“Reunited and it feels so good,” newly acquired Minnesota Wild forward Chris Stewart sang the Peaches & Herb verse over the phone to Jordan Leopold when the pair spoke about coming to the State of Hockey. They were teammates during Stewart’s rookie season with the Colorado Avalanche and again with the St. Louis Blues.
Yesterday, the pair became teammates for a third time, as the Wild acquired both players at the National Hockey League’s Trade Deadline. Finding out that they had been acquired by Minnesota was welcome new for both.
For Stewart, it ended a year of speculation that the struggling Buffalo Sabres would move the power forward.
“It’s a tougher part of the business, but it is part of the business,” Stewart said. “Yesterday was a stressful day to say the least. I’m just happy it’s over with and I’m here now. I’m excited to be a part of this team. I look forward to building for the future and having a great run here.”
Going from the team with the NHL’s worst record to a legitimate playoff contender would be a boost for any competitive player. The 27-year-old is ready to play some meaningful hockey at the regular season’s most critical juncture.
“It’s a dream come true. You know last year I was on the exact reverse situation, I went from St. Louis to Buffalo, who was dead last at the time,” Stewart said. “I wasn’t too happy about that. To be in the opposite shoes this time around, it’s definitely a good feeling.”
The 6-foot-2, 231-pound forward will make his Wild debut tonight against the Ottawa Senators on the wing with Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek. Yesterday, Stewart talked about knowing his role as a physical player. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo wants to see him alongside two skilled linemates.
“Stewy is a big body, who’s going to go to the net and hopefully go retrieve a lot of pucks and be strong down low in the offensive zone,” Yeo said. “There’s no magic formula, where you can just punch in a program and come out with the perfect combination. We have to try some things and we’ll see how it works out.”
For Leopold, the trade to Minnesota is a homecoming. The Golden Valley native was a four-year standout at the University of Minnesota before embarking on a 12-year NHL career. To be back in the State of Hockey, in his eighth NHL stop, is a meaningful experience. He’ll be in the lineup tonight, paired with Christian Folin.
“This is home for me,” Leopold said. “I’m at the tail end of my career, and you always dream of going home. I’m really speechless. I got a phone call from Jarmo (Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen) yesterday, I really didn’t know what to make of it at the time. I’ve always dreamed of it. I knew it was maybe a possibility, the fact that it becomes a reality tonight is something special.”
Of course, Leopold was asked about returning to his family, particularly his daughter, Jordyn, who’s letter directed to the Wild staff went viral (check out the Wild.com feature on The Letter, here).
“I anticipate there will be quite a lot of friends, family in the crowd. I heard from a lot of people yesterday,” Leopold said. “I turned my phone off for about 10 minutes, and later I know I have about 150 texts. Anybody that knows me and has my number has contacted me. But it’s been great, even with the thing with my daughter writing the letter. It’s been a pretty humbling experience.”
Scandella, Spurgeon Updates
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon joined the team on the ice during morning skate for the first time since suffering an upper-body injury on Feb. 18 against the Calgary Flames. He’s been on Injured Reserve and missed four games, but the team’s bench boss didn’t rule him out of action on Thursday, when the Wild travels to Washington to face the Capitals.
“Spurgeon’s doing a lot better,” Yeo said. “I don’t know if I want to say a good possibility, but certainly a possibility for Washington.”
With the good, also comes the bad. Blueliner Marco Scandella didn’t participate in today’s skate and will be out longer than first expected with an undisclosed injury.
“I would say there was a setback,” Yeo said. “We probably shouldn’t expect him in the next week or so.”
New Line Combos
The Wild has an NHL-best 27 points (13-2-1) in 16 games since the All-Star Break, and entering two new players into any team’s equilibrium can be a delicate balance. With only six healthy defenseman on the roster, adding Leopold into the mix is easier than pouring water into an ice tray.
Adding Stewart, Yeo had to find a place for the wing and move around other pieces in a hot lineup. So, he decided to place the new forward on a line with Koivu and Vanek. This move means Sean Bergenheim will move alongside Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, forming a line with size and the ability to cycle in the offensive zone. The team’s bench boss didn’t want to mess with the chemistry amongst the other two lines.
“We wanted to try keep a lot of the other parts of our lines intact as much as possible,” Yeo said. “We know with the Granlund line there’s a lot of chemistry there. We’ve seen the way the Brodziak line has been playing the last couple games for us. And Nino and Charlie have some real chemistry together. We feel that Bergie could be a real complement to that line in terms of his north-south mentality and being a guy that plays kind of a big game, a hard game along the boards, he should be a tough guy to play against.”