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Sam Steel quietly giving Wild what they need at No. 1 center

Though it’s unclear how long Steel will stay at No. 1 center, he has done enough over the past few weeks to build trust.

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Calgary Flames
Calgary Flames goaltender Dan Vladar makes a save against Minnesota Wild center Sam Steel on Wednesday, Dec. 7, in Calgary, Alberta. Steel has five goals and two assists for the Wild in 25 games this season.
Sergei Belski / USA Today Sports

ST. PAUL -- Perhaps by process of elimination more than anything else, Sam Steel got the biggest opportunity of his professional hockey career a few weeks ago.

With the Minnesota Wild struggling to find a replacement for No. 1 center Ryan Hartman, coach Dean Evason decided to try Steel between the dynamic duo of Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello.

He has made the most of it.

The trio has found some chemistry over the past few weeks as Steel has proven himself to be a viable option for the Wild.

“You don’t think that’s an intelligent decision?” Evason joked last week. “You just figured we went through the Rolodex?”

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That’s exactly what the Wild had been doing since Hartman suffered an upper-body injury during an Oct. 30 game against the Chicago Blackhawks. He dropped the gloves in the middle of the game and ended up down on the ice. He got up favoring his shoulder and hasn’t played in a game since.

That left a significant void in the Wild lineup as Hartman finished last season with a career-high 34 goals. He was a perfect fit between Kaprizov and Zuccarello, and was supposed to be a key contributor this season.

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He has been playing on a line with Freddy Gaudreau and Matt Boldy, and scored a pair of goals on Dec. 31 as the Wild defeated the Blues 5-2.

In an attempt to replace Hartman’s production at No. 1 center, the Wild initially tried Tyson Jost, who now plays for the Buffalo Sabres, then moved to Freddy Gaudreau for a few weeks.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that Evason finally decided to try Steel in that role.

“It wasn’t our decision,” Evason said. “It was Sam Steel’s decision to go there. He deserved to go there because he played so well. He kept playing better and better and better. Eventually it’s like, ‘Who’s playing the best? Well, Sam is playing the best.’ ”

Asked about the promotion at the time, Steel said he was trying not to put too much pressure on himself. He wanted to complement Kaprizov and Zuccarello as best he could while still playing his game.

“I’d like to think that I earned it and it wasn’t something where they threw me in there just to see,” Steel said. “They make it easy to play with, and I think we’ve been working in the right direction.”

Though it’s unclear how long Steel will stay at No. 1 center, he has done enough over the past few weeks to build trust.

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“He does a lot of the little things right,” Evason said. “More often than not, he gets his butt (to the front of the net) and if he goes there he’s going to take a guy with him. That opens some ice up for (Kaprizov and Zuccarello). They’ve been feeding off each other very well, and we need it to continue.”

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