02/11/2014 1:45 PM
By Tom Witosky
Follow Tom - @toskyahlwild
That’s how Coach Kurt Kleinendorst assesses the first half of the Iowa Wild’s 2013-14 season. And, he acknowledges his players may be a bit tired of hearing their veteran coach use that social media word.
“I have been telling the guys for some time that we are trending in the right direction,” Kleinendorst said with a bit of a laugh. “The guys tease me about it because I use the word so much.”
But trending positive is exactly where Wild players find themselves at the AHL All-Star break – the symbolic halfway point of the season. A rocky start that included a month-long skid in November when the team lost 10 of 12 games, including an eight-game losing streak, nearly eliminated the team from any chance of making the playoffs.
“It was miserable,” Kleinendorst said of the slump. “But I kept telling them that we were trending in the right way. They came to work every day knowing it would break and it did.”
It’s been a combination of improved goaltending, better defense and an ability to come from behind that led the Wild to winning 14 out of its last 29 games plus collect an additional nine points for taking nine games to overtime or shootout.
Overall, the Wild took points in 10 consecutive games just before the All-Star break, the longest streak of any club in the AHL this season.
The end result is that team now finds itself in the middle of a fight between nine clubs for the final five playoff positions in the Western Conference. With 30 games left – 13 at home and 17 on the road, every game is going to be crucial.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of this team,” Kleinendorst said. “They work hard every game and they don’t give up no matter if there are ahead of behind. They just have the character you need to play this game well.”
The recovery is even more noteworthy when considering the following:
--Four of Iowa’s top players at the start of the season – goalie Darcy Kuemper and forwards Jason Zucker, Erik Haula and Stephane Veilleux spent most of the last two months playing for Minnesota in the NHL. Injuries to star players Zach Parise and Mikko Koivo and the uncertain health of both Minnesota goalies -- Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding -- made those call-ups a necessity.
-- Three of Iowa’s top prospects – Brett Bulmer, Kris Foucault and Tyler Graovac – have missed substantial parts of the season because of injuries. Foucault and Graovac returned to the line-up just last weekend and Bulmer is still several weeks away before getting back into the line-up with lower body injuries.
-- As a result, much of the team’s roster has been bolstered with signings of players like Marc Hagel, Jim McKenzie, Justin Mercier and Mark Ullrich to PTO contracts that have exceeded a lot of expectations. Nearly a third of the team’s current roster has played fewer than 20 games for the Wild this season.
“I think we have responded really well to several difficult situations,” Jim Mill, the Iowa Wild’s general manager, said. “When you have three or four recalls to Minnesota including your starting goalie, then three injuries on top of that, it is fair you can only conclude they’ve risen to a very difficult challenge.
Mill said he never doubted that the Wild would be able to recover from its November slump.
“When we were going through that tough stretch in November, I also understood this: Teams in October and November in the American League are not the best teams come February, March and April,” Mill said.
Mill said the fact that the team has a combination of young prospects with veterans gave him confidence that the team would become one of the better teams in the league.
“We are continuing to get better and that is showing. That is the trend in the American Hockey League. You want to see your team improve because a lot of teams in that league don’t improve,” he said.
Among the players credited with helping the Wild resurgence is Hagel, the left winger, who recently signed an AHL standard contract. Hagel drew immediate attention by his hustle and sticking-handling. Hagel now is a regular on the Wild’s scoring lines and has responded with six goals and four assists in 23 games.
“We gave him the opportunity and it’s a compliment to him that he took advantage of it,” Mill said. “It doesn’t work out that way very often and that is a tribute to the kid’s character, his hard work and the kind of kid he is.
Mercier, who scored the game winning goal in a dramatic overtime win over Chicago last week, said that the new players like him have found the team members open to the roster changes.
“The veterans have made us all feel welcome, like we have been here from October,” Mercier said.
He also credited Kleinendorst and the rest of the coaching staff with taking the time necessary to orient the players into adopting the Wild style of playing.
“I know I am pumping the Coach’s tires here, but it is true that they have been great,” Mercier said. “They are patient and work with us on the ice and when looking at tape. When we go on the ice, we know what is expected of us and that is really helpful.”
Asked to name the key ingredient for the club’s resurgence, Kleinendorst responded immediately with “hard work and great character” in the locker room.
“If you don’t have leadership and character in the locker room, there isn’t a chance in hell you are going to come out of something like a losing streak of eight in a row,” he said.
With 30 games left in Iowa’s inaugural season, fans are in for a Wild ride.
“Young teams with active leadership have a tendency to get better each month, each day, each game. That is the progression we are on right now,” Mill said.