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Competition Heats Up for Playing Time on the Blue Line

Handful of players aiming for spots on Minnesota's final defensive pairing as regular season approaches

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- With a roster loaded full of veterans, one of the few areas of intrigue surrounding battles at training camp for the Wild will come on its blue line, where a number of candidates are fighting for the final two spots in the lineup.

Through the first handful of days, Ryan Suter has skated with Matt Dumba while Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon have been paired together. None of that is a surprise, and chances are, if everyone's healthy, those four will remain together -- in some combination -- all season long.

Where there could be some jockeying, and a season-long competition, is with Minnesota's final pairing, where incumbents Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson are battling newcomers Kyle Quincey, Carson Soucy and Ryan Murphy for playing time.

Quincey, signed on July 1 to a one-year deal worth $1.25 million, is a heavy favorite to land one of the spots. A veteran of 568 NHL games, Quincey is also the most experienced at playing on his off hand.

Reilly, Olofsson, Quincey and Soucy are all left-handed shooters, which means one of them will be forced to play on their off side.

Quincey has been doing it for years, during a career that has included stops with the Los Angeles Kings, Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets and two stints with the Detroit Red Wings. 

"I've played on and off for awhile now," Quincey said. "I've been doing it for probably six years now, so I'll be ready for either side, and a lot of times it's shift to shift. I'm ready for whatever."

That leaves Reilly and Olofsson to duke it out for the other spot on the pairing. Each signed one-way contract extensions during the summer, but Reilly can be sent back to Iowa initially while Olofsson would require a trip through waivers.

It's questionable at best if Olofsson, a second-round pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, would clear waivers, and it's not likely a risk Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher would prefer to take. 

That could give him the inside track as well.

"I'm trying to just worry about myself and prepare the best I can and just go out there. Not really worry what everyone else is doing. Just focus on myself," Olofsson said. "There are spots open. There's a lot of competition. I feel like I'm in the best shape I can be. I'm just looking forward to playing games and making something out of [this opportunity]."

Olofsson has also come to training camp healthy for the first time in a couple of years. Last season, an injury at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament ended his quest for a roster spot before it began.

"It's been a little frustrating because mentally I've always wanted to push it," Olofsson said. "There have been some setbacks. A lot of guys go through it. I feel like that's all in the past. I feel as stable as I can be right now."

Reilly, signed as a free agent on July 1, 2015 after not agreeing to a contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team that drafted him in the fourth round of the 2011 Draft, has more NHL games under his belt and has looked better with every trip north from Iowa to Minnesota the past couple seasons.

Now 24 years old, Reilly said he's tried to avoid getting too frustrated by the trips between the Wild and its American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines, and credited his time in the AHL with making him better prepared to compete for a job at camp this season.

"A lot of guys go through it. I'm not the only guy to do that, but I definitely think there's times I needed to go down and play all those minutes in every situation where I probably wouldn't be playing up here," Reilly said. "I think when I look back on it, I think it was definitely pretty smart but obviously at the time, it's frustrating. Hard not to get down on yourself a little bit, but I know I can play in this league and make an impact."

Reilly led the Wild in ice time in Monday's preseason opener in Winnipeg, earning more than 23 minutes. Some of that was circumstance; Minnesota had seven power plays in the game and the primary strength of Reilly's game is his ability with the man advantage.

Still, Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said Reilly should expect to log plenty of minutes during the preseason, an opportunity which could work in his favor if he makes the most of it.

"You're looking for their poise, their compete level, because they're all good players and can skate, so those are the things probably more than anything else that I'm looking at," Boudreau said.

The long shots for playing time, at least at the start of the season, are Soucy and Murphy.

Soucy, a Wild draft pick in 2013, just completed a four-year career at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he helped lead the Bulldogs to the national championship game last year.

At 6-foot-4, the strengths of Soucy's game are in his own zone and his outright willingness to play a physical game. That was on display Monday in Winnipeg when Soucy blasted Jets forward Mark Scheifele with a clean hit near the Wild bench.

Soucy's size and his ability to play a physical brand of hockey are both in high demand on the Wild blue line, which makes it a near certainty he'll get a chance with Minnesota at some point during the upcoming season. In three AHL games at the tail end of last season, as well as in prospect camp, he's managed to become a favorite of Iowa head coach Derek Lalonde.

"You've just got to work hard, you've got to try and get better out there in practice, and listen to what the coaches have to say and listen to what the veterans have to say and try and focus on getting better at those things," Soucy said.

Murphy, also signed on July 1, has the pedigree as a first-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2012. He's also a right-handed shot and has 151 games of NHL experience, but just hasn't put it all together yet.

The hope is, the competition in Minnesota and in Iowa can not only bring out the best in him but also in the group as a whole.

"I think we've got some young players that will be able to play in time," Boudreau said. "We're definitely focusing on more of the defense. It's all about how to play without the puck and what you're doing without the puck."

Commenting on the captain

Less than 24 hours after signing his captain to a two-year contract extension, Fletcher said keeping Mikko Koivu in the fold was a major accomplishment.

"I've said it before: He's our flag in the ground," Fletcher said. "Without Mikko, Zach [Parise] and Ryan [Suter] don't come. Without Zach and Ryan, all the other players don't come, the [Jason] Pominvilles, the [Eric] Staals, the [Devan] Dubnyks. We've been able to trade for some of these players, but we've been able to retain them in part because everybody feels this is a place where you can win and have a great experience."

In an era where even generational talent rarely stays in one place, Koivu's contract extension moves the Wild's first and only permanent captain closer to that rare feat.

"The people here just make us feel like we're home and I think at the end that's the most important thing in the world for myself and my family," Koivu said. "I feel comfortable. My wife and kids feel comfortable. That was one of the biggest reasons."

Recapping Monday

After having a chance to take another look at the Wild's preseason opener in Winnipeg, a 3-2 shootout victory for Minnesota, Boudreau had plenty to say on a number of standouts.

"I thought [Kyle] Rau, [Zack] Mitchell, [Justin] Kloos, when that fourth line went out in the third period, they just poured on the energy," Boudreau said. They scored the one goal and they could have had a couple more.

"The penalty killers, Daniel Winnik, you can tell he's been a pro for many years. We had two 5-on-3s against us and he was out there and did a great job. Unfortunately, we played half the game [on special teams]. Half the game, when I did the calculations, was special teams. They had 10 power plays, we had six or seven. Counting the goals, I thought about 30 minutes of the game was special teams. That means you've got four lines you're trying to roll into 30 minutes of hockey and it doesn't mean they're getting a lot of ice time.

"I thought, defense, young guys, Reilly, Olofsson, Soucy, I thought made a good account of themselves, Quincey, for his first game with us, did a good job. It was an interesting game."

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