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Wild Development Camp Notes, 2015

12 Jul

This past Saturday, in front of 3,500 souls all too pleased to spend a summer afternoon in a frozen arena, a collection of Minnesota Wild prospects showcased their skills in a scrimmage at the Xcel Energy Center. It was a first look at the Wild’s 2015 draft picks, a chance to revisit a few other prospects who’ve been in the system for a few years, and an opportunity for a handful of unsigned invitees to make a splash. Most were born between 1993 and 1997, though there were a handful of elder statesmen. The game featured two running-time 30-minute halves and an eight minute 3-on-3 overtime with stops; Team Green defeated Team White 6-3 with an empty-netter near the end of regulation, an accurate reflection of the chances throughout.

The most NHL-ready player there—perhaps unsurprisingly, seeing as he’s just signed a serious NHL contract—was Mike Reilly, who, as usual, ruled the ice with his offensive rushes. He added a crushing hit on Joel Eriksson Ek, and should have every opportunity to make the opening day roster. Barring any trades, his addition will only accentuate the Wild’s offensive-minded D corps, but in the hands of a good coach and the right scheme, that need not be a weakness.

This was the first real viewing of Eriksson Ek for Minnesotans, and he didn’t disappoint. His size and lack of physical presence were issues, but no one was more artful than the 2015 first round pick. He paired up especially well with Jordan Greenway, the NTDP product whom the Wild took in the second round. Greenway (alas, no ties to Coleraine there) was a physical force, good in tight space and on the cycle, and he and Eriksson Ek had natural chemistry. There may be a future between those two. The third member of their line, Zack Mitchell, didn’t rule play quite as much, but got the first goal of the game when he tapped in an Eriksson Ek pass, and added a snipe in the 3-on-3 overtime. The 2014 draft pick had a solid year with the Iowa Wild, though lacks the ceiling of many of the others on the ice Saturday.

One of the more intriguing players on hand was Louie Nanne, the ex-Edina Hornet burdened with a name that led to some (justified, though sometimes overboard) cries of nepotism when he was drafted in 2012. Nanne smartly chose a road less traveled, and he didn’t look out of place in the prospects game, with his smooth skating his finest asset. Still, his puck control still left something to be desired, and his penalty shot try was a dud. While he’s a clear D-I player, I’d still be stunned to see him get anywhere near the NHL.

Keeping with the theme of wandering Edina products, Jack Walker was among the standouts on the day. His wheels were among the finest, and he flew all over the place, though he couldn’t convert on a breakaway. He was the smallest player on the ice at 5’9” 170, but is no defensive liability, and he has a future somewhere. At eighteen, he still has some time to beef up, too.

Still, WHL leaps are hardly a golden bullet. Jared Bethune, the prodigal former Warroad Warrior and ex-UMD commit, was the one undrafted 1997 birth year, and it showed. Hunter Warner was also fairly anonymous, showing none of that physical prowess that made him a star at Eden Prairie.

Avery Peterson, the pride of Grand Rapids, slid smoothly into Team White’s offensive attack, joining Reilly on a slick passing play with Sam Warning to set up the first of his team’s two regulation goals. If anything, Peterson was too unselfish, a rare crime in this game. Warning, meanwhile, displayed that trademark speed and aggression that made him a staple at the University of Minnesota. With some consistency, he could still have a future at a high level.

Jack Sadek, last seen in this arena lifting a state championship trophy, was the only played coming straight from high school, but he had zero trouble making the leap. He was composed in his own end, leading those silky breakouts that made him a star at Lakeville North, and after he got knocked to the ice early in the scrimmage, he popped right back up and returned the favor. If he can add that physical side to his game, he’ll be a steal as a 7th-round pick for the Wild.

Sadek was one of several defensemen with Minnesota ties who had fine showings. Carson Soucy, the two-way UMD blueliner, was a consistent force, showing aplomb for jumping into the play while staying strong in his own end. Zach Palmquist was another player with a vintage effort, composed and steady. Rogers native Logan Nelson, who went the WHL route and is now in the ECHL, showed good patience and got down to block a few shots.

