Joel Eriksson Ek is the central force of the Minnesota Wild. You cannot imagine anyone else having the same impact that he does within the same system created by Dean Evason and his coaching staff. We have already spilled ink on his intense two-way play that has translated into almost becoming a Selke Trophy finalist just last season and now he is rounding out his offensive game this season, without all the glitz and glam of a newcomer in the top defensive forward in the league conversation.
Well, maybe don’t read too much about how good he is because he’s injured and it doesn’t appear to be any short-term kind of thing.
So now, when the Wild return from their extended holiday break, hopefully facing the Winnipeg Jets on Monday (we’ll see about that), who will get the call to take that 20th spot on the roster? Or who will even get his place in the lineup next to Marcus Foligno? There are plenty of options that could serve either.
Let’s look at current Wild players that will probably get an increased role in the new year.
One of the only true natural centers on the team, Sturm has had an up-and-down season, but there’s only so much he can do while serving on the fourth line. The trio with him, Brandon Duhaime, and Nick Bjugstad, carried Minnesota for a stretch earlier this season, but since then it’s been fairly quiet.
Should he get more of a chance and play with more talented wingers, such as a combination of Foligno and Kevin Fiala until Jordan Greenway returns from his injury? It would be interesting if he can provide the same two-way game and drive on the forecheck with those guys, but he is probably the closest in terms of style to Eriksson Ek. He’s like the older German cousin.
The more offensively-minded option would be Gaudreau, but not by much. He has played well with Fiala, so if the same wingers stay in their second-line slot, then one could easily see him just sliding up one line and fitting in well. He won’t provide the same amount of forechecking ability or strong possession-forward play that Joel can do, but again, no one can truly replace what he does well enough to be seen as an adequate replacement.
Instead of getting someone new in the role, we all know that it will just be a shift up of centers, with a new fourth-line center coming up the rear. But if that is not the case and Evason has a slight twinkle in his eye after the holiday season, then there will be more interesting options for the Wild to eventually recall from Iowa.
Easily the player that probably has the lowest probability of actually taking up that roster spot, but we can still dream. Rossi has been absolutely killing it down in the AHL, for his first taste of North American professional hockey. The 20-year-old has had to work his way back from a myocarditis diagnosis, and currently leads his team in scoring with 18 points, and is sixth in the entire AHL among Under-21 players in scoring as well. I would say that is certainly working his way back to full speed.
It is tricky though, Wild GM Bill Guerin said on Wednesday that a player would have to “earn” the call-up to replace Joel — but then again, leading the team in scoring at 20 years old might be earning it, if the coaching staff sees a well-rounded approach to the game for Rossi and not just banking in some easy points.
Rossi is going to be a part of this team at some point, so it is just up to the management to decide whether he will make his NHL debut sooner rather than later. The one risk that they will be having, is determining if they want to extend his unrestricted free agency availability by a year — and that is done if he plays 41 games or less this season. Considering the Wild still have 52 remaining, we might have to wait a few weeks, if the team really wants to do that.
There is simply no way they can keep him down there all season long to keep an extra year on his ELC...is there?
One player that has already made his league debut this season, but is certainly an option to be seen as a versatile fourth-line player is Connor Dewar. With 11 points in 11 games for Iowa, he certainly can produce enough offense with his speedy skating ability, but it all depends on what exactly Evason wants from the newcomer.
Dewar can get up the ice fast enough, but maybe there are better options that can easily fit into the Minnesota system.
The mystery of a player we haven’t seen in a Wild jersey during the regular season and someone that should be able to seamlessly become a Minnesota Hockey Player, Damien Giroux is certainly a young center but has the two-way ability that could keep him in that fourth-line role for a while.
He doesn’t have the offense quite perfected — 5 points in 23 games this season — but if Evason wants a defense-first player that can keep the same role in the NHL as the AHL, then Giroux is an interesting pick.
Personally, I think this is the one that is going to happen. Mason Shaw looked good! He fit in really well during his couple of NHL appearances while other players were out with injuries, and he’s a natural center that can take that role wherever is necessary. He’s scoring in the AHL (17 points in 20 games) and has the grit and grind and other tough attributes to make it as a full-time Wild player. Plus, at 23 years old, there’s none of the fragility that can be sensed with handing Rossi the reins; Shaw is already in his fourth full-time AHL season and he just keeps on improving his production.
He will most likely start on the fourth line, or the third if Evason wants to keep the fourth line with Sturm in-tact, but it will be really interesting to see if he gets an extended run and if he can make the same impressive beginning to his NHL career as Duhaime did at the start of this season.
Something is going to happen before the Dec. 27 (or the Winter Classic) so it’s just wondering what exactly that will be.