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Wild Prospects With Something To Prove

by Kelly Erickson / Minnesota Wild

For young prospects in the Wild organization, training camp is a wonderful yet nerve wracking time of year.

While playing with veterans, learning the Wild’s systems, and attempting to convey that they too have a pro demeanor; they have to fight small bouts of nerves, keep a level head and show off their game as best they can.

But underneath it all, they remind themselves they were invited to camp. The Wild picked them to be here. They deserve it.

“They drafted me for a reason,” forward and 2011 first-round draft pick Zack Phillips said “They wouldn’t have picked me if they didn’t like me. Just show what I did to get drafted while I’m here and just hope for the best.“

For Phillips, 2013 marks his second pro camp after skipping a year due to the lockout. While it’s only his second camp, he spent last season in Houston where he came on late in the season, amassing 27 points through 71 games on eight goals and 19 assists.

While he knows he simply needs to play his game, Phillips still battles the anxiety that comes when skating with NHL stars in front of the very men who will determine his future career.

“It’s hard,” Phillips said. “I just treat it like it’s any other practice and not think about who else is on the ice and just worry about yourself. Try and stick to yourself, do your own thing and focus on that.”

Many prospects shared that sentiment, including Tyler Graovac who is also skating in his second Wild Training Camp. But for Graovac, it’s all about finding the right emotional balance and taking the highs and lows in stride.

“You’re going to get excited,” Graovac said. “You’re going to get nervous. You have to be level. You can’t be too nervous, but not, not nervous. I think it’s a way of showing that you care about the game and how you’re going to do out there. It’s a mix of emotions really, it’s just trying to be levelheaded and have a good balance out here.”

The Wild’s seventh round pick in the 2011 draft, spent last season in the Ontario Hockey League, splitting time between Ottawa and Belleville. Over a combined 60 games played, the forward broke out during his final season of juniors, netting 38 goals en route to a 73-point season.

When asked about Graovac Saturday, Head Coach Mike Yeo noted that it’s clear he’s young, but coming into camp is a big step from junior hockey—a step he’s handling well.

For Yeo and the Wild front office, evaluating these young players begins the moment camp starts and continues through everything they do, both on and off the ice.

“Right from the first minute you meet them,” Yeo said. “The way they conduct themselves, the way that they’re working out in the gym to the second they’re stepping out on the ice. It’s ongoing.”

Jim Mill, Iowa Wild General Manager and Wild Assistant to the General Manager, said the biggest thing they are looking for from the prospects is simply improvement.

“It’s a huge adjustment for the kids,” Mill said. “For some it’s their first NHL training camp or professional training camp. It’s going to take some of those kids a little bit of time to get acclimated, hopefully not too long. And you want to see progress. You want to see them getting more comfortable and getting better everyday.”

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who is in his fifth camp after being drafted in the 6th round in 2009, noted that his approach to camp has changed since his first go-round.

“My first time I was young and I was kind of using it more for experience,” Kuemper said. “It was my first time around an NHL camp and around NHL players, just getting the experience out of it. I’ve been here for five years, now it’s different. You’re trying to leave a good impression and do your best to make the team.”

And he’s made the necessary impressions, earning some ice time with the Wild last season. In six games during the lockout-shortened season, Kuemper managed a .916 save percentage in four regular season games and appeared in two playoff games. In 21 games with the Aeros last season, he claimed a .934 save percentage.

One prospect who has stood out early is forward Justin Fontaine. The winger is expected to get a good look during camp.

Like Phillips and Graovac, Fontaine is in his second training camp, signing as a free agent in 2011 after finishing his collegiate career at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Last season, Fontaine led Houston with 56 points and scored 23 goals, second only to Jason Zucker’s 24.

According to Fontaine, the main way to stand out is making sure he does the little things right.

“The little things, the details,” Fontaine said. “If it’s getting pucks out or winning wall battles, being strong on the puck and being able to communicate on the ice. Being a two-way player, it’s a big responsibility up here and that’s what I’m focusing on.”

Yeo has already noted Fontaine’s play, mentioning that he liked his effort in the Wild’s short scrimmage Friday and the way he’s engaged in camp overall.

“I do like that he’s asking questions,” Yeo said. “You can tell he’s engaged and he wants to learn. He’s a smart player. He’s another guy I’m certainly not going to rush any decisions one way or the other. I’ve got a pretty open mind. We’re putting him with guys that hopefully he can showcase his skill, but like I said this is not going to be a one or two day evaluation for him.”

Overall, the task before the prospects is simple: fight for the job as hard as possible, no matter where you fall on the depth chart. Yeo said he wants to see them push for their chance to fill one of the Wild’s spots.

“I want them to show that they’re not satisfied just to be here and to go through camp and ‘let’s get to Iowa,’” Yeo said. “I want to see them come in here and have the type of attitude that ‘I’m going make a name for myself, I’m going to use this opportunity.’”

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