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Wild thoughts: Three-on-three plan must change; why Ryan Donato needs more ice time; a longer look at Kaapo?

The Wild will return home on Friday afternoon to play host to Ottawa having earned at least a point in seven consecutive games and coming off a 3-2 victory in New Jersey. While Minnesota collected four of a possible six points during its East Coast swing, it also blew late leads and lost in overtime to Boston and the Rangers.

The Wild entered play on Wednesday sitting in last place in the Central Division with 24 points and second-to-last in the Western Conference in front of only the Los Angeles Kings (20 points). Here are three takeaways from the Wild’s trip.

TIME FOR A NEW PLAN

Coach Bruce Boudreau indicated a few weeks back that he was going to change things when the Wild went to the 3-on-3 overtime and start using his younger, faster players over veterans. This sounded like a great idea, given the Wild’s lack of success in 3-on-3, but it didn’t last.

Winger Zach Parise was left standing still as Torey Krug raced past and scored the winner on Saturday in the Bruins’ 5-4 win over the Wild. On Monday, it was defenseman Ryan Suter who found himself watching on the ice as Tony DeAngelo ripped a shot past Alex Stalock 32 seconds into the extra period to give the Rangers a 3-2 victory at Madison Square Garden.

Boudreau tried to clarify afterward that he never meant that Suter and other veteran defensemen weren’t going to play in overtime and only was referring  to the forwards. That still made it odd that Parise was on the ice in Boston.

The Wild are 0-4 this season in overtime and an embarrassing 12-32 since the NHL went to the 3-on-3 format in 2015-16. Given that Minnesota isn’t  expected to be a playoff team this season, and it’s a year all about discovering what the younger players can do, this is an easy fix.

When in doubt, play the kids (or not even kids, but younger players). How does Matt Dumba not start every overtime period? Joel Eriksson Ek started in New York but he was paired with Jared Spurgeon and Suter because Boudreau wanted responsible players on the ice. The fact is 3-on-3 is all about puck possession and speed and going on the defensive is a sure way to lose.

The nice thing for Boudreau is he has nothing to lose by going to the younger, faster players at this point. It’s not as if the current plan is working. So give Eriksson Ek, Kevin Fiala, Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway a chance. No objection here to playing Spurgeon but guys like Suter and Mikko Koivu are 5-on-5 guys.

WHERE’S DONATO?

Ryan Donato scored his second goal of the season in the loss to the Rangers and then had an assist on Tuesday night against the Devils. That gives him two goals and three assists in 23 games.

The winger has spent much of the season on the fourth line and is averaging 9 minutes, 43 seconds per game. Donato had four goals and 11 assists in 15 games with the Wild after being acquired in a trade that sent Charlie Coyle to Boston last February. He then had one assist in his final seven games.

Donato was impressive upon his arrival with the Wild because of his shoot-first mentality. So would added playing time and confidence get him back to that point? It’s odd that the Wild isn’t doing more to find out.

There is a chance that the Donato trade — made by since-fired general manager Paul Fenton — will prove to be a bust. But the Wild and Boudreau are in perfect position to find that answer before next season and not playing Donato, or potentially sending him to Iowa of the AHL, isn’t the way to do it.

What the Wild need to do is find a way to get Donato more playing time and if that comes at the expense of a veteran that’s fine. If Donato proves he doesn’t belong in the NHL, then so be it. But a year ago many of us were ready to write off Eriksson Ek in large part because every mistake he made seemed to cost him playing time.

When Eriksson Ek finally got consistent ice time, his performance improved. He was far from a finished product but Eriksson Ek now looks like he could be a solid contributor for the Wild for many seasons. This team needs to find out the same about guys like Donato and Fiala and limiting them isn’t going to accomplish that. This isn’t 1985, it’s 2019.

The fact is there are no secrets about the veteran players on this team. We know what they can do and they aren’t the future. Donato might not be either, but he at least deserves a chance to make his case with more ice time and a bigger role.

GETTING HIS CHANCE

Devan Dubnyk has been away from the Wild while he tends to a family situation, opening the door for 23-year-old Kaapo Kahkonen to make his first start on Tuesday against the Devils. Kahkonen, who was selected by the Wild in the fourth round in 2014, did not disappoint as he made 32 saves.

What will be interesting now is to see if the Wild want to give Kahkonen a few more chances to prove himself. Dubnyk has struggled for much of this season and Alex Stalock is a solid backup goalie but he’s a backup.

The Wild’s current situation means that mixing in Kahkonen with the big-league club, and not dispatching him right back to Iowa, might not be a bad idea. There aren’t enough starts to keep three goalies sharp but there also could be a case to be made that Kahkonen has a future in Minnesota and finding out as soon as possible wouldn’t be a bad idea.





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