The Wild’s time in Duluth has come to an end. The team is busing back to the Twin Cities now to prepare for Thursday’s exhibition finale against the Buffalo Sabres?
Who would have predicted before training camp that the Sabres would have the best preseason record in the East (4-1) and the Oilers would have the best preseason record in the West (6-0)?
The Wild’s practice ended in comical fashion today when the team gathered closely at center ice for a minute and was howling as Nino Niederreiter yakked and yakked and yakked. My guess: He lost some kind of bet over the past few days because Zach Parise called it with a big laugh, “Joke time,” and Charlie Coyle called it, “a little extra team bonding.”
Niederreiter had a terrific camp and I’ll be featuring him early next week in the paper. Niederreiter is tied for sixth in the NHL with five points in the preseason (Parise and Matt Dumba have five each, too).
Coyle is third in the NHL with six points and leads the league with five assists.
I’m writing about Coyle for Thursday’s paper and his desire to be more consistent this season and to continue what he has done during an outstanding camp in the regular season. A lot of interesting stuff in the story regarding the roster and ramifications of things, and there’s already an interesting story transpiring.
Coyle’s become the Wild rover. In Columbus, one game after winning 59 percent of his draws in Winnipeg, Coyle assists on three power-play goals (awesome on the half wall) and wins 75 percent of his faceoffs as a center.
But then winger Jason Zucker was a little banged up, so Coyle’s next game against Winnipeg, he moved from third-line center to right wing on the Niederreiter-Mikko Koivu line. He had a goal, assist and was plus-5.
Now, Coyle’s not only back on a line with Thomas Vanek and Tyler Graovac, he’s playing right wing on the line rather than center because Justin Fontaine and Jordan Schroeder are hurt.
Also, the power-play units are becoming clearer and Coyle, at least to start, isn’t on either as coach Mike Yeo wants him to really sink his teeth into a penalty-kill role and become that right-shot center that the Wild let go in Kyle Brodziak.
When Coyle ate about 15 seconds single-handedly on that 3-on-5 the other night against the Jets, you just knew Yeo probably started to salivate and got a light bulb in his head.
So the PP units are: Parise in right circle, Koivu in slot, Jason Pominville as net front, Mikael Granlund on half wall and Ryan Suter up top. On the second, Zucker in right circle, Niederreiter in slot, Thomas Vanek as net front and Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon up top.
As Yeo said, the Wild has a lot of PP tools and good players won’t be on the power play to start. But they’ll have other roles and basically Coyle’s going to have to embrace that. He’s so versatile, he may go from top-6 to third line, from center to right wing, from PK to PP at times.
Lots of fans have been clamoring for Zucker to be on the power play anyway and he’ll get that chance to at least start the year, it appears. Last season, Zucker scored 21 goals – 19 even-strength, one power play and one shorthanded. But he only played 43:17 on the power play in 51 games or 50 seconds a game.
Now, he’ll get a look.
“I’m really excited about that,” Zucker said. “It should be great, but I’m not going to take that for granted. We have a lot of guys that can be on the power play. I want to make sure I’m using those opportunities to my advantage and capitalizing on them when I can.”
Lots more on the Coyle/Zucker/Graovac stuff in Thursday’s paper.
The Wild does have guys with minor injuries. Fontaine will miss the start of the year with an oblique issue, Schroeder is expected to miss Thursday’s game with an upper-body injury and Erik Haula left today’s practice with a tweaked groin. He was limping pretty good afterward.
That means the Wild will either have to play seven defensemen against the Sabres on Thursday or recall a center because Yeo said the Vanek-Graovac-Coyle line is something he wants to see Thursday.
With all these little injuries, Graovac, who was getting better throughout camp anyway, is a virtual lock right now. It’s looking like Brett Bulmer’s door has opened, too, depending on the health of Schroeder and Haula.
Also, as I wrote earlier this offseason, Chris Porter may make sense and he is one of the guys open for the taking suddenly because Philadelphia put the former Blues energy forward on waivers today.
One guy who is far from a lock is Mike Reilly.
Marco Scandella is expected to rejoin the Wild for Thursday’s game and play alongside Christian Folin. So, right now, Reilly is not in the top-6 or on either power-play unit.
How can the Wild justify putting Reilly on the team when a first-year pro should be playing games? So my guess is he’ll start the season Iowa even if he plays as a seventh defenseman over Nate Prosser against Buffalo.
“We’ll see what we decide lineup wise for tomorrow,” Yeo said. “If he’s out of the lineup, it doesn’t mean that he won’t be here. If he is in the lineup, it doesn’t mean that he is going to be here. We’re not making that decision today, and we’ll see what happens through the game tomorrow.”
On the Duluth trip, Yeo said, “We got a lot of work done. As much as anything else, the time spent with the guys, we have a real close group and this is an important step as far getting the team ready and getting our head in right place. We have a long grind ahead of us now and we’re excited to get her going.”
Reminder: Jim Souhan and I will be taping our podcast at Tom Reid’s Thursday at 4 p.m. in St. Paul, so come on by, watch and ask questions.