Marco Scandella’s maturation as a professional athlete was seen last week at Minnesota Wild Development Camp in five distinct moments. These moments were both big and small, obvious and minute. When seen as separate incidences these moments carried little weight. But when they were collected together, connected by both symmetry and a common purpose much like the individual points of a constellation, a much larger picture came into view. It was a look into that sweet spot in a young athlete’s career when experience blends with natural talent and his development moves from possibility into reality. Scandella now stands (or skates) at this exact point in his NHL career. He is poised for a breakout season and becoming a big part of the Wild’s future foundation.
The first moment of his maturation was an obvious one: After all, it came down like a sledge hammer. It was during a full-length drill where each player sprinted along the sidewall, took a cross-ice pass, and broke in alone on net for a one-on-one with a goalie. Talented Wild prospects like Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, and Zack Phillips all moved in tight and close and tried to deke or snap it passed the goalie.
This was Scandella’s fifth development camp and he had done this drill countless times. He drew upon that experience and did the unexpected. Instead of frantically rushing head long at the net like all the rookies in front of him, he paused for a split second as he crossed the blue line. This surprise gearing down of his stride absolutely froze the goalie in anticipation: Was he going to shoot or come in close for the deke?
Within that tiny hesitation, Scandella uncorked a heavy slap shot from the top of the faceoff circle that lasered into the upper-right corner of the goal. The goalie didn’t even flinch and just stood there locked up like a statue. After hundreds of shots witnessed at the practice, the blueliner’s slapper was easily the highlight, a pure glimpse into his burgeoning skill set. Showing a heightened maturity, he didn’t even celebrate. After the puck snapped out of the net, he just skated back to the end of the line with no fanfare to do the drill again. He has been here before and acted like it.
The second moment was directly tied to the first. A few minutes later during this same drill, the 22-year-old once again found himself coming in alone against the same goaltender. He glided across the blue line in the exact same spot, paused for a split second, and froze the goalie once again in a cloud of anticipation as to what he was going to do.
Scandella got inside the netminder’s head and created that split second of doubt, which is all that he needed. He wound up again and the goalie, who was anticipating another high shot, set with his glove hand up and ready. But this time the Montreal, Quebec native drilled a slapper low stick side and the goalie helplessly flinched. He tried desperately to shift his weight backwards to make the save, but it was too late. It was a tiny detail hidden inside a loud and rapid buck shot of pucks that day in practice, but it spoke directly to Scandella’s growing handle of the minutia of the game. Drawing into his deep well of experience, a young career that has spanned 83 NHL games and 48 AHL games with the Houston Aeros (and hundreds of practices in between) he has learned that small details like this matter. In fact, they are the very things that win hockey games.
The third moment was a subtle one and contained no action at all. It was just a simple conversation between Scandella and Barry Karn, the Wild’s power skating coach. As players whirled all around and raced up and down the ice, Karn took Scandella aside and gave him a few pointers. The defenseman listened intensely.
Last season, Scandella learned the hard way that to make it in the NHL talent is not enough. A player has to be able to take instruction, apply that instruction, and most importantly, be both physically and mentally prepared for each and every game and practice.
After a great start to the 2011-2012 season (3 goals, 3 assists through December), Scandella struggled through the mid-point of the season and was sent down to Houston in January.
“It was a huge learning process for me last year,” Scandella confessed. “Being sent down was good for me. It added some fire to my rear end. They wanted to get a message through to me and I believe I responded to that message.”
During his reassignment to Houston, Scandella began to work on other parts of his game. It is never fun being sent down to the minors, but Scandella used it to his advantage.
“I learned how to handle the mental side of the game,” Scandella said. “A lot of preparation goes into it, and getting to know how to play different teams and different styles. It doesn’t come right away and you’re going to make mistakes in the beginning. But I feel with the experience you grow as a person, as a player, and keep working. Every day is a day to get better and if you’re not getting better you’re getting worse.”
So, there was Scandella, hunched over and breathing hard at center ice two months before the Wild’s training camp officially opens, and taking in all the instructions he could in development camp because he now has learned that invaluable lesson that his natural talent will only take him so far.
The fourth moment was one that spoke to hockey tradition: The pairing of a veteran and a rookie. Scandella is in a unique place in the Wild organization because he is still very much a greenhorn to the veterans but he is also a sort of elder statesman to the rookies.
During all the defensive drills, Scandella was paired with Matt Dumba, the Wild’s 17-year-old 2012 first round draft pick. Scandella was seen instructing and coaxing Dumba as they progressed quickly through a series of drills. Scandella and Dumba were even paired together in the locker room as they were stall neighbors. And this wasn’t by accident: The seating arrangement in NHL locker rooms has always been a deliberate set piece. So, there they sat, two corners of the Minnesota Wild’s future defensive foundation, sharing experiences and getting to know each other.
“I told Dumba to just enjoy it and that he and (Jonas) Brodin are great defenseman and they should work on their skills. Working hard is the main thing,” Scandella said.
However, it wasn’t all about hockey. Scandella welcomed Dumba into the Wild organization with a shaving cream pie to the face, which is a classic veteran prank.
The last moment in the maturation of Marco Scandella came at the end of practice. The entire squad of prospects was spread out along the center ice circle and the defenseman was chosen to stand in the middle. With all eyes on him, he dropped to the ice and began leading the development camp attendees through a series of post practice stretches. Although he was squatted, prone and stretched out on the ice, Marco Scandella is young player in the sweet spot of his career. The defenseman is in a place where experience blends with skill, and possibility becomes reality, poised for a breakout season.