ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Minnesota Wild finished last season bracing for the worst news about one of their best forwards. Pierre-Marc Bouchard was still bothered by post-concussion symptoms in the second extended absence of his now-threatened career.
Bouchard needed more time to heal, making him one of the rare NHL players to actually benefit from the lockout. Symptom-free for more than a month, Bouchard is on track to play for the Wild in their opener Saturday night against Colorado.
"I kind of needed that. It wasn't a great situation for anybody—don't get me wrong here—but it gave me a little bit more time to make sure I healed properly," Bouchard said after practice Tuesday.
Because he wasn't cleared for activity last year when the season concluded, Bouchard was allowed—unlike his locked-out peers—to see the Wild's medical staff and train at their facilities. He had a weekly check-up with team doctors. After an intra-squad scrimmage Wednesday night, Bouchard will speak with them and general manager Chuck Fletcher again to seek final approval to participate from the start of the season.
The slick-skating and deft-passing Bouchard, the Wild's longest-tenured player, has missed 157 of a possible 254 games because of concussions over the last four years. The first incident came on March 25, 2009, and he played in only one game after that until returning to action Dec. 1, 2010. Then the dreaded head injury struck again when he was hit face-first into the boards in a game on Dec. 13, 2011.
Bouchard missed two games, returned for eight more and then missed the remainder of the season. The Wild were a league-leading 20-7-3 before Bouchard was hurt that night in Winnipeg. They went 15-29-8 the rest of the way. Coach Mike Yeo said he believes the Wild would've made the playoffs if Bouchard wasn't out.
"Boy, he's been a big part of this team for so many years, and we all know his skill level and what he can bring to the team," captain Mikko Koivu said. "I've been with him for all my years here, so it feels good to have him on the ice and back in action."
Bouchard is expected to play the left wing on the third line, with Kyle Brodziak at centre and Cal Clutterbuck at right wing. That's more offensive ability on the third line than the Wild have arguably ever had over the franchise's 13 years. With Zach Parise, Dany Heatley, Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi asked to produce the bulk of the scoring, there's less pressure on Bouchard, the team's first-round draft pick in 2002 who has been on the roster every day since he was 18. He's 28 now.
"If I am able to stay healthy and play my game, I know I can help the team with the different aspects of my game," Bouchard said, acknowledging some pessimism about his future a year ago.
"At the start you're a little discouraged, and it's tougher. But throughout the process I was trying to stay positive. At one point I was confident I was going to be able to get back to 100 per cent. Making some appointments with the doctors and seeing some progress was helpful. Every day I was feeling a little bit better and a little bit better, so that's what kept me going, I guess."
Yeo said he's just as eager to bring Bouchard back on a power-play unit as he is to the five-on-five lineup.
"We almost had to go in with the plan that he wasn't going to be in here and hope that he was," Yeo said. "The more that this goes on, the more encouraged that I am. I think he looks great, and he's feeling great, and hopefully this will continue."
Notes: The Wild signed RW Nick Palmieri to a one-year, two-way contract. He's competing with Stephane Veilleux and Jake Dowell for the extra forward spots on the roster. Palmieri, who has nine goals and 10 assists in 36 games for Houston of the AHL this season, appeared in nine games for the Wild last season. ... D Marco Scandella has been skating on his own, but won't be ready for the opener because of a groin injury.
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