01/13/2014 2:18 PM
Up and Down I-35
By Tom Witosky iowawild.com
Follow Tom: @toskyAHLWild
When Darcy Kuemper skated off the ice last week with the Minnesota Wild’s 2-1 shootout win over the Los Angeles Kings in his pocket, Kurt Kleinendorst couldn’t have been prouder of the Wild goalie.
“It is a little like being a proud parent because you see how hard they work,” the Iowa Wild’s head coach said. “You see them go through their struggles and then see them progress.”
Kleinendorst watched Kuemper play along with a trio of former Iowa forwards -- Jason Zucker, Erik Haula and Stephane Veilleux -- in Tuesday night’s win from a hotel room in Grand Rapids. But those happy thoughts of accomplishment pass quickly, particularly when your team is on a crucial six-game road trip against five of the top eight teams in the American Hockey League’s Western Conference.
“We are happy for these guys, but once they get the call, don’t let the door hit them in the rear,” Kleinendorst said with a laugh. “We have a job to do right here and we need to focus on that. Injuries are not an excuse for losing on this team and neither are call-ups. They never will be.”
Kuemper’s performance last week combined with the fact that the Minnesota Wild has won five of its last six games without top goalie Josh Harding and top scorers Mikka Koivu and Zach Parise shows just how important the Wild’s minor league hockey team is to its parent club.
That couldn’t have been more evident Sunday night when Kuemper delivered his first career NHL shutout as Minnesota defeated Nashville 4-0 and Zucker scored his third goal. Kuemper’s performance even prompted Minnesota head coach Mike Yeo to declare the rookie goalie as his starter Tuesday against Ottawa.
Iowa Wild GM Jim Mill says the combined efforts in Minnesota and Iowa will play a huge factor in how successful each team can be this season.
“When you have a good development system, those who are in it recognize it works,” Mill said. “We have a winning environment in Iowa and it has an effect on the players there and when they get up to Minnesota.”
With three of Iowa’s top scorers – Zucker, Haula and defenseman Jon Blum -- with Minnesota and the Wild’s other top goal scorer, Brett Bulmer, out with a significant lower-body injury, the club faces a major challenge as it tries to claw its way back into the playoff picture. Within the past week, injuries and call-ups required Mill to sign three new players to the roster and recall Taylor Matson from Orlando.
But even shorthanded, Iowa kept itself in contention for the playoffs by collecting six of 12 possible points with two wins and two shootout losses.
Mill said that he believes Kuemper’s success as well as the success from call-ups of Haula, Zucker, Veilleux and Blum actually serve as a booster shot of drive and enthusiasm for Iowa’s players.
“It’s a chain reaction,” he said. “When a player moves up, then another player gets the opportunity to move up and to show what he can do. That creates enthusiasm and hard work. That is why we are here.”
Mill said no conflict exists between expecting the Iowa Wild to develop players so they are ready to play in the NHL and to win at the AHL level.
“I see it as complimentary because it is about giving a people the chance to prove themselves that they can go to the next level,” Mill said.
Mill also said that’s also a big reason why Minnesota moved its AHL franchise from Houston to Des Moines.
“We chose to be 3½ hours down the road from our minor league team in a great building with great fans,” Mill said. “It’s proximity to Minnesota is huge for us because we can get someone up here on a moment’s notice. Competitively, guys in Iowa want to see their teammate go up because the more that happens the more likely others will follow.”
Iowa Wild fans also get a special benefit from it. “They can see players one night in Des Moines and then the next night on television playing for Minnesota either in the Twin Cities or in some other NHL city. That is what happened with Darcy and our goal is to have it all the time,” he said.
Mill said that the opportunity to play additional minutes or move up the ladder to the next level is what every Wild player wants. Kuemper’s performance was just the latest example.
“It was a big moment for Darcy, but also for the other guys in Iowa,” Mill said. “They see one of their teammates make a difference at a critical moment and they understand they’ll have a chance to do the same thing.”
But, the loss of so many top players also meant Kleinendorst and assistant coach Steve Poapst had to figure out how to mesh seven new players in with the existing roster on the fly. With the team still battling its way out of a poor November slump, the challenge is to win as new players adjust to their new surroundings and new teammates.
Kleinendorst said that the short-term answer is simple – more minutes for the players who have been with the team for a while and are playing well.
“I will do everything I can to prepare the team so they are ready to play,” Kleinendorst said. “But once the puck drops, my view is very simple. The guys who are playing the best are going to be playing the most.”
Of late, the extra minutes have been going to forwards Jake Dowell, Raphael Bussieres, Zach Phillips and Carson MacMillan among others. It’s also meant the team has been using three attacking lines instead of four.
“We have been rolling with three lines for about a month, but I don’t think we can do that the rest of the season,” he said. “Short term we have taken a lot of pride to be a hard time to play against and we have been playing well enough to give a shot.”
Still, Kleinendorst acknowledged, there is so much tread on a tire even when it comes to young players. “I am concerned about it because it is a long season and we have a ways to go. You don’t want to run them out of gas at this point in the season,” he said.
But Mill points out that Minnesota’s roster is likely to change when Parise, Koivu and Harding return to the roster. If that happens, younger players with more NHL experience could be back skating again in Iowa.
“You don’t know what happens from day-to-day,” Mill said. “We will get guys back to Iowa and we will send them back up depending on the health of players in Minnesota. That is what this is all about.”
Up and Down Interstate 35
Player – Up – Down Moves / NHL Games-AHL Games
Kuemper-5-4 / 4-17
Gustafsson-4-4 / 0-12
Blum-2-1 / 3-31
Bulmer-2-2 / 5-25
Haula-3-2 / 14-24
McMillan-2-2 / 1-30
Rupp-1-1 / 8-5
Veilleux-3-2 / 20-20
Zucker-5-4 / 13-22