With larger role, Minnesota Wild’s James Sheppard ready to grow

ST. PAUL, Minn. – James Sheppard passed his rookie test, so the Minnesota Wild are giving him more responsibilities.

First and foremost, he needs to score more goals. “He had what last year? Four. Not enough,” coach Jacques Lemaire said.

Sheppard established a Wild record by skating in 78 games as a first-year player, a feat attributable to both the team’s shortage of proven, productive centres and his development since being picked in the first round of the 2006 draft out of his junior team on the Canadian Maritime province of Nova Scotia.

The departure of Pavol Demitra, who played a significant amount of minutes on a scoring line, created an opening for Sheppard to move up. Eric Belanger and Benoit Pouliot will be the other two centremen behind standout Mikko Koivu, but early this summer general manager Doug Risebrough declared Sheppard the No. 2 centre at the ripe old age of 20.

“He does have some attributes that are better than what I could’ve acquired in any 28-year-old: size, determination, all of that,” Risebrough said. “Ultimately it’s a growing thing for him. It’s not going to be all smooth sailing, but short and long-term picture I think it’s the right thing to do. So if the short-term picture is good, then the long-term picture is going to be great.”

Lemaire echoed the growth mandate.

“Grow to the player that he should be. Grow at that point as quick as you can. I want him to be serious about improving, to think about it – that he’s going to be a good player and the team needs him and he’s going to do a lot for the team,” Lemaire said. “He’s got to go to bed with this, every night.”

Sheppard has embraced the challenge.

“I’m just more confident right now,” he said. “I feel more like a professional hockey player. I know what the coaches are looking for. I know what I need to do to earn my ice time. I know what I need to do to make this team better. Showing up every night is something I still have to work on, and if I do that hopefully I can contribute more to this team.”

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Sheppard had 15 assists last season. That total will have to rise, too, which shouldn’t be too difficult if he stays on a line with all-star Marian Gaborik. Lemaire had the two of them skating with Stephane Veilleux this week, and Gaborik said he likes what he’s seen from Sheppard.

“When he’s playing on a line where he can generate a little offence, he does it,” Gaborik said. “He’s strong. You realize he’s pretty fast. It doesn’t look that way because he’s so big and his skating’s got kind of a short stride. But when he gets going he’s a fast player. It’s good. You need that from centremen. He’s strong down low. It’s his second year so he’s still growing, but he’s gotten to the point where he can play definitely.”

The Wild finalized their 23-man roster for the regular season Wednesday by making their last round of training camp moves, reassigning goalie Barry Brust to their primary minor league affiliate in Houston and placing defenceman Kurtis Foster and John Scott on injured reserve.

Foster is recovering from a broken left leg, a gruesome injury suffered last March that could keep him out another month or two. Brust was sent down once Josh Harding, the backup to goaltender Niklas Backstrom, was cleared to play after getting poked in the eye with a stick during an exhibition game last week.

Eight defencemen made the cut: Marc-Andre Bergeron, Brent Burns, Kim Johnsson, Tomas Mojzis, Erik Reitz, Nick Schultz, Martin Skoula and Marek Zidlicky. Burns, Johnsson, Schultz and Skoula are the only blue-liners remaining from the October roster a year ago.

In addition to the four centres, the Wild kept nine wings: Derek Boogaard, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Andrew Brunette, Gaborik, Colton Gillies, Antii Miettinen, Owen Nolan, Veilleux and Craig Weller.

Zidlicky is not expected to play in Saturday’s season opener due to a sprained ankle. Two other skaters must be placed on the scratch list for the game against Boston.