When the 2023-24 AHL season began, it marked the beginning of the Brett McLean era for the Iowa Wild, Minnesota’s American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa. The Fall was full of excitement and optimism in Central Iowa with the 45-year-old McLean taking the reins of the Wild’s AHL affiliate after spending the previous six seasons as an assistant coach for both Iowa (2017-20) and then Minnesota (20-23).

The Comox, British Columbia native earned his opportunity to be a first-time head coach. Despite his experience in and around the game for decades, McLean learned plenty in his first year as a head coach.

“A lot, that's for sure,” said the Iowa coach with a chuckle. “It's tough to just pick a few things. Obviously, I think one is just to be humble.  Be very humble as a coach because it's a real challenging role. It's a great role, but it's very challenging.”

One thing that stood out to McLean was an early need for team identity and chemistry.

“I think a big one would be establishing the style of game you want your team to play and the way you want your team to act right at the start of the season, that’s huge”, explained McLean. “So, really establish that baseline. And from those first couple of weeks, the team gets together focused on that and be diligent in that area. And then that can set you up for success.”

The ideal situation is to have a team fine-tuned by December with the players leading the charge and the coaches guiding them, essentially along for the ride. This year’s Iowa Wild squad showed flashes of this style of play but struggled with consistency over stretches. Which makes sense for an AHL roster that sees multiple transactions and lineups every week.

“We had some real points this year where we had some real good moments,” said the Iowa bench boss.  “It took us a while to find our guys to kind of steer that ship, so to speak.  We will look to evaluate that early and find that core.”

Despite some great stretches of hockey, the Iowa Wild were unable to qualify for the AHL’s Calder Cup Playoffs. After a 4-0 win in Chicago on Nov. 11 propelled the team above .500, a five-game winless skid followed and Iowa was never able to recover, wrapping up at 27-37-4-4.

Even though missing the playoffs was disappointing, there were plenty of bright spots in Des Moines.  McLean and his staff did a tremendous job of developing Minnesota prospects, starting with goaltender Jesper Wallstedt to the stellar play of defenseman Daemon Hunt. In all, 11 different skaters played for both Minnesota and Iowa. 

“Obviously you saw some great growth from a lot of players,” McLean stated.  “Daemon Hunt has become just a complete stud at our level at 21 years old. Simon Johansson played outstanding the last 15-20 games. Jesper has been great all year. Mikey Milne has come on strong late.”

Hunt split the first part the season between Minnesota and Iowa. Down the stretch, he played primarily in Des Moines and displayed the traits which make him a strong candidate to be a regular in Minnesota next year. The Wild’s 2020 third-round pick (#65) led all defensemen in scoring and was third on the team with 26 assists. Hunt scored three goals and totaled 29 points in 51 AHL outings. He finished exceptionally strong with 12 points in the final 16 regular season games. Hunt also suited up 12 times for Minnesota with one assist, his first career NHL point.   

Defenseman Simon Johansson wrapped up the final 23 games with 11 points. Despite a -20 rating for the season, if you look closely at the 23-year-old’s play from Feb. 24 until the end of the season, Johansson was a +3. In 72 games with Iowa, Minnesota’s 2018 fifth-round pick (#148) scored nine goals and amassed 21 points.

As expected, prized-goalie prospect Jesper Wallstedt continued his development and is ready to push for a spot in Saint Paul. The 21-year-old set a career-high with 22 wins, two shutouts and a .910 save percentage. After a rough NHL debut, he bounced back with his first career NHL win and shutout, posting 24 saves in a 4-0 victory at the United Center on April 7 versus the Chicago Blackhawks.

Forward Mikey Milne got a late start to the season due to a preseason injury. The 2022 third-round-pick (#89 overall) played in 40 games for Iowa and finished with 21 points off eight goals and 13 assist. Iowa’s final 12 games saw the 5-foot-11, 185-pound left wing score five times and total 12 points.

McLean had more players to list, as the team played its best hockey of the season in the last two months. Iowa was 7-6-1-2 in the final 16 outings. Keep in mind, the intensity of the games in March and April had ramped up tremendously with teams in the AHL’s Central Division making a push for the playoffs. Iowa was over .500 during the most desperate time of the year.

“It's been really cool to see,” said Coach McLean with a smile.  “There's been so many nights that we've been so proud of our team. The wins have been few this year. But there's been a lot of special ones where we've had a tough night on the Friday or Saturday, and the following day we've come out with a fantastic effort and won the game.”

With the learning experience of their first season under their belt, McLean and his Iowa staff will prepare for the next steps of the offseason. The 2024 NHL Draft is set for June 28-29 at the Sphere in Las Vegas, NV. Minnesota holds the 13th overall pick. NHL free agency follows the draft and starts on July 1.

Over that stretch of time, McLean and his crew will prepare to welcome all the prospects for Minnesota Wild development camp. The Wild’s AHL coaching staff runs the camp, typically planned to take place in early July at the Wild’s TRIA practice facility.