Luke Kunin has had the special touch on most every international team he has ever played on. Now a former University of Wisconsin Badger, Kunin hopes to help push the Iowa Wild into the Calder Cup playoffs for the first time.
Kunin, drafted 15th overall last June by the Wild, will make his Iowa debut Friday night in Cleveland after he signed an amateur tryout Thursday. That followed agreeing to terms with Minnesota on a three-year, $2.775 million contract, plus performance bonuses (his 'A' bonuses are representative with a mid-first-round pick of his pedigree), that’ll kick in next season.
He’ll sign officially Friday.
Iowa, which has 12 regular-season games left including two in a row in Cleveland, ranks fifth in the Central Division with a .531 points percentage. The top-four in each division make the playoffs, and Charlotte is fourth at .540 and Cleveland sixth at .523.
So Kunin’s arrival comes at a good time.
“I want to be a winner wherever I go,” Kunin said by phone a few hours before flying to Cleveland with a connection in Minneapolis on Thursday afternoon. “And right now, that’s Iowa. I want to do whatever can, just work hard and just help any way I can. I’m just looking forward to getting down there and playing a game with those guys.”
Kunin, who has played center mostly for USA Hockey, played wing down the stretch for the Badgers and will initially start at right wing on a line with Ryan Carter and Pat Cannone with Iowa, said coach Derek Lalonde. He may eventually get a look at center.
Kunin, 19, the first sophomore to captain the Badgers in 41 years, led the team with 22 goals and 38 points in 35 games one year after leading them with 19 goals.
The 2016 Wild first-round pick captained the United States to gold at the most recent world junior championships.
During his career, Kunin has represented Team USA at seven international tournaments - winning the championship six times and finishing second once. He captained the U.S. to a gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Under-18 Championship, leading the team and ranking T-3rd in the tournament with six goals in seven games.
“A lot of people don’t realize, his freshman year at Wisconsin, he really should have been a high school senior,” agent Pete Rutili, an Augsburg College grad, said. “He’s got three world championships before he even turned 20 – under 17, under-18 and under-20. Pretty impressive young guy.”
Kunin said talk of signing immediately with Minnesota was brief. The Wild didn’t want to burn the first year of his contract, nor thrust him right from college hockey into an NHL playoff run.
“After talking with [GM Chuck Fletcher], he said that’s just the way they do it,” Kunin said. “Everyone in Minnesota has played in the American League at some point, and it’ll be a good step for me to take. We’re definitely on the same page.”
After losing in double overtime of the Big Ten championship to Penn State, Kunin went to St. Louis with a couple teammates to root on the Badgers’ women’s team, which includes his girlfriend, Wayzata’s Sophia Shaver, in the Frozen Four.
After the tournament, Kunin stayed in his hometown to decompress from the season and talk to his parents about the decision he had to make. He stayed in contract with Badgers coaches Tony and Don Granato and Mark Osiecki. He wanted to gauge their advice.
“It’s never easy,” Kunin said. “I loved Wisconsin, my teammates, but I knew it was time and I was ready to make the jump to pro hockey.”
Added Rutili, “The American League is second-best league in the world, and he’s getting real game experience. That’s what he’s looking for. He’s looking to get exposure, get the experience, get rolling and then he has every intention going into training camp with an eye of making the Wild next year.”
That’s why Kunin thinks these next 12 games and hopefully beyond will be valuable.
“I think it’ll be good to learn the system and how they want us to play,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to playing the pro game and adjusting and seeing what it’s like and continuing to get better every day.”
Miami University junior defenseman Louis Belpedio, a third-round pick in 2014, is also mulling over whether it’s time to turn pro, said Rutili, who also advises Belpedio.