Rounding out those with Minnesota ties on the rink, Gopher Robin Hoglund brought the physical goods and created a few chances. Mario Lucia was quiet for parts of the game but also had some dominant shifts, singlehandedly bringing the pressure as he forced his way through the Green defense.

Alex Tuch, the 2014 first-rounder and current Boston College Golden Eagle, dangled about the rink at times, and found the back of the net in a breakaway on the 3-on-3. Another standout was Ryan Graham, an undrafted Canadian playing in the WHL. Graham was a one-wrecking crew on the forecheck and worked as hard as anyone on the ice. Another WHL invitee, Carter Rigby, did a good job of carrying his line, showing good control in tight space. Michael Vecchione, a name some Gopher fans may remember from the 2014 national championship game against Union, likewise used some flashes of strength to showcase his skills for the Wild brass. The various Swedish defensemen named Gustav (Oloffson and Bouramman) both jumped into play, at times doing a bit too much, though.

A few other players made their way on to my notepad with occasional flashes, but this limited viewing is short enough that I’ll avoid further sweeping judgment. Without much context from other teams’ camps, it’s also hard to measure where all these Wild stack up. They’ll do it again Tuesday night (6:30 start; free admission to the X), so if you need some ice in your July, head on down. Otherwise, we’ll check in with these kids in fall to see where they’re playing, and who’s a threat to crack the lineup in the future.

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December Duluth Roundup: Big Names on the Move

20 Dec

In this edition my semi-monthly summary of big Duluth news, I will avoid sounding like a broken record on the School Board and instead talk about two powerful Duluth women who are moving in different directions.

The first, At-Large City Councilor Emily Larson, has become the second person to officially enter next fall’s race for mayor. She immediately becomes the establishment pick to succeed the outgoing Don Ness, and the only chance she has of losing that title might be through an Yvonne Prettner-Solon candidacy. Throwing her name in the ring this early is a shrewd move that may head off potential competition from other center-left DFL figures. I’d label her the favorite (sorry, Howie), and that might not change even if YPS enters the race.

Larson is hard not to like. She is warm, considerate, open, and tireless. She’s been a relentless advocate for parks and libraries in particular, and it was no surprise to see her make her campaign announcement in front of the library. She has that charisma that can make a difference in a local campaign, and performed well across the city in her race for the Council in 2011. Larson is still a relative newcomer to politics, and is probably the youngest among the names that get tossed around. She definitely would keep the Ness vibe of youthful, optimistic energy going. Lack of executive experience is probably her most obvious shortcoming, and there is some risk of overabundant enthusiasm getting in the way of more detached assessment. But if she surrounds herself with the right people and has a good grasp on the budget, she will be a formidable figure in the race.

A bit further up the hill, at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, a hockey controversy is brewing. Shannon Miller, who has overseen the UMD women’s hockey program since its inception and won five national titles, will not be back next season. UMD chose not to renew her contract—which, at $215,000 when perks are factored in, is the highest of any women’s hockey coach at a public university, and probably the highest in the nation—and will hire someone new, probably for about half the salary.

UMD athletics are in a financial crunch, and has one profitable program—men’s hockey—that subsidizes the other fifteen. Miller’s behemoth of a contract stuck out like a sore thumb, and UMD Athletic Director Josh Berlo has used the market as his explanation: Miller is grossly overpaid in a sport that makes nowhere near the revenue that could justify such a salary. Miller, citing equity concerns, grouses that she is not paid as much as Scott Sandelin, the men’s head coach. And so we tread into that ever-contentious territory around Title IX, and while Miller doesn’t really have a legal case here, the effects of this one could linger.

Neither side seems to be handling the affair especially well. Miller has come out guns blazing, ripping UMD for failing to even propose a pay cut, which she claims she was willing to accept. (A 50 percent pay cut, though?) She also criticized the timing, saying it was a terrible thing to heap upon her team midseason—and during finals week, no less. After first saying he was just trying to be up-front and honest with Miller, Berlo has now gone back to say the university was required to give her six months’ notice. There are stories suggesting that Miller had burned a number of bridges in the Athletics Department over the years; she’s always been one to make sure others know her opinion, loud and clear.

