ST. PAUL, Minn. — Rookie defenseman Christian Folin arrived at the Xcel Energy Center on Monday and put in a workout before heading into the Minnesota Wild dressing room and seeing a jersey still hanging in his stall, his number on the board for Monday’s practice.
There was no plane or bus trip ahead for Folin. He’s staying in Minnesota, along with other young players for the Wild.
"They didn’t tell me anything," Folin said. "I just came here and I worked out this morning, and then I get my jersey in my stall and I saw my number was on the board, so it was fun."
Not hearing from the coaches and staff was the best-case scenario for young Minnesota players.
The Wild reached the regular-season roster limit by waiving forwards Cody Almond and Stephane Veilleux and releasing goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov from his professional tryout. Forward Justin Fontaine was placed on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, though head coach Mike Yeo said there’s a chance Fontaine could return for Thursday’s game.
The youth movement continues for Minnesota.
Folin, 23, will be on the opening-night roster along with 20-year-old defenseman Matt Dumba and 22-year-old forward Jason Zucker. Bryzgalov’s release ensures 24-year-old goaltender Darcy Kuemper will open the season in the NHL for the first time in his career.
"Those guys, they needed to make this team," Yeo said. "None of them had a spot here. None of them were going to come here and play OK and have a chance to still be here today. So those guys have come in and have had very strong camps."
The Wild’s progress in recent seasons has been as much about the development of their young players as signing stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella are all mainstays in the lineup yet to reach 25 years old.
Like Dumba, Folin and Zucker, 23-year-old Erik Haula will break training camp in the NHL for the first time in his career.
"I think we gave those guys a good workload," Yeo said. "We gave them the opportunity to succeed and we also gave them the opportunity to fail. And they went, obviously, in the direction of succeeding, had good camps. So they should be proud of that.
"But again the same message that I’ll give them, every day is a new day. You should feel real good about being here, but you have to make sure that you stay here."
Dumba knows the reality all too well. He had broken camp each of the past two years with the Wild, only to be sent back to his junior team each season.
"It feels good, but nothing’s set in stone," Dumba said. "I know that. I got to come to the rink every day and just keep growing, keep improving my game and getting better."
Dumba appeared to be closing in on a possible roster spot before Saturday, but he helped cinch his position on the team with a strong showing in the preseason finale. He had a goal and assist in the game and ended the preseason tied for second on the team in scoring with five points (four assists).
"I would say that maybe before that game we maybe had some decisions to make, whereas after the game there was no decision to be made," Yeo said of Dumba.
Dumba and Folin could even be paired together in the season-opener on Thursday at home against Colorado, providing a youthful final defensive pair.
Folin spent the end of last season with the Wild after signing as a college free agent out of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, playing in one game. He felt good about his chances to stick in the NHL this season but knew nothing was certain, admitting the process was nerve-wracking.
"I put everything out there that I had and I think I did well," Folin said. "I was happy with my performance. After the Saturday night game, I just thought to myself, ‘there’s nothing else I can do. I’ve done it all.’ So, you’re just hoping for the best."
Zucker has played 47 NHL games but knows the roster is never set. He’s bounced between Minnesota and the American Hockey League each of the past two seasons.
"I don’t think they were going to hand a spot out to anybody, myself included," Zucker said. "So I think I came here and battled and did what I had to do."
Zucker had a goal and an assist in three playoff games, but sat out Saturday’s finale.
"He came in very determined this year and he knew that he had to make this team," Yeo said. "There was no sense of entitlement for him. What I give him credit for, he scored, which is nice. But if he scored and didn’t do other things, then he wouldn’t have made the team. He did the things where he’s going to factor in, where he’s going to find a place in our lineup Day 1."
Stu Bickel is part of the Wild’s season-opening lineup and could find himself in the lineup Thursday if Fontaine is unable to return.
Bickel, 28, has played in 67 NHL games with the New York Rangers, but was out of the NHL last season.
"He brings an element that we really don’t have," Yeo said. "If we decided that we’re looking for a certain degree of toughness in a particular game, then he’s a guy that can factor in. And he’s shown that he can play the game, too. We don’t want somebody that’s just going to go out there and play two shifts necessarily. We want somebody who’s going to go out there and bring some momentum and try to be physical on the forecheck.
"He certainly understands that part of the game. Plus, he’s there to stick up for his teammates when needed."