SUNRISE, FLA. – As poor a season as the Iowa Wild of the AHL has had, there has been a bright spot.
Grayson Downing, a free-agent signing out of the University of New Hampshire last March, has been producing consistently since returning from a knee injury suffered at the Traverse City prospect tournament and then a shoulder injury suffered in December.
The 23-year-old center has nine goals in the past 15 games and is tied for the team lead with 10 goals in only 19 games, the same amount Zack Mitchell has in 36 games.
“[Downing] is a very intelligent player with the puck with good hands who can distribute,” Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr, who doubles as Iowa’s GM, said Sunday from Helsinki, Finland, where he’s scouting the world junior championships. “He’s got a quick release and actually has a sneaky shot. He’s able to score. He’s not the biggest body and his skating is going to have to improve to get to the next level, but he does a good job of finding holes in quiet areas to get open.”
Downing signed a two-year deal with the Wild after scoring 21 goals and 36 points in 38 games during his senior season for the Wildcats. His goal total tied for third in Hockey East and 13th in the NCAA.
This is only Downing’s first pro season, so it’s too soon to say if he’s a roster hopeful in Minnesota next season. GM Chuck Fletcher thinks the 6-foot Downing has a chance to be one of the top scorers in the American Hockey League if he plays in Iowa next season.
“He’s going to need to get stronger, although part of that is the health issues maybe,” Flahr said. “I think he has the skill level and the head for the game to be able to play in the NHL. Whether he’s strong enough or fast enough, we’ll see.
“For him right now, it’s his first year. He still has lots of things to learn on the defensive side. Right now it’s going well.”
Iowa, after a horrendous start that included no victories and 13 losses in November, has won three of its past four, and a lot of that has to do with centers Tyler Graovac and Downing being healthy. Center Zac Dalpe had hip surgery after only one game. With Downing hurt and Graovac hurt in Minnesota, the Baby Wild was guaranteed struggles early.
“We’ve finally started playing like a team again,” Flahr said. “You can’t play without centers. It doesn’t matter what level you’re in, if you don’t have people who can distribute the puck and just play that position, you can’t win.”
• After scrambling his lines throughout Saturday’s game against Tampa Bay, coach Mike Yeo unveiled the lines Sunday at Florida “that I hope we are going to finish with.”
The changes: Mikko Koivu centered Zach Parise and Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund centered Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, and Charlie Coyle centered Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine, scratched in two of the previous three games. Erik Haula was scratched, and the Wild reassigned winger Jordan Schroeder.
• Right winger Ryan Carter aggravated a left hand injury and didn’t play most the last two periods Sunday. Yeo said X-rays were negative.