With the drills, practices and scrimmages over, here are the Five Takeaways NHL.com Correspondent Dan Myers has from the 2016 Minnesota Wild Development Camp.
This year’s camp displayed as much skill and depth as perhaps any in the Chuck Fletcher-era. Seemingly all week, there was a skilled play being made somewhere on the ice.
Whether it’s bigger players like Joel Eriksson Ek, Alex Tuch or Jordan Greenway or smaller guys Sam Anas, Alex Petan or Luke Kunin, the Wild has invested heavily in recent years in guys who can make plays and it certainly showed this week.
“We have the best depth we’ve had at this camp in years,” Fletcher said. “This is probably the most talented group we’ve had since 2012, so that’s a positive sign for the organization.”
Not only is the group skilled, they are also in fantastic shape. Fletcher raved about how impressed he was with the condition of almost every player in camp. Often, there are a few stragglers who come to camp a little soft.
Not the case this season.
Fletcher said this group may be the strongest, best-conditioned group of campers he’s seen in his time with the Wild. That should make things more interesting when its time to head to Traverse City, Mich. for the prospect’s tournament and once everyone comes together for training camp in the fall.
“There’s very few outliers, very few guys who have grabbed attention by being in bad shape,” Fletcher said. “So that’s usually a great sign. Typically, you have kids who aren’t in shape and they have to spend the rest of summer trying to get in shape so they don’t embarrass themselves in fall camp.”
Iowa has struggled in recent years, but appears ready to make a big jump, perhaps as soon as next season.
A number of factors have contributed to their recent record: Several of Minnesota’s best young players (Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Matt Dumba, Mike Reilly) have stuck in the NHL.
Many of the organization’s top prospects (Tuch, Mario Lucia, Adam Gilmour) have been playing college hockey or playing overseas (Eriksson Ek).
Others have been injured (Grayson Downing, Zac Dalpe, Tyler Graovac).
That’s made things awfully thin in Des Moines and the results on the ice have followed accordingly, but that shouldn’t be a problem anymore.
It’s possible that Iowa could start the season with first-round picks like Tuch and Eriksson Ek anchoring top-6 roles.
Zack Mitchell had a strong camp this week and was a 22-goal scorer in Iowa last season. He seems primed to push for an NHL job.
Downing missed this week’s camp with an injury but scored 19 goals and 40 points in 56 games with Iowa a year ago.
Dalpe and Graovac missed big chunks of last season but are proven American Hockey League (AHL) performers also knocking on the NHL door.
Lucia and Gilmour each got a taste of pro hockey late last season and looked good as well.
Minnesota also signed free agent Pat Cannone to a one-year, two-way contract on July 1. Cannone was an AHL All-Star last season with the Chicago Wolves, scoring three goals to earn MVP honors in the All-Star Game.
And that’s just up front.
“There’s lots of competition,” said Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr. “We have some players on the wing that should give us very good depth which we haven’t had. Having a good year down there is very important us.”
Added depth on the blue line in the form of Nick Seeler and free-agent signee Victor Bartley, who has 121 games of NHL experience, should help stabilize the back end.
The additions of Alex Stalock and Adam Vay in goal will provide healthy competition for Steve Michalek.
“We’re not limiting any of these guys, but realistically, some of these guys are going to have to play and get their feet wet in pro hockey,” Flahr said. “Being around a winning environment and playing with good players should only help.”
Speaking of Vay, the Hungarian import earned the camp’s Hardest Worker Award.
Signed as a free agent on May 18 after a standout performance at the IIHF World Championships, Vay displayed all the qualities that allowed him to excel at the tournament.
At 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, Vay has plenty of size, but surprised coaches with how athletic he is and the type of shape he was in upon arrival. Brad Bombardir, Director of Player Development, also praised his attitude and willingness to learn.
“He’s got all this ability, he’s got all this stuff sitting right in front of him,” Bombardir said. “His attitude is phenomenal, his attitude is probably a little bigger than his size. He’s always got a smile on his face walking down the hall. I think he’s loving life right now.”
Vay is extremely raw and will certainly need some time to refine certain aspects of his game, but there’s no doubt that the Wild believes he has a bright future, which will begin in either Des Moines or Quad Cities this fall.
“He’s got potential to be an NHL goaltender, for sure,” said Wild Goaltending Coach Bob Mason. “He’s 22 and he’s 6-foot-5; that size, he’s quick, he’s hungry and he seems to be a good student of the game. Those are the things you look for.”
In addition to his potential on the ice, Vay sounds remarkably like the Russian cosmonaut from the movie Armageddon — maybe a career in Hollywood is also in the cards someday down the line.
The players with perhaps the most to gain from a strong camp arrived in Saint Paul this week and did everything they had to in order to stay on the radar of coaches and managers for the upcoming season.
Tuch and Eriksson Ek each showed up in top physical form and led the way from the outset, both on and off the ice.
Whether it was Bombardir, Flahr, Fletcher or new Iowa Coach Derek Lalonde, the universal feeling by those in positions of authority was that both Tuch and Eriksson Ek have positioned themselves to compete for roster spots with Minnesota this fall.
Because of the World Cup, and Wild players’ extensive participation in the tournament, guys like Eriksson Ek, Tuch and Mitchell should get an extended look from Minnesota’s new coaching staff.
“The players that we hoped would stand out and be leaders have done a tremendous job,” Fletcher said.
The Wild, both in Saint Paul and in Des Moines, are in good hands with Bruce Boudreau at the helm of the big club and with Lalonde running the show in the AHL.
Boudreau hired veteran coach John Anderson and former Hall-of-Fame player Scott Stevens to be his assistant coaches and each captivated the attention of players this week.
Stevens, 52, who retired from playing following the 2003-04 season, looks like he could jump onto a team’s blue line right now and play 20 minutes a night.
Said one player this week, who participated in a faceoff drill against Stevens: “It was like going up against a bear.”
Lalonde has had tremendous success as a head coach over the last five seasons, spending three years, and winning one championship, with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League, before winning a Coach of the Year award in the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye.
Both Boudreau and Lalonde made quality first impressions with players as well.
“Bruce takes a different approach,” Tuch said of Boudreau. “He’s really outgoing, and I was really just comfortable talking to him already."
Mitchell echoed those thoughts on the new bench boss for Iowa as well.
“He’s really personable and a guy that really cares about his players,” Mitchell said of Lalonde. “Guys are going to play harder if they know a coach cares about them and he’s had success at every level he’s coached at. I don’t see why that should change.”
Lalonde, who also coached at Ferris State University and the University of Denver, has embraced the development aspect of his job, something that made him an attractive candidate for the Wild when looking to hire a coach.
“We talked to a lot of people and his name kept coming up as an up-and-coming guy,” Flahr said. “We met with him and very driven, very focused, very detailed. He has a lot of passion for the game and it was one of those things where, he was going to get an opportunity eventually and we thought it was a real good fit for us.”