Day Three of training camp has wrapped up for the Minnesota Wild, and, so far, there’s a lot to like. The top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville shows signs of developing chemistry, as does the potential third line of Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Torrey Mitchell. The biggest questions in camp, however, involve several young forwards looking to make Minnesota’s top-6, and a suddenly deep blue line. While there is a lot of buzz on dynamic young guns Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, today, we’re going to discuss Minnesota’s defensive conundrum.
First of all, let’s go over our “locks”. The top pairing is all but set in stone as 2012-13 Norris finalist Ryan Suter and 2012-13 All-Rookie defenseman Jonas Brodin. Then there’s No. 3 defenseman Jared Spurgeon and recently signed Minnesota native and NHL veteran Keith Ballard. Then you have your guys competing for spots that are on one-way contracts–Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella. Finally, you have your guys on two-way deals–Jonathon Blum, Mathew Dumba, Steven Kampfer and Tyler Cuma.
At this point, you can all but eliminate Cuma and Kampfer. It’s a make or break season for Cuma, Minnesota’s top selection in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. With the names currently in front of him, there’s no way he cracks Minnesota’s lineup. Kampfer provides a very solid call-up option, but that’s about it at this point. The emergence of Dumba and the signing of Blum may have sealed Kampfer’s fate in the Wild organization.
With the “locks” and Cuma and Kampfer out of the way, that leaves five defensemen competing for just three or four spots, depending on how many extras the Wild brass and coaching staff plan on keeping. The way I see it, Stoner and Prosser are the two most in peril of losing their jobs in St. Paul.
After playing most of the season with Houston last year, Scandella logged big minutes in the playoffs for Minnesota, leading all Wild blue liners with a goal and an assist for two points and a negative-1 rating. Marco spent much of his average 18:01 of ice-time per game limiting and shutting down dynamic Chicago forward Patrick Kane throughout the series. In addition, he’s also developed good chemistry with Spurgeon, and his 6’3″ 210-pound frame and heavy shot would be a welcome addition to Minnesota’s top-4. The fact that Stoner is the only other left-shot he has to legitimately compete with for a roster spot makes Scandella’s addition to the lineup that much more realistic.
On the right side, two very high-ceiling blue liners are putting their best skate forward (or backward as it would seem), as Jonathon Blum and 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba compete to be the sixth man. With Minnesota’s defensive depth chart seemingly placing Scandella on the second pair with Spurgeon, whoever plays bottom right (Blum or Dumba) will likely be paired with calming, veteran two-way puck-mover Ballard. While Blum is signed to a one-year two-way deal that screams now-or-never, Ballard could be the perfect defensive partner for Dumba.
Dumba was the final cut for both Team Canada’s U-20 squad and the Wild last season, but he could very well make both this year. After struggling at the start of last season in Red Deer, a change in coaching and mental focus helped Minnesota’s new top defensive prospect rebound for a solid 16 goals, six on the man advantage, and 26 assists for 42 points and a plus-10 rating in 62 games. This year, Dumba enters camp with another season under his belt and an unwavering drive to succeed. He may not make it, but there’s no doubt he’s going to give until he has nothing left. What’s more, he has a skillset Minnesota desperately needs on the blue line and has reportedly been very impressive in camp so far.
While there’s very little chance he can post a similar rookie season to Jonas Brodin’s, he plays a dynamic, hard-hitting style of play no other Wild blue liner possesses, and has a blistering point shot that would be put to good use on Minnesota’s top power play unit.
So, the question facing head coach Mike Yeo and Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, is whether or not Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser are now on the market. If so, it’s a matter of which one the team can most live without.
As we’ve basically determined in this article, the defensive pairings are shaping up to be:
Here’s where things sort themselves out. Stoner is the only extra left-shot, and Prosser isn’t comfortable playing left side (nor are likely any of the other right-shots when it comes to even-strength). As much as it pains me to say this, because I am probably Prosser’s No. 1 supporter (I have a game-worn 2010-11 White Set 1 road sweater from his rookie season hanging up behind me as I type this at my office desk), it’s time for Fletcher to give him a chance at getting some serious playing time–and that’s not going to be in Minnesota.
There are some difficult decisions to be made in the days ahead. It’s a good problem for Minnesota to have, but it can be gut-wrenching for fans and the writers covering the team. May the best defensemen win.