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Defensive depth plays huge role in Wild's success

by Dan Myers /

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The mumps and mysterious stomach ailments seem like they happened in another season. In many ways, that's because they did.

For the Minnesota Wild, the 2014-15 season has played out in three distinct segments: the good first month, the abyss around the holiday season, and then the rally to Stanley Cup Playoff relevancy.

Along the way, the Wild defensemen have played a key role in it all.

"Mumps and injuries, there's a lot of things we've had to overcome with that group," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "Those are types of things that can really break a team, but they can also make it stronger too. And I think we've seen in that time, we've seen different players step up and take their game to another level, taking advantage of that opportunity."

When the mumps was going through the Wild defensemen in late October and through November, it was Nate Prosser who took advantage of the chance to play more. Prosser played the first three seasons of his NHL career in Minnesota but signed with the St. Louis Blues during the offseason. When the Blues waived him at the end of training camp, the Wild put in a claim.

Prosser has responded with a good season. Never one to put up gaudy offensive numbers, he is playing well even when he's not showing up on the scoresheet.

Despite missing eight games recently with a knee injury, Prosser has already surpassed his previous career high in games played, and Yeo said he was eager to put him back in the lineup upon his return.

"Maybe as good as I've seen him," Yeo said. "I think he really helped us get through a tough time."

When injuries started piling up in February and March, rookie defenseman Matt Dumba jumped in and carried a bigger load.

A first-round pick of the Wild in the 2012 NHL Draft (No. 7), Dumba is a big part of Minnesota's future. When defenseman Jared Spurgeon went down with a concussion Feb. 18, the Wild badly needed someone to step in on the second pairing and make a difference.

Since that game against the Calgary Flames, in his hometown, Dumba might be the Wild's best defenseman.

After making the Wild out of training camp, Dumba didn't see a lot of ice time. Minnesota sent him to Iowa of the American Hockey League to play in all situations and keep the game under control, Dumba said.

In 22 games since Spurgeon's injury, Dumba has six goals and three assists, is plus-15, and is averaging nearly 19 minutes of ice time -- an increase of more than six minutes per game.

Matt Dumba
Matt Dumba
Defense - MIN
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 7 | PTS: 15
SOG: 83 | +/-: 14

"I'm playing with a lot more confidence," Dumba said. "Going to Iowa and finding my game again, it's just a simple, hard game. I've been doing that every night and just focusing and preparing for that and it's taking me a long way."

Dumba, still three months shy of his 21st birthday, has been taken under the wing of veteran defenseman Jordan Leopold, acquired by the Wild from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the NHL Trade Deadline on March 2.

Leopold was one of Dumba's favorite players growing up in Calgary when the former played there, helping the Flames to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004. Dumba was 10 years old then.

"I'm learning lots from him," Dumba said. "On the ice, it's been good, learning each other's tendencies, getting chemistry. It's been great."

When the Wild had four days between games last week, Leopold's 6-year-old son, Kyle, was running around the locker room while on spring break. Dumba got along great with the younger Leopold.

"I don't have that in my life," Dumba said. "There's 14 years between me and Kyle, and 14 years between me and [Jordan]. It's crazy to think of the different times that we're in but still so connected."

Leopold has fully embraced his role since the trade. He knows when all Wild defensemen are healthy, as they are now, he'll probably be a healthy scratch most nights. His veteran experience can be invaluable for a young player like Dumba.

"I had those guys when I was young," Leopold said. "I've been traded around so many times, and teams want different things. But if you have a good base, you can almost play everywhere.

"Learning little things from guys like Adam Foote, who was big in my development. Bob Boughner was a roommate of mine my first season and he was 32 or 33 at the time. You learn little things about the game that you normally wouldn't learn from X's and O's on the board; how to handle yourself, how to deal with things. That's what [Dumba] is doing, and I'm here to hopefully advance that a little bit."

Dumba is one of many Wild defensemen who have cemented their future in the organization this season.

Beyond Ryan Suter, who is locked in for the next decade, Minnesota has given contract extensions to Jonas Brodin (six years) and Marco Scandella (five years).

His sophomore slump in the past, Brodin has emerged in his third NHL season. Despite a dip in his goal-scoring numbers, Brodin has nearly matched his point total from last season while becoming one of the best in the NHL in his own end.

One of the League's elite skaters on the back end, his plus-22 rating is sixth among all defensemen. Although Suter gets most of the headlines, his defense partner, Brodin, has quietly become just as productive.

"A lot it goes unnoticed, just how well he defends; that's the biggest thing for me," Yeo said. "He's a guy who understands the game very well, very smart player, uses his stick very well. The way he can defend in 1-on-1 situations and the way he can escape pressure situations in his own zone, I feel he's playing the best he has since he's been here."

In 60 games this season, Scandella has more goals (nine) than he did in his previous 165 games combined (seven). A plus-player for the second consecutive season, the 25-year-old Scandella is realizing the potential Minnesota has been looking for since drafting him in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft.

Spurgeon is tied with Scandella for most goals by Wild defensemen. Despite his lack of size at 5-foot-9, Spurgeon has also carved out an important role.

Together, the group has been instrumental in making life easier for goaltender Devan Dubnyk. Since being acquired from the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 14, Dubnyk is 26-7-2 with a .937 save percentage and 1.74 goals-against average.

Even he is quick to credit the guys in front of him.

"No knock against anybody I've played with before, but certainly the best group of D-men I've ever had a chance to play with," Dubnyk said. "For a while there, it seemed like every game somebody was going down and it didn't seem to matter if guys were moving up in pairings or stepping [into the lineup]. There was really no hole, no drop-off; guys just came in and elevated their play.

"It's fun to be a part of."

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