Miller’s departure also may not bode well for the future of UMD women’s hockey. While they are doing well this year, the program has been trending downward since its last national title in 2010; as Bruce Ciskie notes here, they are now a clear step behind Minnesota and Wisconsin, and perhaps even North Dakota. It’s not hard to see the writing on the wall here, as college sports continue down the road toward the rich getting richer. Miller’s departure has upset many players, and there is some chance of a transfer exodus, or perhaps de-commitments from the recruits she has secured. In this climate, she will be a very difficult act to follow.

Another factor lurking somewhere in this decision might be Miller’s recruiting strategy. The Lady Bulldogs have long relied on a steady stream of foreign talent from Europe and Canada to beef up their lineup. The scholarships she gives these girls end up being much more costly to the university than those given to in-state players, as they need to cover out-of-state tuition. And, while understandable given the collapse of borders in most college sports, it is enough to give us Herb-Brooks-strengthen-the-base-of-the-pyramid acolytes some pause. Does importing foreign superstars really do much to grow the game locally?

Whatever the root cause, UMD women’s hockey has not been drawing big numbers to Amsoil Arena. Attendance is down. It is all tied up in the odd and frustrating state of women’s hockey, where the costs and the rat race for special training and scholarships is just as crazy as on the men’s side, only without any of the potential payouts at the end. (Here, one is reminded of the retirement rant of former University of Minnesota and Finland standout Noora Raty.)

With money playing such a prominent role, it’s unlikely there is any way UMD will recant. At this point, one can only hope that Bulldog women’s hockey proves bigger than its current coach, and can endure without her.

Puck Drop 2014-2015

10 Oct

Hockey season is officially underway, and the Minnesota Wild has Minnesotans salivating with their performance on Thursday night. The 5-0 demolition of defending division champ Colorado was the most thorough performance imaginable, with the whole team looking like a well-oiled machine. This was the cycle as an art form, and pure puck possession hockey at its highest level. The top line of Zach Parisé, Mikael Granlund, and Jason Pominville led the charge with a big night, but every line was in on the act. Jared Spurgeon and Ryan Suter both scored from the blue line, showing just how seamlessly fluid the Wild was. There should be no need for Suter to log absurd ice times this season now that the second defensive pair is a bit more mature, and Spurgeon offers a second legitimate offensive threat from the point. The penalty kill, a serious weakness last season, was more active and thoroughly neutralized the Colorado power play. This is the way hockey is meant to be played.

It would be a mistake to get too high off one game, and this version of the Avalanche was probably far from their best. While they’re unlikely to repeat their surprise run to the top of the Central from a year ago, they’ll still be a tough team in an incredibly tough division. If the Wild really is anywhere near as good as they looked on Thursday night, it may not be a stretch to say that three of the five best teams in the NHL—Chicago and St. Louis being the other two—are all in the same division. The future of Minnesota professional hockey has perhaps never looked so bright.

Friday saw the start of the NCAA hockey season with a game between Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, an enticing opening matchup that was made much less enticing by a 1:00 start time at an arena in Indiana with 54 people in it. The top-ranked Gophers return nearly everyone from last season’s national runner-up squad, and they looked very much the team to beat in the first five minutes of the game, poaching a pair of goals off bad UMD turnovers. After that it was a relatively flat game until a 3rd period UMD comeback made things interesting. The early lead had set the tone, with UMD trying to walk that awkward line between mounting a comeback and not exposing their weakness in back any more than it already was, and the Gophers largely content to sit back and rely on the transition game. Unlike the Wild game, this one definitely looked like a season-opener, with rust and sloppiness among the major themes.

The stars of the game were the two top-line centers, Kyle Rau and Dom Toninato. Rau had a hand in three of the four Gopher goals and was his usual antagonistic self all afternoon, winning battles all over the ice. While there’s a lot of talent around him, this is clearly Rau’s team. He, Sam Warning, and Hudson Fasching make for a lethal top unit. When the secondary scoring comes–and it will–this team will be very hard to stop.

