Each year, at the NHL Entry Draft, young players hear their names called and know they’re on their way to the NHL — it may still take some time, but they’re headed in the right direction.
But for some players, that draft-day dream was not a reality. Instead, they forged a different path eyeing the same goal. These players are the free agents; they work as hard as possible hoping a scout will take notice and that some team will come calling.
“It’s not ideal,” Zack Mitchell said of being undrafted. “I went through my last year in Junior knowing it was my last chance to make an impression and prove some teams wrong. I just played hard and never gave up on myself. Being undrafted, it definitely adds a little fuel to the fire.”
When it came to Mitchell and four other young players, the Wild took notice.
The most heralded free agent was defenseman Christian Folin, who signed March 31 and played in one game for the Wild on April 10 against the Blues. Joining him were forwards Mitchell, Brady Brassart, Michael Keranen and defenseman Guillaume Gelinas.
While Folin entered this year’s Development Camp — the first pro camp he’s attended in his career — with some experience with Minnesota already in tow, camp provides the first opportunity for the young free agents to work with the Wild’s staff and grow familiar with the State of Hockey.
“It’s nice to finally belong to someone,” Mitchell said. “Obviously I really appreciate them giving me this chance. It’s really exciting and just a lot more comfortable actually belonging to them.”
“It’s nice having some confidence,” Brassart added. “You know what the plan is for the next three years and having some stability in what that will be. It’s nice to just worry about hockey and not the stuff off the ice.”
For Folin, the time he spent with the Wild at the end of the regular season has made a huge difference. He’s already familiar with the staff and the facilities, not to mention Minnesota’s systems.
“It definitely does a lot, especially just being around the team for a few weeks,” Folin said. “That just really helped, to be a part of the team and get to know the systems. To just be around the guys is huge. Because otherwise I would have been walking around all summer wondering what it’s like. Now I have a good idea what its like and I know that I can play at that level.”
Folin had a jump start on making a serious impression with the Wild, but for the other four signees, now is the time to show what they can do.
Mitchell, a right winger who the Wild signed March 4, tallied 83 points (31-52=83) in 67 games last season for the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm. He added an additional 30 points (12-18=30) in 20 playoff games as the Storm fell in the Memorial Cup Finals to the Edmonton Oil Kings.
“I like to be a player who plays on both sides of the puck, contribute offensively but not be a liability on the defensive side,” Mitchell said. “I just try to play a complete game and help the team any way I can.”
Brassart, a self-described power forward who signed with the Wild on March 1 co-led Calgary of the Western Hockey League with 85 points (35-50=85) in 70 games last season. He noted he likes to contribute offensively and is a strong two-way player.
Gelinas, a gilded defenseman who signed on July 1, notched 92 points (23-69=92) and a plus-24 rating in 67 games with Val-d’Or of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) last season. He earned the Emile Bouchard Trophy as the QMJHL’s top defenseman and picked up another 34 points (11-23=34) in 24 playoff games. It was the season he was hoping for — one in which he played well enough to earn a contract with an NHL team.
“I’m an offensive defenseman,” Gelinas said. “I want to support the rush, have a good first pass and don’t cost anything in my zone. Overall I want to make the attack go forward.”
Finally, Keranen, who signed on June 5, picked up 52 points (17-35=52) through 52 games with Ilves Tampere in Finland. The Stockholm, Sweden native earned the Golden Helmet Award (voted for by the players) as the best player in the Finnish Elite League and the Lasse Oksanen Award as the best player in the regular season. The forward simply hopes to contribute offensively to Minnesota as best he can.
While free agents have had to work hard to create their own paths to the NHL, they are also afforded the luxury of choosing which team to sign with. So, why the Wild? The answer is simple: they feel Minnesota is a great fit personally, in addition to its passionate fan base. Keranen also mentioned that the Wild’s Finnish presence made his decision easier.
“It just felt like the right decision,” Brassart said. “The atmosphere here in Minnesota is very similar to a Canadian-like market as far as hockey goes. It seemed like a pretty cool place to play and the right fit.”