Less than a month into the season, the Minnesota Wild find themselves with a banged-up group of skaters and goalies.
As of right now, forwards Charlie Coyle and Mike Rupp, defensemen Jonas Brodin and Keith Ballard, and goaltenders Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom are either out of the lineup or aren’t feeling 100 percent. Rupp (offseason knee surgery) has yet to play a game and Backstrom hasn’t been in the starting role since being knocked out with a knee strain in a 3-2 loss to the Nashville Predators on October 8th. Backup Josh Harding took the reigns from there, notching a 5-2-1 record, .953 save percentage, 1.00 goals against average and a shutout–that is–until he was sidelined with a lower-body injury in Thursday night’s 3-1 home victory against the Carolina Hurricanes. Backstrom, who at that point felt healthy enough to sit on the bench as Robin to Harding’s Batman, was pressed into duty, stopping all seven shots he faced in 20:00 of relief. Up until the second intermission, Harding had stopped 20 of 21 shots faced.
Fortunately, it appears Harding isn’t far from making a return, and the fact that it was Johan Gustafsson who received the call instead of Darcy Kuemper highly suggests another goalie was needed merely as a precaution and not as a potential starter.
The biggest question right now is around Minnesota’s defense. Keith Ballard hasn’t played since Minnesota’s 2-1 win over the Sabres in Buffalo back on October 14th when he sustained concussion-like symptoms after taking a puck to the face. Like Coyle (knee sprain), who is a possibility for next Friday’s game against Montreal, Ballard is practicing with the team, but there’s no question with it being still very early in the season that the Wild brass will be very careful in monitoring his recovery.
Speaking of pucks to the face, don’t expect No. 2 defenseman and 2013 NHL All-Rookie Jonas Brodin (broken cheekbone) to be back on the ice until he’s ready. Granted, that’s an ill-chosen statement in the fact that while every passionate hockey player may be ready to jump back on the ice to help out the team, that doesn’t mean they should. Especially with a young, talented franchise-caliber defenseman like Brodin, the Wild managerial, coaching and medical staff should be extra cautious that they don’t rush Brodin’s recovery too quickly. Unfortunately, it’s hard to do that when you now only have six healthy defensemen in the lineup, including a rookie who still has the possibility of being sent back to Juniors looming in his immediate future. That rookie just so happens to be 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba.
After spending the first few games of last season as a healthy scratch, Dumba was sent back to the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League for more seasoning. He would finish the season with 16 goals (six on the power play and one shorthanded) and 26 assists for 42 points and a plus-10 rating in 62 games. This year, Dumba has stuck with the team so far, notching a goal and an assist for two points, an even plus-minus rating and nine shots in seven games.
Not too shabby, but there have been some not-so-good moments, too. Like when he coughed up a two-on-none in consecutive games against Tampa Bay and Florida. Lucky for him, Josh Harding was able to save his tail with some stellar goaltending.
He’s a rookie–you can’t expect him to be perfect. However, having played seven of the traditional nine-game tryout, he has two games here to really prove he belongs in Minnesota the rest of the season. And they’re both against the mighty Chicago Blackhawks. That’s a tough team for a rookie to prove himself against. However, there’s no reason why Dumba can’t do it. What he can’t do is take a bunch of chances and go out of his way to make a point. He needs to play smart, play safe, but most importantly play confidently. That starts with each possession of the puck. He needs to look for the smart play, whether it’s a pass, shot, dump-in or just positioning himself in a spot that forces the attacker to the outside.
At this point, it’s going to be tough for Minnesota to send him back, because they’re already down to the minimum six defensemen. Dumba should take to the ice knowing Minnesota (currently) isn’t looking at him as a prospect, but as one of their top six best defensemen they can rely on to get the job done, and get it done properly. To put it simply, he’s needed in Minnesota now more than ever. They’ve given him the ball, it’s time for him to run with it.
Follow Dakota Case on Twitter at twitter.com/dakota_case.