ST. LOUIS -- When defenseman Christian Folin was assigned to Iowa in late November, Head Coach Mike Yeo said there was no plan as to how long he would spend in the American Hockey League.
The directive for Folin was simple: Go down, play a lot, and when the time was right, come back to Minnesota.
"We had a good talk, me and Mike," Folin said. "We talked about that he sees me as an NHL player, but I have to play some minutes."
Folin will turn 25 on Tuesday, and entering his third professional season, is at a stage when his developmental path is key. He's now back in Minnesota, and with defenseman Jonas Brodin out the next three to six weeks with a broken foot, has an opportunity to earn a regular role.
Many defenseman take longer to blossom. Puberty comes later, your voice cracks, you're getting used to new things, and plenty is changing.
"It was the best for me to go down and play a lot of minutes," Folin said. "I played a lot of minutes under [Iowa Head Coach John Torchetti], and it was fun to play. In all kinds of situations you get better, and you get more comfortable with the puck, and just playing hockey is fun."
In Iowa, the Wild has found an effective environment for grooming young talent into NHL-ready defensemen. This season, three blue liners under the age of 25 who have spent time in Minnesota's AHL system — Folin, Mike Reilly, and Gustav Olofsson — have also played in the NHL.
The latter two made their NHL debuts.
A trip to the farm to graze at pasture before coming back to the NHL is also nothing new for Folin, who played 40 games for Minnesota last season, and 13 games for Iowa.
"Last year when he came back up after spending some time down there, his game was at another level," Yeo said. "It was not just the confidence he was playing with, but more than anything, the pace he was playing with, executing at a higher level, and I’d like to see some more of that."
The concept is also nothing new as far as the Wild's developmental chain is concerned, especially on its blue line.
Of the Wild's regular defensemen, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin, Nate Prosser, Marco Scandella, and Jared Spurgeon all spent time in the minors very early in their careers before becoming NHL stalwarts.
| ||NHL games in first two pro seasons ||ahl games in first two pro seasons |
|Spurgeon ||123 ||23 |
|Scandella ||20 ||40 |
|prosser ||5 ||73 |
|Brodin ||124 ||9 |
|Dumba ||71 ||23 |
|folin ||56 ||28 |
Where minutes can be hard to come by on a talented and deep blue line in Minnesota, in Iowa, the opportunity exists to play the same system, but more often.
"Just taking a lot of reps, and mental reps," Folin said. "You're touching the puck at all times, and playing a lot, it really helps. Just being out on the ice, and being the go-to guy. It really helps with your confidence, and helps you feel good about your game."
Folin raved about the coaching in Iowa, from the atmosphere and mood they create, to the on-ice instruction and how closely Iowa and Minnesota mirror each other systems-wise.
It's something both Reilly and Olofsson affirmed when they were recalled by the Wild and made their NHL debuts.
"It's very similar — the style we play down in Iowa — and it was easy," Olofsson said after making his NHL debut in Boston in November. "All the guys were supportive, and it's such an easy thing to come in and play when the d-corps is tight. You just try to do your job and play simple, so it felt good to jump in with this group of guys."
In that sense, Iowa is like Minnesota-lite. Players are put through the paces and molded to fit a style that Yeo coaches to, so as their development progresses, the path is definitively Wild.
"The number one thing for prospects is the quicker they learn the defensive game, the faster they move up to the NHL and play," Torchetti said in training camp. "Most coaches want responsible players."