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Kunin Aiming High as Training Camp Approaches

Rookie forward expected to battle for NHL roster spot when camp opens Friday

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Luke Kunin didn't major in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, but it doesn't take an abacus to realize the rookie forward may be the victim of a numbers crunch as things shake out once training camp commences in downtown St. Paul next week.

Once the Wild signs restricted free agent Marcus Foligno -- expected sometime before camp starts Friday -- Minnesota will have 11 forwards inked to one-way contracts on its roster.

NHL teams only dress 12 on game night. 

Combined with the organization's desire not to stunt the development of its top prospects by limiting their ice time, and Joel Eriksson Ek's presence as another two-way contract he's battling for a spot, it's entirely possible Kunin could begin the season in Iowa.

Still, it wouldn't be wise to bet against Kunin, a 19-year old native of Chesterfield, Missouri. 

Last year, he became the first sophomore captain for UW in 40 years. He captained the United States to gold at the World Junior Championships, beating the Canadians for the title on Canadian ice in Montreal.

And although Wild coach Bruce Boudreau hasn't spent a ton of time around him, he sees the level of determination Kunin brings to the ice every day.

"He's a very serious young man," Boudreau said.

So despite the long odds and whatever the numbers might say, Kunin is expected, at the very least, to mount a serious challenge for a roster spot with Minnesota to begin the season.

"I think it should be anyone's goal that signs pro, to try and make the team and play in the NHL," Kunin said. "For me, it's getting better every day, learning every day and at the end of the day, [Minnesota] is where I want to be so that's where I'm going to work to get."

And while the competition is friendly, Kunin and Eriksson Ek know that the groundwork being laid this weekend at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament could certainly carry over to St. Paul next week. 

If the opening game on Friday was any indication, it could be one of the more exciting things to keep an eye on during camp.

Eriksson Ek tallied an assist on Minnesota's first goal its game against St. Louis Blues prospects. Then, after surrendering the next four goals and facing a 5-1 deficit with just a half period remaining, the Wild's top young prospects threw the team on their back.

Kunin scored with 9:06 to make it 5-2. Eriksson Ek scored a little more than five minutes after that to make it a two-goal game. After extra attacker goals by Gerald Mayhew and Giorgio Estephan tied the game, Kunin provided the final dagger with a beauty of a goal with 1:02 left in regulation.

"Just competitors. As good a players as those two are, they're very competitive," said Iowa coach Derek Lalonde, serving as head coach of Minnesota's prospects at this weekend's tournament. "You can see the frustration, the compete level when we're down. It's exciting when you have your best players driving the bus."

While Eriksson Ek may have the early inside track to a roster spot in Minnesota -- he played in 18 games with the NHL club last season, including three in the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- the Wild is taking the long view with both he and Kunin. 

General Manager Chuck Fletcher has no desire to see them languishing on the bench, playing six or seven minutes per night in a fourth-line role. Neither does Boudreau, who coached nine seasons in the American Hockey League before reaching the NHL.

While one could start the season as the Wild's third-line center, the other will be in Iowa playing in every situation imaginable. And that's OK, Boudreau said.

"I don't think 20-year olds can develop if you only play six or eight minutes per game. Being a long-time American League guy, I've seen players become great players when they come to the AHL and play 20-22 minutes per night and in situations that are important," Boudreau said. "I want to be able to play him in situations that are important and see how he grows with that."

That doesn't mean Boudreau is handing the job to the incumbent. He said Saturday that one of his biggest goals at camp this season is to ratchet up competition for spots. Last year, he said, guys that came to camp competing for jobs too often accepted they would be sent to Iowa and didn't push the established players enough. 

"I think Luke is, and this is what we want as coaches and management, Luke is coming to make the team," Boudreau said. "He's going to put his best foot forward, and we'll see. If we feel he can contribute and be a guy who's going to play every night and be a really good player, he could make it out of camp."

And while the numbers may not look good for Kunin now, a strong weekend in Traverse City followed by another couple good weeks at camp is going to help foster competition with other players as well.

In addition to his strong two-way game, perhaps Kunin's most attractive skill set is his ability to play all three forward positions at a high level.

For now, as his first impression may suggest, Kunin is simply focused on helping Minnesota's prospects to a solid weekend in Traverse City. He'll worry about training camp at training camp. 

"I think just playing my game and getting more comfortable as things go on. Just climb the mountain a little bit every day, have open ears and listen to what [coaches] have to say and get better," Kunin said. "I have goals of what I want to do, but I want to keep learning every day. Take it day-by-day, keep learning and sticking to the process."

Ultimately, Fletcher hopes the winner of whatever training camp competition emerges is the Wild. Injuries and ineffectiveness happen over the course of an 82-game campaign. And he expects Kunin to play a big role in Minnesota no matter where he begins the season.

"Wherever he's playing in October, to me, is not as important as the fact that he's going to have a real good career for our NHL team for a long time," Fletcher said. "We'll see how it plays out. I have no doubt that he's going to play games for us in the NHL this year. How many? We'll see. 

"I'm sure it's very important to him, but for me, I have to try and take a bigger picture and look at it long term and what we can do to help him be the most successful player down the road."

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