Tyler Graovac made the Wild out of training camp last season, was in the opening night lineup and it still turned out to be the most nightmarish season of his pro career.
Graovac logged nearly 14 minutes in Colorado last October, and played only once more all season for Minnesota. After battling a groin injury last summer, Graovac aggravated the injury during the morning skate in Denver.
“Making the team, it was such a high,” Graovac said. “But in Colorado at the morning skate, it was like a knife got stuck in my groin. As much as I tried loosening it up, I just had nothing that night. I couldn’t push. No strength, no movement.”
Graovac tried rehab, but he ultimately needed surgery to repair his bilateral core muscle. He returned for AHL Iowa in December. With opponents in midseason form and Graovac starting from scratch — having dropped 10 to 15 pounds — he suffered through a painful season, literally and figuratively.
“Scar tissue built up and it was like pops, tears, everything,” he said. “I was texting the doctor after almost every game saying, ‘I don’t know if this thing’s right.’ I just kept pushing through it. But I never got back to where I was.”
Graovac finally couldn’t play anymore in late March. He finished with five goals and 11 assists in 39 games for Iowa despite leading the team with 21 goals and 46 points the year before.
Now, Graovac, who will make his exhibition debut against the Buffalo Sabres on Monday night in State College, Pa., said he’s completely healthy.
“I’m so pumped,” Graovac said. “I’ve been waiting for this since the surgery. Throughout the whole year last year, I was just, to be honest, waiting for the year to get over so I could get my strength back.
“It was tough, took a toll on my body. I feel right now I can start off where I left off at the end of training camp last year. With new coaches, I’m here to make all new impressions.”
Graovac, 23, is battling with minor league vet Zac Dalpe, who looks to be flying in camp, and rookie Joel Eriksson Ek for the open fourth-line center spot. If none earn it, the Wild could look outside the organization or start the season by moving Charlie Coyle to center and dropping Erik Haula to the fourth line. Graovac and Dalpe require waivers to get to Iowa.
“I’m here to make a statement,” Graovac said. “Last year, the first intrasquad game, Yeozie (former coach Mike Yeo) was all over me, that first day there was an article demanding more from me. That’s something that’s always going to be on you as a young guy. You always need to get better and show you belong.
“I was thinking this is my sixth year here, my sixth camp since I was 18. This is my time. I know what I can do and I just need to show that to people. The first thing is gaining their trust and just being me.
“I’ll give everything I have every drill, every battle. I’m a quick learner and hopefully they can see that. I can’t wait for the preseason games. Hopefully they give me a big shot.”
Assistant GM Brent Flahr is one of many eyes watching.
“I wouldn’t say it’s now or never, but at the same time, he’s going into his fourth year pro here,” Flahr said. “He’ll get a good look.”
Stalock close to home
South St. Paul native Alex Stalock, a former San Jose Shark, will start for the Wild in Monday’s exhibition game. Barring injury, the plan is for Stalock to be Iowa’s No. 1 this season.
“To be with this organization is pretty cool,” said Stalock.
The Wild’s No. 1 line at Penn State will be Jason Zucker-Coyle-Chris Stewart. Defensemen Matt Dumba, Marco Scandella, Nate Prosser and Mike Reilly will play, and Alex Tuch, Mario Lucia, Nick Seeler and Hunter Warner will make their exhibition debuts.
“I’m excited because I could feel how excited they are,” said coach Bruce Boudreau.
World Cup participants Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Haula report to camp Monday. Nino Niederreiter and Team Europe advanced to the final against Canada, meaning Niederreiter’s return to the Wild will be delayed until next week.
“Of all the guys, we would have thought we were going to see him first,” Boudreau said. “I think it would be great for him to win. Well, if I wasn’t Canadian.”