ST. PAUL -- Brad Bombardir best describes defenseman Brennan Menell as a "surprise."
"A good surprise," said Bombardir, Minnesota Wild director of player development, "but definitely a surprise."
Menell, 21, is used to surprising folks, almost having grown accustomed to being overlooked.
In high school, the Woodbury native was cut from St. Thomas Academy's varsity team as a sophomore. He left high school to try his hand at the North American Prospects Hockey League in hopes of catching the eye of college coaches.
But Division I schools didn't come calling with scholarship offers for the right-handed defenseman who had a knack for moving the puck calmly up the ice. Instead, Menell spent three seasons in the Western Hockey League, amassing 124 assists and 181 points in three seasons, but still remained undrafted by an NHL squad.
As an invitee to the 2017 Wild Development Camp, Menell began surprising even himself, earning an invite to the Traverse City Prospect Tournament. He continued to impress, and as a free agent, signed a three-year, entry-level deal with Minnesota on September 26, spending all of 2017-18 in Iowa with the American Hockey League club.
Now, after wrapping up his second development camp and with one year of professional hockey under his belt, Menell said he's only just begun to show coaches and fans what he's got.
"It's been pretty surreal to go from where I was [as a youth] to becoming a pro," said Menell, who showed improvements in his grit and strength down low during Team Green's overtime loss to Team White in the final scrimmage of camp on Sunday. "But I'm not done yet. I have a lot more to prove."
Menell was often on the top defensive pairing in Iowa alongside Nick Seeler, who cracked Minnesota's lineup and played in 22 regular season games in addition to all five playoff matches, earning himself a three-year, $2.175 million contract on July 1. Menell was also dominant on the power play along with a penalty kill unit that had an 82.8% efficiency. All of that combined to see Menell logging nearly 23 minutes per game some nights.
"We probably overplayed him toward the end of the year to be honest with you," Bombardir admits. "You're asking a young guy like that in that league to do that, it's not easy, and he held his own.
"To bring a guy out of major juniors and for him to be able to play that quickly in the AHL, I was surprised, and I was surprised at the type of player he's become. He's a good player."
But Menell, who had eight goals among 25 points and 14 penalty minutes in 72 games, wants to be more than just "good."
Size and strength have always been a factor working against Menell, who didn't hit a growth spurt until age 15, and it continues to be a giant hurdle standing in front of him. At 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds, Bombardir said adding strength is going to be paramount in helping him take that next step forward in his development.
"His challenge now is he needs to take a jump this year, and it's his responsibility to be ready when that time comes," Bombardir said. "He's gotta be ready come September to do that, because he's got a great opportunity. We like him and we'll support him and keep him going and try to give him as much coaching as possible, but we wanna see him get to the next level.
"We've been pleased with him. He's got seven weeks here to really get himself to the ultimate fitness level, then he'll be really ready to go."
To the surprise of nobody, Menell is ready to do just that.
"I think just playing pro hockey in general, it's a huge step from juniors or college, so just having a year of that under my belt, it just really helps me out, especially confidence wise," Menell said. "Last year it was kind of just about working on my game and becoming a pro. [The AHL is] a really hard league to play in, and I know that it's not easy to get to the NHL, so every day I am improving more and more to work to get that crack at the big leagues.
"Just being an NHL prospect is such a great feeling, and then for it to be the team you grew up watching and rooting for, it's just something that makes it that much more special."