DEFENSEMAN BRENNAN MENELL CONTINUES TO TURN HEADS IN SOPHOMORE SEASONMar 14, 2019
By Tom Witosky
When Brennan Menell arrived at Minnesota Wild’s training camp last season, few gave him a chance of getting to the American Hockey League.
One year later, Menell is showing again underestimating him will only lead to a surprise.
“Brennan is a very smart player with lots of good offensive instincts,” Iowa Head Coach Tim Army said. “Those instincts, plus the fact he is aggressive on offense, has made him an effective player for us.”
Just how effective?
Menell is now part of Iowa’s top defensive pairing, playing alongside either veteran Matt Bartkowski or Louie Belpedio, another young Wild defenseman showing promise this season. Menell’s production from the blueline has helped make the Wild power play one of the most effective in the AHL. He already has the club record for most assists in a season by an Iowa defenseman and is closing in on the most points in a season for a blueliner.
Menell, now in his second full season with Iowa, has caught a lot of eyes from the scouting row at Wells Fargo Arena as he has developed from a promising, but unproven, 20-year-old rookie last year into a key part of the Wild’s roster. Not only does he log minutes on the top power-play unit, but he’s also been an effective penalty killer.
“He was a young kid at 20 who no one expected to be there and he handled it quite well,” said David Cunniff, Iowa’s associate coach who works with the club’s defensemen and coordinates the power play. “He is one of those guys who just kept on passing every test he has had. It began at the first development camp last year and it has just continued.”
While Menell’s climb on the Wild blueline has been quick, it hasn’t been without a few stumbles along the way. Menell found himself as a healthy scratch at the start of the season and again later in the year.
Army said all young players go through those periods in their careers, but Menell handled it well.
“We talked about what was necessary,” Army recalled. “He didn’t get into himself, but simply worked harder. There are times when the game gets away from you. We checked him out and he got back to working on his details. He has played well since.”
“It is a long season and you are going to have ups and downs that really force you to return to working on the fundamentals of the game,” the now 21-year-old Woodbury, MN native said. “Those moments really do make you look at what you are doing wrong, what you are doing right, and what can I do better.”
At the top of that list is the need for consistency, Menell said.
“I have always known what my abilities are. I have always been confident in what I can do,” he said. “The really hard part of being a pro is to be consistent and that is something I need to work on every day.”
Menell has also had to develop a better understanding of how to play on the blueline and in front of the goal, as he is 5-foot-11 and only about 180 pounds. His approach to the game initially was too aggressive, Cunniff said.
“He is so competitive that he was trying to battle everyone in the league when he isn’t the biggest guy around,” Cunniff said. “He had to recognize how to deal with it by containing the opponent. Now he is picking and choosing his battles much more effectively.”
Menell also knows there are times when a fight is inevitable. Earlier this week, Menell squared off with San Antonio’s Conner Bleackley after Bleackley took exception to a check thrown by Menell on another Rampage player.
“I ended up finishing a check and one of their guys thought it was a big hit. So he came up behind me and asked me if I wanted to answer the bell. So I did,” said Menell, adding though this was his first AHL fight, he’d had a few in junior hockey.
Asked how he rated his fight, Menell thought he did well.
“I didn’t get hit in the face, so I count that as a win,” Menell said.
On the power play, Cunniff said Menell’s passing skills and offensive instincts have meshed with the shooting skills of forwards Cal O’Reilly and Sam Anas and the abilities of Kyle Rau and Gerry Mayhew to move in front of and behind the net, forcing defenders into difficult decisions.
“It is the sum of its parts,” Cunniff said. “What ‘Rausy’ and Gerry do every night allows Sam and Cal to do things that can get us really good scoring opportunities. Brennan is the one who makes a lot of the decisions on how to make that work, but they all contribute a lot.”
Menell credits the other four with the power play’s recent success. The Wild’s man advantage now ranks third in the AHL at 23.3 percent.
“Sam, Cal, Rausy and Gerry are unbelievable players so when I am out there, it makes it a lot easier for me,” Menell said. “We’ve been together for a couple of years now has allowed us to mesh well. They have such good skills, I am in awe of watching them.”
With the 2018-19 season in its final weeks, Menell, along with the rest of the club, understands that they’ve entered the critical period of the season that has resulted in disappointment the last two years. But Menell said that there is a different feel to this team.
“It is different this season,” Menell said. “We have a level of comfort among those of us who return from last year. Our top end guys are always ready to play, our goaltending has been really good, and we have a lot of depth. I’m looking forward to the challenge ahead.”