Wild’s depth proving to be their secret ingredient
ST. PAUL — Three weeks ago, with the NHL season barely underway, it looked as if the Wild were inexplicably careening into the abyss.
A playoff team in each of the past six seasons, they looked old and uninterested on the ice as they lost four of their first five games. There was cause for concern all around, especially considering the Wild lack a bonafide superstar to lift them when needed.What they have is Eric Staal, who popped in 42 goals last season, and Mikael Granlund, who has topped 65 points in each of the past two seasons. And they have Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, still very productive players and team leaders even if they can never produce enough to justify their matching $98 million contracts.
Those players have performed at a high level this season, and while it’s certainly a good sign, it’s not the main reason the Wild (8-3-2, 18 points) entered Tuesday’s game at San Jose all alone in second place in the Central Division.
They have made their way back up the conference standings because of their depth. The Wild might just be as deep as any team in the NHL.
With four lines coach Bruce Boudreau feels comfortable putting on the ice in any situation, and three defensive pairings that are more or less set in stone, the Wild are looking more dangerous with each passing game.
“If we look around this league, there are some great first lines and great second lines,” Boudreau said. “If we can get four lines that can contribute on a daily basis, I think we’re way ahead of the game.”
Perhaps the biggest contribution in the first month of the season has come from a fourth line — Eric Fehr centering Marcus Foligno and J.T. Brown — that has been one of the steadiest trios on the team. While there’s been some fluidity throughout the lineup so far, the fourth line has remained a constant, and has started to gain the trust of pretty much everyone on the bench.
“I have no problem, especially on the road, putting (Eric Fehr’s) line out there and letting them put whoever they want out there,” Boudreau said. “We have four pretty balanced lines. There are some nights that some lines are better than others. I have faith and trust in all of them.”
That’s not something Boudreau could always say during his first two seasons coaching the Wild. It was sometimes a revolving door near the bottom of the lineup, and because of that, the coaching staff had to be strategic about when they put certain players on the ice.
“In the salary cap world we have to have depth,” Boudreau said. “It’s so important. Any time I look at a team that wins championships, it always has four good lines playing.”
No doubt the big-name players will have to continue to raise their game if the Wild are to be relevant this season. That said, the fact that one or two players don’t have to be relied on to carry the load every night could play a major role as the season progresses.
“We just try to be tough to play against,” Fehr said. “No matter if it’s the O zone, neutral zone, or D zone, we want to be physical. We want to be right on them to take away time and space.
“We know our job is to be strong defensively and to be physical. We have a lot of confidence in our ability in the offensive zone, too. Some games we’ll have it. Some games we won’t. As long as we bring energy for the team, we’re doing our job.”