KAPLA EMBRACES NEW OPPORTUNITY BACK IN THE MIDWEST WITH WILDFeb 15, 2019
By Tom Witosky
When Michael Kapla’s telephone rang a couple weeks ago, he was just about to go through airport security to head back to rejoin the Binghamton Devils.
“I was at home getting ready to go back after the All-Star break and was about to go through security when my phone went off,” the 24-year-old Eau Claire, WI native recalled this week.
Kapla’s world shook a bit when he learned his destination would be Des Moines, not the East Coast. He had just been traded to the Minnesota Wild in exchange for Wild defensemen Ryan Murphy.
“I was kind of surprised because I hadn’t heard anything about it before it happened,” Kapla said, adding it was the first time he’d ever been traded. “It’s a weird feeling, but I was also really excited about it for a number of reasons.”
Since then, Kapla has impressed the Wild coaching staff with four assists in five games as the club has continued its push to make the Calder Cup Playoffs. During that time, he’s also been busy trying to get settled in Des Moines.
Last Sunday, Kapla flew back to New York to collect his belongings and drive back to Des Moines – a 15-hour trip.
“I drove nine hours on Sunday after getting out there and six on Monday,” he said.
Kapla’s trade may have surprised him and fans, but Head Coach Tim Army wasn’t all that surprised when Minnesota General Manager Paul Fenton called to talk about it.
“Paul liked him coming out of college,” Army said. “Paul always had him in his sights because he liked the way he played.”
Playing for UMass-Lowell, Kapla was among five Midwesterners, including Des Moines native C.J. Smith, who is now playing for the Buffalo Sabres after a successful year and a half with Rochester. While there, Kapla, who earned a bachelor’s degree in finance, built a reputation as a skilled attacker with an ability to move the puck. In three of his four seasons, he led the Riverhawks defensemen in assists.
Kapla acknowledged that was when he first talked with Fenton, who was then the assistant general manager for the Nashville Predators.
“I did talk to him at Lowell when he was with Nashville. We had stayed in a little bit of contact as far as that goes,” he added.
That’s also when Kapla began to consider the possibility of playing professional hockey – not something he talked about much.
“When people would ask me what my goal was, the answer was to play hockey as long as I could,” Kapla said. “I never said I wanted to play in the NHL or anything like that.”
Kapla began to hear from various teams and thought getting drafted was possible, although that never materialized. He landed with the New Jersey Devils organization as a free agent and even got five games with New Jersey his first year.
Last season with Binghamton, Kapla impressed Army, who was an assistant coach with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. The Devils played the Baby Pens six times last year.
“He moves the puck really well and is really smart,” Army said. “For him to improve, he needs to learn to play the game defensively. I think he understands the game defensively but he needs to develop a better sense of when to give to move into a situation and when to hold back.”
Kapla said he understands how he has to improve his judgment, but believes he can thrive in the Minnesota approach that emphasizes speed, but also poise with the puck.
“We want to play fast, but it’s ok to possess the puck as well,” Kapla said. “I have always had some good poise, but it’s always been move it, move it, move it, whereas here if the play isn’t there, they want you to hold onto it with your D-partner and move it up the ice. I like that approach.”
Keith Paulsen, the Wild’s video coach, has known Kapla since his youth hockey days in Eau Claire and coached him for one year when he was the head coach for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL.
“I’ve known Michael since he was a kid. He is just a wonderful, hard-working kid. He has a great hockey IQ, as well,” Paulsen said. “It is sort of full-circle for me to see this happen. It’s great to have a kid from my hometown and someone I coached early on.”
Kapla said when he learned he would be joining the Wild, he got excited about the possibility of playing for Minnesota – the team he rooted for growing up.
“My folks are from Hibbing, MN, so I was brought up a Viking fan, a Gopher fan and a Wild fan,” Kapla said. “So getting a chance to get back here and to play in the organization is a great thing.”
He said coming to Iowa, which is fighting for the Central Division regular season title, has only added to the excitement.
“First here in Iowa, it is a really good team and things haven’t been going so great in Binghamton for the past year and a half when it has come to winning,” he said. “We all play to win games and so now it’s exciting to be here.”
Kapla also said his new team has welcomed him well.
“It was easy to fit in,” Kapla said. “They are always joking around and that helps. I’ve never had to go through this before and they‘ve made the transition pretty easy.”
He added that his teammates impressed him during last weekend’s two-game sweep of San Antonio in two comeback victories.
“These guys just talked about how the third period is our best period,” he said. “I don’t think there is any doubt in this team right now.”