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Wild's Youth Improving Numbers, But Wants More

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

MONTREAL – Age is just a number when it comes to the Minnesota Wild's young core, but in many regards, those numbers are trending up.

On most nights, the Wild has seven skaters in its lineup aged 25 years old or under. When Darcy Kuemper starts, the group grows to eight, where it held steady before defenseman Jared Spurgeon 26 turned in November.

Saturday night, the number of interest was 10, the goal total that forwards Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula each reached when Granlund scored twice, and Haula sealed a Wild victory with a late, empty-net goal.

In all, it increased the total number of Wild skaters with double-digit goals on the season to a likewise 10.

This is uncharted for Granlund and Haula, but not in a lost sense. Haula's previous career best (seven goals) was a ceiling he surpassed in late February. He also matches up on a nightly basis against the opposition's top forwards.

Granlund set a career-high when he scored twice against Montreal for both a single game and a season, eclipsing the eight goals he scored in each of the past two seasons.

"It's nice to score goals," said Granlund, who said he thinks he has more than 10 on his stick. "I really think so, and hopefully I can keep scoring. Every time you come in, you want to get better, and play better than the last season."

A willing playmaker, Granlund has been getting shooting opportunities lately, and taking advantage of them.

"He is a great shooter," interim Head Coach John Torchetti said. "He has to understand shooting off the rush is a good thing, especially if it's an even rush.

"If we have numbers, then he can do what he does best. If he wants to curl up and make a play, or try to beat a guy one-on-one, that's ok in those situations. But when they're level plays, we want to get pucks to the net."

There's Charlie Coyle who, at 24, leads the Wild in goals (21), and with each passing score, polishes a career season. With his assist on Haula's goal on Saturday, Coyle also established a new career best in points for a season (36).

Defenseman Matt Dumba has also taken the eraser to his previous highs, establishing new bests in goals (10), assists, (14), and points (24).

It's all happening most recently under Torchetti, who had instructed all of the Wild's under-25's prior to his promotion to Minnesota in February.

From the second Torchetti stepped foot behind the NHL-Wild's bench, the youth was part of the conversation.

"We need a lot more from our leaders, but we also need more from our young guys," Torchetti said in his first comments as interim head coach. "It’s time to start taking ownership and playing better. That’ll be the challenge for us."

Add to this group forward Nino Niederreiter, who, would need a torrid last 13 games to match or pass his career high in goals set last season (24), but is being very productive in other rights.

He's three points shy of his best scoring season (37) aided by his 19 assists, which is sniffing the 22 he recorded two seasons ago to set a new benchmark.

Niederreiter has scored 14 times at even-strength, three behind the number he netted a season ago, and, at five-on-five, how hockey is most commonly played, Niederreiter has been an absolute terror to play against.

He leads the Wild in shot-attempt percentage of 55.3, and has been a driver of puck possession all season.

That number is not only very good among Minnesota skaters, but league-wide, is at elite levels. Entering Sunday, Niederreither ranked 14th among wingers in the NHL in the possession proxy. Of that top 15, only Filip Forsberg and Tomas Hertl are younger than Niederreiter.

And just as he's catalyzed puck possession, when he's on the ice, the Wild has also gotten the majority share of the scoring chances, 58 percent to be more precise, the highest rate of any Minnesota skater.

That again puts Niederreiter in elite company among his peers, as that number ranks seventh among all forwards in the NHL, and sixth among wingers.

For the Wild, the sum of all these contributions from its younger pieces are vital to its overall product.

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