a week after the team placed him on waivers because it wasn’t happy with his play or the fourth line’s, was recalled to center Chris Stewart and Jordan Schroeder.
Boudreau made the decision specifically for the Chicago game.
Boudreau admitted that trusting Tuch to only play 12 shifts totaling 7 minutes, 33 seconds Saturday against Nashville wasn’t good for anybody. And, against Chicago’s top two lines centered by Artem Anisimov and Jonathan Toews, Boudreau wants two defensive-minded centers to play regular shifts in shutdown roles.
“[Haula’s] played really well recently. I’d certainly like to get him more ice time,” Boudreau said.
So in order to play Haula a regular shift, Graovac was recalled. But because the lineup experimenting showed Tuch still has developing to do and that Boudreau doesn’t exactly love Graovac’s game, Fletcher likely will seek a forward before the March 1 trade deadline.
If it’s a top-nine winger, Boudreau could move Coyle back to third-line center and Haula to fourth-line center. If it’s a center, Boudreau could keep Coyle at wing and decide which pivot spot Haula plays depending on the acquisition.
The lineup experimentation, Boudreau said, was a success.
“It allows you to know you can put guys in different spots when needed,” he said. “Guys get to learn how to play with each guy. It’s not a shock to them all of a sudden. We know Coyle can play center. Now that gives us options of whatever we want to do. We’ve got guys we can put left wing, right wing.
“We’re pretty good with the versatility all over the place.”
On the blue line, the Wild loves what it’s seeing from Olofsson, who logged 19 ½ minutes against Nashville with left-shot defenseman Jonas Brodin on his right. Boudreau was pleasantly surprised how well Brodin played Saturday despite missing 14 games because of a broken finger.
Olofsson deepens the blue line. At Monday’s practice, Marco Scandella and Matt Dumba made up the third pair, although the medical staff will decide Tuesday whether Dumba returns from a knee injury. That would mean right-shot defensemen Christian Folin and Nate Prosser will be scratched Tuesday, and it would give Fletcher options if he wants to trade a defenseman.
As for Graovac, who may be assigned to Iowa with Olofsson during the bye week to save salary cap space, Boudreau hopes the short stint in Iowa motivates him to play better.
“We sat out Schroeder two games ago, and he’s come back and played two really strong games,” Boudreau said. “So getting sent down and being recalled, hopefully that will push a button for him to play like he did for the first 10 games when he was up.”
Graovac was shocked to be put on waivers.
“There wasn’t much reason for it. There wasn’t much feedback, to be honest,” Graovac said. “I was kind of left a little bit in the dark. … Obviously I want to go out there and prove to him that he can trust me in situations I’m put in. … I don’t know if this is part of the process or not. I know Bruce is very old-school in a way. He’s told me as a younger guy that they all go through this. My main goal right now is to be the best player I can be. I’m definitely going to be a little more aggressive [Tuesday].”
Boudreau said he’ll talk to Graovac, but “I shouldn’t have to talk to him about anything. If I’m a guy getting called up I want to be good in all three zones, I want to be physical, I want to score, I want to do it all. I’m sure he wants to prove a point that he belongs here full time. That’s what we’re hoping for.”