YOUNG PLAYERS GET BUDDING OPPORTUNITIES AS SEASON PROGRESSESDec 30, 2019
By Tom Witosky
The timeline for a rookie’s development in the American Hockey League can gauge progress in two ways – playing time and the amount of responsibility they are given.
“When young guys start early in the year, they may be behind the older guys,” Iowa Wild Head Coach Tim Army said. “But as you get to Christmas and post-New Years, the expectation is they start to catch up, and in some cases, they pass guys.”
As far as Army is concerned, rookie forward Brandon Duhaime and center Connor Dewar are right on schedule.
“That's what those two guys are doing,” Army said. “They're playing extremely well. They both skate. They're both smart and they learn.”
Those qualities are good, given the kind of adjustments Army will have to make in the Wild lineup with three players getting injured during Saturday’s game with the Chicago Wolves.
In Friday’s 6-2 win over Rockford, Duhaime scored a goal and displayed some moxie for fighting in a quick brawl with defenseman Dmitry Osipov after the IceHog defenseman had leveled forward Dmitry Sokolov along the boards.
As the fight began, the 6-foot-1 Duhaime slipped to the ice but jumped back to his feet to give it as good as he got with a series of rights. It wasn’t a new experience for the Minnesota Wild’s fourth-round draft choice in 2016.
“When I was playing in juniors, I had probably three or four fights that year and then obviously in college, you can't fight but I was playing more of a physical game,” he said. “I wouldn't say its new to me, but you know, it's definitely part of my game.”
In Saturday’s loss to Chicago, Duhaime scored a whirl-around shot from the side-boards to tie the game at 3-3 late in the second period. The shot eluded Wolves goalie Oscar Dansk with Wild forward Mitch McLain screening the netminder and blocking his vision.
“I know that the guys I am playing with are going to get to the net, so it’s about flinging pucks that way to either create a rebound or be lucky enough for it to go in,” Duhaime said. “I actually thought Mitch had tipped it, but he didn’t.”
The 22-year-old Parkland, FL native also has played in each of the Wild’s 33 games this season, a key indicator of his progress since he arrived in training camp last September.
“I'm just getting more responsibility game-by-game and just starting to get the coaches’ trust,” Duhaime said. “That’s a big part of it and playing the game the right way proves that you can play at this level and play more minutes.”
Meanwhile, Dewar, Minnesota’s third-round draft choice in 2018, picked up his fourth assist of the season Friday night while centering Iowa’s fourth line and boosted his faceoff percentage to close to 50 percent – a strong percentage for a rookie center. His role also has expanded at times to include a spot on the Wild’s second power-play unit.
“Coming into this year, my goal was just to get into the lineup and play as much as I could,” the 20-year-old Alberta native said. “I’m just happy with what I've already got and am looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Like a lot of rookies. Dewar said the biggest challenge early in the season was to focus on learning how to make the right decisions with the puck.
“I didn't find the speed of the game too different from when I was in juniors, but just decision making had to be a little bit faster and based on what was happening around me,” Dewar said. “As the season has gone on, things have slowed down a bit and things are a little calmer now.”
Duhaime and Dewar average around 13 to 15 minutes, but those numbers may increase with upper-body injuries to forwards Colton Beck and Kyle Bauman on Saturday night. In addition, defenseman Hunter Warner also left the game in the second period with an upper-body injury caused by a collision with a Wolves player.
On Sunday, Army contemplating how to deal with an injury list that doubled from three players – Cody McLeod, Gabriel Dumont, and Mike Liambas – to six players in one game. He said the three players injured Saturday night would be evaluated Monday and it’s unknown how long each player could be out.
“They are significant injuries,” Army said, adding that at least one forward would have to be added immediately for Tuesday’s New Year’s Eve game against Texas. “We have a lot of moving parts right now. It’s not only the bodies, but we got to try and find some chemistry. You’ve got to find some chemistry.”
That incoming forward is Tyler Sheehy, who leads both the Allen Americans and the entire ECHL with 42 points in 31 games, including 27 assists. The team also signed defenseman Turner Ottenbreit to a PTO for the third time this season.
Army said center Mason Shaw, who is recovering from knee surgery, is getting closer to returning to the lineup, but needs more practice time before he is ready to play.
“He feels right but we're not still going to rush it,” Army said. “We're going to make sure he's ready to go and that his conditioning base, his legs and the ability to play in the physical nature of the game are all there.”
As a result, Army said, the Wild’s younger forwards – Duhaime, Dewar, McLain, and Sokolov – are going to have to step up.
“Everyone is going to have to contribute what they can,” Army said. “We can't be trying to hide guys and we can't be hiding key guys. We've played good hockey lately and just have to figure out a way to continue it.”
Both Dewar and Duhaime are looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m just trying to take advantage of every opportunity as a rookie,” Dewar said. “So I will be ready for it.”
Duhaime agreed, saying it was a challenge, but also an opportunity to progress.
“It’s about embracing the opportunity and doing whatever it takes to win,” Duhaime said. “It's going to be more important to make the smart play and keep on playing as we have.”