DENVER – He’d been away from the group for months, continuing his first professional season in the minors, but forward Luke Kunin felt an opportunity to rejoin the Wild might emerge.
The team had made subtle tweaks at the trade deadline and with roster flexibility created from those decisions, there was room to usher in change from the pipeline — and Kunin was the first fresh yet familiar face tabbed to boost the Wild after he was recalled from the American Hockey League on Tuesday.
“It’s a really good group up here,” he said. “I don’t think they need to move a lot of pieces for them to win hockey games. It worked out for me. I’m looking forward to playing and helping them win hockey games.”
Kunin made his first appearance since his addition Friday against the Avalanche; it was also his first assignment with the Wild since a 17-game stint in October and November when he chipped in two goals and two assists. He was sent back to Iowa, where he started the season, to rebuild his confidence and log heavy minutes to enhance his development.
“I think I got more comfortable as those games went on and toward the end, I was feeling really good about my game,” Kunin said. “So going back down there, I had more touches with the puck and some power play and things like that. I got some more confidence. I feel good about my game now. I’ve been working on a lot of wall play and being strong down low. I’m hoping it translates here.”
In Iowa, Kunin scored 10 goals and amassed 19 points in 36 games — less production than he had last season in his final campaign at University of Wisconsin when he posted 22 goals and 38 points in 35 games.
But the transition to the pro game has gone as anticipated in the 20-year-old’s eyes.
“The [AHL] is not an easy league to produce [in] and score,” he said. “A lot of the goals and points are going to be on power plays and situations like that. I feel the last little bit down there, I like where my game is headed, and I feel confident and I feel like I can score. I think it is what I expected. You always want to say you can do better and you can be better. I’m happy with my game.”
Coach Bruce Boudreau inserted Kunin on a line with winger Nino Niederreiter and center Joel Eriksson Ek against the Avalanche, and the hope is he helps the team by being the reliable sparkplug he showed flashes of earlier in the season.
“He’s got speed, but he always plays a fairly physical game and he’s pretty responsible,” Boudreau said. “He does all those things, we’ll be very happy.”
Aside from subbing Kunin into the lineup for winger Tyler Ennis, the Wild also made a change on defense with Gustav Olofsson playing against the Avalanche and Nate Prosser sitting — his first absence since missing the game on the day he was claimed off waivers by the Wild on Nov. 30.
Forward Charlie Coyle suited up after taking a puck off the face late in the 5-3 loss to the Coyotes.
“It was bleeding pretty good [Thursday] night when he got hit,” Boudreau said.
The loss to the Coyotes was the first in regulation this season after the Wild held a lead after the first period, dropping it to 20-1-2 in that scenario.
“We just play better with a lead,” Boudreau said. “We got a lot more confidence. … [But] we went out and got the lead and lost. You don’t want to dwell on [Thursday] too much, but it was frustrating. We outchanced them after the second period 13-1, and it was a 1-1 tie. They only had to play 20 minutes of good hockey, and we ended up having to play 60 and we only played 40.”