Notebook: Fontaine back with Wild and on second line
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Curiosity was peaking Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo in training camp when he united second-year forward Justin Fontaine with captain Mikko Koivu and high-scoring winger Thomas Vanek.
With Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville proving Yeo couldn’t split them up, the coach was left to look for a partner for Koivu and Vanek, the team’s high-profile offseason addition. Fontaine appeared ready to take advantage of the opportunity when he went down with a lower-body injury in training camp.
Fontaine is healthy now and Yeo is re-visiting his training camp thoughts. Fontaine skated with Koivu and Vanek in practice Tuesday and the trio could find themselves together when Minnesota returns to action Friday in Anaheim.
"I saw some things earlier in training camp, unfortunately Fonzie got hurt," Yeo said. "We wanted to give it a little bit more of a go. But what we like about Fonzie is, this is a guy that’s kind of, his whole life he’s sort of been in that role. You can see what he’s done at various levels. The way that he’s had the ability to play with top players and the way that he’s had the ability to put up points."
As a rookie for the Wild last season, Fontaine scored 13 goals and filled a variety of roles. The previous season he had scored 23 goals and had 33 assists in 64 games in the American Hockey League. Fontaine scored more than 20 goals his final two seasons at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
Fontaine missed the season’s first two games, but said he’s ready to return. He’s been practicing for the past few days and Minnesota made the roster room for him by sending Stu Bickel to the Iowa Wild of the AHL after Bickel cleared waivers.
"I thought I could come back a little early, but still some soreness in there with battling in the corners and tight turns and stuff like that," Fontaine said. "None of that is going on right now. It feels pretty good and back to 100 percent."
Yeo has been settled on Parise, Granlund and Pominville together, but the final piece to the second line with Koivu and Vanek has been a mix. Charlie Coyle had seen time there in training camp, and Matt Cooke and Jason Zucker each had a chance to play on a wing with Koivu and Vanek in the season’s first two games.
"In particular, what I like is the way he thinks the game," Yeo said of Fontaine. "I think that gives him a chance to read off of those two guys and make the plays that he needs to make. Saw a couple instances of that in practice, whether it’s darting to a hole or making a play into space with those guys. Obviously, very hopeful that that would work out."
Fontaine likes the way the trio works together.
"Just taking time and space away quick, and making turnovers and then trying to get to scoring areas," Fontaine said. "That’s our main focus, keeping it simple early and not trying to force too many plays."
Fontaine was even playing with Koivu and Vanek on the second power-play unit during Wednesday’s practice, but Yeo said he hasn’t made any decisions about using the group together on the power play.
"We’re trying to find the right mix there," Yeo said. "I wanted to give him a good opportunity to go and practice today. Both of those guys, Nino (Niederreiter) and Charlie, have had a chance to factor in on it . . . For me, I really wanted them to have a good focus on their penalty killing today. Nino’s been doing a great job and I’ve been using him a lot, and Charlie, I would like to get him more involved in it as well. So, that was part of it."
More alterations: Yeo has said the lineup could change this weekend because the team will have had five days off between winning the season’s first two games last week. Yeo doesn’t want to go so long into the season without some players having a chance in games.
Among the possible changes could be goaltender Niklas Backstrom playing one game as the team heads to play Anaheim and Los Angeles. Yeo also split his two rookie defensemen in Wednesday’s practice. Matt Dumba was practicing with Keith Ballard and Christian Folin was paired with Nate Prosser.
"Nothing is set in stone right now, but certainly, those guys have had the opportunity to play together," Yeo said. "If we feel that we want to do that, then that’s the look we would see and we’d want the chance for those guys to practice together."
Dealing with the schedule: In a strange scheduling twist, the Wild beat Colorado in a home-and-home last week but had five days off before the next game in Anaheim.
Overall, Minnesota will play four games in the season’s first 23 days.
"There’s going to be teams that have played four or five games by the time we’re getting to our third, or even more than that," Yeo said. "We recognize that and our guys put a lot into those two games. That doesn’t mean much unless we’re ready to back it up with another strong weekend here."
With the extra time, the Wild have decided to travel to the West Coast early and have team-building exercises planned. The team didn’t take its annual training camp sojourn to Duluth and will use the time in California to be together.
"It was that big, relative, first couple games and now we’re back on, it seems like, training camp again," Parise said. "But it will be nice. We didn’t get to the usual trip up to Duluth that we do, didn’t have the timing. So this was the alternative. Go there a couple days early, play a little golf and get prepared out there. Should be fun for us. In the back of our minds, knowing we have two pretty tough games coming up."
As a contrast, Minnesota will play 14 games in 28 days in February.
"It would be real nice to have (the break) between Game 50 and 60," Parise said. "Unfortunately we don’t have that luxury right now."
Park named player development coach: The Wild announced Tuesday that former player Richard Park is joining the organization as a player development coach. Park will assist in the development of players in the AHL with Iowa.
Park, 38, had 241 points in 738 career NHL games in 14 seasons. Park had 37 goals and 37 assists in 217 games during three seasons with Minnesota.
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