With one exhibition game under in the books and a home-and-home scheduled with Winnipeg for tomorrow night and Saturday, the Minnesota Wild are making some critical decisions for the opening night roster. Who’s battling for a roster spot? A few thoughts on the forwards after Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets:
Jason Zucker straining his groin early in the game and leaving midway through the second period is a big point of concern. Zucker was tabbed by most folks following the preseason action to lock down a second line winger position, perhaps with fellow youngster Charlie Coyle and vet Dany Heatley. If Zucker’s injury were to keep him out of action for any significant period (not entirely likely), Nino Niederreiter could be the favorite to jump up into that position.
If that were the case, it would be a big move and a big show of faith in El Nino. While he did score the Wild’s only goal in the game with Columbus (a neat two-touch in front of a sprawling goaltender to net a rebound), there’s been talk he needs to improve his play away from the puck. He notched 50 points in the AHL with Bridgeport Sound, but fellow prospect Justin Fontaine tallied 58. Success at the AHL level doesn’t guarantee a starting spot come the new NHL season.
Head Coach Mike Yeo said Niederreiter was “probably our best forward tonight” according to the Star Tribune’s Mike Russo. Yeo also said “We have to take our time with Nino for sure because there are some other parts of his game we have to coach him through.”
Another key battle to keep an eye on right now is between Coyle and Mikael Granlund for the second line center position. Both have been lavished with attention and coaches are noticing how much these two stand out from the rest of the hoping-to-make-the-roster crowd. Yeo had a few more snippets on this duo in Russo’s blog.
For my money, I like Granlund at center more than I like Coyle at center, regardless of the line they’re on. Center seems to suit Granlund’s abilities better, and his assist on Niederreiter’s goal from behind the net was a beauty. Coyle battles it out on the boards and seems most at home doing so. Both skated at center and wing after Zucker’s departure Tuesday night, so obviously Yeo is keeping plenty of options on the table.
It’s still early for these speculations, but given the Wild’s anticipated top line (Parise – Koivu – Pominville) and not certain, but definitely a possibility third line (Matt Cooke – Kyle Brodziak – Torey Mitchell), there isn’t a ton of space for all of these young guys we’re excited to see. The fourth line could see some sort of (Jake Dowell – Zenon Konopka – Mike Rupp) scenario. Not very pretty.
That said, there are a few guys still left in the fight for those second line and fill-in positions, and we’ll have to keep a close eye on their progress as the Wild travel, then host, the Winnipeg Jets and move closer to the opener. Yeo can always surprise us with his lines, and even when we finally get the opening night line up, who knows how long that will last. More on the D-men later – there’s some speculation on how the pairings will shake out with Keith Ballard, Jared Spurgeon, Jonathon Blum, Marco Scandella and others in the mix.