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NHL's Youth Continues To Be Wild's Latest Task

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

As the Minnesota Wild looks to ensure more games in its near future by being mindful of its present, the future of the NHL has been knocking on the Wild's doorstep the past week.

On Thursday, it comes in the form of Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid, and the rest of a young Edmonton lineup. McDavid, the number one pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, is third in the NHL in scoring with 22 points in 19 games since returning from a broken collarbone on Feb. 2.

This season, only forward Patrick Kane has more points per 60 minutes than McDavid.

But McDavid is just the latest of a slew of young, talented players the Wild has seen. Last Thursday, it was a quartet of newly recalled Toronto Maple Leafs prospects headlined by William Nylander.

Two days later, it was Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and the Buffalo Sabres. 

"It's difficult to play in the National Hockey League at 18, 19 years old," interim Head Coach John Torchetti said. "But what they're doing, you see Eichel, the separation in his skating is incredible for his size and speed. It's fun to watch. I watched him a couple of shifts against us, and I was holding onto my breath, I can tell you that."

Torchetti, coming from the American Hockey League, has seen some of that talent be bred firsthand. He also coached Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane as a teenager, and has watched the top talent in the NHL get its feet wet.

"It's pretty impressive for a kid that age," Torchetti said.

According to the Wild, those games and youthful opponents present their own challenges, from containing the high-end skill of these new NHLers, to the intensity these players who are trying to prove themselves bring into every game.

But age is just a number.

"It's been happening for so long," Erik Haula said. "There are so many great players. You look at the World Cup team, and look at the young guys on that, and the team is great. That's how it's going to be. You don't really look at young guy or, if someone comes into the league, and he's a great player, then he's a great player, it doesn't really matter."

On most nights, Haula's line, along with the pairing of Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon are charged with checking the opponent's top line. When the Wild plays at Xcel Energy Center like it is on Thursday, and is afforded last change, it happens even more often.

And with the amount of talent in the league, young or old, there really aren't any easy nights for those players.

"You can't take a shift off," Suter said. "There are just too many top players in the league, and there's always a threat on the ice no matter who you're playing. Tonight is no different. We have to go into it knowing that we have to shut their top guys down, and make them defend."

There are four first round picks from the 2015 NHL Draft who have gone on to play in the NHL this season. The Wild has faced all four, for a total of six games. And in those six games, the top prospects have combined for two goals and two assists against Minnesota: A two-point game by Eichel in Buffalo, and a goal and assist for McDavid over the first two Wild-Oilers matchups.

But Suter said it makes no difference when a player was drafted or how much experience he has accrued: the objective is always the same.

"The mindset is you just don't want them to score," Suter said. "You want to come out on top no matter who it is. Whether it's going against a guy who's played a lot of games in the league like Jaromir Jagr, or a guy who hasn't played hardly any games like tonight, McDavid. You just want to play hard every shift, and not try to give them anything."

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