May 8, 2018

By Jacob Born (@Jacob_Born)

First and foremost, the American Hockey League is a developmental league, one where NHL teams’ prospects can hone their craft in order to compete at the highest level. Organizations want their affiliates to do well, but ultimately, a true sign of success is when players make the jump from the AHL to the NHL to help the big clubs win games.

This past season, Iowa Wild saw 14 players suit up for both the AHL Wild and the NHL Wild marking the fifth consecutive season 10 or more skaters have played for both teams. Of those 14, five players made their NHL debuts: Luke Kunin, Justin Kloos, Carson Soucy, Nick Seeler and Louie Belpedio.

Both Kunin and Kloos saw their NHL debuts at the very beginning of the season, when Minnesota Wild was gutted with injuries. Kunin suited up in Minnesota’s home opener on Oct. 14 against Columbus. In his debut, Kunin skated in 20 shifts, accumulating 14 minutes of ice time. His first career assist came against Calgary on Oct. 21, and five days later, he potted his first NHL goal at home against the New York Islanders.

“It felt awesome,” Kunin told the StarTribune of his first NHL goal. “You dream about scoring a goal in the NHL. It's definitely a game I'll always remember.”

Kunin played 17 games in his first stint with Minnesota this season before returning to Iowa. He played 36 games with Iowa before being recalled to Minnesota prior to the NHL trade deadline. He played two games then suffered a torn ACL, ending his rookie season.

Kloos made his NHL debut on Oct. 24 against Vancouver for his only game of NHL experience this season. He had 8:39 of ice time on 13 shifts against the Canucks.

“I kind of always believed that one day this would happen,” Kloos said to the St. Paul Pioneer Press ahead of his debut. “I feel fortunate and special and privileged to be able to make an NHL debut in my hometown.”

Despite his short time in the NHL, Kloos’ time in the AHL proved beneficial as he set five rookie records, including most assists (31) and points (50) by a rookie in Iowa Wild history.

It wasn’t until Feb. 13 that another Iowa Wild player made his NHL debut. Seeler manned the blue line against the New York Rangers, starting a string of 22 games to end the season.

“There was that shock value and that surprise factor at the start and then kind of realizing that my dream was going to come true,” Seeler said of his debut for the Wild. “It was pure excitement. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing to get the first call-up.”

He recorded his first NHL point on Feb. 22 at New Jersey when he assisted a goal by Chris Stewart. Seeler’s shutdown, gritty defensive play made him a key member on the back end for the Wild and as a result, he played in all five playoff games against Winnipeg, where he earned two assists in the series.

As Minnesota geared up for the playoffs, the team recalled Soucy while also signing Belpedio in the final week of the season. Soucy appeared in three regular season games, making his NHL debut against Edmonton on April 2, and added four more in the playoffs.

“The anticipation is the toughest part,” Soucy said of his debut. “You’ve got family and friends congratulating you and saying they’re going to watch. But after those first few shifts you relax and you find your game. It’s been a dream for a long time now.”

The fifth and final Iowa skater to make his debut was Belpedio, whose first NHL game came against San Jose on April 7. He recorded his first two NHL assists in the contest, becoming the first player in Minnesota Wild history to have a multi-point night on his debut.

“I was just around really good players,” Belpedio said of his helpers. “It was more than I ever could have imagined. My first game is a learning experience, so I just tried and listen to the veterans and coaches as much as I could.”

It’s a sense of pride for AHL teams to have players seamlessly make the jump from the AHL to the NHL. It’s what the developmental league is made for. For Iowa Wild, these five players represent the future wave of players in Minnesota, with more looking to make the jump in 2018-19.

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