We've been pretty vocal around here. Leave the Nino - Kaptain - Zucker line alone! It has arguably been the best line combination for the Wild this season, and although it doesn't always put up the points one would like to see out of the top line, they have been fairly dominant in all aspects of the game. The Wild have never been a dynamic, goal-scoring team. Hard-working and defensively responsible along with timely goals are the Wild's bread and butter, and the Koivu line has lived that reality this season.
Head coach Mike Yeo decided it's time to tinker with that line though. Nino Niederreiter has now gone 12 games without scoring a goal, and this move is designed to get him rolling once again, along with providing some balance to the 3rd and 4th lines. So, just what do the lines look like coming out of practice on Monday?
The 1st and 4th line remain intact. No surprises there. The 4th line has been exactly what we expected all season. Hard-working with a dash of grit. They've had long stretches where they have hemmed opposition in the offensive zone with a pretty relentless forecheck. That first line is untouchable for some reason or another. Maybe Parise wants it, maybe Yeo thinks they are all the best fit for each other. It's a line that has mostly been propped up by Parise's numbers this year, although Pominville has recently shown signs of life. Granlund has shown some flashes of brilliance as well, but for the most part his season has been underwhelming for Wild fans.
The big changes you'll notice are coming on the 2nd and 3rd line, with Thomas Vanek getting the promotion to the Koivu line and Nino being relegated to the 3rd line centered by Coyle. There is a method behind this madness. Yeo started tinkering with the line combinations last weekend, most notably when he slotted Coyle in on the wing with Vanek and Koivu, a big departure from what we saw coming out of practice on Monday. That combination brought a little momentum to the Wild who were deadlocked with the San Jose Sharks through much of Saturday's action.
As line tinkering goes, I can't completely hate this move. Yes, I'd prefer Nino stays up with Koivu. The dominant play they have displayed along with Zucker on the wing has really been a highlight for the Wild all season. Together they play an excellent 200 foot game and to me, it's not something you really want to mess with. You didn't see Yeo tinkering with that top line too much when Pominville was snakebite for the first quarter of the season. It certainly happened, aside from Parise being out, but it wasn't long before that line was back in tact. Maybe that's what we'll see here as well. If things don't go how Yeo envisions them tonight against the Vancouver Canucks, perhaps we'll get more shuffling with that 2nd line.
The issue you get with moving Vanek alongside Koivu and Zucker is clearly what he lacks in his defensive game. It puts a big hole on the wing in the defensive zone, but truth be told, that is something you'd get from him whether he's playing on Koivu's line or otherwise. The upside of course is Vanek's play-making ability, and what he can bring to the table with Koivu and Zucker out there. While Vanek is known more for his goal scoring abilities, he's been showing off some pretty nice dishes as well. With opposing goalies not really having a grasp on whether Vanek will shoot or dish, it leaves them a bit tentative out there and their reactions may be slowed. This will, in theory, open up holes for Vanek to either shoot the puck on net, possibly creating rebound chances for Koivu to bury out front, or Vanek can throw a pass out front for someone to whack at.
It's also worth noting that since Koivu isn't known for sniping, but more as a distributor in the offensive zone, having a sniper like Vanek on one wing while the speedy, hard-working Zucker on his other gives the Kaptain some serious options. The offensive upside here has many channels in which you can see this playing out as a beneficial move for the Wild. It looks good on paper, but will it translate into game action?
The other side of all this of course is dropping Nino down to the 3rd line with Colyle centering him and Fonzy. I can envision this line causing the opposition serious fits in the dirty areas of the ice. Coyle has fast become a brute along the walls and in front of the net. Nino plays with an edge in the crease. Throw a puck in there and you're going to get a lot of bodies whacking at pucks (and probably some extra-curriculars after the whistle).
Offensive zone draws could be a weakness on this line. Coyle, not being a natural center has won just 46.7% of his draws this season. If he gets tossed, chances are Nino would step in with his 39.1% in the dot. This line could spend some time chasing the puck before they get in any real zone time. Defensively though, this group is sound. Fontaine provides a little speed to get back on any rushes from the opposition, and the big bodies of Coyle and Nino will not go unnoticed in the paint.
I'm curious to see how all this plays out tonight, and how long these lines might stick together. As far as line tinkering goes, I believe these changes have about as little an impact on the defensive structure of the team itself. While Vanek is slow, and leaves some to be desired on defense, Koivu and Zucker more than make up for it. That line becomes more finesse with Vanek on the wing, and that could really help all 3 players play to a new level. With the speedy winger in Fontaine slotting with hard-nosed players like Coyle and Nino, Fonzy may end up with a lot of free ice to move around in as Coyle and Nino will be sucking up defenders trying to knock them off the puck.
It all looks good on paper, we'll see how it all plays out on the ice tonight.