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Playing with top players in Iowa, Sturm is right where he needs to be

Prospect centerman has skated nightly with and against some of the very best players in the AHL

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

DES MOINES -- Now halfway through his first season of professional hockey, Wild prospect Nico Sturm admits there's been plenty of learning along the way.

Between his 38 games with the Iowa Wild and six more with the NHL club in Minnesota, the 24-year-old centerman already has 44 games under his belt. That's three more than the 41 he played between Clarkson University and the Wild last season, four more than his sophomore season and five more than his freshman campaign.

But a college hockey season lasts from October through March. Sturm has already skated in 44 games by the middle of January.

"We just played six games in nine days and we've had a lot of road action too," Sturm said. "In college, you always have that same schedule, the Friday night and Saturday night. Everything is extremely organized with classes, so every week is really the exact same.

"Now, and I was telling my parents this, it doesn't even seem like we're practicing. It seems like we're just playing a game every night. It feels like it's a game day every day."

That typical college schedule allowed Sturm to settle into a nice routine; practice during the week, build every day physically to perform his best on two nights during the weekend. 

All of that preparation is out the window now.

"You have to have the ability to play on a School Day Monday morning at 10:30," he said. "You need to be ready every day, no matter what."

Video: MIN@WPG: Sturm brings the Wild within one in the 3rd 

With Iowa on its own All-Star break this week, Sturm said Saturday that the break is coming at a great time for him individually.

"The start is very exciting and you have all that energy," Sturm said. "But now, we're in the dog days of the season. I can feel the body for sure, and that's something you can't prepare for."

Sturm had a great summer, often one of the first to arrive and last to leave TRIA Rink at Treasure Island Center when he was in St. Paul. His work ethic made a strong impression on Minnesota coach Bruce Boudreau. 

And while he didn't make the NHL roster, which was his goal, he's right where he needs to be in terms of his development. As bitter of a pill as that was to swallow in the moment back in September, Sturm acknowledges that now. 

Tweet from @IAWild: GOOOOOOAAAAAAAALL!!! Nico Sturm nets his fifth of the year to get us on the board. #IAvsSA | #TheHuntContinues

Instead of playing seven or eight minutes per night on the fourth line, Sturm is playing around 20 minutes in Iowa, where he has earned the trust of coach Tim Army and has become a much-relied-upon cog for a team trying to reach the Calder Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive season.

Iowa sits comfortably inside the playoff bubble now, second in the AHL's Central Division -- 10 points back of division-leading Milwaukee but 11 points up on third-place Chicago. The baby Wild entered its break on a five-game points streak, including a two-game sweep of rival Manitoba over the weekend at Wells Fargo Arena. 

In that push for the playoffs, Sturm has taken advantage of injuries to more veteran centers to carve out a role playing big-time minutes next to two of the best players in the American Hockey League. 

Part and parcel with that has been an understanding that when you play with the best, you're going to play against the best as well.

It's a challenge Sturm craves. 

"He's drawing the most difficult center and the biggest center on the other team night in and night out," Army said. "And when he comes to me after the morning skate, he asks me, 'who do I have tonight?' He relishes that chance [to take on top centers]. He wants it and he wants to play against really good hockey players.

"He's really learning that part of the game, how to compete. And he's become really hard to play against."

Tweet from @IAWild: What are Tuesdays for? Getting to know Nico Sturm obviously.

Sturm is often tagged with the two-way centerman label, one that will be counted on as a matchup pivot to help slow an opponent's top line. And he relishes that challenge. 

But Sturm has showed in Iowa that he's also got an offensive aspect to his game that is sometimes overlooked. 

For the past several weeks, he's skated between a pair of AHL All-Stars, Sam Anas and Gerald Mayhew, giving Iowa the sort of balance on its top line that it hasn't seen, perhaps ever. While Cal O'Reilly has been outstanding in years past, especially last year with Mayhew on his flank, Sturm provides the prototypical size and strength of a young centerman while also being able to fit in well with a couple of smaller, skilled wingers. 

It's an element that Army said is a game-changer for Iowa and one it didn't have last year when the team made it to the second round of the playoffs.

"I think we just complement each other so well," Sturm said. "My job is to create time and space for them with my size and my speed and try to get the puck in their hands in the offensive zone. They're unbelievable and they're in the All-Star Game for a reason."

Tweet from @IAWild: 🚨 NICO STURM 🚨Nico makes it 3-0 late in the first! #RFDvsIA | #TheHuntContinues

That's the element of his game that wouldn't be getting work if he were playing in Minnesota right now. It's highly unlikely Sturm would be skating with comparable wingers like Jason Zucker, Mats Zuccarello or Kevin Fiala, which means that offensive-minded aspect of his development would be sitting dormant. 

In Iowa, it's being fed on a nightly basis, rounding out his overall game quite nicely.

"It's important because everyone at the NHL level, no matter what line you're on, has to produce," Army said. "It's still gonna come down to whether or not you're going to produce."

Tweet from @IAWild: 🚨 WELCOME BACK NICO STURM 🚨Nico takes back the lead for your #IAWild! #TEXvsIA | #TheHuntContinues

Army compared the experience Sturm is getting now to Wild forward Joel Eriksson Ek, who hadn't produced the kind of offensive numbers perhaps some craved over his first two-plus seasons in the NHL.

But in limited time in Iowa during that stretch, Ek was a point-per-game player and showed the kind of offensive chops the Swedish-born centerman has showed more of this season. 

Ek has done a bulk of his development at the NHL level, which has slowed some of that offensive growth. Sturm is getting it in the AHL and it's already starting to come out; he finished the stretch of games before the All-Star break by tallying at least one point in 11 of 14 contests.

"It allows his game to continue to round out," Army said. "When he goes back to Minnesota, he'll have that awareness without the puck [that he's always had] but he'll also have the ability to have more of that offensive game. It's great for his development."

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