State of Wild’s forwards at quarter mark: Steel as No. 1 center, Rossi limbo, more

ST. PAUL, Minn. — You know what they say about the best-laid plans, don’t you?

They often go belly-up and splatter into a big mess … or something like that.

the wild entered this season banking on Kirill Kaprizov, Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman, Joel Eriksson Ek, Marcus Foligno and Freddy Gaudreau to replicate or better career years, anticipating Tyson Jost would take advantage of a silver-platter opportunity of playing in the top six with Jordan Greenway hurt, praying that Marco Rossi would step in as a 21-year-old and look like he belongs and can contribute offensively and hoping that the product of it all would offset the loss of Kevin Fiala and his 85 points.

Well, here we are 18 games into their season, and things aren’t exactly going according to plan for the up-and-down Wild, who are 8-8-2.

Every season is different, and the Wild, one season after earning a franchise-record 113 points and being one of the league’s most entertaining teams, are still working to discover an identity, though they are at least defending well in the past month (26 goals allowed in the past 13 games, and six of those came in one game to Pittsburgh) and starting to win tight games.

They’re still having trouble generating offense and finding lineup fits, which could be why general manager Bill Guerin is on the hunt for a top-six forward.

Regardless, you can tell they’re scrambling merely from all the roster juggling of late, especially in the bottom six.

We’ve seen Steven Fogarty, Joseph Cramarossa and Adam Beckman. Mason Shaw got recalled twice, making the most of his second opportunity and essentially snatching Jost’s job from him. For a team arguably thin at forward, the Wild were willing to risk waivers on Jost. He has been given a fresh start on the sabersand the Wild, by design, swapped in the grittier Nick Petanwho looked good in his team debut Saturday.

“It’s tough when you’re not winning games, and with the season that they had last year, there’s a lot of pressure there,” Jost told Sabers reporters Monday. “I was kind of trying to find my way to fit in that lineup. And there’s a lot of jumbling and mixing lines. And I know for me, personally, it was just kind of hard to get in a rhythm.”

Rossi is another player having trouble finding his footing.

He has no goals on 11 shots and one assist in 16 games this season. He was scratched Saturday, and there’s a chance he’ll be scratched Wednesday against Winnipegtoo, if Greenway is able to make his latest attempted return from a shoulder injury.

The Wild went with 11 forwards and seven defensemen against Carolina because the game was followed by three off days, so they loaded Kaprizov with 23 1/2 minutes of ice time. That’s not sustainable, though. They’re expected to return to the traditional 12-6 formula against the Jets.

If Greenway plays in that game, it’s possible Petan also plays over Rossi. This means Alex Goligoskiwho scored the overtime winner Saturday night, will stick in the lineup over Jon Merrill or Calen Addisonwho may need a rookie reset like Rossi and logged only 7:34 of ice time Saturday.

If Rossi is going to continue to be scratched or the Wild feel he needs to gain offensive confidence after a rough start to his NHL Career, a return trip to play for AHL Iowa could be on the horizon.

Wild coach Dean Evason, who knows the value of the AHL after two years playing and six years coaching in the minors, disclosed that the Wild coaching staff and front office have been debating this subject.

“We’re constantly talking about that, and obviously with Petan coming up, there’s opportunities that we have to discuss and what we do with our lineup and who goes where and who plays where,” Evason said before Saturday’s game. “But, yeah, there is a value to … ‘Go down and find your game or who you are.’

“There’s an element of that, but you have to weigh a lot of different factors in order for that to happen. We have discussions each and every day on where we go with the lineup.”

Rossi met with Evason on Saturday, and Evason told him he likes the way he’s playing defensively and felt one game in the press box would be beneficial to allow him to take a breather and watch from above. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll play Wednesday if Greenway returns.

“He’s a distributor, and we haven’t seen a lot of that,” Evason said. “He’s probably concentrated a lot on playing strong defensively, which he has. He’s done a real good job in that area. It’s a great league. There’s not a lot of time and space. Although we’ve liked the way he’s played the game, he hasn’t found a way to generate a lot of offensive opportunity.

“It’s not a terrible thing for a young guy to watch every now and then. … We’ll see what happens going forward.”

It’ll be interesting how the Wild proceed. It sure feels like Iowa could be in its near future.

last month, Iowa coach Tim Army was asked by The Athletic when it’s more prudent to give a prospect a reset in the minors rather than making him endure growing pains in the NHL.

“At this stage, this is the right approach,” Army said at the time. “The only time you bring him back is like when they sent (Greenway) and (Eriksson Ek) back, when they’re really struggling, not having any success.

“(Rossi) needs to produce offensively. Mason Shaw can play on the fourth line, seven, eight minutes, and don’t have the puck a lot. Marco needs to have the puck. For us, he’ll be a top-two centerman in the NHL. He needs the puck and to produce. If he gets in a dry spell, you bring him back for a couple weeks, get his game together, and then you bring him back.”