Toninato, meanwhile, looks poised for a breakout year. He didn’t get quite as much attention as some of UMD’s other freshmen forwards last season, largely due to a lower point total, but he did a lot of things that don’t show up on the scoresheet with his strong defense, penalty-killing, faceoff wins, and presence in front of the net. Now, the Duluth East alum looks ready to become a force for the Bulldogs. (All 3 UMD goals were by former Greyhounds.) To really maximize the offensive potential that he and linemate Alex Iafallo bring to the table, they may want to move a playmaking forward to the top line in place of Adam Krause, whose grinding abilities may help out one of the lower lines that were occasionally caught too deep.

The Gophers may be #1, but there is work to be done. Two of their lines were largely invisible over the course of the game, and the defense had a few lapses as well. They also looked to be coasting some after grabbing the early lead, and the midseason energy wasn’t quite there yet. There’s no reason to suspect that they’re not the best team in the nation after this win, but the gap is probably not a large one. Don Lucia has a lot of bodies to sort through as he works out his lower lines and third defensive pair, so it may take a while before they really look championship caliber. With the length of the college hockey season, that’s no big issue.

UMD got better as the game went along, generating the majority of the zone time. That’s important, given their freshman goaltender and somewhat spotty defense; even the veteran defenders had some forgettable moments on Friday afternoon. Despite the loss, it was largely an encouraging performance from the Bulldogs, who enter the season one spot out of the USCHO preseason rankings. As they work things out over the course of a long season, it’s easy to see them moving up the ladder.

We’re a month away from the start of high school practices, and the Elite League season is nearing its end. While there’s usually some sort of October surprise to throw things off, I’ve started scratching out some early thoughts on preseason rankings, and will have plenty more work to do before they come out in about 5 weeks. Start the countdown…

Ties that Bind: Louie Nanne and the Minnesota Hockey Fishbowl

14 Sep

This blog has had too much politics lately. Time for a change of pace: hockey season is just around the corner! The NHL and NCAA hockey begin in the next month, junior leagues are already kicking off, and the Minnesota high school Elite League season started last weekend. But in the midst of all the new arrivals, there was also a departure: Louie Nanne, a University of Minnesota recruit, announced he would not be coming to the Gophers.

If you have any familiarity with Minnesota hockey, you’ll recognize that name. Louie’s grandfather, Lou, is Minnesota hockey royalty. As a Minnesota Gopher, North Star, North Star General Manager, and longtime commentator for the Minnesota High School tournament, it’s hard to think of any other person who’s given as much to hockey in this state over his lifetime. He also comes across a genuinely kind and caring person, willing to chat with anyone about anything hockey-related.

His grandson committed to Minnesota back in 2011, but his selection by the Gopher coaching staff quickly came under intense scrutiny. Louie Nanne’s high school numbers at Edina were decidedly pedestrian. He is a good skater, there are plenty of testaments to his excellent work ethic, and most people who viewed his status from some distance thought he could have been a decent lower-line, high-energy forward at Minnesota. Problem is, those sorts of players practically never commit before their junior years in high school—on the contrary, teams usually find them in junior leagues. In reality, the commitment made a lot of practical sense for the Gophers: due to the family’s wealth, Louie could probably pay his own way to Minnesota, freeing up precious scholarship money for other recruits. But, of course, that reasoning doesn’t sit too well with many hockey fans, who tend to be staunch believers in measuring players on merit alone.

The flap over the Gophers was only the start: in the 7th Round of the 2012 NHL draft, the Minnesota Wild snapped up Nanne. The NHL draft is quite the crapshoot by the time it gets to the 7th round, but even so, the cries of nepotism were out in full force: what were the Wild doing wasting a draft pick on Nanne when there were so many other players with better credentials left on the board?

However justified the criticism might have been, it made Louie Nanne’s life miserable. As his former Edina teammates marched to the state championship, Louie spent his senior year in Penticton, British Columbia, playing in the British Columbia Hockey League. At first, Nanne explained the move in terms of his hockey development, but it isn’t too hard to suspect other forces at work, and a later interview seemed to confirm those suspicions. He toiled away in relative obscurity, and has now announced that he won’t be a Gopher. It would be easy to decry the critics who bullied Nanne away, or, for that matter, to say Nanne shouldn’t have let a bunch of anonymous critics on social media wreck his dream of playing for the Gophers.

