The day following the NHL’s 2014 Trade Deadline, Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo held his first team practice with newly acquired players Matt Moulson, Cody McCormick and Ilya Bryzgalov in the lineup.
The mood surrounding the team and its players today was electrifying in a way that only shows itself when hopes for the team have never been brighter. It usually takes recent roster additions a few practices to get used to a new team’s system, but things appear to be flowing smoothly for Moulson and McCormick.
While Minnesota’s defensive pairings remain unchanged, the team’s four forward lines have been shaken up in a fashion that will make them tough to compete against on any given night. Here were the lines in today’s practice:
Zach Parise – Mikael Granlund – Jason Pominville
Moulson – Mikko Koivu – Charlie Coyle
Matt Cooke – Kyle Brodziak – Nino Niederreiter
Dany Heatley – Erik Haula – McCormick/Justin Fontaine
The top two lines are without question the best top-6 Minnesota has ever ice, simply oozing with elite playmaking and scoring potential. The bottom two provide an attractive mix of organized chaos–the grinding physicality of Cooke, Brodziak and McCormick paired with the skills and scoring ability of Niederreiter, Heatley and Haula. On paper, these lines look great. On the ice today, they were even better by all accounts, and the Wild’s head coach couldn’t be more thrilled.
“I liked the look of them before we went out on the ice and I liked the look of them after we came off the ice, too,” said Yeo. “I thought there was real good energy in our practice today. Obviously guys are excited. We felt really good about our team and where we were at going into this trade deadline and we feel that we’re a strong team now, we’re a deeper team. So we’re excited to put it to work now.”
In addition, Minnesota’s power play units have been overhauled. With point-men Ryan Suter and Pominville and Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon rotating in and out, the two forward units were comprised of Parise, Granlund and Heatley and Moulson, Koivu and Coyle. As I wrote yesterday, Moulson joins the team with eight power play goals on the season–three less than team leader Parise and three more than Pominville. With a goal scorer of his calibre added to the lineup, Minnesota’s power play has become much more dangerous than their 15th-best 18.6% success rate currently suggests. That’s exactly what Yeo is trying to accomplish.
“If you have two strong units, then you’re a much more dangerous team to play against, and that’s what we’re looking for,” said the Wild’s third-year head coach.
With both Moulson and McCormick expected to make their Wild debuts against the Dallas Stars on Saturday, it looks like rookie Fontaine will sit this first one out. That doesn’t mean he won’t play Sunday at home against the St. Louis Blues. Newly acquired backup goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is expected to make his home debut against the Blues, but appeared to struggle in today’s practice. Hopefully today was just a minor glitch for the enigmatic goaltender.
Minnesota is entering the final stretch of the season. With 20 games to play in 37 days, every shift, every battle for the puck and every win becomes more and more important as the opportunities for much-needed points fade away with the season coming to its conclusion. Of those 20 games, 11 are against Western Conference teams and seven are within the Central Division. The Central’s third seed Colorado Avalanche sit 10 points ahead of the Wild in the standings. It’s highly unlikely Minnesota will overtake any of the division’s top three teams. That said, if the team can keep stockpiling points and wins–particularly against the West–it should be enough to pad Minnesota’s eight point lead over the ninth place Phoenix Coyotes and 10th place Winnipeg Jets. Those 11 games within the conference are especially important as they aren’t just two-point games. As the season winds down, games within the conference turn into four-point games–two for one team and two taken from another.
Amid injuries, Minnesota has given this season a valiant effort. With a team that, for the most part, is now healthy and boasting new additions, will the Wild be able to keep up its regular season success through what will arguably be the toughest test of the year? It’s what GM Chuck Fletcher is banking on.