Greenway went down once for three games, got a hat trick and was immediately brought back to the NHL with extra confidence. Eriksson Ek played 17 AHL games over two seasons and was a point-per-game player (seven goals and 10 assists).

Beyond the Rossi decision, the Wild are also trying to jump-start their top-six forward group.

Kaprizov, coming off a franchise-record 108 points, got off to a fast start but has slowed. He’s on a six-game point streak but has no goals in the past five, with only 17 shots in that span. Zuccarello, coming off a career-best 79 points, started quickly but has been erratic with the puck for some time and has a goal and four assists in his past 10 games. The others who had career years are also off to slow starts, although Eriksson Ek has started to string together solid games. Matt Boldytoo, after being a rookie revelation following last January’s NHL debut, got going early but has no goals in the past eight.

Hartman’s long-term injury has really messed up the lineup.

Hartman centered Kaprizov and Zuccarello for the first time almost a year ago in New Jersey and scored the first goal in the first of eight consecutive wins for the Wild. The Wild are 4-4-1 since Hartman sustained an upper-body injury Oct. 30 in Chicago and have had trouble finding a suitable replacement.

Before Hartman’s injury, when he started slowly, Jost got an initial try. That didn’t last long. Gaudreau has had a bunch of tries in the spot, and although he chipped in a point here and there, he’s hardly a prototypical first-line center. The Wild now are trying Steel, and perhaps like Hartman last year, they’ll find lightning in the bottle.

He certainly has a more ideal skill set than many of the centers on the roster. Remember, this was a junior star who one season for the Regina Pats scored 50 goals and 131 points. He was a first round pick by Anaheim and was the second-leading scorer for silver-medalist Canada in the 2018 world juniors, scoring nine points – one more than Cale Makar.

He made the most of his first chance on Saturday, scoring the tying goal with 2:37 left in regulation, then sending Goligoski a perfect saucer pass for his dramatic winning goal.

“We saw Zuccy and Kirill sharing the puck because he was making plays,” Evason said of Steel. “We talk a lot about the two of them just looking for each other. They didn’t (Saturday). They looked for everybody. …Sammy was obviously real good there. They led us in a lot of departments, but the most important area that they led our hockey club in was their work ethic. (If) they continue to do that, obviously, we’ll have a better chance to have success.”

Steel, who was dumped by the Ducks at 24 years old, isn’t about to get ahead of himself after one good game.

“It’s a day-by-day league,” Steel said. “You can’t get too high or too low. Obviously, it’s nice to get a huge win. It felt like a must-win.”

That may sound like a cliche, but it’s true. This league can change on a dime, and so can a player’s role.

St.Louis lost eight in a row and looked close to a roster blowup. Now, the Blues have won six in a row. Buffalo won seven of its first 10 and now has lost eight in a row.

Victor Rask once was the Wild’s “first-line center” and ultimately was placed on waivers, cleared waivers, was assigned to Iowa, then was traded to Seattle for nothing. He’s now playing in Europe. Rossi led the NHL in preseason scoring and could be days from being assigned to Iowa. Jost was second on the Wild in preseason scoring, and after three assists and 10 shots in 13 games, he was booted out of Minnesota.

Steel was asked how nerve-racking it’s been when it’s obvious Guerin is rearranging the deck chairs, highlighted by Jost’s being kicked to the curb.

“We come to work every day and play hockey,” Steel said. “When you’re not winning, you obviously feel that pressure. It doesn’t change how you approach things. Just keep grinding away and keep trying to do the right things and control what you can control.”

Evason said he had sitdowns with Jost to discuss the Wild’s expectations. He wanted more skating and more bite, he said, “but sometimes there’s a confidence factor that players try to find and sometimes you find them in other places than in the lineup here.”

Jost echoed that Monday. He said he lost confidence after the Wild got off to an 0-3 start, giving up 20 goals, and the lineup was run through a blender.

“When we got off to a slow start, there’s a lot of people walking on eggshells and whatnot,” Jost said. “And I can’t use (it) as an excuse, but definitely your confidence kind of lacks a little bit and … you’re not gonna be the player that you can be.

“So I want to get back to that. The game that I was playing in preseason, I felt really good and I was in a rhythm. And I wasn’t really overthinking things. I think that’s what I was doing in Minny, putting a lot of pressure on myself.”

The Wild are 1-1 on this ever-important homestand and 3-5-1 at home overall. They rank 29th in the NHL with 27 five-on-five goals but have improved their goals-against average to 2.94 per game, 12th best in the NHL. While that’s nothing to brag about, considering the way they were bleeding goals at the start of the season, they’re heading in the right direction.

As Evason and Brandon Duhaime said after Saturday’s win, that team looked more like the Wild.

“That’s just more our game,” Duhaime said. “Just that team that really wanted to win. We stuck together through the whole thing. I thought we were hard in all areas and stuck with it.”

(Photo of Sam Steel: Matt Krohn/USA Today)


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