Who's the odd man out with Wild finally at full strength?
ST. PAUL — Two days after Zach Parise made his highly anticipated season debut, Nino Niederreiter is slated to return from a lower-body injury during Thursday, Jan. 4's game against the Buffalo Sabres.
It will mark the first time all season the Wild are at full strength, meaning coach Bruce Boudreau has some difficult decisions to make on a nightly basis.
"These guys are all vying for spots now," Boudreau said. "That's what we want to see. We want to see that inner competition all the time. These guys want to play. They don't want to sit out. Obviously we want to go with the best team we've got, so it's going to be good competition."
It raises the question: Who's the odd man out?
As the team skated with a full lineup during Wednesday's practice, Eric Staal centered the top line with Jason Zucker and Tyler Ennis, Mikko Koivu centered the second line with Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle centered the third line with Parise and Joel Eriksson Ek, and Matt Cullen centered the fourth line with Marcus Foligno and Daniel Winnik.
If those line combinations were any indication, it looks like Chris Stewart might be the low guy on the totem pole.
Still, no one on the Wild is taking playing time for granted. It was only a month ago that Boudreau implemented a rotation of healthy scratches that included Cullen, Stewart, Ennis, Foligno, and Zack Mitchell, who recently was sent down to the minors.
"We know there are 13 good forwards in here, and that's a good thing for us," Ennis said. "It's fun to be a part of a team that has that many good players."
Ennis probably isn't in danger of sitting considering he has lifted his game dramatically since being benched a few weeks ago. He has steadily worked his way onto the top line, and based on the way he's been playing, he seems to be locked into that spot for the foreseeable future.
It's someone like Foligno who might be feeling pressure, even coming off a solid game. He brings the same skill set as Stewart, and those two seem like obvious healthy scratches up front, at least for now.
"We know if someone slacks off, there's a guy waiting to replace him," Foligno said. "I feel like that's going to help us play at a high level every day because everybody wants to play and guys know if they don't put their best foot forward they might sit out."
For Boudreau, this is a good problem to have.
"It's just nice to see everybody getting healthy," he said. "If it works, then I'll be really excited."