Xcel Energy Center, the home of the Minnesota Wild, will host the National Collegiate Hockey Conference's (NCHC) Frozen Faceoff championship tournament March 16-17, 2018. Leading up to the Frozen Faceoff, Wild.com will feature different aspects of the NCHC related to the Wild and Xcel Energy Center. More information, including tickets, is available at the Xcel Energy Center's Frozen Faceoff page.
For Wild prospect and Minnesota Duluth freshman Nick Swaney, patience isn't a virtue. But self-awareness is.
Instead of making the jump to the collegiate level last season, the Wild's seventh-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft opted to stay in juniors for another season. He's since reaped the benefits, and has emerged as an impact player for the Bulldogs early during his freshman campaign.
Yet even as the Bulldogs had plenty of offensive depth on last year's roster, it was an interesting decision to pump the brakes for a player who had made the early jump -- and found plenty of success -- in previous levels of hockey.
As a high school freshman, Swaney played for the Lakeville South varsity team -- a rare feat in Minnesota hockey because few second-year bantams are even allowed to try out. In leading the team in scoring that year, he proved he belonged.
Three years later, he made the difficult decision to forgo his senior season with the Cougars and join the United States Hockey League's Waterloo Black Hawks, where he already recorded 13 points in 15 games before the high school season. Even as he went up against some players who were as much as four years older than him, Swaney thrived in his first full season and led the Black Hawks with 30 goals and 50 total points.
But instead of making another early jump, this time to the Bulldog program, he decided to stay behind last season, missing out on an NCAA Frozen Four run but gaining crucial experience, both with the Xs and Os as well as with what it takes to perform at one's peak.
"It was one of the best years I think I've had playing hockey," said Swaney, who scored 25 goals and 51 points while captaining the Black Hawks to a 40-16 regular season record in 2016-2017.
"Being the captain, being the leader, I learned a lot about myself as a player on and off the ice, as well, and I think that that development was something that really impacted me."
Despite missing UMD's past four games with an upper-body injury, Swaney is one point behind the team leaders in total points (eight, and has been a catalyst on special teams play with two power-play goals. His hot start may be a surprise, but only to the unacquainted.
"You always look for guys with hockey sense, skill and skating, and he has all three," said Bulldog assistant coach Brett Larson. "If you have those three things, you can be put anywhere, and for us, even before he got hurt he was already showing that he can be one of our best penalty killers and he was really really influential on our power play. It's taken a hit with him out of there."
Larson added that what has also impressed him was Swaney's professionalism in practice and around the rink.
"He's prepared, he's detailed, and you can tell he's dedicated to getting better, and especially for a freshman, the best way to lead is with how you handle yourself," Larson said. "He does all those things almost already acting like a pro, and that rubs off on other guys."
Freshman defenseman Dylan Samberg, who played 14 games with Waterloo last season after wrapping up his high school hockey career, agreed that Swaney's leadership qualities carried over to UMD, especially for the 10 first-year players on the roster.
Samberg also noted that he's not all business all the time; Swaney is known to be a pretty funny guy off the ice.
"He's one of those guys that keeps it light, but once we get into the locker room, especially on game days, he's a different guy, and you know he's gonna bring it every game," said Samberg.
While Swaney worked at being a two-way forward in Waterloo, he's always had a natural scoring ability. The combination of his skillset and hockey IQ allow him to find his way into the middle of the action and onto the scoresheet -- especially in crunch time. Samberg recalls one such moment during a 1-0 Waterloo victory over the Chicago Steel last April.
"It was a tied game going into the second intermission, and he looks over at us and just says 'give me the puck,'" Samberg said.
Sure enough, just under five minutes into the third period, Swaney broke the stalemate with the game's only goal, as his teammates broke into laughter. It was an unsurprising feat; In 120 regular seasons with Waterloo, Swaney scored the game-winner exactly every eight games. And in his second goal in a Bulldog uniform, he again displayed his innate sense for scoring with a highlight reel goal set up by situational awareness.
Simply put, he's the type of player who wants the puck on his stick when it really counts, and he also unselfishly knows what to do with it. But perhaps the most impressive quality about the 20-year-old Swaney is his own self-awareness. One key piece of advice he's held onto on his way to UMD was to not try to do too much, or to change who he is as hockey player.
"There's gonna be nights where things aren't going my way, but just sticking to my game and what I know I can do, that's one thing I've been really told to do," Swaney said.