Sixth defense spot on Wild comes down to Merrill or Benn

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Wild coach Dean Evason wasn't ready for the public reveal. Though he had decided who would be the team's sixth defenseman for Friday's season opener at Anaheim, he hadn't yet talked to the two candidates — Jordie Benn and Jon Merrill — to break the news.

That meant the final spot on defense remained a mystery Thursday, as the Wild conducted its final practice of training camp. Jared Spurgeon and Alex Goligoski will form the top pair, with the Matt Dumba-Jonas Brodin tandem remaining intact from last season on another. Benn, signed to a one-year, $900,000 contract in late August, and Merrill, who signed a one-year, $850,000 deal in July, are in contention for the spot alongside Dmitry Kulikov on the third pairing.

After practice, Evason didn't tip his hand as to which way he would go. But he smiled broadly when asked about the spirited competition between the two veteran defensemen.

"It's a great problem for us as coaches to have,'' he said. "We think we've got seven D here who can all play. We're excited about that, but only six are going to play. So we've got to make a tough decision. But our depth is good.''

Benn and Merrill each played four preseason games. Merrill collected two assists, three blocked shots and four hits, while Benn finished the preseason with two hits. Both were on the ice for last Saturday's 5-1 loss at Chicago; Benn was minus-2 with one hit in 16 minutes, 22 seconds of ice time, while Merrill played 20:21 and finished with two hits.

Benn said the current group of Wild defensemen is versatile and deep. He hopes to contribute by moving the puck quickly, killing penalties, blocking shots and providing some grit.

"We've got seven really good D-men here,'' Benn said. "I thought I had a good camp, and we'll just go from there.''

First-step goal: Staying upright

Brandon Duhaime is expected to make his NHL debut Friday, and he has a simple goal for his opening shift. "I just don't want to fall on that first step,'' he said with a chuckle.

Duhaime, 24, made the Wild roster with a strong performance throughout training camp. The forward's parents, sister and girlfriend will attend both games on the season-opening road trip to Southern California, which concludes Saturday at Los Angeles. Though his mother cried when she heard he had made the team, Duhaime is working to keep his own emotions in check.

"It's just another hockey game, even though it's the first game of the season and my first NHL game,'' he said. "I think I've done a good job of staying even-keeled and making sure I'm not putting too much pressure on myself.''

Duhaime practiced Thursday on the fourth line with Nick Bjugstad and Nico Sturm.

Rask moved to wing

Forward Victor Rask will start the season in a new spot. The Wild's depth at center, his usual position, led Evason to move Rask to left wing. He's expected to play on a line with center Frederick Gaudreau and winger Kevin Fiala.

Evason left open the possibility that Rask could move back to center at some point, and the Wild plans to use the skill set he cultivated at that position no matter where Rask is playing.

"He'll take some faceoffs on the left, and he'll get down low in our zone,'' Evason said. "We asked him Day 1 to commit to left wing, and he's done a real nice job.

"In practice and in games, he's concentrated on what he wants to do and how we want our wingers to play the game. He's got a skill set that works for playing with Kevin Fiala, so we're looking forward to that.''

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