Forward Luke Kunin made quite the impression on the Minnesota Wild.
Minnesota had the 15th pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, which took place June 24-25 in Buffalo, and Brad Bombardir, its Director of Player Development, was getting suggestions on whom Minnesota should pick. He was unable to answer the texts at the time, but little did the players know, they were all on the same page.
When it was time to pick, the Wild selected Kunin out of the University of Wisconsin, satisfying players and executives alike.
"Some of our guys that had played with him in the past were really, really high on him," Bombardir said. "They're high on his character and the quality of a person he is too. Needless to say, a great quality player as well."
Drafting for need at the NHL level doesn't always pay off. Unless a team is picking at the top of the draft, the player is typically several years away from contributing.
With Kunin, the Wild believes it chose the best player on its board and filled a critical organizational need. A playmaking center who can play either wing, Kunin was on the ice in a Wild sweater for the first time during development camp at Xcel Energy Center.
"You're always trying to find centers, good, high-quality, skilled centers. They're tough to find," Bombardir said. "When you're trying to find that skill and ability, where do you find them? You find them in the first round, generally. There is always a need in this entire League for types of players and for centers. He fit nicely for us."
Like every player at camp, Kunin performed in front of a new set of coaches after Bruce Boudreau was hired in May. Boudreau hired two assistants and two coaches were hired at its American Hockey League affiliate in Iowa, including coach Derek Lalonde.
Kunin's first impression on the group has been strong.
"He's very versatile," Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. "I've even seen him play at younger ages in more of a defensive role and he was very successful at that. He obviously knows his way around the offensive zone but he can play a 200-foot game. I'm sure he'd tell you that."
Kunin is not short on confidence. He doesn't exude cockiness but is certainly comfortable in the type of player he is and wants to be.
"I want to show what I'm all about," Kunin said. "I want to prove to people that I am one of the best players in the draft. Doing that on the ice, off the ice with my character as well, I always want to show good for myself every time I'm on the ice."
As a freshman with Wisconsin last season, Kunin scored 19 goals in 34 games, fifth in the Big Ten and eight more than anyone on his team.
It was a tough season for the Badgers, who finished with an 8-19-8 record and 3-13-4-2 in conference play, worst in the six-team league.
"I'm a winner and I always want to be a winner," said Kunin, who turns 19 Dec. 4. "To be honest, it might have been good to have one losing season along the way to have that taste so you never want it again. That's what we're striving for, to be winners and win championships. That's what I'm about."
Wisconsin fired coach Mike Eaves after the season and hired retired NHL player Tony Granato. A 13-year NHL veteran who played in the 1997 NHL All-Star Game, Granato spent three seasons as coach of the Colorado Avalanche from 2002-04 and 2008-09.
"It's good, there's a new culture in the locker room for sure," Kunin said. "They're not going to tolerate losing. Kind of a little wake-up call to all the guys and everyone is excited. There is a buzz around Wisconsin hockey right now. I'm just happy to be a part of it."
With Granato behind the bench, the Wild knows its newest prized prospect will be taken care of this season.
"I'm a big Granato fan, and [Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher] has worked with him and knows him well," Flahr said. "Those guys are excited and there seems to be a new energy in the program there. It's going to take a little time, but we know he's going back to a situation where we know he's in good hands and will learn the pro game."
Photo via David Stluka/UW Athletic Communications