Over the past two years, Justin Kloos has gotten two different views of Luke Kunin. The former Gophers forward has seen Kunin as a cursed rival, during the years Kunin played for Wisconsin, then became his teammate when both represented the Wild at a recent NHL prospects tournament.
There is no question which picture Kloos prefers. “It’s a lot nicer to have him on your side, battling with you, working toward the same goals instead of going opposite ways,’’ he said. “He’s just a really, really good player.”
That’s the opinion of many in the Wild organization as Kunin, 19, tries to make a big impression in his first NHL training camp. Following two stellar seasons with the Badgers, the native of suburban St. Louis decided last spring to get started on his pro career. He’s already caught the attention of Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, who expects him to make a strong bid for a spot on the NHL roster.
The 6-0, 191-pound Kunin has shown off his vaunted work ethic during his first two days of camp. The forward also brings a solid all-around game and a knack for leadership.
“I’m just looking forward to the process,’’ Kunin said. “I’m going to try to push for a spot on the team. That’s my goal, to try to make it.
“I’m really excited to learn from the coaches and the guys who are here, guys I’ve looked up to. I just want to keep getting better every day.”
Boudreau raved about Kunin’s competitive spirit during the prospects tournament, in which he finished with two goals — including a game-winner. Before camp started, the coach said he wouldn’t be surprised if Kunin quickly put himself in position to win a place with the Wild.
“Luke takes nothing from nobody,’’ Boudreau said. “He outworks everybody. A guy like him, even if they do get sent to the minors for a little bit, they’re going to the minors with one thing in mind: to get back to the NHL. You don’t see him as a guy that’s going to be denied.’’
The Wild chose Kunin 15th overall in the 2016 NHL draft. He signed last March, just after finishing his second season at Wisconsin, where he became only the second sophomore in program history to be named captain.
A product of the U.S. national team development program, Kunin led the Badgers with 19 goals as a freshman. By then, the Wild already was sold on his many gifts. He has the versatility to play anywhere in the lineup, though his vision and hockey sense make him particularly valuable as a playmaking center. His scoring ability and accurate shot get much of the attention, but he doesn’t shy away from physical play.
Kunin wrapped up his college career with a team-high 22 goals and 38 points last season. An academic all-Big Ten selection, he also was captain of the U.S. team that won the gold medal at the world junior championships.
Kunin said he thought briefly about staying in college for one more season, so he could try for a place on the U.S. team that will play in the Olympics in February, but ultimately signed a three-year entry-level contract.
“It was a tough decision,’’ he said. “I’m going to miss Wisconsin. But I thought I was ready. And my coaches, my family and my agent all agreed this was the best thing for me.’’
Last spring, Kunin played 12 games for the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa. He scored five goals and added three assists, including a hat trick in his third game.
Kloos said Kunin is a remarkably complete player for his age, singling out his speed, intelligence and forechecking ability. Wild center Joel Eriksson Ek, who played with both of them at the prospects tournament, pointed to the example Kunin sets for others. “He’s a great leader,’’ Eriksson Ek said. “He always goes as hard as he can, and people want to follow him.”
Being one of the youngest players in camp, Kunin said, doesn’t bother him. By learning everything he can from his NHL idols, he hopes it won’t be long before he is playing alongside them.
“The Minnesota Wild is where I want to be,’’ he said. “And I’m not going to stop until I’m up here.”