MINNESOTA, IOWA WILD ROSTERS ROUNDING INTO FORM DURING FREE AGENCYJul 5, 2019
By Tom Witosky
When the Iowa Wild season ended in May, there were two things stood out to Tom Kurvers in determining how best to build on last year’s success.
“From the very beginning of the year, we had the sense that they were a good group together,” said Kurvers, who enters his second season as assistant general manager for the Minnesota Wild as well as Iowa’s general manager. “And, it mattered because down the stretch, that's what it took for them to pull out of the March slide and then have some success in the playoffs. Anything good came from the tightness of the group.”
The second thing was the clear sign that the club’s depth needed to be improved not only to deal with the inevitable injuries and call-ups a team must cope with during a 76-game schedule, but also to put players in the positions where they are likely to be the most successful.
“We didn't have a well enough rounded roster,” Kurvers said. “When we struggled late in the season, we were short of players. And you know, it was my first year in my position, and that's where it falls.”
With the July 1 free agent signing date, NHL teams engage in several weeks of building a veteran corps of players who, they hope, can play key roles in providing quality backup to its NHL affiliate through the development of young players and veterans alike.
At the same time, AHL coaches and staff also hope what is built will also lead to an AHL playoff run and possibly, a Calder Cup Championship.
The signing date also means players will move on from the teams they previously played for due to a variety of reasons and wishes. The Wild lost its share of players, including Cal O’Reilly, who captained the best Iowa teams in franchise history, choosing to move on to Lehigh Valley, the affiliate of the Philadelphia Flyers, now under the direction of former Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher.
Fletcher also used the period to sign former Wild players Gerry Fitzgerald, Nate Prosser and Kurtis Gabriel to contracts. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres signed goalie Andrew Hammond to a one-way NHL contract.
Kurvers said the Wild attempted to sign O’Reilly to a contract extension, but that the decision rested with the veteran player’s search for opportunity.
“There is full respect for Cal from the fans in Iowa to the coaching staff in Iowa to his teammates, who improved their game, to our staff in Minnesota. We didn't want to lose Cal, but things change. And so he went for his next opportunity,” Kurvers said.
For the Minnesota Wild front office, the challenge has been to find available players still young enough to develop into NHL players and capable of helping the Iowa club to improve off its first playoff appearance in franchise history.
Kurvers said Minnesota’s signing of Mats Zuccarello, Ryan Hartman, Gabriel Dumont and Luke Johnson met the criteria the Wild front office set for the NHL club’s improvement.
Zuccarello, a top-6 forward with the New York Rangers and the Dallas Stars, and Hartman, an NHL veteran with Chicago, Nashville and Philadelphia, signed one-way contracts and are expected to fill key roles in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Dumont, a veteran forward with 486 AHL and 87 NHL games under his belt, and Johnson, a 24-year old with three seasons of AHL experience playing for Rockford, have signed two-way contracts with the Wild.
Kurvers said both Dumont and Johnson are expected to fill roles with Minnesota or Iowa as right-shot centers capable of stepping into a lineup in Minnesota if necessary, pointing to the continued recovery of center Mikko Koivu from knee surgery and whether rookie center Nico Sturm is ready to play in the NHL.
“It may look like too many players on our roster, but we have a couple of question marks that we needed to protect against,” he said. “But we're confident we have protected ourselves from those question marks and then we'll just see what competition does to these guys.”
Of Dumont, Kurvers said he is familiar with the veteran center’s abilities and leadership skills when the two of them were with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization. The captain of Syracuse last season, Dumont is expected to provide the kind of leadership and skill on the ice that will be needed for the club to continue to improve.
“We expect Gabriel to step right in and provide the leadership skills that Cal provided even though it might be in a different way,” Kurvers said. “He has been a front and center player in the American League and a call-up player in the NHL the last three years and we are very glad to have him for two years.”
Of Johnson, Kurvers said the Grand Forks, ND native is young enough to still be considered a prospect even though he has played three full seasons with the IceHogs and 15 games last season with the NHL Blackhawks. In his AHL seasons, Johnson has accumulated 78 points with 39 goals and 39 assists. His scoring ability also has improved in each season from a low of 17 in his rookie year to 31 last season.
“They're both proven commodities,” Kurvers said. “They look at opportunity with Minnesota. Both of them in the American League have shown that they are good, competitive, reliable, committed players and that's what we like about those two guys.”
Plus, Kurvers added, the addition of two centers will allow Head Coach Tim Army to use returning veteran players like Colton Beck or developing players like Mason Shaw, both of whom played center for a part of last season, to return to wing.
“We know we can keep players in their natural position. And we hope that strengthens our team,” Kurvers said. “We're not taking a step back and we're very satisfied with where we are right now.”
Kurvers also said the club has recognized Iowa will be heading into next season without a veteran goaltender on the roster with the departure of veteran Andrew Hammond, who became the top goalie for the Wild at the end of the season.
Kaapo Kahkonen, who was named an AHL All-Star after a stellar start in the first part of the season, and rookie Mat Robson are expected to share the net. As a result, the Wild has decided to assign full-time coaching duties in Iowa to goalie coach Freddy Chabot for the season.
“Freddy was there pretty much full-time, but we had other duties on his plate like scouting,” Kurvers said. “Now we just want him bearing down on these two young goalies.”
Kurvers also said he is confident that the club will be successful in signing defensemen Louie Belpedio, Carson Soucy and Hunter Warner, who are restricted free agents. Those three, along with veteran Matt Bartkowski and Brennan Menell, will give the club a group of defensemen able to help Minnesota and Iowa.
He added that a couple more signings are likely to be announced in the next couple of weeks to help solidify final preparations for the Minnesota Wild training camp.
“We have a bunch of guys who had a hand in an improved environment last year and clearly some success,” Kurvers said. “I'm proud of that and it’s something for them to build on. We will be ready to get better.”