ROOKIES INSTRUMENTAL IN IOWA WILD'S EARLY SEASON SUCCESSDec 4, 2018
By Tom Witosky
When Mason Shaw arrived last July for the Minnesota Wild development camp, he, like most rookies, had only one goal – make it to the next level.
“My goal was to work hard enough to stick with the team here,” said the 20-year-old Iowa Wild forward, who played three seasons for Medicine Hat in the WHL. “Now, that I’ve done that I just want to produce for the team and work hard every day to do that.”
But Shaw’s performance during the first quarter of the Wild’s season, along with six other Iowa rookies, has become something more than just working hard and producing for the team. In reality, the seven rookies – Shaw, Mitch McLain, Gerry Fitzgerald, Dmitry Sokolov, Will Bitten, Louie Belpedio, and goalie Kaapo Kahkonen – have each played instrumental roles in helping the Wild to its best start of any season in franchise history.
The statistics and league honors speak for themselves:
– Kahkonen, Minnesota’s fourth-round draft choice in 2014, holds the top ranking among AHL goalies with a sterling 1.45 goals against average and .950 save percentage in 620:13 of play this season. The 22-year-old Helsinki, Finland, native picked up CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors on Nov. 19 and Goaltender of the Month for November honors for his play, which included 222:22 shutout minutes and three consecutive shutouts, both franchise records.
– Shaw, Minnesota’s fourth-round draft choice in the 2017 entry draft, ranks second in assists and sixth in scoring among AHL rookies.
– Fitzgerald, a free agent signing last season out of Bemidji State and Shaw’s center, ranks first in plus-minus rating among rookies.
Meanwhile, Belpedio, McLain, Sokolov and Bitten are playing an increasing number of minutes in a variety of roles. On Saturday night, Sokolov scored a late third period goal, paving the way for Iowa to take a 3-2 shootout win against Colorado, claiming first place in the Central Division and second place in the AHL’s overall standings.
Development of first-year players in the American Hockey League is a cornerstone of the league’s role as the top minor league in professional hockey. The AHL’s 31 clubs have a total of 169 rookies on their rosters for an average of just more than 5 players per team. The largest number of rookies can be found on the San Jose Barracuda roster with 12; the fewest is three on five team rosters.
In the Central Division, the Texas Stars has the most rookies on its roster (10), followed by Rockford with eight, then Iowa and Manitoba with seven.
Head Coach Tim Army said he’s been impressed with the rapid development of the first year players, but added each player has a ways to go before begin ready for the National Hockey League.
“These are talented kids. They are all good hockey players,” Army said. “They have good work ethic and are very attentive for young guys.”
Army also pointed out the rookies, as good as they have been, are benefitting from a corps of veteran players who have coalesced into lines and D-pairings that have given the rookies time and space to grow into AHL hockey – a big jump from junior or college hockey.
“We have guys who have played two, three, four, five years of pro hockey as well as guys who have a lot more experience,” Army said. “That level of experience around the rookies insulates them a bit and allows us to bring them along.”
Shaw agreed, suggesting the Wild veterans deserve a lot of credit in accepting the first year players.
“It is a testament to how good of a job the older guys and coaches are doing in helping us,” Shaw said. “There has never been a moment since I arrived that I questioned what I was doing or really wondered if I belonged here. They’ve done a great job of that.”
What has impressed assistant coach Brett McLean has been the players’ ability to find their roles on the team quickly and embrace them.
“It’s about finding their role and they’ve done a good job of it,” Coach McLean said. “With rookies, they are trying to find the place where they can get to play game in and game out. These guys have worked hard to get their identity and know their role.”
Also helping them to find their roles has been a coaching decision to put younger players together instead of having a veteran on each line. For example, one of the best lines early for the Wild was a rookie line centered by Fitzgerald with Shaw and Sokolov on the wings.
“Usually you try to put the rookies with veterans,” Coach McLean said. “But I think this approach has helped them to develop their identity at least partially because they don’t have to feel they need to defer to the veteran.”
Army agreed that players like Fitzgerald and Shaw have flourished playing on the same line, but said Sokolov and McLain have progressed quickly playing on the third line with Mike Liambas, one of the Wild’s most physical players.
“’Mitchy’ and ‘Soki’ fit well with ‘Bus’ because they have melded well together,” Army said. “Sometimes there is a comfort level that you don’t want to interfere with. Bus brings a similar attitude to the ice and his personality matches those of Mitchy and Soki.”
McLain, who signed as a free agent last season out of Bowling Green, acknowledged he has had to learn to change his game to fit the role he plays on the team.
“What really has helped me is learning what my shift length should be,” the 25-year-old Baxter MN native said. “It’s about 30 seconds before I get tired toward the end. Shift length is important.”
Fitzgerald, a 25-year-old native of Port Arthur, B.C., credited the rookies’ consistency to Army from the beginning of training camp and the Traverse City tournament.
“Traverse City is where it started,” Fitzgerald said. “That is where we began to understand what it takes to play at this level to be successful. We competed well there and that just led on to the season.”
Army agreed Traverse City represented a strong start for the season, but said the team has begun to meld together so well that the difference between rookie and veterans is steadily disappearing.
“O’Reilly, Read, Beck, Kloos, Mayhew, Liambas and other vets are playing so well it is allowing the young guys to play the right amount of minutes as they learn to play at this level,” Army said. “They are all learning how to become professional hockey players and they are doing it quite well."