Wild

The Wild Should Use the St. Louis Series as a Tryout for Third-Line Center

Photo Credit: Jeff Le (USA TODAY Sports)

It’s hard to believe, but the NHL’s regular season is already coming to a close in *checks notes* the middle of May. The Minnesota Wild are one of the first teams to clinch a playoff spot. They have just one more series in the regular season against the St. Louis Blues to fine-tune their game before a matchup against either the Las Vegas Golden Knights or Colorado Avalanche.

The team has been firing on nearly all cylinders since its COVID-19 pause in the middle of February. The Wild only have nine regulation losses in the past three months, showing that although they initially were supposed to be in flux, they have found their stride with a hodgepodge of players and a head coach in his first full season. But there’s still some more fine-tuning the team needs to do over the next two games to find themselves in a better or more flexible position come playoff time.

I propose throwing anyone and everyone at the third-line center position. They still don’t have that solidified going into the playoffs, and it’s a meaningful role in a seven-game series.

Drastic, I know. Either way, it’s smart to protect against players who could fall into a slump or to boost players who hit a rut in the postseason. It can’t be ignored that Victor Rask has had a productive finish to his season. With six points in his past six games, the Wild will undoubtedly be counting on him this postseason after he was a non-factor against the Vancouver Canucks last year.

It’s also not a stretch to say Rask has been incredibly streaky this season and has not lived up to playing on a line with Kirill Kaprizov for much of the season. His skating is suspect, and the Wild can’t afford to rely on him if his skating is poor in the postseason. Luckily, they’re flush with prototypical third-line centers, where Rask is currently playing.

Regardless of Rask’s performance, it would be smart for a team with many good but not great centers to get each one some reps at the position before the most important part of the year comes around. While Rask may be playing well now, the series against St. Louis is the only opportunity to get Nick Bjugstad, Nick Bonino, or even Marcus Johansson some time at that third-line center role.

Bjugstad fits well as a big body who can work in front of the net, but also be efficient gaining entry to the offensive zone without dumping the puck. If there’s a high-skill player going along on that line, his presence entering the zone would be paramount to that player’s ability to thrive. Bonino has been the dedicated work-ethic guy that has fit in the bottom six all season. A key penalty killer and the team’s best player in the faceoff dot this season, Bonino has been effective in his role this season. Working Bonino in that spot gives him reps before having to take meaningful faceoffs in the throes of a playoff game.

Even Johansson should be considered. The Wild initially said he was brought in to be a center, but he has spent very little time there this season. If they need him as a skill player to bolster the third line, he will be valuable in a position like that. If anything, as a player who can move and drive the puck as a distributor on offense, Johansson could use some late experience at center to be ready if he has to be used there in the postseason.

Joel Eriksson Ek and Ryan Hartman have found themselves in important top-six positions lately, so the team is unlikely to change that up late in the season, especially as the coaching staff has been reluctant at times to shift the lines throughout the season. The best way to give each of these players time at center is to mix up the third and fourth lines as much as possible. While that may not be a realistic scenario, it could help each player in flux at the bottom of the lineup be flexible to a changed role if necessary when facing either of the two toughest teams in the West — maybe even the entire NHL.

Minnesota is in a great situation, but trying some things out against the Blues would make sense to keep the bottom of the lineup fresh and ready for a tough test in the first round.

As for who will get it? The best bet seems to be Rask, with just two games left. The lineup hasn’t changed much, especially around him. Rask has been a mainstay of the lineup this season, regardless of the up or down he might be on. The job is definitely his to lose, but the next best bet sounds like Bonino if Dean Evason wants to use the third-line to shut down opposing teams. However, Bjugstad could have a chance if Minnesota needs to spread the skill throughout the lineup.

The Wild are already in the playoffs. It’s time to figure out who center each line once they get there.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Le (USA TODAY Sports)

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