WILD ROOKIES CONTRIBUTE THROUGHOUT THE LINEUPApr 8, 2019
By Tom Witosky
All Mason Shaw wanted this season was a shot at playing in the American Hockey League. All Dmitry Sokolov wanted was to prove he could score goals. All Mitch McLain wanted was to get better.
All three not only achieved their goals, but along with four other rookies in this year’s lineup, the Iowa Wild developed into a team to be reckoned with in the AHL. Without their contributions, the Wild’s competitive record would not have happened.
“You want the young guys to progress,” Iowa Wild Head Coach Tim Army said. “There are a lot of different things you are trying to accomplish in the American League and one of them is to get the young guys to be better.”
The progress and contribution by the Wild’s rookie corps, Army said, is clearly evident.
- How goalie Kaapo Kahkonen was named an AHL All-Star, posting 12 wins in the first half of the season that included five shutouts, three of which were in consecutive games, and became the first Wild player to win any AHL monthly award.
- How Shaw transformed from a forward recovering from a severe knee injury to a top-six forward early in the season and has yet to miss a game this year. If he finishes with 76 games played, Shaw, 20, will be only the fourth player in Iowa history to play each game of the season. The first-year player also ranks fifth on the team in assists.
- How Will Bitten, traded to the Minnesota organization in early October, became a top-six forward on veteran Cal O’Reilly’s line midway through the season. Bitten’s speed and forechecking ability has led him to a 10-plus goal season.
- How four rookies – Bitten, Sokolov, McLain, and Gerry Fitzgerald – each have scored 10 or more goals this season, with Sokolov nearing the 20-goal mark.
“Bitten and McLain weren’t even in the lineup for us on opening night,” Army said. “That tells you how the lineup can change during a season. ‘Shawsy’ and ‘Sokie’ were on the fourth line with ‘Fitzy’ on opening night.”
Army said the rookies’ rapid progression will be one of the key accomplishments for the Iowa staff and its players.
“Through their own progression, as well as the things that happen with injuries, call-ups, trades, they have been asked to take on a more prominent role,” Army said. “They became very important for us if we were to keep on playing at the pace we’d been playing.”
For any rookie, the adjustment to the AHL and its brand of hockey can be a bit intimidating, as well as demanding.
Each rookie said the coaching staff and key veterans on the team like O’Reilly and assistant captains Mike Liambas, Colton Beck and Matt Read, made it easier for them.
“It is really a compliment to the coaches and the older guys who have helped us all out,” Shaw said recently. “There never has been a moment when I would question what I was doing or wondered if I belonged here. They have done a great job of that.”
McLain described the veteran O’Reilly, the team’s captain, as “the ultimate professional.”
“You don’t play something like 850 professional games without doing something right every day. Just the way he plays and how ready he is every single night impresses all of us,” McLain said. “Off the ice, he is so approachable. You can go to him and he’ll talk to you about how to approach things.”
Louie Belpedio, one of the club’s rookie defensemen and a member of the Wild’s second power-play unit for much of the season, said Liambas made it a point of making the rookies a part of the team.
“Mike had us all over for dinner early on and would call to make sure things were going right,” Belpedio said. “The vets on the team did a really good job of bringing us all together in a very short period of time. We don’t have any bad guys on the team or problems.”
The rookies also uniformly suggested the best part of their work this season has been learning to play professional hockey.
“I’ve gotten better in every aspect of the game,” Belpedio said. “At the start, I wasn’t really trusted on special teams, but that has changed. I now find myself on those units and often matched up against the top lines of the opponents.”
“It’s my first year so there were a lot of things to adjust to, but the club made it easy,” Bitten said. “Coach has done a really solid job with our style of play “
Last season, McLain played 10 games with Wild after four years at Bowling Green. When he arrived in camp, he was one of the early scratches, but Army said it was more about numbers than how he played.
Skating as a third or fourth line center, McLain earned his spot, scoring 10 goals as well as providing a physical aspect to the Wild’s lineup along with Liambas and Hunter Warner.
“I recognized when I wasn’t playing it was either my skating or not paying enough attention to the details of every play,” McLain said. “Now, I have gotten myself to being a lot more consistent in my game and now I feel much more confident playing the game.”
Army said McLain’s progress helped the team remain competitive at a time when it was struggling with injuries.
“I honestly don’t know where we would be without him,” Army said. “He didn’t play a lot right away, but when he did, he always played well. At times his game would slip and we would pull him out and work hard with him in practice. He would then go in and play hard and well at his level.”
Army also said the rookies are part of what he calls “building a winning culture” in Iowa.
“They are talented players and good kids,” Army said. “They have a good work ethic and are very attentive for young guys. Everyone has some deficiency in their games, but they have good self-evaluation skills. They work to get better and we will too.