WILD RESET FOR 2019-20 SEASON AS TRAINING CAMP OPENS IN DES MOINESSep 26, 2019
By Tom Witosky
That’s how Iowa Wild Head Coach Tim Army is describing what the 2019-20 version of his club is going to have to do as the Wild’s training camp opens in Des Moines this week. The regular season begins Friday, Oct. 4, at home against division rival Rockford IceHogs.
“Teams that are in the playoffs seven, eight, nine, 10 years in a row understand what it takes to make the playoffs,” Army said. “They bring it every year because they know it's a reset, and they’ve got to do it all over again. They have a fabric to their culture, a discipline to their culture. Teams that make it once and then don't make it haven't established the identity that's necessary to be a consistent playoff team.”
As a result, Army said the biggest task ahead for the Wild, which earned its first playoff berth in six seasons in 2018-19, is to prepare for a strong start to the season that will play an instrumental role in getting the club back into the playoffs despite playing in one of the toughest divisions in the AHL.
“You can't assume and you can't get ahead of yourself, you can only reset,” Army said. ”We're going right back to the details and doing things that are right in our identity. We have a really good foundation and the guys that are returning have an understanding of that foundation.”
Earlier this week, 39 players, including 13 from last season’s team, reported to Iowa’s camp. More Iowa veterans – forward Gerry Mayhew and defensemen Louie Belpedio and Carson Soucy – are still battling for spots on the Minnesota Wild’s starting roster.
Among new players expected to play key roles this season are centers Gabriel Dumont, who was captain of the Syracuse Crunch last season, and Luke Johnson, who played with Rockford. Both were signed as free agents by the Minnesota Wild this past offseason and are primed to take over roles vacated by Cal O’Reilly and Matt Read.
“We lost a couple great people, not by our choice,” said Tom Kurvers, who is entering his second year as Iowa’s general manager. “Cal got a terrific opportunity and moved on. And he did a terrific job for us on the ice and off the ice. He’ll be a tough guy to replace.”
Kurvers said the signings of Dumont and Johnson, in addition to signing veteran NHL forward Cody McLeod, will provide the club with leadership similar to what O’Reilly brought along with proven hockey talent.
“There are a number of guys like that out there. And, we think we've been able to find good people who are good players. And they are here to perform for us and fill those roles,” he said.
Colton Beck, who signed his first NHL contract last year, returned to Des Moines for a fifth season with wife, Alyssa, and son, Nash. He went through his first training camp with Minnesota and while he was disappointed in getting sent down, he also felt good about getting back to Des Moines.
“We're pulling back into town and my wife said, ‘I feel like we're home now. Not as much when we go home in the summer’,” said Beck, who lives in British Columbia during the summer months.
Beck said he felt he had a good training camp in St. Paul and that he could contribute to the NHL team if called-up. At the same time, Beck said he is looking forward to the AHL campaign in hopes of improving on his career-high 14 tallies in 2018-19.
“We have a pretty good core group coming back from last year that has been developing for a year or two. I think all of us, obviously, are ready to take another step forward in developing our games,” Beck said.
Army said that improvement on last year’s performance by several Wild players, who had excellent seasons, will be a priority. Among those with career seasons were defenseman Brennan Menell, recording a team individual record of 42 assists, forward Kyle Rau setting career highs with 26 goals, 27 assists, and 53 total points, and Mayhew, notching career marks with 27 goals, 33 assists, and 60 points.
“There were a number of career years,” Army said. “But all of these guys are young and they haven’t come close to hitting a ceiling or leveling off. I think they are still tracking for better years after the last one.”
One position that will be lacking veteran experience is in net, as goaltenders Kaapo Kahkonen and Mat Robson have a combined one year of AHL hockey under their belts. Army said he is expecting an improved year out of Kahkonen, who was named an AHL All-Star after the first half of last season but struggled at the end of the campaign. At the end of the season, Kahkonen had compiled a 17-22-4 record with a 2.78 GAA and a .908 save percentage.
“It's good to be back and I think everybody feels like we just want to get going and start to play some real games,” Kahkonen said, adding the goal of making the playoffs and going further than last year’s second round will be on every player’s mind. “We should have a really good team here with some new guys who are coming in who are really good. Our expectations should be high.”
Army said he appreciates the kind of energy and optimism he’s seen among the players in the first few weeks of camp. But, he said he intends to keep the team accountable in preparing for the season because experience has shown him things can go wrong after a good season.
Army said when the Colorado Avalanche returned for the 2015-16 season after unexpectedly winning the Central Division the previous year with him on the coaching staff, the club struggled mightily at the beginning of the season.
“It was a number of things,” Army said. “It was a bit of complacency, a bit of an assumption, a bit of not knowing what it takes to be a championship team,” Army said. “And so we came in and our training camp wasn't very good. We weren't very good at the beginning.”
Army said the problems of the early season prevented the club from making the NHL playoffs despite playing “some of the best hockey we played all year at the end of the season.”
“So all that talk that we had arrived, that we were the new team on the horizon, we forgot that you actually have to get back and you have to get back to work. We're not going to let that happen here,” he said.