There are a few differences between Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and the Twin Cities area.
There are more freeways, one ways and skyways in Minnesota. There’s a different metric systeom. There is a lengthy work visa process in the United States. And, there are no Marian Gaborik’s or Pavol Demitra’s in Cape Breton.
“It was weird,” said Sheppard of the first time he took a shift between the two Slovakian Superstars. “Growing up watching those guys -- it was definitely a big thing for me.”
Playing between two bona fide All-Stars can be an adjustment for any NHL player, especially for 19-year-old rookie James Sheppard.
With injuries and absences leaving the Wild thin at center, head coach Jaques Lemaire gave the kid a shot on the top line last week.
“All these kids, they come in and start to get a couple points and then they feel good, and then they play on one of the top two lines, and they feel better and get more points,” Lemaire said. “I feel Sheppard could do that. I could see him just taking off now.”
Sheppard responded to Lemaire’s vote of confidence, assisting Gaborik on a beautiful breakaway goal in a 4-1 win against Calgary on November 3, and also being part of the unit that scored the Wild’s lone power play goal.
“Playing with guys like Demo and Gabby, they are so skilled,” Sheppard said. “They don’t have to crash and bang. They can do it all with their sticks.”
Now, Gaborik and Demitra are fighting groin injuries, while Sheppard continues to see his ice time rise. While the club still has some scoring punch with Brian Rolston, Pierre-Marc Bouchard
, Eric Belanger, Mark Parrish and Mikko Koivu
on the front lines, Sheppard feels he can contribute more, especially on the power play.
“I’m a big guy and if I can stick my big butt in front of the net to try to make a screen for the other guys, we have a lot of great shooters here,” Sheppard said after Minnesota scored a season-high four goals in a 5-2 win over Edmonton on November 5. Sheppard assisted on Kurtis Foster
’s tally in the first period.
The quiet rookie has shown in the past two weeks what he can do with more experience, something that did not come naturally in September and the early part of October. Coming out of training camp, the consensus seemed to be that Sheppard wasn’t ready for the NHL, but his status as a 19-year-old forced the Wild to keep him with the club under the tutelage of Lemaire, as opposed to returning to junior hockey. The Wild signed him at the end of camp, with the expectation of the youngster playing in about two-thirds of the games.
He was inactive for the first two games, but he has played in every game since. His ice time on October 11 at Los Angeles was 3:35. In Sunday’s loss to Colorado, he was on the ice for a season-high 15:28.
“Every time you touch the puck, every time you are on a shift, you’re in a faceoff in your own zone with a minute left are all things that are going to make you more experience and make you a better hockey player,” he said.
Sheppard is aware of the opportunity in front of him. He’s gained respect in the locker room after working overtime after practices, and for taking on Pittsburgh’s Adam Hall in a fight on October 30.
“I’ve seen [enforcer Derek Boogaard] do his thing, but I don’t let him do it all,” said Sheppard, who had one fight under his belt in junior hockey. “Whenever you’re a physical player, that’s part of the game, fighting. You can’t back down, you have to make a statement right from the start if you can.”
Sheppard is striving to be a two-way player and is getting more comfortable as his playing time increases.He has already noticed the progression in his game.
“I feel a lot better than I did at the start of the year,” he said. “I’m stronger. I’m more in shape. And, I’m learning a lot just from practice and games. I think from the minutes I have played, because I got a shot, it has helped me quite a bit.” Sheppard said.
Sheppard’s early strides have not only endeared him to his teammates, and his coaches, but the Minnesota fandom as well, which is just one less thing the rookie has to worry about.