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Wild's Successful Run Has Been Anchored By Depth

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

When Erik Haula scored in the third period against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, it underscored a theme for the Minnesota Wild that has been paramount to its success this season.

In a league with a hard salary cap, top-heaviness is a symptom that can cause teams to cave. Getting production throughout a line, especially from one's depth and youth is an integral part of a successful formula.

When it comes to the Wild's younger nucleus, it has improved with time as the 2015-16 season has gone along.

"That's how teams get better in this league," Zach Parise said. "You need your young players to develop, and keep getting better, and they're doing that. These guys are working hard, and it's great to see them get rewarded because they're really committed to getting better."

Now on most nights, the Wild is dressing eight or nine skaters 25 years old or younger. That number has shrunk with defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella celebrating their 26th birthdays this season.

Heading into this year, the Wild talked about its young core needing to take the next step if the team was going to have success.

Seventy-seven games later, and the jump the group has made both on and off the ice has been tangible.

"We know what to expect from Mikko, and Zach, and [Suter], and all those guys," Nino Niederreiter said. "For this team to grow, us young players, we have to get better, and that's also the plan of the organization. Those are the players who have to step up, and have to be better players."

Niederreiter is one of a handful of young Wild skaters to have set personal highs this season in offensive categories.

It speaks to the Wild's depth: Minnesota leads the NHL with 12 double-digit goal scorers. The Wild has three 20-goal scorers, and could finish this season with as many as five.

When the playoffs come, and games become so tight-checking and matchup-oriented, having that depth becomes all the more important.

"Sometimes some guys are going to get the credit, other nights, other guys are going to get the credit, and that's the good part about this," Charlie Coyle said. "No one really cares as long as we get the job done as a team, and we have more goals on the scoreboard by the end of the night than the other team that's all that matters."

So while on some nights, like against the Calgary Flames Thursday, a Parise hat trick can buoy the Wild to two points, on others, like Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Wild enter the third period tied 1-1 only to get goals from Haula, Niederreiter, and Spurgeon, the average age of the scoring trio 24 years old.

"It’s been awesome just to see everyone step up each night," Matt Dumba said. "We’ve got different guys going, every one pulling weight. This is great. We’re going to try to keep this thing rolling."

Dumba, 21 years old, has accrued 148 games of NHL experience. He's 377 days the junior of his rookie defense partner and stall mate Mike Reilly, but from a resume standpoint, the veteran of the duo.

"It's kind of cool to see a lot of young guys with a lot of experience, and I'm hopefully just following in those footsteps," Reilly said.

On Wednesday, there was a moment during practice where Dumba pulled Reilly aside, marker in hand, as he scribbled on the whiteboard, Reilly keenly watching.

"We're still getting used to each other, and we're willing to critique each other," Reilly said. "If I see something, I'm going to let him know; if he sees something, he's going to let me know. We're just trying to get each other better, and just keep being on the same page."

Still though, having young, veteran mentors is something Reilly said has helped him in his NHL transition.

"They went through what I went through," Reilly said. "A lot of similar experiences for sure, and something that we can kind of relate to and kind of talk about a little bit. When things are going off a little bit or you're battling through something, they'll be there to talk to you, and it builds you up."

It's specifically what interim Head Coach John Torchetti is talking about when referencing the in-the-locker room element to the Wild's core taking its next step.

"This is just as much their team as anyone else's," Torchetti said. "They've been here three years now, and we've had success with that group before. We just want them to keep getting tighter as a group."

Torchetti, having coached many of these young players in the American Hockey League, knew firsthand what they were capable of when he took over behind the Wild's bench in mid-February.

"It's definitely big that us young guys, we've been around the league for quite a while too now, and we have to say something, step up when things are not going well," Niederreiter said. "At the end of the day, it's a team sport, and everyone has to do something for the team."

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