-- There is optimism around every corner at the NHL Entry Draft. It's what propels this event, and no one comes to the Draft with the thought that the myriad dreams an organization has for a player would come crashing down. It is rare, however, when player personnel managers are willing to, while picking late in the first round, invoke the term "cornerstone" when it comes to a prospect pick. That, though, is exactly what happened Friday night in Ottawa.Tyler Cuma
sees himself as “a shut-down” defenseman who plays against top lines. But the 6-foot-2, 180-pounder projects with a little more offensive upside as far as the Wild is concerned.
“I think this is a guy that, now that he’s stronger, he’s become faster, and I think he’s going to be more confident and he can be an offensive factor,” Tommy Thompson said from the floor of Scotiabank Place, not far from where the Wild agreed with the Devils to swap first round picks while the Wild surrendered its third round choice in 2009. The move slotted Minnesota at No. 23 rather than No. 24 and assured that the club could select Cuma, a player the team did not think would be available at that position at 24.
“I would be very optimistic,” said Thompson.
Cuma, too, is optimistic.
“Obviously, my first priority is to make the team right away,” he said. “I’m definitely going to work hard throughout the offseason to try to get bigger and better as much as I can. I’ll come into camp and try to make it.”
While the organization is more cautious, especially considering the way it has addressed its blue line personnel over the past few weeks, there was a genuine sense of surprise among the club’s Draft brass that Cuma would be available near their own pick.
For that reason, the team felt the right move was to trade up one spot, from 24 to 23, in order to land Cuma. Sometimes, as Thompson likes to say, one player can make the difference, so the team made it happen.
Near midnight after being drafted, Cuma was still the picture of refined enthusiasm. He had been run through the media wringer, from TV to photos to radio to internet to phone interviews with outlets in Minnesota. His text message inbox had spilled to more than 30 in about the time it took for him to walk to the podium. The whirlwind continued until late in the evening, when, after spending some time with his family in the Wild's arena suite, he walked to the Scotiabank Place floor, looked up at the big board and finally had the chance to take a deep breath.
It was an exhausting evening, and he would eventually leave the building still wearing his Wild jersey and cap.
“We need a guy like this,” Thompson said. “The need this year was to have a good defense prospect. We’re surprised we got him, but we’re very happy we did.”
In fact, Thompson and Co. only met with Cuma once, at the Combine, and didn't feel as if he needed to grill him further. Cuma comes off as poised and refreshingly polished, speaking in clear sentences and brimming with positive energy.
“The fans really love their hockey," Cuma said of the Team of 18,000. "They really get into it. It’s known [as] a hockey state. I’m very, very pleased to come to this city and play for this team.”
In the coming weeks, Cuma will set his sights on the team's prospects camp.
“I can't wait to come into camp and show what I got," he said. "I can help in the rush. I can play the power play. I can play penalty kill. Any scenario the coach puts me in -- I think I’m really reliable in that way. I’m a physical player; I get more involved in the game when I’m more physical. But, primarily, I like to frustrate the other team’s top line, shut them down and just give them nothing to work with.”
What did Thompson like about him?
"His poise. His smarts. I use the word assertive rather than physical. He closes the gap; he’s right on you. He blocks shots."
As Cuma wrapped up his final phone interview from a nearly empty arena, absentmindedly pacing in an aisle and kicking stairs while topping one beyond-his-years answer with the next, he appeared at ease with the goings-on, and he, like the Wild, will be looking forward to his development in the coming months and years.