With his dark brown beard and fearless playing style, Luke Kunin might not look like the Wild’s youngest player. He doesn’t have the baby face of Joel Eriksson Ek, 20, or the forever young glow of Mikael Granlund, 25.
But Kunin won’t turn 20 until Dec. 4, and at the rate he’s going, he might be firmly entrenched in the NHL by then.
Seven games into the season, with injuries decimating his forwards, coach Bruce Boudreau is turning to Kunin in key spots, and the 2016 first-round draft pick hasn’t disappointed.
At Wednesday’s practice, Boudreau moved Kunin to right wing on a line with veterans Eric Staal and Tyler Ennis, as the Wild prepared for Thursday night’s home game against the New York Islanders.
“We had some jump, and we were buzzing out there,” Kunin said. “[Staal’s] one of the best players in the world, so it’s pretty cool to be able to play alongside him.”
Kunin made his first career start in Tuesday’s 1-0 loss to Vancouver. Boudreau started Matt Cullen’s line, which was supposed to feature Justin Kloos, not Kunin. But the 24-year-old Kloos was making his NHL debut.
“I thought it might be too much for [Kloos],” Boudreau said.
Apparently, it wasn’t too much for Kunin, even if it was just his fourth NHL game. The St. Louis native is shortening the typical learning curve, just as he did at Wisconsin, where he was one of the Badgers’ best players two years ago, as a 17-year-old freshman.
Kunin captained the Badgers as a sophomore last season, and captained the U.S. team that brought home gold from the world junior championships. After signing with the Wild last March, Kunin delivered a hat trick for Iowa in his third AHL game.
Even when the Wild cut Kunin from the training camp roster, Oct. 2, returning him to the AHL, the team knew he’d be right back. General Manager Chuck Fletcher didn’t want a top prospect playing limited minutes in the NHL when Kunin could play every facet — 5-on-5, penalty kill, power play — for Iowa.
Now the equation has changed with the Wild missing Zach Parise (back surgery), Charlie Coyle (broken leg) and Nino Niederreiter (high ankle sprain).
Through four games, Kunin has averaged 14 minutes, 13 seconds of ice time.
“You can’t get many more minutes, whether it’s in Iowa or here,” Boudreau said. “The way he’s playing, he’s only going to get more.”
Kunin has been back and forth from Iowa three times this month, but that’s because the Wild is trying to save salary cap space. He hasn’t missed a Wild game since getting promoted for the Oct. 14 home opener.
After playing Saturday in Calgary, Kunin returned to Iowa for one day before getting recalled. He actually practiced Monday with his Iowa teammates before returning for Tuesday’s game at Xcel Energy Center.
“It’s part of the process,” Kunin said. “It’s out of my control, but I’m just happy to be here whenever I’m here.”
Beyond Kunin’s regular shifts, Boudreau used the rookie on the penalty kill late in Saturday’s 4-2 win at Calgary, with the Wild still clinging to a one-goal lead.
After Tuesday’s shutout loss, Boudreau said he thought Kunin and Eriksson Ek “were our two best players.” They are also the team’s youngest players.
The 6-foot, 193-pound Kunin has managed just two assists for the Wild. He has just five shots on goal.
“You obviously want to score and get that first one,” he said. “I just want to keep playing the way I’m playing and good things are going to happen. I’ve just got to keep shooting pucks.”
The Wild saw it again in Wednesday’s practice. During a 2-on-2 drill, Kunin fed Eriksson Ek for one goal and scored himself moments later with a one-timer past Alex Stalock. The next drill was a shootout, and Kunin put the puck past Devan Dubnyk.
“[Kunin] plays with some pace,” Staal said. “He’s aggressive on the forecheck. I think he’ll be more comfortable as time goes on, making plays and creating a little bit more offense.”
It’s all happening fast. In six short weeks, Kunin won’t even be a teenager anymore.