On a day traditionally associated with fresh starts, three members of the Wild who ended 2014 as spectators — Jonas Brodin, Jason Zucker and Erik Haula — took steps Thursday toward rejoining the lineup.
All three were part of an optional New Year’s Day practice at Xcel Energy Center as the Wild prepared for Friday’s home game against Toronto. Brodin, who has missed two games because of a head injury, said he feels great; the defenseman will play Friday, barring any setbacks. Zucker, the latest victim of the stomach virus sweeping through the locker room, practiced for the first time since falling ill on Saturday and began the process of regaining strength and stamina.
Haula, a healthy scratch in three of the past four games, is expected to return to the lineup Friday after escaping coach Mike Yeo’s doghouse. To make room for him, the Wild sent 21-year-old center Tyler Graovac back to its AHL affiliate in Iowa after Thursday’s practice.
Yeo said he will “play it by ear” with Zucker, noting that the winger looked good in practice but that his conditioning took a big hit. Zucker had not skated for five days and said it was the worst illness he ever has experienced.
“I’m a guy that never gets sick,” said Zucker, whose 12 goals are second-most on the team. “It shut me down in every way. I didn’t move off the couch for three or four days. And I lost quite a bit of weight. I don’t think I ate a single thing for a couple of days.
“I felt a lot better than I anticipated [in Thursday’s practice], so hopefully I’ll get back quicker than expected. It would be nice to get out there as soon as I can and help the team.”
Under the microscope
After scratching Haula in consecutive games, Yeo said Thursday that he has seen him improve in practice. Now he wants to see that translate to competition, and he will be looking for better defense and more physical play from the second-year center.
“He has to be a guy that’s difficult to play against in terms of being positionally sound and taking away time and space from players,” Yeo said. “On top of that, more than anything else, [Haula must] compete in the hard areas.
“Every player has to play the game with a physical element. What Erik Haula brings physically is going to be different than what Stu Bickel brings physically, but they have to bring what they bring. That’s what we’re looking for.”
Yeo would not say Thursday how he might deploy his goaltenders in back-to-back games Friday against the Maple Leafs and Saturday at Dallas. Niklas Backstrom was activated from injured reserve Wednesday and flew to Columbus to back up Darcy Kuemper; he is fully recovered from his bout with the stomach virus, which knocked him out for three games.
Backstrom said he was “pretty tired” after Thursday’s practice, his second workout with the team since returning. He got sick more than two weeks ago and played through it at first, which he said caused the illness to linger.
“Energy and healthwise, I feel a lot better than I did a couple days ago,” Backstrom said. “We’ll see where we are [Friday], but I think it feels pretty good. You have to put the work in to get your legs going again.”
Coming up fast
Yeo and Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher both stressed that Graovac’s return to Iowa doesn’t mean they weren’t happy with him. The 6-5 center impressed them both in his first two NHL games, playing with poise and savvy.
Fletcher said that at this point in Graovac’s development, he needs to be playing a significant role with plenty of ice time. But Yeo noted that Graovac’s debut gave strong hints about his NHL potential.
“We look at how far he’s come along, and we’re very encouraged,” Yeo said. “I hope that he’s pushing some guys, because we know he can come in and play — and we’re talking about a big, skating centerman who can create and has the ability to make plays. So we’re encouraged with where he’s at.”