We’re down to the nitty-gritty as the Minnesota Wild look to solidify their opening night roster over the span of the next week and final two preseason games. Minnesota has narrowed the camp roster down to 28 names, but Mike Rupp will start the season on IR because of his knee, and Brett Bulmer and Tyler Cuma are both out with undisclosed injuries. Thus, Minnesota is really just two cuts away from their opening night roster. Signed to a pro tryout agreement, veteran NHL center David Steckel will almost assuredly be one of the cuts, but the other may very well come down to 2010 9th overall pick Mikael Granlund.
In a year that’s seen impressive training camp and preseason performances from all of the “big five”–Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter and defenseman Mathew Dumba–Granlund’s small size and less physical playing style may have him on the outside looking in. When camp began, it was thought that the fight for No. 2 center would be a pretty even match between Granlund and Coyle. No one had any idea Coyle would come into camp as nothing short of the second coming of Jonathan Toews. Granlund had no chance, but it wasn’t due to any shortcomings of his own–Coyle just played himself into a roster spot.
No room at No. 2 center? No problem, Granlund just had to throw himself into the fray with Zucker and Niederreiter. After an impressive second chance preseason debut by Zucker, a game in which his play literally changed the game as he assisted on the game-tying goal and scored the only goal in the shootout, it left no doubt the talented 2010 second rounder had regained the inside track on No. 2 left wing. That said, it’s down to Niederreiter, Fontaine and Granlund for the last roster spot, and Granlund just isn’t suited to be a bottom-6 forward.
Nino, with all his size, strength and goal-scoring ability, has proven he can play in either a top-6 or top-9 role. His game isn’t suited for the fourth line, however, he gives Minnesota a deadly secondary scoring threat with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak on the third line. With the fourth line made up of a combination of Rupp, Fontaine, Zenon Konopka, Torrey Mitchell and Jake Dowell, this gives head coach Mike Yeo the ability to roll four solid lines at any time–something that was the trademark of 2013 Stanley Cup Final teams Chicago and Boston.
Mikael needs to be where he can receive top minutes in all situations. Right now, that would be Iowa. The problem that also arises is the fact that it may be difficult to find room for Mikael in the future, too. Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville are far from ancient, Zucker, Coyle and Niederreiter are not even close to entering their primes yet, and Dany Heatley’s departure after this season will just make room for the Wild to sign Thomas Vanek in free agency.
There’s just not enough room for everyone. Perhaps it’s this line of reasoning that forced Wild GM Chuck Fletcher’s hand in parting with Johan Larsson and Matt Hackett in the Pominville trade. Hard decisions have to be made when guiding a sports franchise to the pinnacle of success. In the end, if Granlund is going to make Minnesota’s lineup fulltime, I’d have to think one of Konopka or Brodziak would be moved. Coyle could step in as No. 2b/3a center, leaving Brodziak or Konopka on the fourth line.
A healthy scratch tonight, Granlund’s last chance to prove he belongs on this year’s opening night lineup will come on Friday night in St. Louis as the Wild conclude their preseason with the second half of a home-and-home with the Blues. There’s no question he’s going to have a very bright career in the NHL–it’s just not going to come in anything less than a first or second line scoring role. Until he can claim one outright, some more time to dominate in the minors certainly won’t hurt his career. Iowa Wild fans may be in for a special treat this fall.
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