While they are individually trying to prove that they can make the big club out of camp, defenseman Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and Gustav Olofsson are sharing the experience together, as friends.
With five returners from last season’s blue line (Keith Ballard, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Ryan Suter), they know that there are only a couple of spots up for grabs. However, they’re not getting caught up in the roster spot numbers game.
“You’re focusing on yourself and focusing on doing what’s best for your team and being at your best,” Dumba said. “You can’t really focus on (the completion), but at the same time, we’re all good buddies. So it’s kind of hard, but when it comes down to it at the end of the day it is battling for a spot.”
For the defenseman, the drive to be the best manifests itself. Whether it¹s in practice or during off-ice condition, they are pushing one another to improve.
“We have a really good competitive situation,” Folin said. “We’re all good friends and are trying to push each other. It’s a win-win situation because we’re pushing each other to get better every day.”
For Olofsson, who left Colorado College at the conclusion of last season to follow his National Hockey League dream, the prospect tournament prior to camp was an ideal way to prepare for the Wild camp, and for the blueliners to get to know each other.
“Obviously at camp, we’re trying to separate yourself individually, but even in Traverse we were feeding off of each other and making each other better by playing alongside one another,” Olofsson said. “It’s a friendly competition. We feed off of each other in practice and keep each other to high standards.”
Combined the set has played in only 22 professional contests (Dumba, 13 with Minnesota; Folin, one with Minnesota; Olofsson, eight with Iowa). But what they lack in experience, they make up for in ability. All bring a unique set of skills to the ice, and the Wild brass wants to see more of it in camp.
Dumba, the Wild’s first round pick in 2012, is an explosive skater with a big shot from the point. Last season, he had a taste of the NHL and posted a goal and an assist before being assigned to Canada’s World Junior Team. He then returned to junior hockey to play with the Portland Winterhawks. Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo believes the key to his game starts in transition.
“It’s not about him getting the puck and skating through everybody. It’s about getting it and effectively getting it to our forwards, but making sure he’s part of the attack because he has that skating ability,” Yeo said. “We definitely want to create more offense and generate more scoring opportunities from the blue line in the offensive zone. This is a guy, with his mobility and his shot, he certainly has the ability to help us in those areas.”
Last season, Dumba took the things he learned from his brief audition in Minnesota with him to junior. He’s trying to bring that with him to camp this year.
“I just want to be consistent and be a professional, that’s what it’s all about,” Dumba said. “I think I found that in junior. I took that leadership role when I went back to Portland, showing younger guys and some of the older guys, too, that to be at this level, you do have to be consistent and you do have to be at your best.”
Returning to Portland, Dumba found that offensive consistency, averaging nearly a point per game. In 26 contests he totaled 24 points (8-16-=24) and a plus-31 rating. He also helped lead the Winterhawks to the Western Hockey League finals, where the club lost in a hard-fought seven-game series to the Edmonton Oil Kings, 4-3. In 21 playoff games, the blueliner racked up 18 points (8-10=18).
The first thing that sticks out with Folin is his size. Listed at 6-foot-3, 215-pounds, he is more physically mature than his counterparts. Considered a late bloomer, the defenseman was undrafted and attended the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. After two seasons at UMass-Lowell, the 23-year-old was arguably the most sought after college free agent on the market when he signed with Minnesota.
In his NHL debut last season on April 10 against the St. Louis Blues, the defenseman tallied his first career assist and earned a plus-3 rating.
“He’s NHL-ready in terms of his size, in terms of his strength and skating ability,” Yeo said. “I think that he’s had some very good moments and we’re not going to rush to judgment with him by any means. He’s going to be here for a while because of those reasons, but he’s got to show that the other parts are there as well, as far as the consistency in his game and really starting to establishing himself as far as fit and the role and identity that he has.”
At 19, Olofsson is the youngest of the trio and the most likely start the season in Iowa. However, the Wild’s second-round pick in 2013 also might have the most upside.
“Olie is a kid that’s done a pretty good job. He’s a young kid and there’s no question that there’s some development that needs to take place there, but what you like is when somebody has things that you can’t teach and the poise that he plays the game with is pretty impressive,” Yeo said. “You can see him when he’s out on the ice and look very comfortable passing pucks and playing with a Pominville, with a Parise and not intimidated going head-to-head against a Mikko or a Thomas. So, that’s impressed me. He looks like he has a mentality and mindset that, again, is hard to teach.”
Olofsson signed with the Wild after only his freshman season at Colorado College. His World Junior performance, where he helped Sweden to a silver medal, helped him decide to take the next step to professional hockey. He believed that taking his game to the pros was best for his development. The self-assurance he gained playing on the world stage and in eight games with the Iowa Wild has carried into camp.
“You can’t be nervous when you get the puck,” Olofsson said. “Be confident in your play and believe in what you can do, otherwise you can end up fumbling with it. Being nervous doesn’t help you at all.”
While all three are battling for spots with the Wild, and playing with the club as their ultimate goal, they’re all trying to improve their game, even if it’s not in the State of Hockey.
“Everyone that’s here is trying to make the team and that’s my goal, too,” Folin said. “Whether I make the team right or way or get a chance after Christmas, you’ve got to try to get better every day.”
The three blueliners have embarked on the journey to the NHL together, as competitors and, more so, as friends. One day, they all hope to add Wild teammates to their bond.
“We’re looking forward, that’s kind of our slogan for the camp and for the season,” Dumba said. “That’s really what it’s about—you can’t dwell on the past. At the end of the day, it might come down to where we’re all teammates, so it’s working together and trying to figure it out together.”