As the Minnesota Wild deal with injuries, COVID-19 contact tracing protocols (including confirmed positive cases) and a suspension, its taxi squad players are getting their chances in the lineup.
Forward Kevin Fiala served a three-game suspension after boarding Los Angeles Kings defenseman Matt Roy on Jan. 28, forward Marcus Foligno tested positive for COVID-19 and defenseman Matt Dumba and captain Jared Spurgeon are out with injuries. Forward Mats Zuccarello has not played this season and remains on long-term injured reserve (LTIR).
While the Wild’s games were suspended until further notice as more players are added to the NHL COVID protocol list, the team will still need their depth options in the taxi squad to fill spots and compensate for the lost production when they can return to play.
These chances will be given to players in their late 20s that come with a wealth of AHL experience and NHL call-ups.
Keep in mind that the team’s top prospects are unavailable, including centre Marco Rossi who was ruled out for the season due to complications from COVID-19 and Matthew Boldy who is in his sophomore year at Boston College. Defensive prospect Calen Addison will continue to play meaningful minutes with the AHL’s Iowa Wild unless the defensive corps is depleted even further.
The 28-year-old forward re-signed with the Wild in October. In a depth role, he has played two games this season, recording no points and averaging about seven minutes per game. Rau has been slotted as the fourth-line right winger. In three seasons with the organization, he has two assists in 11 NHL games. He has had several stints with the Iowa Wild in-between his NHL call-ups.
Prior to signing with the Wild, Rau played in 24 games for the Florida Panthers in the 2016-2017 season. He was originally drafted by the Panthers at 91st overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. A Minnesota native who played for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in the NCAA from 2011 to 2015, Rau was also named Mr. Hockey Minnesota in 2011 as the top senior high school player in the state.
The 27-year-old centreman has played two games this season, including first-line duties with Zach Parise and Nick Bjugstad on Jan. 31 against the Colorado Avalanche. In his second season with the organization, Johnson has played five NHL games with no points and is a minus-5.
Like Rau, Johnson spent the majority of last season with Iowa, recording 31 points in 42 games. Prior to joining the Wild, Johnson played 15 games and posted one assist for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2018-2019 season. He was Chicago’s fifth-round pick (No. 134) in the 2013 Draft. Johnson played three seasons for the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks from 2013 to 2016 before signing his entry-level contract.
The 28-year-old forward has one assist in two games this season. With Rau, Mayhew played on a fourth line centered by Nick Bonino. Prior to making his NHL debut last season, Mayhew played for Iowa for four seasons, which includes a 61-point effort in 49 games last year and appearing in the 2020 AHL All-Star Game.
In 15 career NHL games, Mayhew has two goals and two penalty minutes. The 5-foot-9 winger played four seasons with the Ferris State Bulldogs of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association (WCHA) before signing as a college free agent with Iowa during the 2016-2017 season.
Dakota Mermis and Matt Bartkowski
Mermis and Bartkowski have yet to appear in an NHL game this season, but both may be slotted into the lineup with Spurgeon on injury watch and the seriousness of Dumba’s injury being re-evaluated.
The 27-year-old Mermis played 10 games for the New Jersey Devils last season, recording one goal and three assists.
Between 2017 and 2019, Mermis played 10 games for the Arizona Coyotes in between his regular play for its AHL affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners. Undrafted, Mermis played one season with the University of Denver before leaving school to play parts of three seasons with the OHL’s London Knights and Oshawa Generals.
Bartkowski has played 255 NHL games with four teams, including two regular season games for the Wild in 2019 and one play-in round game last year. The 32-year-old right-handed shot has the most experience in the taxi squad, which includes 20 playoff games dating back to the Boston Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013.
Left-handed shot Ian Cole was playing the right side, and Bartkowski may get his chance if head coach Dean Evason wants for more left-right balance on the back end if Dumba remains sidelined or he decides to reduce Spurgeon’s minutes.
The 32-year-old goalie has suited up as a backup to rookie Kaapo Kähkönen, but has yet to appear in a game despite injuries to Cam Talbot and Alex Stalock.
The Hamburglar has appeared in 56 NHL games, including his surprise run as the Ottawa Senators’ starter during the 2014-15 season. With injuries to Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, Hammond went 20-1-2 with 1.79 goals against average (GAA) and .941 save percentage (SV).
He spent last season with the Buffalo Sabres’ Rochester Americans, playing in 33 AHL games and going 16-12-3 with a 2.53 GAA and .908 SV. Hammond was a member of Iowa in 2019 before returning to the Wild organization in October. He appeared in AHL 33 games that season, posting a 19-12-3 record with a 2.81 GAA and .910 SV.
It has yet to be determined when the Wild will take to the ice again. When that can happen, general manager Bill Guerin did confirm that the team will need to fill the lineup with its taxi squad and more Iowa call-ups to meet the league’s minimum roster size, according to The Athletic’s Michael Russo. (from ‘Russo: As Wild’s COVID cases grow, NHL postpones two more games’ The Athletic, 02/08/2021)
As of Feb. 8, Guerin confirmed to the media that the number of positive COVID-19 cases on the team is expected to grow. The Wild currently have 10 active cases announced — nine players and one staff member. The postponement of games will continue until further notice. The Wild have postponed six games so far since Feb. 1.
Sports journalist covering the Minnesota Wild. Currently completing a journalism degree in Toronto, Canada.