If the Minnesota Wild manages to crack the 2013 playoffs – and that is an if – which Wild rookie could help the team most in postseason play?
The top two candidates are defenseman Jonas Brodin and forward Charlie Coyle. Both of these players are contributing in big ways on the ice right now, as they have for the great majority of the season.
The third rookie with great potential for positive impact is goaltender Darcy Kuemper. Playoff teams live and die on the backs of strong goalie pairings, and, if Josh Harding’s situation gets any worse, Kuemper will likely be called up to provide the necessary relief for Niklas Backstrom if the Wild hope to go far.
** UPDATE ** The Wild reassigned Kuemper to Houston and recalled goaltender Josh Harding. Harding played in two games for the Aeros on a conditioning assignment beginning April 16. He stopped 56 of 61 shots and was 1-1, a 3.00 goals against average and .918 save percentage.
Consider Kuemper’s role as one possible situation, should there be any further Wild recalls or reassignments prior to the playoffs.
Brodin is in the NHL spotlight as a potential Calder Trophy contender. The league’s youngest defenseman and top time-on-ice rookie, the Swede has turned many a head with his savvy stick work, positioning and defensive awareness.
While it certainly doesn’t hurt for a young defenseman to be paired with a Norris Trophy candidate veteran defense partner, Brodin is proving every game that he deserves to be on the Wild’s top D-line. In fact, his steady presence on the blue line has allowed Ryan Suter to play the way he needs to play – with total faith in his counterpart.
As the Wild move into the postseason (we hope), that’s exactly what Brodin will need to do to give the Wild the most benefit; he needs to allow Suter to be Suter. And how does Brodin accomplish that? By leaving not a shred of doubt in his teammates’ minds that he can handle himself in any situation.
Brodin is pulling nearly 30 shifts per game and averaging more than 23 minutes of ice time, plus more penalty-kill unit time than power-play minutes. Despite his defense-first responsibilities, Brodin holds a plus-6 rating and has chipped in 11 points in 43 games this year.
As the second-leading time-on-ice man for the Wild, his playoff impact might well be the greatest for any Wild rookie this year, and it will be especially crucial during the playoffs.
Coyle has a chance to prove his worth in the postseason picture, as well, if he hasn’t proven it already. Coyle is another young player surrounded by great leaders in linemates Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, but like Brodin, he’s proven his right to skate with the best.
Though Coyle’s impact doesn’t always show up on the scoreboard (10 Wild skaters have as many or more points than Coyle’s 12 this year) he is providing exactly what Koivu and Parise need in a strong-skating winger. Parise and Koivu lead the team with 37 and 35 points, respectively.
If Coyle gets hot in the playoffs, like he did with a 5-game streak earlier in the year that saw the rookie net 3 goals, he could produce a great playoff impact, or at least enough of one to swing a series in the Wild’s favor.
For Coyle, it all rides on playing the game Minny wants to play.
“We’re at our best when we’re going in straight lines and arriving there in a hard way,” coach Mike Yeo said after the Wild beat the Kings on Tuesday night.
That’s exactly the kind of game Coyle needs to play, and as the Kings saw on Tuesday, that style of play produced results for the young man in scoring the opening goal.
Kuemper could be the piece that makes or breaks the Wild’s playoff dreams. When teams go deep into the postseason, they rely on two – not one – hot goaltenders. Look at Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot of the 2012 Blues, or the 2011 Bruins with Tim Thomas and Tukka Rask.
How Kuemper will hold up is a question Minnesota fans don’t necessarily have an answer to yet, even now, with just two games remaining in the season. Backstrom has started 39 games to Kuemper’s three. There is reason for hope in the rookie netminder, mainly in his goals against average (2.08) and save percentage (.916) that say he can hang in the league.
Those figures aren’t spread out over enough games to give a whole lot of confidence, but when the time comes for Minnesota to place their faith in Kuemper, we can only hope he steps up to the challenge.
The question might not be which Wild rookie can have the greatest impact, but if all three of the aforementioned can combine to produce the greatest possible effect – in goal, on the blue line, and on the scoreboard.