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Wild’s different look on defense includes Ryan Suter-Matt Dumba pairing

September 27, 2018

For the first time in the preseason, the Wild had every one of its top-six defensemen on the ice for a game Wednesday when the team played host to the Jets.

But instead of reuniting the two pairs that spent much of last season together when the blue line was healthy, the Wild rolled out a different look that could stick once the season opens next Thursday since coach Bruce Boudreau liked the balance it brought to the entire unit.

“I wasn’t worried when any one of them went out there,” he said.

Ryan Suter made his first game appearance since suffering a severe ankle injury March 31 back on the No. 1 pairing, but Matt Dumba worked most of the 4-3 win over Winnipeg alongside Suter. Jared Spurgeon, Suter’s usual partner, took Dumba’s spot on the second unit next to Jonas Brodin, with Nick Seeler and Greg Pateryn the other duo.

A few reasons motivated the switch; moving Spurgeon could lighten up his workload, and Boudreau liked the way Suter and Dumba played together in 2017-18 when they were united while Spurgeon was sidelined with injury.

Last season was undoubtedly the best of Dumba’s career, as he set career-highs in offensive production while also logging more minutes.

“It seemed like the more ice time Dumba played when he was with Suter, the better he played,” Boudreau said.

The strengths of each unit also become clearer amid these assignments; Suter and Dumba have a knack for sparking offense, Brodin and Spurgeon are strong skaters and Seeler and Pateryn add size and grit.

“It’s a good group,” Boudreau said.

Fourth-line flexibility

Eric Fehr might be slotted on the wing when the Wild concludes its preseason schedule Friday in Colorado against the Avalanche, but Boudreau projects the 33-year-old free-agent addition to ultimately play up the middle — a position Fehr enjoys.

“I like being involved down low in the play and being strong in the defensive zone, breaking the pucks out,” he explained. “I feel like I can get more involved in the game and get your feet moving up ice through the middle. I find that a little better for me, but I grew into the NHL playing on the wing. I obviously have no problem going back there.”

How the rest of the fourth line looks for Opening Night is still undecided; while Marcus Foligno has skated consistently on the left side, J.T. Brown and Matt Hendricks appear to be vying for the slot on the right.

“He played his best game by far of the preseason [Wednesday],” Boudreau said of Brown. “ … We got a lot of things we’re working on, not just who’s playing better but who fits that game more.”

Loading up on lefties

The Wild’s experimentation with winger Mikael Granlund on the point for the power play was inspired by a familiar foe of the team’s, the Jets.

Last season, Winnipeg stationed winger Blake Wheeler on the right to dish off to fellow righties Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele — a setup the Wild are trying to replicate with Granlund on the left side to set up fellow lefties Eric Staal and Jason Zucker. The Jets had the fifth-best power play in 2017-18 (23.4 percent).

“There’s five lefties there,” said Granlund, including Suter and winger Nino Niederreiter in the unit. “I like it. There should be a lot of options, but we’ve still got to work on that.”

Roster cuts

Thirty-one players remain in training camp after the team made four more cuts Thursday, assigning forwards Sam Anas and Justin Kloos and defenseman Carson Soucy to Iowa of the American Hockey League and forward Alexander Khovanov to Moncton in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

Etc.

• Goalies Alex Stalock and Andrew Hammond are expected to split the preseason finale Friday night in Colorado.

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