Over the summer, the Wild saved a fourth-line roster spot for Tyler Graovac. General Manager Chuck Fletcher told first-year coach Bruce Boudreau how Graovac was big and strong and could skate.
Fast forward to training camp, and “I just didn’t see anything. I was a little disappointed,” Boudreau said.
The coach told Graovac just that during a frank exit meeting after he was placed on waivers with the purpose of sending him to the minors.
“He wasn’t impressed,” Graovac said. “I wasn’t able to show him enough. That was a tough day.”
Fast forward to today, 19 games since being called up, and Boudreau sees “a 100 percent different player. I think he’s been excellent.”
He centers the fourth line with veteran Chris Stewart and one of his best friends, Kurtis Gabriel. The two bonded in development camp in 2013, always arrive in Minnesota early to work out together, and according to Graovac, have “visualized” being teammates together.
Graovac has been responsible defensively, has won some faceoffs and generated scoring chances. Other than Sunday’s win over St. Louis, the line’s ice time has grown exponentially since Gabriel was recalled five games ago and, as Boudreau says, they’re “giving me more faith in them.”
Graovac, 23, played only two games for the Wild and 39 at Iowa last season because of a sports hernia. His season ended prematurely because he just wasn’t healthy.
“That seems like two years ago from where I am now,” Graovac said of his poor training camp. “I think you almost have to hit rock bottom to move up in a way, and I think after camp down in Iowa, I hit an area where it tested me mentally and physically, and I’m happy where I am now and I’m not looking back.”
Graovac’s skating is strong now, and he says that in camp his mind and body weren’t in sync.
“I didn’t have my step [last season]. I tried finding it in the summer,” he said. “As much as you push it, you can never really get the training camp vibe and intensity.”
Graovac has scored two goals, going goalless in his past 10 games despite a growing number of scoring chances.
With Zac Dalpe, who has missed 18 games with a knee injury, practicing again, Graovac has somebody challenging for his spot. Graovac, who would need waivers to return to Iowa, could theoretically move to left wing.
“We’ll find room for the best players,” Boudreau said. “It’s simple as that. If [Graovac’s] playing really good, it makes it difficult to [return him to Iowa].”
On better terms
Whether it’s Gabriel providing “backup” to Stewart or perhaps Boudreau gave Stewart a talking-to about his play and work ethic, Stewart has vastly improved the past five games.
“He’s gotten better,” Boudreau said. “Sometimes you have to talk to them on a lengthy basis, sometimes it’s one word, sometimes it’s a glare. … We’ve got pretty good lines of communication open. You see him, he’s working harder now off the ice than I’ve seen him work last year, so that’s all good.”
The Blues’ Brad Hunt, a Bemidji State alum who led the AHL in scoring (not just AHL defensemen) at the time of being called up, had an assist in his first NHL shift in New Jersey on Friday and assisted on Vladimir Tarasenko’s goal against the Wild.
At 5 feet 9, the Blues liken him to the Wild’s Jared Spurgeon.
“[Blues assistant and former Wild assistant] Rick Wilson said it best, ‘He’s taller than Spurgeon and everybody in this league would like Jared,’ ” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said.