IOWA'S IMPACT ON MINNESOTA PROMINENTJan 2, 2017
Pictures credit Minnesota Wild / Bruce Kluckhohn via Getty Images / Schroeder - Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images.
When Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau sent Jordan Schroeder onto the ice during the Wild’s recent overtime match with Nashville, the move surprised just about everyone.
The former Iowa Wild forward had played a key role in the previous two NHL Wild wins, which kept the Wild’s franchise record-setting win streak alive. But, this? Choosing Schroeder to help secure the Wild’s record-setting 11th consecutive win in overtime?
In storybook fashion, the speedy veteran forward, who has toiled in 100 AHL games throughout the last three seasons in Iowa, silenced the Predators’ home crowd with a slick cross-ice pass to defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who slapped the puck into the net. The goal gave the Wild its overtime win and set the franchise winning-streak record.
But Chuck Fletcher, Minnesota’s general manager, wasn’t that surprised. In fact, Fletcher said that Boudreau’s decision to put Schroeder on the ice, as important as it was during the overtime, also sent a message that could be heard all the way down Interstate 35 to Des Moines.
“It would have surprised me a while ago, but as I have gotten to know Bruce, I have begun to understand him. He is not afraid to reward guys,” Fletcher said. “Everyone in Iowa now understands that if you work hard you will get the opportunity to play in the NHL. That is incredibly important.”
For some, the message has already been sent.
“It’s a special feeling to be out there,” said Zack Mitchell, who played ten games at forward for Minnesota before a return back to Des Moines in late December. “We beat Pittsburgh twice and that was a lot of fun. It’s fun to beat teams that you know are going to be competing for the Stanley Cup.”
Mitchell said his time in Minnesota taught him a number of things including where to improve his game and that he could play in the NHL. Even when it meant facing Sidney Crosby.
“It’s not an easy feeling when you are on the ice during an icing call and you see Sidney Crosby coming over the boards,” Mitchell said with a laugh. “Hopefully that doesn’t happen more than once a game.”
Mitchell hasn’t been the only one called up from Des Moines as Minnesota has climbed into contention for its first NHL Central Division championship. Injuries to key players and slumps have prompted a total of 11 players from the Iowa Wild roster this season to play in the NHL.
Minnesota’s emphasis on its minor league development is clear from a quick look down the current roster. Former Iowa alums include Darcy Kuemper, Christian Folin, Tyler Graovac, Matt Dumba, Erik Haula and Jason Zucker. From the 2012-13 season with Houston, the Wild’s roster includes Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin.
Fletcher said that player development is a necessity in the age of salary caps. With a backbone of players developed through the minors, the club has found itself able to afford expensive contracts for players like Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Devan Dubnyk and now Eric Staal.
“If you want to have the dollars to spend on the Eric Staals, Parises or Suters, you have to have players on that level develop into every day NHL players,” Fletcher said. “It is the only way to make the cap system work. The best teams are not just those with players who have lower cap numbers but are players who contribute in key ways.”
Fletcher said the contributions made by the players coming from Iowa this season have been special.
“There is no question this year is the biggest impact they’ve had on the line-up in Minnesota,” Fletcher said. “We are getting goals, effort and minutes from them. It also is something what we will need to get from them as we go down the stretch from here on out.”
Meanwhile, the AHL Wild has shown improvement as well, compared to its past three seasons. For example, Iowa has won more games from the start of the season to Jan. 1 than in the previous three years. What makes it more remarkable is the Baby Wild has done it while providing a steady stream of players to Minnesota’s early season success.
“My top priority is success for the Minnesota Wild through development, so it is exciting to see our guys do well,” Coach Derek Lalonde said. “Add to that, so many guys this year have contributed, it clearly is an exciting time. This is the way it should be.”
Fletcher said the Iowa club already had helped Minnesota with addition of players like Haula and Dumba, but he said this year is different because Iowa is now holding its own in the AHL’s Central division with a good mixture of quality veterans and first and second-year players.
“This is probably the best group of prospects we have had in Iowa since we arrived there,” Fletcher said. “It is a combination of Derek Lalonde and his group doing a great job of preparing the players and it is a higher caliber of prospects and veterans.”
Fletcher credited Iowa General Manager Brent Flahr and Lalonde for their ability to bring quality veterans to Iowa as free agents like goalie Alex Stalock, defenseman Mike Weber and forward Pat Cannone. Not to mention the addition of Teemu Pulkkinen, who leads the club in goals and scoring.
“Brent and Derek worked hard this summer planning out the team they wanted,” Fletcher said. “We now have guys who have shown they have the professional experience to play night in and night out at a high level. That makes it easier for the young guys to learn how to play the right way.”
He added that Iowa fans deserve an improved team that will continue progress.
“The last 3 years were beyond disappointing in terms of the product we put on the ice and it has hurt us in a lot of ways from a development standpoint,” Fletcher said. “We were fortunate we were in a great market where the fans have stood behind us and continue to come out in tremendous numbers despite the fact that we haven’t won. That’s been one of the big blessings for us.”
The overall development in Iowa is the true blessing and every time an Iowa Wild player makes his NHL debut it just reaffirms the importance of bringing players along so they may achieve their full potential as NHL players.
Mitchell said that the opportunity to make his NHL debut was something he’ll always remember.
“I am not going to lie. I was nervous,” Mitchell said. “But once I got a couple of shifts in, I calmed down and found my game. It was just a privilege to play with some of the best players in the world.”
At the same time, Mitchell said, he described playing in the AHL as a “privilege.”
“It’s a great league. Obviously, the NHL is the goal, but when I come down here it is a different challenge. I get to play a bigger role on the ice and that makes it a lot of fun,” he said.
As for the rest of the season, Fletcher said that he expects to watch an interesting end to the season both in Minnesota and Iowa.
“We have a long way to go down there and up here. We are making progress in both places and we hope to continue to do so,” Fletcher said.