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Wild's Depth Is Creating Matchup Flexibility

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

It's not an overly-complicated concept or a well-kept secret, but depth in today's NHL is vital to winning, especially come playoff time when it seems just about every team can roll three or four very effective lines and three stellar defensive pairs.

Head Coach Mike Yeo and the Wild preached its depth during training camp, and then showed during the first two games of the regular season that, not only on paper, the Wild is comfortable doing a variety of things in different situations.

"The system doesn't change from one line to the next," Yeo said after the Wild defeated the St. Louis Blues 3-2 on Saturday. "All those guys have the ability to be really good defensively, and it's something we've talked about before. That's our game, and that's who we are."

The Wild's first two games of the season provided a glimpse into some of the concepts that were discussed during preseason. Against the Colorado Avalanche and Blues, two teams that can roll multiple, highly skilled lines, all 18 Minnesota's skaters saw time opposite said skill players.

"Obviously there are certain situations—there are times where it's really important as a coach that you trust your players," Yeo said. "You give them the opportunity to show that they're capable of [matching up against a top line]."

Against the Blues, it was primarily Mikko Koivu's line playing opposite Vladimir Tarasenko, but all four of Minnesota's lines got a crack at the Blue's top offensive line. The same goes for the defensive pairings.

"This is a similar approach a lot of teams are taking around the League," Yeo said. "Chicago is a pretty good example of that. Obviously they use Toews in a checking role, but he's a key offensive player, but then they have the Kruger line.

"We need our fourth line to be able to relieve the pressure of some of the skill guys, or some of the skilled lines in certain situations."

Below the blue, Assistant Coach Rick Wilson and the Wild's defensemen all said during preseason the idea of a conventional depth chart wasn't the most analogous to how the Wild would go about its business.

The difference in ice time between the Wild defenseman who played the most on Saturday against Tarasenko at even-strength (Ryan Suter at 6:35), and the least (Matt Dumba at 3:39) amounted to 2:56, or the difference of about three shifts.

"Whenever you play you want to play against the best," Jared Spurgeon said during training camp. "This year, with the group of defensemen we have here, we're going to play pretty evenly."

When you have six skilled, defensively capable defensemen, it makes everything about deployment much easier.

"We just hopefully look at it as a group of D, as opposed to a first pair, a third pair, just a group of D," Wilson said.

And without always getting its say on who will play against whom, like on the road when the Wild’s opponent will have the benefit of last change, depth becomes increasingly vital.

"It makes things a lot easier as a coach," Yeo said. "You don't just have to coach matchups based on personnel, you can coach in terms of the situation of a game. Be it a faceoff, be it a d-pairing that comes out there, or even a momentum shift in the game. That's a nice luxury to have."

Offensively, it’s the same mantra. The Wild's lineup is constructed to have three effective scoring lines and a change-of-pace, checking line.

"You need balanced scoring; you need more than one or two lines that can score," Zach Parise said in training camp. "In the playoffs, a lot of times top D, checking lines, they cancel out top players, and that's where you need the balance and depth-scoring."

The Wild has scored six even-strength goals this season. Those goals have been divided evenly between three scoring lines. (Charlie Coyle has two goals, but one was scored playing with Koivu and Jason Zucker with Coyle taking Nino Niederreiter's spot.)

"That's the way most teams are built in the NHL now," Yeo said. "It's not where you have two scoring lines, and then a checking line, and then a physical line. Now most teams have three lines that can really score, and then a fourth line that's a real strong checking line, and that's our intention with that group."

Yeo said he part of being able to match up against top lines with any of his four lines is also important because of its offensive impact.

"D-zone faceoffs against maybe the other team's starting line, or if we can saw off a shift against those guys, and check those guys really well, it might give us an opportunity to take advantage of a matchup somewhere else," Yeo said.

In a division with so much talent, the Wild is well equipped to handle the challenge.

"When I first came here, no one really knew what anyone's potential was," Ryan Suter said of the Wild's young defensemen. "Over the last three years, guys have grown into their roles, and that's going to allow everyone to be more involved this year, and I'm excited for that."

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