TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.
-- When you ask former Montreal Canadiens
defenseman Guy Lapointe
about a defensive prospect and his face lights up, you know you've touched on something special.
In this case, it's Minnesota defenseman Tyler Cuma
, the Wild's first-round pick from 2008.
"What you notice about the kid right away is that he plays with a ton of poise. He has a great sense for the game and a willingness to compete," said Lapointe, now the amateur scouting coordinator for the Wild. "To me, when you see a veteran coach like Jacques Lemaire
keep a youngster like that to the final cuts with the Wild when he's just 18, that just tells you that Tyler is something special."
For Cuma, a 6-foot 2, 189-pound defenseman from Toronto via the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey League, it was almost like he was in a "Twilight Zone" episode when you consider how few teen-agers make that huge jump from junior hockey to the NHL.
"I thought it was just a courtesy. You know, first-round pick, keeping me around to gain some experience at an NHL camp," Cuma said. "But when (former GM) Doug Risebrough told me I should be proud of myself that I almost made the Wild at 18, I thought, 'No way!' He floored me."
Now a year older, Cuma is flashing those amazing skills at the Center I.C.E arena in Traverse City in the annual eight-team prospects tournament. On Sunday, the Wild overcame a 1-0 deficit at 6:45 of the third period when Cuma's shot was tipped in by Kevin King
en route to a 2-1 victory over Columbus.
For Cuma, except for one game that he played at Ottawa's recent junior camp, Sunday's game was the first real competition he had been in since a left knee injury sidelined him since early February.
"The knee is fine. I'm still trying to play catch-up a little with my timing in game competition, but I thought I did OK," Cuma said. "Minnesota's got a new coach and a new GM, so I'm not putting undue expectations on myself for the Wild's training camp. But this is a great opportunity to be ready for camp.
"Honestly, the way I look at it is, there's no rush. I'm just 19 … and I've got a lot to learn, I know that. But I like to think I've set standards pretty high for myself -- and seeing how other young guys have made this team as 19- 20-year-olds, I want to be one of them as well."
Tommy Thompson, Minnesota's assistant GM/player personnel, won't count out Cuma … from anything.
"Tyler's a kid who is just beginning to realize all the things he can do," Thompson said. "He plays with so much poise. He's already a terrific shutdown defenseman. He's not really big, but he's really quick. He's a tremendous backward skater. When an opponent is going from 'A' to 'B', Tyler's on 'B' before 'B' gets the puck.
"The sky's the limit for him, even if his progress was retarded a little by the knee injury."
Cuma says the fact he was a forward until he was 15 might give him an advantage of knowing what forwards like to do in certain situations.
"As a forward, I was sort of a grinder," he laughed. "I had a third- or fourth-line role. As a defenseman, I can hit a home run stopping a goal easier than I did when I played forward."
To say that Cuma was brimming with confidence when he went back to his junior team last fall would be an understatement. He was primed to make the Canadian team for the World Junior Tournament, which was played in Ottawa. But …
"My heart broke when the doctors told me I had an MCL injury before the World Junior camp in December," Cuma recalled. "Then, the doctors gave me the go-ahead to start skating again in January. I was pumped. First game back, I couldn't believe how much the knee hurt. I knew something was seriously wrong. The Wild flew me into Minnesota and I had another MRI and they told me my problem wasn't an MCL injury, it was an injury to the meniscus."
"Honestly, the way I look at it is, there's no rush. I'm just 19 ... and I've got a lot to learn, I know that. But I like to think I've set standards pretty high for myself -- and seeing how other young guys have made this team as 19-20-year-olds, I want to be one of them as well." -- Tyler Cuma
In case you came in late on this former first-round pick, Cuma started in hockey even though his dad Derek, a carpenter by trade, and his mom Sabine, a store manager, never really knew much about the game.
"My dad's profession was with wood and his dad's dad and great grandfathers all worked with wood. Not me. I'm not into wood, unless it's a hockey stick," a laughing Cuma said. "I remember watching a game on TV when I was young and thinking, 'That's for me.' Still, it wasn't until I got to juniors that I thought I could make a living at hockey … and that people would stop telling me I was too skinny to play the game."
is not yet ready to join Montreal's "Big 3" defensemen of Larry Robinson
, Serge Savard
and Lapointe, but he's got that kind of potential.
And if he happens to turn the heads of new Minnesota Wild
GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Todd Richards
the way he did with Doug Risebrough and Jacques Lemaire
a year ago, then you shouldn't be surprised if Cuma makes it to the NHL this season.