The end of training camp means tough roster decisions. Fortunately, the Wild's roster decisions are of the good variety: It seems that there are too many viable prospects to keep on the roster. If the Wild keep all of their one-way contracts at forward on their roster, they will end up sending one of Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, or Justin Fontaine to their AHL affiliate in Iowa. Fontaine will need to clear waivers to get to Iowa, and Niederretier has impressed to the point that Yeo doesn't appear eager to demote him.
So that appears to leave Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund competing for a spot. Zucker has elite speed, a good shot, was a great energy player, and had playoff heroics last year. Granlund was the more highly touted prospect, but had a season where he did not perform to his high expectations. However, he's looked really good this pre-season, especially in his skating.
If the last roster spot is indeed a competition between Zucker and Granlund, the lines that started last night seem to be what they'd be rolling with in the regular season, which were (with the caveat that Yeo experimented a lot last night):
Extra Man: Dowell
To me, it would be a waste to see either of them in Iowa. The obvious solution to that would be to send either Zenon Konopka, or (more likely) Jake Dowell to Iowa, and having both Zucker and Granlund on the NHL roster. However, that seems to come with it's own problems, as Zucker or Granlund would be playing a fourth line role.
But is that really a problem? Are those players really not suited to a fourth line role? Mike Yeo was asked about this yesterday, and he responded:
If it was, then probably the makeup of that fourth line would be a little different," he said. "Maybe the makeup of our fourth line is a little different than the conventional fourth line, that maybe we put some younger, more skilled players on there, and they have little bit of bigger role (like power play in addition).
This new arrangement could lead to lines such as these:
Extra Man: Konopka
Personally, I'm very much in favor of a less traditional fourth line for this team. First of all, it keeps the Wild's most talented players on the roster, and it gives the fourth line a definite role to play. The fourth line the Wild played tonight consisted of a skill guy (Fontaine), a speedy checker (Mitchell), and a lumbering tough guy who wins face-offs (Konopka). I don't see these players complementing each other too well as a line. They may give you solid defense, but it won't sustain offense to a reasonable degree. Fontaine-Granlund-Niederretier would seem to complement each other much better, and their role would be clear: Create offense. From what we've seen in the pre-season, Granlund and Niederretier can do just that. It's a line you can see playing more than the 7-9 minutes a fourth line often gets. Maybe even 12.
And a skilled fourth line that can give you 10-12 minutes can benefit the Wild greatly. It would afford the Wild much more flexibility than they had last year. If the second line starts faltering, for example, Yeo can play Granlund-Knightrider more often, or juggle the second and fourth lines without disrupting the Kaptain Line. Also, Mike Yeo has expressed interest in reducing the workload on Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, and this does exactly that.
The concerns for going this route would mostly be age, and defensive prowess. Valid concerns with both. The way I see it is that the Wild are already going all-in with their youth movement. If it fails, they're screwed anyway. Worst case scenario is that they send Granlund/Zucker to the AHL, at the risk of losing a Jake Dowell, or equivalent player. I think the rewards are worth more than that risk. You're also not really risking development being messed up, as all of these players should be getting NHL minutes, anyway. As long as they don't rot on the bench for a month, playing 6 minutes a night, they'll be fine.
As for the defense, I think that's the greater concern. However, the Wild have a pretty solid two-way team. The top line of Parise-Koivu-Pominville features three very defensively-responsible forwards. Charlie Coyle has the makings of a very good two-way center. Handling tough minutes is routine for Cooke-Brodziak-Mitchell. I wouldn't be too worried about it.
It would require being a tad unconventional, and there are some risks involved with going with this fourth line. But the fact is, we saw last year what a line that combined Konopka or Mike Rupp with skill forwards and Torrey Mitchell, and it didn't really work. So why not eat 700,000 dollars in Iowa, and try to do something that enables you to roll four lines with the chance of getting production from the fourth line?