Wild newcomers find their stride
SAN JOSE, Calif. – It was the type of haul on the first day of NHL free agency that scrolled across the bottom of the television screen rather than getting profiled in the main box.
A right shot for the third defensive pairing.
Three options for the fourth line.
Re-signing a rookie defender.
These moves by the Wild, along with a few others that fed the organization’s pipeline, seemed underwhelming at the time — compared to the moves of its rivals and since the team looked poised for more of a shake-up after crumbling yet again in the first round of the playoffs.
But they were exactly what the Wild targeted.
And now it’s easy to understand why, as the team’s depth has emerged as a strength amid a 7-1 run and overall 8-3-2 showing that ranks among the best in the league. That includes a 2-1 start to a franchise-record seven-game road trip.
“I’m a firm believer that balance wins,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “When it’s difficult to check all four lines and six ‘D,’ it makes it hard to play against that sort of matchup.”
The supporting cast enters Tuesday’s game against the Sharks on the heels of its most impactful performance to date in a 5-1 rout at St. Louis on Saturday.
Nick Seeler, the youngster who re-upped with a three-year, $2.175 million contract, scored his first NHL goal during a three-point outburst. His partner on the third pairing, Greg Pateryn, tied a franchise record for a defenseman by finishing the game a plus-5. Pateryn signed a three-year, $6.75 million deal with the Wild when the signing period opened July 1.
And the fourth line chipped in two goals and totaled four points. Both goals came from newcomers, center Eric Fehr (one year for $1 million) and winger J.T. Brown (two years at $1.375 million).
It’s likely that unit, which also includes winger Marcus Foligno, remains intact Tuesday since Boudreau said veteran Matt Hendricks, the other bottom-six addition from the summer who secured a one-year, $700,000 commitment from the Wild, isn’t probable to play until Thursday at Los Angeles.
“We’ve never had any doubt that we can produce offensively,” Fehr said. “We know our job is to be strong defensively and to be physical and create energy. We have a lot of confidence in our ability in the offensive zone, as well. 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.”
Even before that game against the Blues, the Wild’s depth began to shine.
Since Oct.20, the fourth line has combined for 11 points and the third pairing’s plus-minus was on the negative side of the ledger just once in the team’s first nine games.
Overall, everyone except Brown, Hendricks and seventh defenseman Nate Prosser is averaging at least 11 minutes of ice time — evidence that the Wild has been able to utilize its entire lineup, an asset that becomes particularly valuable as the visitor when it’s tougher to match lines.
“I have no problem, especially on the road, putting [Eric Fehr’s] line out and let [the opponent] put who they want out,” Boudreau said. “I think we’ve got four pretty balanced lines, and some nights some lines are better than others. But I have faith and trust in all of them.”
And the Wild has been rewarded for its evenness.
Before Monday’s slate of games, only five teams had more victories and just three had better point totals; the Wild’s .692 points percentage sat third.
Maintaining this pace isn’t guaranteed, but the parity that’s helped fuel the Wild so far is typically a trademark of the clubs that outlast the others.
“Any Stanley Cup team, they have it,” Foligno said. “You can get to the playoffs, but you can’t make it far [without it]. I think we saw with the teams last year in the playoffs, it was a well-rounded, all four-line attack, and I think that’s what we have here now. Our role players are being role players. Finding a role on a team is hard and when you do it, it kind of turns into success.”