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Sheppard, Pouliot look to fill Wild void at centre

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Minnesota Wild assistant general manager Tom Thompson was walking out of the dressing room at the conclusion of a weeklong prospect camp and was asked about James Sheppard.

"Quite honestly," Thompson said, "I wasn't really watching Sheppard too closely."

It wasn't negligence on the part of Thompson, but rather confidence that the 20-year-old is ready for his second season as a Wild centre, and far down on the list of priorities for evaluation that Thompson had going into this camp.

The camp brought many of the Wild's minor league prospects together in the building where they all aspire to play one day to set the tone for another season. Many like Cal Clutterbuck, Colton Gillies and Petr Kalus were hoping to make an impression and show they deserve a shot at consideration during the Wild's training camp.

Sheppard has firmly entrenched himself in the rotation, a big difference from a year ago, when he came to this camp not knowing where he fit in.

"That added relief was there just because I knew I had established myself with the organization in my first year," said Sheppard, who had five goals and 14 assists while playing in a franchise rookie-record 78 games last season. "I know that these guys are coming up and are going to challenge players for the their jobs so I couldn't let that slow me down. But at the same time, they know what I can do. And if I play the same way I played last year, and the same way I played to get here, I know that I'll be all right."

Sheppard turned 20 years old in April, but he felt a bit like a veteran at this prospect camp. He's been through all this before and, thanks to a dearth of centres on the roster and his hard-nosed play last season, Sheppard knows his spot on the roster is safe.

After failing to bring in a big-name centre in the off-season and losing another one when Pavol Demitra left for Vancouver, the middle is considered to be a soft spot on a team that lost to Colorado in the first round of the playoffs.

Sheppard is the third centre on the depth chart behind an emerging star in Mikko Koivu and veteran Eric Belanger, who had a quiet first season in Minnesota last year. After that, 21-year-old Benoit Pouliot appears to have the fourth spot sewn up in what is shaping up as a talented but inexperienced centre corps.

"We are young, but we do know how to play hockey," Sheppard said. "Mikko's one of the best centremen in the league and Eric can do some things that surprise you. I'm up and coming, but I can establish myself in this league as well. We're all guys that can play hockey. We're going to help each other out."

The Wild also have big plans for Pouliot, the fourth overall pick in 2005 who has struggled at times to adapt to the defensive style of play coach Jacques Lemaire demands of his centres. He spent most of last season with Houston in the AHL and played in 11 games at the end of the season.

"My offence is good. It's defence I need to work on," Pouliot said. "That's what they really want me to do and that's what I'll try to do."

Knowing the Wild is depending on him this season certainly gives Sheppard an optimistic outlook as he gets ready for training camp. It marks a pretty big shift from a year ago.

"Last year, there wasn't much of an outlook," Sheppard said. "I just had all these new experiences and was just trying to cope with and deal with them as they come. I didn't really know what to expect with different things.

"Now I've been here for a year and I can have an outlook on things. I know what's going to happen. I know what I have to do to cope with those things and prepare for those things and be ready for those things physically and mentally as well. I learned a lot and it's going to help me out next year."



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