The news just keeps getting better for the Minnesota Wild.
The team practiced in sunny San Jose, California yesterday, preparing for tonight’s matchup with the frenzied Sharks. For now, Wild head coach Mike Yeo is really happy with the effort of his unconventional fourth line, as the trio of Jason Zucker, Erik Haula and Torrey Mitchell has played fast, physical and spends a lot of time in the offensive zone. However, the line has seen just one game (at home, to boot), but it was against the mighty Chicago Blackhawks, so there’s that to consider.
The big news? Team captain and No. 1 center Mikko Koivu and top-4 defenseman Jared Spurgeon have resumed skating. While they didn’t participate in full practice, the Wild’s two missing skaters did hop on the ice afterwards, Koivu in a track suit and Spurgeon in full gear. Yeo confirmed Koivu will not be playing on the team’s four-game road trip and stated that he didn’t expect Spurgeon to either–however–he didn’t exactly rule out the potential return of the team’s top right-shot blue liner. In 43 games this season, the diminutive defenseman has scored a goal and 11 assists for 12 points and a plus-6 rating.
Spurgeon’s journey to the NHL has been nothing short of amazing. After scoring just seven goals and 24 assists for 31 points over the course of 84 games during his first two seasons with the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, it was his 2007-08 season–when he scored 12 goals and 31 assists for 43 points and a plus-36 rating in 69 games–that intrigued the New York Islanders enough to draft him 156th overall in 2008. After capping his third season with the WHL championship, Spurgeon would play two more seasons with the Chiefs, scoring 18 goals and 78 assists for 96 points and a plus-40 rating in 113 games.
Even after all his success, it still wasn’t enough to sway the Islanders to offer him an entry-level deal. Well, you know Chuck Fletcher, the Wild GM leaped at the opportunity, inviting Spurgeon to the team’s development camp in the Summer of 2010. A contract signing later, batta-boom, batta-bing, forget about it, kid–you’re a valued member of the Minnesota Wild now.
In retrospect, it was no doubt Spurgeon’s size–not a lack of skill–that concerned the Isles brass. Fortunately for the Wild, Spurgeon has proven all his critics wrong, scoring 13 goals and 49 assists for 62 points and a plus-2 rating in 205 career NHL games while playing a critical minute-munching shutdown role against the best the league can throw at him. In fact, prior to the emergence of Jonas Brodin, it was Spurgeon that was initially paired on the Wild’s top defensive pairing with 2013 Norris finalist Ryan Suter. Before his most recent injury, he still found himself going back and forth between Suter on the top pairing and fellow 2008 draft pick Marco Scandella on the second pairing.
As you can imagine, when Spurgeon was sidelined, serious concerns were raised regarding Minnesota’s defensive corps. With him, the Wild had a respectable top-4 defense of Suter, Brodin, Scandella and Spurgeon. Without, the team had no real options to slide into Spurgeon’s right-side slot. There was Keith Ballard but–after some early season success–the Minnesota native’s play had seriously declined to the point he was often a healthy scratch. Then in stepped Nate Prosser.
After paying his dues watching from the press box as the team’s No. 7 defenseman, Prosser has transitioned into Spurgeon’s role as a top-4 defenseman seamlessly. It’s been fun to watch, too. Just a good ol’ boy from Elk River, Minnesota, Prosser has been one of the team’s best shutdown defensive-minded blue liners, blocking shots, clearing the garbage from the crease and not taking any nonsense from anyone. He’s also stepped up offensively, scoring two enormously big goals and three assists for five points and a plus-3 rating in 27 games this season. After the way he’s played, there’s just no way he goes back to sitting in the press box. Keith Ballard can keep his seat warm, though.
Ultimately, you want to ice the best team you can each and every night. It’s especially important in such a talented and physical league like the NHL. That said, it’s easy to see why the return of Koivu, Spurgeon and goalie Josh Harding–who is still dealing with MS medication issues–is so vitally important for Minnesota’s playoff hopes. Fortunately, Fletcher and Yeo have provided the team with a clutch supporting cast of players that can take to the ice and give the Wild a chance to win night in and night out. That’s what separates a good team from a mediocre team, and I think I speak for all Minnesota sports fans in general when I say Minnesota needs a good team.