In the eyes of most observers, Minnesota Wild prospect Tyler Graovac
is the definition of a late bloomer. But from his perspective, the club’s seventh-round pick in the 2011 National Hockey League Entry Draft was patiently growing his game until he had an opportunity to show he’s a viable pro prospect.
Each year playing junior hockey, the Brampton, Ontario native expanded his game until he was given an opening to flourish. In 2012-13, his on-ice output jumped by an astonishing 46 points over the previous year. Splitting time between the Ottawa 67’s and the Belleville Bulls, Graovac netted 73 points (38-35=73) in his final year of junior. Following his breakout season, he signed an entry-level deal with Minnesota on April 2, 2013.
“I think in junior, and in any league really, a lot of things have to do with opportunity,” Graovac said. “I thought my last year of junior I got more opportunity. The more opportunity you get, the more comfortable you get with your game and the more you can work on it.”
That year-by-year improvement continued into last season, his first as a pro with the Iowa Wild, Minnesota’s American Hockey League affiliate. On a young squad, with a combination of injuries and call-ups opening the door for more ice time, Graovac played in all situations. As the season wore on, his confidence grew with his playing time.
“I felt like I started to get some good momentum with my game,” Graovac said. “At the end of the year (Iowa Wild Head Coach Kurt Kleinendorst) gave me more opportunity.”
At Wild training camp, the forward made the most of his chance in front of Minnesota’s brass. Graovac’s steady improvement was noticed by the club’s brain trust. Head Coach Mike Yeo played the 21-year-old in two preseason games, both on the road in hostile environments of Winnipeg and St. Louis, respectively.
“I like that he’s improved every year,” Yeo said during camp. “He’s got the right attitude, as far as his determination to get better as a player.”
His approach on-and off-ice is something that impresses Minnesota’s bench boss. Graovac’s ability to digest information and willingness to learn is something that separates him from other prospects.
“You can always tell, there’s certain players, they kind of look at you and you almost have the feeling like they don’t know what you’re talking about. But then there are other players that take in everything that you say and those are the ones that get better. And this is what he’s shown,” Yeo said. “He’s improved every year and that’s a huge credit to the attitude that he has.”
After a season in the minors, Graovac said that he understands the mentality it takes to be a professional. It’s a day-in-day-out grind, and the players who can be consistent are the ones who get their numbers called by the big club.
The 6-foot-5, 200-pound center has the tools to be a productive NHLer. But just like working out and developing muscle strength, he’s working on the mental aspect of the game, which is just as important as lifting weights in the offseason.
“I worked more on having a mindset of trying to get better everyday,” Graovac said. “A lot of people say you want to get bigger faster stronger, but putting myself into having a National Hockey League mindset all summer really helped me better on the ice also.”
Every morning, the center would tell himself to improve that day. It was a mantra he carried with him when he came to Minnesota in early September before the start of camp. The prospect skated in the Wild’s informal captains’ practices and playing alongside the team’s veterans was another invaluable learning experience.
“I was on the ice with top-notch NHL players, with Zach (Parise) and Ryan (Suter) running the practices, and you get a lot out of those opportunities. It made it a little easier going into camp,” Graovac said. “Playing with those kind of guys and seeing them in the room– they’re just normal people and just other hockey players trying to do well for their team. And I felt myself fitting in there.”
Graovac knows the Wild has a deep roster, but he continues to improve his all-around game in Iowa so he can fit in anywhere in Minnesota’s lineup. After a strong camp, he will be ready if the Wild taps him for an NHL debut, whenever that may be.
“When you’re down in the minors the No. 1 thing is Minnesota and being ready for whenever they need you,” Graovac said. “You aim for perfection and if you miss you can’t think of it as a mistake. That’s something I’ve been trying to do.”