ST. PAUL, Minn. — If the simmering on-ice rivalry between the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild reaches a feverish pitch this NHL season, it wouldn’t surprise Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau.

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — If the simmering on-ice rivalry between the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild reaches a feverish pitch this NHL season, it wouldn’t surprise Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau.

The Central Division rivals have developed a growing animosity toward each other in recent seasons, but that doesn’t mean they don’t respect each other.

"I think both teams realize they have to beat each other if they want to make the playoffs, and the proximity of Winnipeg to Minnesota — they usually have a lot of people travelling with them," said Boudreau. "It makes it more real. Out of the five games that we play (during the regular season), every game’s gonna be a must game against these guys."

Boudreau was asked if that means the Wild and Jets will be battling for a wild-card playoff spot.

"That’s what you guys feel," he said, nodding at a collection of reporters Saturday. "We might be fighting for first (place) — both teams — too."

Boudreau, who was with the Anaheim Ducks last season, is a newcomer to the Jets-Wild war.

Winnipeg coach Paul Maurice, whose club went 11-16-2 against Central foes and won four of five meetings with Minnesota last season, suggested the clubs raised the level of competition during a run to the playoffs two seasons ago.

"They have been (tough battles)," said Maurice. "We probably got into some snarliness with them two years ago, and that seems to have raised that level. To really get it going, we’d have to meet them in the playoff, and I think we’d both be happy to do that."

That may be true, but Saturday’s game had a post-season sense to it.

Thorburn returns

Veteran forward Chris Thorburn was back in the Jets lineup Saturday night, slotting in on the fourth line after being forced to watch Thursday’s regular-season opener as a healthy scratch.

"It was tough in some ways," said Thorburn.

Jim Mone / The Associated Press</p><p>Winnipeg Jets blue-liner Tyler Myers and Minnesota Wild forward Mikael Granlund hit the ice after colliding during first-period NHL action Saturday in St. Paul, Minn.</p>

Jim Mone / The Associated Press

Winnipeg Jets blue-liner Tyler Myers and Minnesota Wild forward Mikael Granlund hit the ice after colliding during first-period NHL action Saturday in St. Paul, Minn.

"I can understand coming into this year that we had a lot of youth and a lot of skill, so... it’s something that makes me work harder."

Rebuilding the game

The pressure for Canadian NHL franchises to remain relevant and competitive in the salary-cap era may have finally reached a tipping point.

The evidence seems more clear with all the new, young, star power coming into the league after all seven Canadian-based teams missed the post-season in 2015-16.

"I think it’s the first time — and somebody may correct me on this — but in the evolution of the game in Canada, it’s the first time the Canadian teams all took a breath and said we have to build, we have to rebuild," said Maurice.

"You were really never allowed to in the past. There were the uncapped years where you could just buy enough players to sort of be in the fight. But all of these teams really decided we have to strip this thing to the bone.

"Now, when you look across the board and you’ve got Sean Monahan and young players in Calgary and... (Leon) Draisaitl (in Edmonton) and great players like (Auston) Matthews and (Mitch) Marner (in Toronto). We have (Patrik) Laine, (Kyle) Connor and (Nikolaj) Ehlers now.

"There’s a new generation of potential stars coming into the games in Canada."

A rebirth for Staal?

Eric Staal, a longtime member of the Carolina Hurricanes who had a pit stop with the New York Rangers after the trade deadline last season, is trying to kick-start his career in Minnesota after signing a three-year, US$10.5-million deal in the off-season.

By his standards, the 31-year-old former all-star is coming off a modest season — scoring 13 goals and 39 points in 83 regular-season games.

Maurice expects a return to form.

"I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that he has the ability to do that," said the Jets bench boss, who previously coached Staal in Carolina.

"Eric’s a real caring man, and he would’ve carried the weight of that transition that Carolina was going through. I think he’s going to be fantastic for them here. He’s two things: he’s a spectacular pro and human being off the ice, so your (locker) room gets better by that."

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.