Wild coach Mike Yeo dropped a big surprise after Friday's practice at the St. Thomas ice rink. Jason Zucker, who wasn't expected back until May, might return to the lineup as soon as next week.
Zucker's recovery from a broken collarbone has gone quickly and well. The winger didn't hold back in a high-energy practice, his first full-contact workout since the injury. Zucker was hurt Feb. 9 in a collision with Vancouver's Luca Sbisa and had surgery to repair the fracture on Feb. 12; since then, the Wild has expected him to adhere to the three-month recovery timetable that is typical for this kind of injury.
Yeo isn't writing anything into stone just yet. He said after Friday's practice that he is "kind of eying possibly the last couple of games'' for Zucker's return, but added he would "make sure'' that Zucker is completely ready. After finishing the current home stand against Detroit on Saturday and Winnipeg on Monday, the Wild will end the regular season next week with road games at Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis.
"I was actually impressed,'' Yeo said of Zucker's performance in Friday's practice. "You can tell he's been putting the work in conditioning-wise. He's a little further ahead than what I expected.''
Yeo's standard line for the past couple of weeks has been that Zucker "is still a ways away.'' Zucker thought so, too. He has been skating and shooting pucks on his own for the past four or five weeks, but he wasn't anticipating that he'd return sooner than early May.
He has been cleared for full practice with contact, though he hasn't yet been cleared for actual competition. He feels good, he said, and his strength and stamina are still there. As long as he continues to get back in the groove at practice and sharpen his execution, Zucker expects he will be ready to get back into the lineup next week.
"It felt great,'' he said of the high-tempo practice. "It's always good to be back out there with the guys, and after skating alone for so long, it's always nice to be with the team.
"Conditioning-wise, I feel great. Today was a good first step, but I didn’t take a lot of contact today. I'm excited to get back, and today was a lot of fun.''
In other Wild news Friday:
--Defenseman Ryan Suter and winger Sean Bergenheim did not practice. Yeo said Suter was taking a maintenance day, and Bergenheim was sick.
--Defenseman Nate Prosser also practiced and will rejoin the lineup Saturday after missing eight games because of a knee injury. He's expected to take Jordan Leopold's spot.
--Forward Erik Haula also will get back in, taking the place of Ryan Carter on the fourth line. Yeo thinks Haula's speed will be beneficial against the Red Wings. While he praised Carter, who recently returned after missing time because of a shoulder injury, Yeo said "it's going to take some time for (Carter) to get his game back to where it was completely.''
--Winger Matt Cooke remains on track for a return to the lineup on Tuesday.