|James Sheppard set a Wild rookie record by playing in 78 regular-season games this season. Sheppard highlight video|
Sheppard, who recently completed his rookie season, wasn’t even supposed to make the team out of training camp. Once he surpassed those expectations and forced the Wild to sign him, the plan was for him to play in half of Minnesota’s games so he could observe and learn from the press box during the other half.
Sheppard put those expectations to rest, too.
He set a Wild rookie record by playing in 78 regular-season games, averaging 10:36 per outing with four goals and 15 assists to show for it. He averaged the same ice time while playing in all six playoff games against Colorado, and had one assist.
“Growing up and playing in junior I was expected to play every game and show up every night, but the biggest thing for me here was just making the team,” Sheppard said. “Once that happened I realized I can play with this team, and I’m expected to show up every night. I think I was only supposed to play 40 to 50 games, but different things happened and there was a spot for me. They said if I played well I’d keep that spot.”
Sheppard’s strong preseason put the Wild in a precarious position. Due to his age he could not play in the American Hockey League this season, so Minnesota had to sign him or send him back to his junior team in the QMJHL. The Wild also had the option of evaluating him over a nine-game stretch before deciding if they wanted to keep him or send him back to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
In his eighth game he had an assist on 14 shifts. In his ninth game he scored his first NHL goal and played 16 shifts. The Wild chose to keep him, which proved beneficial when Wes Walz left the team for personal reasons and eventually retired.
Walz’s departure opened a permanent spot in the lineup for Sheppard.
“Wes was a great guy and a great leader, so just from the short time I was there it was sad to see him go,” Sheppard said. “At the same time you have to look at the positives. It gave me a shot to show them what I had to be in the lineup every night.”
Wild coach Jacques Lemaire primarily used Sheppard in a fourth-line role, choosing to bring him along slowly rather than rush him up the depth chart. But there were times this season when Sheppard was playing on a line with Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra.
He tested out OK in those situations mostly because he concentrated primarily on defense, while Gaborik and Demitra pressed forward.
“Those are some tough guys to play with,” Sheppard said. “They’re offensive-minded and so good at what they do so you have to give them that respect. It’s the way Jacques coaches, to hop in with a line and hop in with another line, it gives you opportunities to play with everyone, which is good.”
Still, Sheppard doesn’t appear long for a fourth-line role, seeing that he was an offensive performer with Cape Breton, registering 225 points in 187 games from 2004-07.
“He wants me to get my defensive game all set up and have that almost perfect before I work on my offensive game,” Sheppard said. “I have had chances, but hopefully in the future I’ll get more power-play time. It’s not like I’m angry. I’m learning the game at the NHL and it’s a lot different. Once I get stronger and more confident it will fall into place. I’m glad with how the year went and I look to do more offense in the future, but there’s no rush.”
Similarly, Sheppard was in no hurry to find a permanent home around the St. Paul/Minneapolis area this season. He instead lived in Darby Hendrickson’s house for the entire season.
“We don’t use the basement anyway,” Hendrickson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in November. “I’ll tell you, it’s been fun. He’s been great with the kids, and he’s just a good, mature kid.”
Sheppard said it was “nice to come home to a family. I spent quite a bit of time in the hotel alone, and it’s not the most fun thing to have going for you. I think for my first year it was great.”
Next season, though, Sheppard plans to have his own place, just as he now has his own Minnesota driver’s license.
He also plans to have a scoring-line role.
“For sure I’m going to be looking to be more offensive next year,” he said, “and now that I’m stronger and know the game better it will happen.”
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.