ST. PAUL, Minn. - The jump from first to second year for James Sheppard has not been as smooth as he or the Minnesota Wild wanted.
The 20-year-old centre, however, is picking up his play. Sheppard has two goals and two assists in the last eight games, after tallying only two and six in the first 41. Most importantly for coach Jacques Lemaire and his staff, Sheppard is performing fundamentally better on both ends of the ice.
"At the start of the season we wanted Shep to do certain things, maybe because we counted on him so much," Lemaire said after Monday's practice. "I don't know if he felt some pressure in all this. Then all of a sudden we'd accept what he was doing. And then since we accepted it, last ... six to 10 games, he's been better.
"We were pushing him before, because we needed him, and there was nothing coming out."
Sheppard pointed to increased consistency and simply more NHL experience as the weeks and months have passed.
"There's nothing monumental happening," he said. "I'm just creating more, and because I'm doing that I'm confident in myself and I'm getting more ice time because the coaches are confident in me. That's a huge thing."
Originally asked to centre the second line behind Mikko Koivu, Sheppard must continue developing and improving over the next two-plus months for the scoring-starved Wild to make the playoffs in this crowded Western Conference race. They begin a four-game homestand Wednesday, all against West teams.
"It's good for me and it's good for them, because we can work together and I can help this team out more than just helping myself," Sheppard said.
Compounding his early struggles was a complete lack of contributions by the other recent first-rounders on the roster, forwards Benoit Pouliot and Colton Gillies. Pouliot was sent to the minors two weeks ago, and Gillies has only appeared in 27 of the team's 49 games.
But Gillies has improved lately, like Sheppard. There's nothing on the score sheet to show for it - he has just one goal and three assists so far in his rookie season - except for ice time.
That is a telling statistic, though. Gillies played 11-plus minutes in last Tuesday's win against Toronto and was sent out for critical shifts in the third period of Saturday's overtime victory at Vancouver.
"It's just kind of starting to click for me," Gillies said. "I don't know if it's the confidence or the video that I do. I just feel a little more prepared."
Lemaire said he's been pleased by what he's seen from Gillies over the past two weeks.
"Often a player will say, 'Well, Coach has got to give me confidence so I get better,"' Lemaire said. "Well, I heard that many, many, many, many, many, many, many - that's not a recording - many times. But when the guy plays well, he gets to play. When the guy does something that you like, and it's not only points, he gets it. It's the confidence when he's on the ice. You see that he knows what he's doing. You know that he's in control and he sees what's coming, and he reacts to that."
In other news, left-winger Andrew Brunette was named captain for February. The honour, seemingly, was sealed when he played through a painful injury to his right knee and extended his streak of consecutive games played - the NHL's current longest - last month. He's now at 502 straight games.
Also on Monday, forwards Derek Boogaard and Stephane Veilleux were held out of practice due to muscle spasms. Their status, according to the team, is day to day. Forward Craig Weller is also still out with a head injury.