Here we go again. Training camp has begun. It’s that wonderful time of the year when hockey players can walk out of a cold rink and into the final warm days of fall. It’s a time for excitement and the building anticipation of a new season.
For the NHL, it’s no different. Most players are back from their summer vacations, and their bodies are healthier than they will be all season.
Most players, but apparently not all. On Thursday, we learned that first-line center Ryan Hartman was dealing with a nagging upper-body injury that left him out of all contact drills at practice. Although the ailment is not related to the knee injury he obtained during last year's week-long playoff run (one last dig – I’m moving on now, I promise), having the center typically next to Kirill Kaprizov already limited before the start of a long season is less than ideal.
But it seems Hartman will only miss some limited time ahead of the season and be ready to go by opening night. Evason described the Chicago native’s injury as “Nothing serious,” the sort of detail you only receive from NHL coaches. And while it’s good news, Hartman should be back soon, his departure from the top line offers the Wild an opportunity to get a good look at… Frederick Gaudreau as the first-line center.
Boring. Nothing against Gaudreau, but the coaching staff’s decision on the first day of camp could be the sign of a troubling trend continuing for the Wild’s roster construction. Instead of seeing the true potential of his team, Evason seems to once again lean on the dependable veteran to keep the team afloat rather than taking the chance to truly see how much his team can grow.
Yes, it’s only the first day, but that spot should belong to Marco Rossi. Because if not now, when? The preseason is the perfect time for a coach to tinker with their lines and try things. Evason’s decision to elevate Gaudreau shows he is in peak middle-of-the-season mode. When things are out of order in the regular season, coaches lean on veteran experience to survive until overtime to secure that one point in the standings.
But it’s late September. Now is the time to gauge just how high a ceiling your team has. It’s not the time to rip up your carpet to see how nice the flooring is. Even if that floor is a flashy French-Canadien brand of above-average quality hardwood, leave that for the middle of the season.
Sure, there will be those who disagree. But giving Rossi the chance to play between Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello should be a no-brainer at this point, given the alternatives.
Gaudreau is a capable fill-in for the top line, but we’ve seen this before. The heights in which he can take that line are extremely limited. He’s much better suited as the valuable Swiss Army knife he is: Entrenched on the third line and capable of sliding up in the lineup should a short-term solution be needed.
Joel Eriksson Ek is a better option than Gaudreau. Still, he has seemingly found a home on a line between professional-golfer-turned-hockey-player Matt Boldy and fellow Swede Marcus Johansson. From a purely stylistic point, keeping Eriksson Ek there makes sense rather than elevating him. Eriksson Ek and Boldy work best as station-to-station players. They utilize their size and creativity in small spaces to exploit opposing teams in the offensive zone. Kaprizov and Zuccarello thrive on the rush and by pushing play through the neutral zone, which isn’t exactly Eriksson Ek’s calling card.
However, the fit for Rossi is so perfect it’s difficult to imagine why Evason and Co. are so bent on the kid sludging along on the third line to start camp. Instead, they should play him with a pair of elite play drivers who would complement his playing style so well. While the young Austrian may not be as well-rounded as Gaudreau, his style undoubtedly would be a better match to Kaprizov and Zuccarello’s.
We all know the result if Gaudreau plays well on the top line. He would provide dependable defensive play, but the two wingers would have to drive the offense. However, if this is the year Rossi truly takes the next step in his career and plants his flag as an everyday NHLer, the potential he brings to the team’s best line is unmatched.
And that’s how the Wild’s coaching staff should view this preseason. They shouldn’t be testing what they already know about their team. Instead, it’s time we get a good, long look at just how far this team could potentially go.