The Minnesota Wild needed to rebuild their defense on the fly last year. Ryan Suter, Carson Soucy, and Ian Cole departed, meaning that filling those spots affordably was a priority in free agency. They stabilized their fourth-through-sixth defensemen by adding Alex Goligoski, Dmitry Kulikov, and Jon Merrill.
With so much transition and little salary cap room to work with, any depth beyond that was an afterthought. However, last summer, the Wild addressed this with Jordie Benn, who everyone penciled into the seventh defenseman role. And after an awful preseason, folks also figured he'd get his own permanent press box spot. He played just one of Minnesota's first 17 games.
With all the injuries and positive COVID tests mounting up, Dean Evason has regularly put him in the lineup. He even played top-pairing minutes with Matt Dumba Saturday night. Benn will be in the lineup for the foreseeable future, and he will be looked at as someone who will help the Wild get back to consistent winning. And it's not just Benn who needs to step up. The Wild have called up their top pairing from the AHL in Calen Addison and Dakota Mermis. With the standings getting tighter every day, every guy on the team will have to show their worth and help keep the Wild in contention.
Known as ‘the other Benn,’ Jordan has often been overshadowed by his brother, Jamie Benn. Unable to find a longtime home since his days in Dallas, Jordie now finds himself on a team looking to make a mark in the playoffs this year. Benn won't rack up points or lay big hits, but he plays an old-school, reliable brand of defense. And when we say “old school,” we mean it. He's a true throwback, one of the last few players who doesn't wear a visor on his helmet. Coach Dean Evason respects that Benn is always willing to do what is asked of him, no matter how many minutes or games he plays. And hey, Benn knew the deal when he signed. He wouldn't have the opportunity to play every game with everyone healthy.
But when is the Wild defense going to be completely healthy again?
At the moment, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, and Goligoski are all out, meaning Evason has elevated Benn's role. He usually plays between 10-15 minutes a night, but he played 20 alongside Dumba in his latest game. The way the Wild were able to come back and win the game, rather than fall victim to injuries and COVID, was impressive. In particular, the defense stood out, holding the lethal Caps to only two goals. Not bad for a unit stretched to their ninth defenseman.
Benn, 34, is not the only blueliner who’s had to step up with all the absences. Addison and Mermis drew into the lineup on Saturday and played great. Both were plus-1 in 16 and 13 minutes of ice time, respectively.
Mermis, 28, has only 24 games of NHL experience. He may be the last viable option the Wild have from the farm team. No one else has had any real practice in the big leagues. Fans may not have liked the Benn signing, but this only proves the logic of bringing in a veteran defenseman.
Addison, 21, is still a rookie. Defensemen often take longer to develop their game and spend more time in the minors or farm teams. But Addison may find himself in the lineup more often with everything plaguing Minnesota's defense core. Having guys with a great deal of NHL experience like Benn can be helpful for young guys like Addison. They often give great advice to the younger players, which can only add to their game and worth as a player.
Both Addison and Mermis were on the ice for one of the strangest goals we’ll see all season. Ryan Hartman would be called for tripping, so Washington pulled goalie Zach Fucale for the extra skater. The players on the ice for the Wild were able to create enough confusion for Caps forward Carl Hagelin to shoot the puck in his net, all the way from the goal line. Mats Zuccarello gave the defense the credit they deserve, saying, “It’s a lucky goal for us, but the boys were doing a good job taking away [passing] lanes, and that’s the best one he had.” It was a lucky goal, but it kept the Wild in the game while they had to kill off 10 minutes of penalties against Alex Ovechkin.
After successfully killing off one penalty in the first period of Saturday’s game, the Wild found themselves shorthanded for nearly half of the second frame. For four minutes, Jordie Benn was on the ice doing his best penalty killing. Defending Ovechkin on the power play is not an easy task, but the Wild limited the damage they could do, killing off four of five penalties.
Zuccarello had plenty of praise for how his teammates were able to weather the PK storm. “I think everyone in there did one hell of a job," he said. "Second period, we were PK-ing the whole time and we did a great job. People were blocking shots and doing what they had to do. I think whoever comes in to play steps up and does the job, and tonight was a good example of that.”
Like him or not, you have to appreciate the work Benn has done for the Wild. He’s been able to step up while the team has struggled with injury and COVID-related issues. With the elevated minutes and responsibility, Benn is a valuable asset to the Wild. Defense has always been the Wild’s strength, and that is proving to be true this year, too. Rookies like Addison and minor leaguers like Mermis are drawing into the lineup and giving the Wild gutsy wins like the one over Washington.
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