In reading Nanne’s decommitment note, however, a different story emerges: one of a kid who needed to leave home to come into his own. He grew up a prince of Minnesota hockey, and while that afforded him plenty of fame and advantages, it also burdened him with endless scrutiny and expectation. The community-based focus of Minnesota hockey (and I use that term broadly, so as to encompass even the D-I colleges with their loyal fan bases) often exacerbates that pressure, and it is visible, to varying degrees, in just about any program in the state. Many of us hockey commoners here in our Minnesota fishbowl don’t always see just how mentally difficult it can be to grow up as one of the bigger fish in that fishbowl, and only recently, with the proliferation of AAA youth hockey and player departures for junior leagues, have we come to realize there’s a much bigger hockey world out there.

It was especially interesting to see some of the NCAA-vs.-Canadian Major Junior arguments break out on the forum I moderate. Our members whose primary interest is in NCAA hockey tend to be pretty ambivalent about whether players stay in high school or go to U.S. junior leagues; they think the players’ development for college is more important than some fluff about “devotion to community” or a “well-rounded high school experience.” They tend to be dispassionate, well-measured observers of the high school scene. But when a few other commenters began to talk up the benefits of the Canadian route (as opposed to the NCAA) over the past year, the NCAA backers came out with their guns blazing, fiercely defending the college experience. Hockey has gone global, and the worldwide competition for a limited number of spots in the highest levels makes short shrift of all of that “community” stuff.

Our annual thread tracking early departures from Minnesota hockey over on the forum counted a record number this upcoming season, and it drew any number of responses: some lament the trend, many shrug and say “it is what it is,” and some make no effort to conceal their glee at the signs of erosion of the “restrictive” development model. As Louie Nanne can attest, there is a lot to be said for life outside the fishbowl. Players move around enough that it is easy to shed past baggage, and if they wind up in unpleasant situations, it’s not hard to get out. The lifestyle is a pretty big draw as well, with twenty-some boys whose lives are all wrapped up in the same dream all away from home for the first time. This doesn’t even touch on development, which I wrestled with in a post a few months ago.

Still, as I wrote in that post, there is a lot to be said for the cultural power of hockey in Minnesota, and no one knows that better than Louie’s grandfather, Lou. Even as his grandsons all embark on different hockey paths (another left for a U.S. junior team, and a third is staying in high school for his senior year), he keeps on covering the high school tournament year after year. Like most any parent or grandparent, he may have a bit of a blind spot when it comes to his own offspring (see his past comments more or less assuming another grandson would be a Gopher, when that does not appear terribly likely now), but he still cares deeply about the state of the sport beyond them.

In fact, hockey tends to grow not in spite of family ties, but because of parents’ care for their kids, and things snowball from there. Bob Fryberger donated a rink to Duluth East High School so that his sons would have a place to play; the rest is history with that program. Most of the prominent youth and high school programs are the same way, with fathers raising their sons to love the sport as much as they did. Things haven’t really changed, even if the more obvious recent examples are a little more exclusive. J.P. Parisé built up the Shattuck program for his son, Zach. Bernie McBain wouldn’t have founded Minnesota Made if not for Jamie.

As much as the landscape may change, hockey will never get rid of those family ties. They are a double-edged sword that keep the sport going and drive people to hate it when they see bias at work. It can only be managed, not eliminated, and requires the due diligence of every hockey parent. The question for hockey parents, then, is a simple one: are we in it only for our sons, or are our sons only part of the equation? Hockey is one part an individual quest, and as Louie Nanne shows us, sometimes we have to take a leap of faith to find ourselves. But it is also fundamentally a team sport, and every hockey boy knows he needs to have his teammates’ back, just as they have his. Sometimes the individual and the team-centered sides of hockey are in conflict, and this is, of course, why it can make for such good preparation for the rest of life.  Because there is no realm of human life where they aren’t sometimes in conflict.

Lou Nanne, for one, understands that. Since he’s a part of that same tradition, I suspect Louie Nanne does as well, or at least will soon enough. He has his dream and he has his roots, and he wouldn’t be whole without them both working in tandem. For the health of the sport he loves, he can’t afford to neglect either one.