Our blog platform was down earlier today, so hopefully you saw the news on startribune.com/wild that Kurtis Gabriel is set to make his NHL debut Tuesday night against the Winnipeg Jets on a line with Chris Porter and Ryan Carter.
He worked his butt off to get here. A late bloomer who started playing hockey full-time at 17 years old, the 22-year-old is arguably the most improved player in the organization since being drafted, management has said.
He worked hard this summer on his skating and brings a big, physical style that coach Mike Yeo hopes helps on the forecheck against the big, fast Jets. He’s also willing to drop the gloves.
More on Gabriel in a moment, but the Wild will be without defenseman Marco Scandella for at least the next game because of personal reasons. If you remember, he also needed to leave the team for a little while in training camp. The Wild leaves Wednesday for the first two games of a four-game road trip. The Wild will bring Scandella’s equipment to Raleigh, but it’s really up in the air right now when Scandella returns.
We wish Scandella the best.
It’s a tough loss for the Wild. Scandella has been great lately, and he was the left-shot coach Mike Yeo and assistant coach Andrew Brunette play in the Zach Parise position (right circle, looking for one-timers and rebounds) on the power play. It’ll be interesting to see who takes that spot now. Do they revamp the system so to speak or do they go with a left-shot like Jason Zucker or a Jonas Brodin? If they go with Zucker, I’d think Charlie Coyle moves onto the second unit.
Right-shot defenseman Nate Prosser, who hurt his back on a cross-check from Nashville’s James Neal last week, will return in Scandella’s spot on the third pair. He’ll move to his off side and play to the left of Christian Folin. Prosser did well playing the left side last year. He said the only big adjustment is in the neutral zone because you almost unnaturally need to turn right looking for your outs, and the moment you delay too much, an opposing forechecker’s on ya. He said it’s not too difficult in the offensive zone (except turning your stick to keep pucks in) and not too hard on retrievals.
Parise has also been ruled out for the upcoming four-game trip. Yeo said they’ll revaluate things in a few weeks, but he 100 percent won’t be on the ice in the next week.
Back to Gabriel, I’m doing a bit of a profile on him in Tuesday’s paper.
His mom, Kim, who’s the most important person in his life (give the profile a read), will be at the game along with her husband (Kurtis’ stepdad), Bill, Kurtis’ brother, Iain, and his best buddy, Mark.
Gabriel had a feeling he’d be called up (smart kid probably reads the Strib), so he didn’t work out after last night’s Iowa game. John Torchetti gave him a hint to take it easy after the game. Gabriel went home, then got the call to return to the arena and grab his gear and get into a Towncar.
Gabriel seems to be the Wild’s designated Winnipeg player. He has played three preseason games against the Jets, two in Winnipeg. On Oct. 25, he warmed up against Winnipeg but didn’t play in the game.
“So obviously it’s a trend and I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
It’s not secret why: “I play physical, they play physical, and it’s a rivalry game. Things get chippy and I’m here to help out.”
This is a dream come true for Gabriel.
“I think you always think about that you’re going to soak it in a lot, but I think it’s better to just prepare like it’s a regular game and soak it in and reminisce after. But right now it’s all business and I just want to really show that I can play,” he said.
Gabriel is known as one of the Wild’s most driven players. He’s a rink rat, a gym rat and a nutrition expert. He knows everything he puts into his body and in the minors brings food with him on the road.
“Just the way my mom has brought me up and my grandparents,” he said as to why he’s so driven. “My grandparents came over from Scotland (Betty and Bob) and built a great life for my mom. Obviously that has transferred down to me and my brother and my family. It starts with their hard work, my mom’s hard work and I’ve picked up on it. I’ve chosen what I’ve gotten to do, so it makes it easy.”
Like I alluded to above, please give the profile a read. It’s pretty touching stuff.
Yeo said Gabriel was called up over Christoph Bertschy again “based on what type of game it might be [vs. Winnipeg]. This game will probably look a little different from our next opponent (Carolina). Gabriel gives us the ability to bring in a bigger body. The other thing it does, it gives us a chance here for the next little bit to see how some of these guys do. I thought Bertschy did a good job, and we’ll see how Gabes does tomorrow. It’s a good chance for him to get in there and show what he can do and how he can add. We always say our success is based on everybody going out and playing our game, but it’s also a matter of everyone going out and bringing their own special piece to the puzzle. He’s a different type of player and I want to see how that complements our group.”
On the ability to have a big 6-foot-4 body like Gabriel, Yeo said, “It’s always a luxury. Those guys have to prove that they can play, and that’s the game today. By all accounts, he’s been playing the game well. He knows the things that he needs to work on, he knows the type of game that he has to bring. But you just can’t just run around and have 15 hits in the game and be minus-3. You have to be able to play the game, you have to be able to execute and along the way try to find a way to bring a physical presence in the game.”
There has been the annual debate amongst Wild fans if the Wild’s lack of thuggery is why players like Zach Parise and Justin Fontaine got hurt.
Personally, I think it’s laughable, but I asked Yeo anyway.
“You look at Zach’s, and it’s not like that’s a tough guy and if we had a tough guy that that would deter that,” Yeo said. “That’s type of game that Neal plays every night, it doesn’t matter what opponent he’s playing. So I don’t think that’s the case. Those days of the deterrents and those days of the enforcers tapping a guy on the shoulder, the league has changed. That’s the reality. And I think players are quite often smart enough to know that they can say no to a fight. Whenever you can have a physical player in the game who can play the game, that’s when it’s important because if they’re going to run around, if they’re going to hit, then you want players that are capable of going around doing the same things.”
Yeo on Gabriel being so respected by the highers-up in the organization: “It’s always a great thing for the organization when people put in the work and they develop and they’ve shown the commitment. It’s a great message to that player to reinforce all those things that they’re doing, but as much as anything else, it’s a great message to the rest of the group and young kids coming up of what’s required.”
Asked if there’s a chance the Wild shuffles Iowa players in and out based on the type of opponent it’s playing, Yeo said, “We don’t have a plan. We didn’t know that Bertschy was going to come up for one game. I wanted to see his game, and likewise we’ll see what happens here with Gabes tomorrow. Bertschy did a good job. That’s not why he went down. I actually thought he played a pretty good game for us. I thought he got better as the game went on and now I’ll have a chance to see Gabes and we’ll make a decision for Carolina after that.”
Tuesday night is Military Appreciation Night. Nearly every element of the game will honor the men and women of our Armed Forces and their families.
More than 1,000 active or retired military members are expected. The Wild will wear camouflage jerseys during warmups. Each player will autograph his jersey and it will be auctioned to benefit Defending the Blue Line and the Minnesota Wild Foundation. Bidding for the jerseys opened today on the online auction page under Community at wild.com.
There will be all sorts of in-game unveilings and cermonies, and children of military members will partake in all Wild game-night staples. Fans can also fill out holiday cards for troops deployed overseas at Section 124.
Also, Defending The Blue Line needs your help in breaking the Wild's split the pot record. They want to hit $30,000. From their release, "That money would go a long way to ensure that the children of military families continue to have every opportunity to participate in hockey!"
I’ll be on KFAN (Vox in the Box) at 10:15 Tuesday morning with Paul Allen.
Tonight at 5:30, come on down to Tom Reid’s to take part in a podcast with Jim Souhan and myself. Our special guest is Wild owner Craig Leipold.