Fans who gathered at Xcel Energy Center for the NHL draft last month froze for a moment when the Wild announced its highly anticipated first-round pick.
“From the University of Wisconsin …,” echoed throughout the arena, introducing Luke Kunin as the No. 15 overall pick. Loyal Minnesotans hesitated to celebrate the Badger. Then, as polite Minnesotans do, they slowly broke out into nothing more than mild applause.
The Wild brain trust, however, was thrilled to draft Kunin after all the positive reviews for the 18-year-old center that were funneled into their camp leading to the draft.
Kunin, from Chesterfield, Mo., will get a chance this week to show Wild fans what the front office is so excited about. He is one of 44 prospects skating in the six-day Wild developmental camp at the X. Thursday and Sunday’s scrimmages are open to the public.
“I’m just going to show people that they’re going to be happy to have me on this team,” Kunin said after the second day of camp Wednesday. “I’m going to help the Minnesota Wild bring Stanley Cups here.
“I love that [Minnesota hockey fans] are passionate. So am I. Everyone always has to prove people wrong, and I’m up for the challenge and love doing that.”
Kunin doesn’t lack confidence, though he manages it well, which is why he continues to impress anyone he’s around. He was a star at Wisconsin as a freshman with a team-high 19 goals (third in the nation in his class) and 13 assists. He captained the U.S. Under-18 team that featured this year’s No. 1 and No. 6 overall NHL draft picks.
Coaches like his leadership, speed, quickness, “lethal” shot and willingness to compete along the boards and go to the front of the net.
Matthew Freytag, Kunin’s teammate at Wisconsin and a prospect at this week’s camp, said Kunin’s focus always has been on becoming a better player and helping those around him.
“I think he’s doing a good job [handling pressure]. Just being himself, that’s really all he has to do. He’s a great guy and doesn’t worry about pressure,” Freytag added.
Brad Bombardir, the Wild’s director of player development, first caught a glimpse of Kunin’s skills during the evaluation process and continued to hear about them from current and former players. The respect Kunin had earned from his peers impressed Bombardir. But the Wild owned the 15th pick in the draft and Kunin would be drafted by then, Bombardir thought.
Then as the Wild’s slot drew near with Kunin still on the board on draft night, Bombardir began receiving messages from players inquiring if Kunin would be the team’s pick.
“Some of our guys that have played with him in the past were really, really high on him, and they’re high on his character and the quality of person he is, too,” Bombardir said. “We’re excited to have him.”
While addressing the other talent on the ice this week, Bombardir said there is a big gap between a first-year player and a guy who has experience in the AHL. But when asked how large that gap is when Kunin is the rookie in the equation, Bombardir said “Not tremendously big. … I don’t think Kunin is very far off from those guys to be honest with you. He is a first-round pick. He’s a tremendous talent. He’s a special player, and he has the chance to become a very special player if he’s willing to.”
Kunin made it clear Wednesday that he is very willing. For now, he’ll wear Wisconsin’s colors and battle against the Gophers for at least one more season, but like a good friend, Freytag wants to remind fans that Kunin’s goal is to be in a Wild uniform and Wisconsin is only a step in getting there.
Kunin said he’s looking forward to another season of college hockey playing under a new coaching staff at Wisconsin. Sooner rather than later, though, he wants to be in St. Paul.
“I’m going to do whatever I can to get here, whenever that is,” Kunin said. “I want to show what I’m all about. I want to prove to people that I’m one of the best players in the draft and doing that on the ice and off the ice.”