VETERANS HAVE PROVED KEY TO WILD IN CHASE FOR FIRST PLAYOFF APPEARANCEMar 22, 2019
By Tom Witosky
When the Minnesota Wild placed Nate Prosser on waivers in early February, the news reports read almost like an obituary of a professional hockey career.
“Overall, Prosser has appeared in 15 games after skating in 56 last season when his third stint with the organization began once he was plucked off waivers from the Blues. In 353 total games with the Wild, Prosser has 10 goals and 47 points. He's in the final season of a two-year, $1.3 million contract,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
But Prosser, a 32-year-old defenseman from Elk River, MN, has found himself a new place to play professional hockey and a new group of teammates to help do something historic for the six-year-old Iowa Wild AHL franchise.
“My entire career has been about doing what I can control. So I get put on waivers first and no one claims me. So I came down to Des Moines,” Prosser said recently.
But the question was, how does a veteran NHL-quality hockey player approach what can only be described as a career setback?
“When a veteran is sent down, it certainly can be a challenge and that challenge comes mentally because you work so hard to make it to the NHL and to stay in the NHL,” said Iowa Assistant Coach Brett MacLean, who played 385 NHL games over seven seasons. “When you make it to the top, you don’t want to go back down.”
But for Prosser and J.T. Brown, who also was waived at the same time to Iowa, the trip down Interstate 35 turned out as well as could be expected for both veterans.
Brown returned to Minnesota after just six games with Iowa, in which he scored three goals and had three assists. Prosser is now a regular in the Iowa lineup and has provided veteran experience on the blueline, particularly on the penalty kill and in the locker room.
The club is ranked in the AHL’s top-10 on the penalty kill and the Wild, for the first time in club history, is not only in the hunt for a playoff berth but also has a chance to win the Central Division. For Prosser, that’s made the transition easier.
“I simply decided to do what I always do. I decided to come down here, work hard, come to the rink every day with a smile on my face and have fun,” Prosser said. “This is a bunch of good guys here. It is a tight-knit group and that translates to what is happening on the ice.”
Brown, interviewed just before he was recalled to Minnesota, suggested much of the same.
“I have been in the league for a while, so this may well be a good year for me to go back and remember how I got to be where I was,” Brown said. “Remember those days back in juniors and college and the early years in my pro career as well.”
Tim Army, Iowa’s head coach, understands the competing emotions of a veteran player sent to the minors but also to help develop young players who are fighting for a chance to play NHL. It is part of the Iowa Wild’s mission to prepare both kinds of players to be ready for the NHL, while at the same time, being competitive in the AHL.
“It is important for us to make sure we can do this for the younger player and the veteran player,” Army said. “Our job is to make everyone better so they are ready to go no matter what experience level they have as a pro. If we do that right, then we benefit by winning down here.”
Army added Prosser and Brown arrived in Des Moines ready to work.
“Both got here and were very open to being here and becoming a part of the team. I couldn’t have asked for a better approach from either of them.”
Paul Fenton, Minnesota’s general manager, has made it clear Iowa will become a critical cog in developing players to play for Minnesota and will follow the process used when he was assistant general manager for the Nashville Predators and general manager of the Milwaukee Admirals, Nashville’s AHL affiliate.
“It’s a straight shot to St. Paul from Des Moines,” Fenton said on a recent visit to watch Iowa. “It is the nature of our business to look for guys who want to make that next step and this is the place they can show it.”
Already this season, Minnesota has used Iowa to provide developmental assistance for a struggling Joel Eriksson Ek and Jordan Greenway along with Brown. Luke Kunin, who finished last season with Minnesota, returned to Iowa for 25 games to get into playing shape after knee surgery at the end of last season.
In addition, Minnesota has recalled a variety of veterans needed to fill in for injuries at various times during the season. Those players included defenseman Matt Bartkowski and veterans Matt Read and Kyle Rau on the front lines.
“Tim and the coaching staff have done a really good job down here,” Fenton said, adding that the younger players honed their games and returned to make greater contributions while the veterans stepped up well when needed.
Fenton also said much is expected from the club for the rest of the season, including qualifying for the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first time in Iowa Wild history.
“For us, it will teach the younger ones what we expect of them and what we need to get from them. We want them to develop into players who are used to winning and used to getting into the playoffs,” Fenton said. “We want them to get accustomed to challenging for a championship. That is a huge thing for us.”
Brad Bombardir, director of the Wild’s player development, has watched a lot of the Iowa Wild this season. He said the club’s success so far this season is a credit to building a good roster and giving them an ability to win games.
“It is just hard to get the right guys together on a roster that will create a good atmosphere that will last all season,” Bombardir said. “The leadership in that room this season has simply done a great job.”
He added that the combination of veterans like Mike Liambas with the returning players like Colton Beck, Gerry Mayhew and Kyle Rau, and rookies like Mason Shaw and Louie Belpedio has been a major factor.
“It is an outstanding mix of players and it simply comes back to the same thing – it is about the group,” Bombardir said. “Each one of those guys are different, they have different personalities, but each one of them clearly feels a responsibility to the team and making sure that this team has success.”
Prosser, who played in the Calder Cup Finals in 2010-11 with the Houston Aeros, suggested he is getting the same feeling with this Iowa team that he had when the Aeros battled all the way to Game 6 in the Finals before losing.
“I have been part of a tight-knit locker room that has made strong runs. Those kinds of locker rooms don’t come around that often,” Prosser said. “When I got here I noticed right away there were no cliques, no group of guys here or group of guys there. It is tight-knit and that is what makes a special team.”
Most of all, Prosser said, the team leaders, including team captain Cal O’Reilly and veterans Read, Liambas and Beck, have been able to build a camaraderie necessary for a team to compete at the highest level in the AHL.
“When we go on the ice, it is pretty nice to have a team that simply wants to play for each other and win for each other,” Prosser said. “That’s huge.”