When Sam Steel signed with the Minnesota Wild this summer, it was seen as the lowest-of-low-risk moves that could eventually turn into something decent down the line. I bet no one could imagine that he would be playing with Mats Zuccarello and Kirill Kaprizov on the top line just a few months into the season.
The 24-year-old center was not qualified by the Anaheim Ducks, making him an abnormally-young unrestricted free agent and he decided to take his talents to St. Paul, to try and reach the ceiling that he should have, since there was a wide open availability down the middle. It seems like he made the right choice and he should probably thank the Ducks for not keeping him around on the league’s worst team.
Now, he gets to enjoy the pleasure of playing with some of the most dynamic players in the NHL and essentially third-wheeling a partnership that has been established as among the best in the NHL.
But, his two linemates are not above patting Steel’s back and recognizing the talent that he has to contribute enough to stick around.
“I think he’s really good,” Zuccarello said. “Quick on pucks, fast, makes plays, reads the play well. So, yeah, he’s been really good.”
“He’s helping us always,” Kaprizov said. “He’s so fast. Good player. Very good battles. Great guy. Awesome.”
While Ryan Hartman’s success with this duo last year should not be forgotten, Steel provides a little bit of added agility and dynamism to this top line, compared to Hartman’s north-south play where he will get to the front of the net and finish whatever Kaprizov and Zuccarello create.
One is not better than the other — although Hartman’s seemed to be more effective — but it’s just a different style and we’re seeing Steel finally gel in with his linemates after four weeks of being on the top line.
“I think he’s grown,” head coach Dean Evason said. “I think he’s just gotten familiar with his teammates, gotten familiar with everything, you know. As we talked about when we decided to put him there is that he warranted that spot because he just kept getting better and better. He’s played wing, he’s played center, he’s a natural center. So, ya know, maybe hindsight we should have put him there sooner, right? But we tried different things and different team early, and you know, fortunately it’s working out.”
Underneath all the goals and assists, it certainly is working out. All three of Steel, Kaprizov, and Zuccarello are in the Wild’s top-four when it comes to 5-on-5 on-ice shot attempt percentage (all above 53 percent) and they are all sitting on top of the precious 50 percent marker when it comes to on-ice expected goals percentage. Overall, the Wild are a better team when these three are on the ice at any time.
There is no “cheap” goals or easy production coming from this line. They do the work in all the bottom two zones to be able to get rewarded in the offensive one.
Right now, it just seems to be working, but with the added pressure of Hartman’s potential return from injury on Sunday, there might be more targets on Steel’s back to produce. Eight points in the 13 games he’s been on the top line is enough for him to stick around there, even with Hartman coming back. And the coach agrees.
“I think we’d be silly to break up that line at this point,” Evason said.