There was a time, not too long ago in an arena not so far, far away, when Kyle Brodziak played first-line center for the Minnesota Wild.
Let that sink in for a minute.
To be fair, Brodziak was there out of necessity, with then-No. 1 centerman Mikko Koivu injured for 27 games in the 2011-12 season. Brodziak was also in the midst of a 22-goal, 44-point season, a season in which Nick Johnson played 77 games for Minnesota and Darroll Powe played in all 82.
Those things really happened.
Since that season, Powe has played a total of 82 NHL games and Johnson has played in 26. More importantly, Brodziak has spent more games as a healthy scratch than the middle man on Minnesota’s top line.
Times have changed
My, how things have — thankfully — changed.
The Wild are as deep as they’ve ever been, thanks to a general manager who has executed a plan he laid out when he was hired five years ago. Through the draft, trades and perhaps the two biggest free-agent signings of the past decade, Chuck Fletcher has built a legitimate title contender in Minnesota, something sports fans in the state aren’t accustomed to.
But just 11 games into the 2014-15 season, the Wild’sdepthwill be tested.
Their best player is out. Because of a concussion suffered in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh, alternate captain Zach Parise is sidelined indefinitely. He isn’t on a road trip that begins tonight in Ottawa and continues Saturday in Montreal and Tuesday in New Jersey.
Defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Keith Ballard are out with injuries. Matt Cooke, one of the team’s best penalty killers, is out, too.
Pre-conceived line combinations and defensive pairings are out the window.
Adjusting on the fly
Free-agent acquistion Thomas Vanek has been moved up from the third line to take Parise’s place on the top line. He’ll play alongside young center Mikael Granlund and his former linemate and buddy in Buffalo, Jason Pominville. The Wild have to hope Vanek’s presence and connection with Pominville will not only elevate Vanek’s play, but Granlund’s, too. The 22-year-old Finn hasn’t been terrible, but he hasn’t played up to the level he was at late last season and into the postseason.
Brodziak will now center a fourth line with Ryan Carter (who has played 11 games with the Wild) and Stephane Veilleux, who may be the only player ever told by a coach to not go 100 percent all the time.
The Wild may have to alter their style until those players return. A team that relies on playing fast and getting through the neutral zone quickly, won’t be as fast with Vanek on the top line, but his skill and net-front presence should neutralize some of his lack of speed.
Rookie defensemen Christian Folin and Matt Dumba, who both earned spots on the roster out of training camp, will be relied upon to play more minutes. Folin will play in Spurgeon’s spot with Marco Scandella, while Dumba will pair with Nate Prosser. Dumba, just 20 years old, has a bright future with the franchise, but if all of the team’s blue-liners were at 100 percent, he would likely be in the AHL, piling up minutes and power-play time.
More reinforcements in Iowa
While all of those changes are just a matter of moving pieces of a full puzzle around to fill open spots, the Wild can’t afford more injuries without having to dip a little deeper than they’d like to into their minor league talent pool. They have a handful of players with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League who were impressive in training camp — forwards Kurtis Gabriel, Michael Keranen and Brett Bulmer. They also have some players who have several years of professional experience and could provide a veteran presence for a short time — defensemen Justin Falk and Stu Bickel, forwards Jordan Schroeder or Brett Sutter.
The Wild have had a merry-go-round in goal the past few seasons, so dealing with injuries is nothing new to the coaching staff or the players. But we’ll find out over the next week if the franchise truly has the depth many of us think it has.