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Comfortable Warner Named 'Most Improved' Prospect

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

After undergoing shoulder surgery late in 2014, Hunter Warner's season with the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League was cut short; Warner played in 24 games after making the jump from the United States Hockey League.

The surgery was just before his 20th birthday, a point on the development timeline for hockey players so vital in their on- and off-ice growth.

But 20 months can make all the difference. With that much time since a nagging shoulder injury finally required more serious attention, Warner played 79 games last season between the WHL and the American Hockey League.

The 6-foot-3 right-shot defenseman and Edina native, who was signed by the Wild after its 2015 Development Camp, came from relative anonymity as far as prospects go. But Warner has continued to make good on the contract the Wild gave him last September, most recently being named Minnesota's Most Improved Player at its 2016 Development Camp.

"What went right was, it was my third time at that camp so I just felt a lot more comfortable," Warner said. "The year before that I had surgery, so my season was cut short, and then this past season I got to play 80 games. Any time you get to play 80 games that's huge for your development, and huge for your confidence, so I got to learn a lot about myself."

Warner, who looks a lot bigger than 6-foot-3 on the ice, said he's been working on the kinds of things the Wild told him he needed to fine-tune should he become a successful, bigger NHL defenseman.

"One thing was my skating; I worked on my skating a lot," he said. "(I worked on) defending — having a good stick — because a lot of times bigger guys, we have to work on our feet, and getting lateral really fast against these fast forwards.

"They told me to work on my footwork as much as possible and my stickhandling, and everything like that. So I did just that."

Comfort and confidence were two things Warner said are bolstering his game right now, created by the number of repetitions he put during a full season, and the recognition he recently received from the Wild's Development Camp brass.

"Any time you have a successful camp, or any time you have a successful time on the ice in front of management like that, you just get a huge confidence boost," he said. "So I'm feeling really good about myself right now, and I just want to keep working hard, and keep going where I left off."

Mario's Part

After commitments for the University of Notre Dame forced him to be a part-time participant in each of the Wild's past three Development Camps, Mario Lucia, who signed an entry-level contract with Minnesota in March, went through the paces of his first full camp last week.

Lucia, who played nine games with Iowa in the AHL after turning pro following the culmination of his collegiate career in March, said his mindset was different than in years past given the situation he now finds himself in.

"You always want to go to the camp and do well, but now that it's your job, there's no more looking back and saying, 'Oh, I'm going to go back to school,' so you want to make a good impression and show them that you're improving into an NHL player," Lucia said.

One area players like Lucia and Warner, presumed names for Iowa's roster, felt they benefited from during Development Camp was getting to work with new Iowa Head Coach Derek Lalonde.

"It's really important," Warner said. "You get a chance to know each other and see what the other one is all about, and just feel more comfortable around each other so when I come to camp in September I'll feel a lot more comfortable playing in front of him, and working with him."

With an influx of new players for Minnesota's AHL affiliate this season, there will also be a new face behind the bench. On and off the ice though, what Iowa has on paper already has its players excited for what could come.

"It's definitely cool with the crop of guys coming in," Lucia said. "They're all high character guys, and people I'd like to develop friendships with, which is cool. Usually in pro hockey you're just doing your own thing, but when you have a good group of guys down there it makes it a better experience; it makes you want to come to the rink every day and work."

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