The Minnesota Wild have called up a few players this season due to COVID-19 protocols, injury issues, etc. Several of these players have done well in their first taste of the NHL, including forwards Luke Johnson and Kyle Rau.
Neither has secured a place in the lineup, but they are both trying hard to make it. One player who has turned their call-up into a roster spot is forward Nico Sturm. He hasn’t made a lot of noise this season, but enough to make people take note.
A native of Grand Forks and a former University of North Dakota Fighting Hawk, Johnson knows his way around a hockey rink. He didn’t see much ice time until recently, but when he played, he made it count, and his 13 games this season with the Wild are 10 more than he played all last season. He scored his first-ever National Hockey League goal and second point in Minnesota’s 8-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche last week.
Known for Being Physical
While his scoring hasn’t earned him much attention, another stat has: Johnson is a hitting machine. In just 13 games, he has 25 hits, putting him in tenth place amongst his Wild teammates. He’s also learning to use size, which should prove useful down the road.
Despite Minnesota’s embarrassing 9-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues on Friday night, Johnson had a relatively decent night. He had two shots on goal, two hits, a blocked shot and had a 54% success rate in the faceoff circle – the team average was 45 percent.
Faceoff Specialist in the Making
The Wild have struggled all season in the faceoff circle and finding consistent centers. They may have found one in Johnson, who has won 51.2% of his faceoffs in 13 games. Sturm and Nick Bonino have played over 30 games but are at 54.4% and 52.3%, respectively. Johnson is close in fewer than half their games. He may be the missing piece at the center position.
While Joel Eriksson Ek has been the team’s best scorer, his face-off success rate is at 46.6%. If Johnson can continue at this rate, the Wild should be able to set up more goals in the offensive zone. Rau has turned into a reliable winger despite his regular position being center.
Rau: Center Turned Wing
Rau has also played 13 games with two points. He’s listed as a center, but he’s managed to make the fourth line his home when he’s been called up, while his linemates tend to change. He’s played alongside Sturm, Johnson, and even Zack Parise (before he was bumped up) this season.
Big Minutes and Blocks
When Rau was first called up, he didn’t get a lot of playing time and only played a game or two in his first couple of stints. However, he’s played in all six of the Wild’s games in April and tallied one assist. What’s more impressive are his 10 blocked shots. He ranked fourth on the Wild in blocked shots for nearly the first two weeks of April.
Rau and Cramarossa are back on taxi squad https://t.co/5qX5Xt1wwh— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) April 13, 2021
However, with Foligno’s pending return, Rau’s spot will no longer be open. He’ll return to the taxi squad and wait for his next chance.
Rau has been in the Wild’s system for four seasons, and two of those were shortened seasons, but each time he’s been called up, he’s proven himself. He only played three games in 2017-18, his first season with the Wild, but he managed a point. The next season, he played in six games and again tallied one point.
Last season, he didn’t get any time with the big club, but this season, he’s doubled his games and his points. His play is consistent, but he can’t put up big numbers just yet. If he stays in the lineup permanently, who knows what numbers he might put up.
Bouncing between the American Hockey League and NHL doesn’t give players the greatest chance to prove their worth, but Rau is a fiery winger who is driven to prove himself. Sturm is another player fighting to prove his worth when he’s put in the lineup.
Sturm Started Out Strong
Sturm has managed to stay in the lineup almost all season, missing only six games as of Tuesday. Even as a healthy scratch, he used that opportunity to better himself to make sure he was in the lineup for the next game. He played just two games in 2018-19 and then six in the shortened 2019-20 season but has jumped to 35 this season.
He impressed enough during training camp to earn a roster spot, and he’s managed to score five goals and three assists this season. Most recently, he scored a goal in the Wild’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Blues on Saturday night after sitting for the previous two games.
Sturm: Faceoff Man
Sturm leads the team in faceoff win percentage. He has almost a two percent lead over second-place Bonino; however, he’s taken only 57 faceoffs compared to Bonino’s 551. Sturm’s faceoff percentage is the only stat that seems to stand out. However, the Wild know they are getting more from him than in the circle. He handles the puck well and inserts himself into the play, even if it doesn’t produce a goal.
Another Physical Player
Sturm has also made his presence known through hits. He hasn’t registered as many as Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway, or Foligno, but he still throws his weight around. With 30 hits in 35 games, he’s climbed his way up to ninth on the Wild.
He has learned how and when to use his size to be most effective, similar to Foligno. A big hit can change the momentum of a game or even cause a turnover in the Wild’s favor. He may not have worked out the NHL jitters just yet, but if he can continue to hit at this rate, he’ll be a mainstay in the lineup, especially if he starts scoring goals.
Call-Ups Providing Help
All three of these players have contributed when they’ve been inserted into the Wild’s lineup. They may not score a lot of goals, but they can be physical, and even a player a smaller player like Rau has been involved in the physical side of the game.
Johnson is still relatively new to the Wild’s system but he may prove to be a consistent center once he gets comfortable with the team. Sturm has already proved his worth to the roster in the 35 games he’s played this season, and will likely be around for the long run. The Wild will likely continue to rely on all three going forward as others move in and out of the lineup.
Mariah Holland is a contributing Minnesota Wild writer for THW. She’s been covering the Wild at THW since October of 2020 and specializes in game takeaways and weekly check-ins. She is always looking for different angles to cover the Wild and dig deeper into the stories surrounding the team to help fans connect on a more personal level and to keep an eye on the latest follow her on Twitter @MariahEStark.