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New Wild season, new Wild faces

Minnesota opens its abbreviated 20th season with a revamped roster

New Wild goaltender Cam Talbot braces for one of his 37 saves for Edmonton in a 3-0 Oilers loss to Minnesota on April 2, 2018 at Xcel Energy Center. (MHM Photo / Jonny Watkins)

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the return of sports brought some normalcy in a world that still doesn’t feel normal. Turning the calendar to 2021 does not make everything instantly better, but it could still offer a fresh and new start.

So much is different in today’s world, and the Minnesota Wild roster headed into the shortened, 56-game season is no exception. During intermission at the second-and-final Wild scrimmage on Jan. 10, a season-preview video played on the videoboard. Veteran winger Zach Parise was shown in a clip and said of this season’s roster that it might be one of the most turnover years he’s been a part of in his career.

“I mean, we were sitting in the locker room yesterday, and (Nick) Bonino was asking me, ‘Who used to sit in this seat?’” Parise said. “’Well, you know, Mikko (Koivu) was there, Eric (Staal) was here.’ And I’m like, oh my gosh, this whole row is new guys.”

Indeed the Wild roster includes plenty of changes from the start of last season.

On the top two lines coming out of camp, only two of the six players were with the club last season, Parise and Kevin Fiala. Nick Bjugstad and Bonino will fill in the gaps at center left by the departed Staal and Koivu. The much-anticipated debut of 2015 NHL Draft pick Kirill Kaprizov will round out the top line, while Marcus Johansson and Fiala will play on either side of Bonino on the second line.

Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and Marcus Foligno are slated together for some consistency from last year. Greenway and Eriksson Ek played a lot together last season, formed what was dubbed the GEEK line with Luke Kunin, who was dealt in the Bonino deal with Nashville.

Thanks to a trade and an injury, the Wild goaltender tandem looks completely different as well. It was six years ago nearly to the day that the reeling Wild traded for Devan Dubnyk, where he thrived as the top goaltender. He was traded to San Jose this fall, so his old teammates will get to see a lot of him with the new division alignment; the Wild are in the West with Vegas, St. Louis, Anaheim, Arizona, Los Angeles, Colorado and San Jose.   

The team signed Cam Talbot in October to take over the No. 1 spot in net. He has a career 2.61 goals against average and 0.915 save percentage in 314 career NHL games.

The blue line offers the biggest piece of consistency and similarity for the Wild this year. It will be Jonas Brodin and newly minted captain Jared Spurgeon as a duo, Ryan Suter and Matt Dumba, then Carson Soucy and Greg Pateryn. Perhaps no one will be in search of a fresh start this season more than Pateryn, who spent most of the 2019-20 campaign out with various injuries.

Speaking of injuries, the Wild are already making do without some players to start the season. Alex Stalock is out with an upper-body injury. Mats Zuccarello had surgery on his right arm in November and has an indefinite timetable for a return to play.

The Wild were also hoping to get a first look at 2021 first-round draft pick Marco Rossi following his standard quarantine period after playing for Austria in the World Junior Championships, but the Wild announced Jan. 10 that Rossi is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury.

This shortened, late-starting season contained a fast-tracked training camp with no preseason games. The Wild tuned up with a couple of intersquad scrimmages.

New Wild forward Nick Bjugstad turns the corner on UMD defenseman Chris Casto in a 2-2 tie between the Gophers and Bulldogs on Feb. 23, 2013 at Mariucci Arena. (MHM Photo / Jeff Wegge)

In the second scrimmage on Jan. 10, Team Green struck first with a goal from Bjugstad 5-1/2 minutes into the scrimmage. He got to the front of the net and poked the puck past Talbot. Coach Dean Evason has seen Bjugstad’s willingness to get to those areas of the ice, which should generate some scoring opportunities.

“He’s got such a long reach, so when he gets around the net he’s going to find those loose pucks in whichever direction,” Evason said. “He’s got such good hands and strength that he should be able to score in that area.”

The 6-6 forward is getting his shot at playing top-line center. He has the “one of us” vibes for Minnesota fans, growing up playing for Blaine. His NHL career took him to Florida before he was traded to the Wild this offseason from Pittsburgh. He’ll be in search of a bounce-back season with his new team after missing 60 games last season because of injuries; he recorded a goal and an assist in only 13 games with the Penguins.

On a Team White power play in the second period, Fiala provided a nice feed over to Spurgeon off the rush, and the new captain sniped a quick shot that found the net after ringing the crossbar. That tied the contest 1-1 with 12:44 on the clock in the second as the sound system at Xcel Energy Center blasted “Crowd Chant.”

Spurgeon looks great on the ice so far, and Evason is excited about the way the defenseman is playing, from his compete level to his reads of plays and also jumping into the play offensively.

“His timing is real good, and he’s not sacrificing any defensive stuff because of it,” Evason said.

Brodin’s shot from the top of the circles made it a 2-1 Team White lead through two periods, which ended up as the final score. With that, the Wild had a couple of practices where they continued to work on special teams play before they jetted off to California to start the season with a four-game set against Los Angeles and Anaheim.

Evason said after the second scrimmage that he liked the progression from the first scrimmage, with 15-minute periods and special-teams work in between periods, to the second scrimmage, which took on the feel of a full 60-minute game with intermissions.  

“I thought the guys responded extremely well and look good to go,” Evason said. “Obviously, you’d always like to have a little more time, but we’re very happy with where we’re at.”

Heather's love for watching hockey started when the Minnesota Wild came to town in 2000. Before that, she caught a few Minnesota Moose games as a youngster, and more recently she's kept up with the Austin Bruins and Fargo Force. She's a writer, freelance journalist and blogger who previously worked as a news reporter in Austin and Fergus Falls, Minn. She enjoys watching sports and closely follows the Wild, Minnesota Twins, IndyCar Series, tennis and prep sports. Heather keeps up her sports blog Thoughts from the Stands. You can follow her on Twitter @hlrule.

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