Luke Kunin’s dream?
To follow in fellow University of Wisconsin alum Derek Stepan’s footsteps and not only captain the United States to gold at the world junior championships, but to do so in hostile territory — Canada.
The Under-20 world championships is everything to hockey fanatics north of the border, but in 2010, Stepan and fellow Minnesotans Jordan Schroeder, Jake Gardiner, Danny Kristo and Mike Lee and the rest of the red, white and blue rolled into Saskatchewan and ended Canada’s five-year gold medal supremacy.
Beginning Monday, the world juniors return to Canada, this time to Toronto and Montreal. Kunin, the Wild’s 2016 first-round pick, was chosen by St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko to don the captain’s “C.”
“We’ve got a lot of great leaders in our locker room,” said Kunin, who captained the U.S. to gold at the Under-18 world championships two years ago. “A lot of guys could have been put in this position. I’m real honored.”
His goal? To shock Canada, the clear-cut favorite again, on its home ice. Despite the loss of injured Burnsville native and North Dakota national champ Brock Boeser, Kunin said the Americans have the weapons to win their third gold in eight years (the Wild’s Mike Reilly and Mario Lucia won in 2013).
“Our expectation is come out with the gold medal, and anything less than that isn’t going to sit well with us,” Kunin said.
Joel Eriksson Ek, the Wild’s 2015 first-round pick, was selected to captain Sweden. In 2011, the Wild had three prospects as captains — Jason Zucker (USA), who also won gold in 2010; Mikael Granlund (Finland); and Johan Larsson (Sweden), who won gold with Jonas Brodin.
There are plenty of reasons for Wild fans to pay attention to this year’s world juniors.
Two other Wild prospects will also take part: the United States’ Jordan Greenway (2015 second-round pick) and Russia’s Kirill Kaprizov (2015 fifth-round pick).
Kunin is the first sophomore to captain the Badgers in 41 years. After leading the Badgers and finishing third among all NCAA freshmen with 19 goals last season, he leads the Badgers with 11 goals in 16 games this season.
Greenway, a 6-5, 230-pound power forward, is second in points on Boston University with 16. Eriksson Ek got a nine-game taste with the Wild earlier this season before being returned to his Swedish Elite League squad.
And Kaprizov, the first Russian drafted by the Wild in the Chuck Fletcher era, may be the most intriguing prospect for Wild fans to watch. With 15 goals and 30 points in 37 games, he has a chance to become the most prolific under-20 player in Kontinental Hockey League history. Some names on that list: St. Louis’ Vladimir Tarasenko and Washington’s Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Kaprizov doesn’t speak English, but in conversations with his agent and 2016 Wild draft pick Dmitry Sokolov (a friend and former linemate), the Wild believes Kaprizov will attend next summer’s development camp.
He has one more year left on his KHL contract, but the Wild expects Kaprizov to come to North America in 2018.
Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr, always conservative on players, is excited about Kaprizov’s potential.
“This is a drastically different league, but the kids who have had success in that league at a young age transitioned over here pretty well,” Flahr said.
As for the world junior championships, Flahr said there’s a lot of pressure on all the players.
“Not only are they playing in front of full buildings, these kids are front and center in Canada with media coverage every day,” Flahr said. “Everybody’s watching. This tournament has become a cultural event in Canada. On the 26th, families sit down and their whole schedule revolves around when Canada’s playing.
“A tournament of this magnitude, some kids, it’s intimidating, other kids seem to thrive on it. And if you can somehow win, not only do you remember it forever, it’s a huge thing for development.”
• The Colorado Avalanche, losers of eight straight at home, has become a laughingstock, and it’ll be interesting to see how Joe Sakic addresses this once the holiday roster freeze is lifted. Dead last in the NHL, the Avs have a losing culture and no chemistry since somehow winning the division in 2014. With Erik Johnson hurt, Tyson Barrie might be the only defenseman anybody in the league would even want, and the core of Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon is leading the Avalanche nowhere. Big changes could be coming. After a 6-0 loss to Toronto, MacKinnon said, “We didn’t even deserve to be in the NHL tonight, it was so bad.”
• Winnipeg’s Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele continue to rack uppoints. Laine, a rookie, is tied for second in the NHL with 19 goals, and Scheifele is tied for 11th with 31 points. “I think they’ve snuck up a little bit on the league,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “It’ll be interesting to see if they can maintain now that they’re getting that recognition. They’ve been two of the best. But for the most part, everybody should have a book. Most teams will be paying more attention to them, giving them a lot more respect for the fact that this kid can shoot and score from a lot of places and Scheifele has tremendous speed and skill.”
• After Florida’s Nick Bjugstad finally scored his first goal of the season last week, future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, who became the second-leading scorer in NHL history, bought a stuffed monkey and placed it over Bjugstad’s stall. Why? He got the monkey off his back.
Wild week ahead's
Tuesday: at Nashville, 7 p.m.
Thur.: vs. N.Y. Islanders, 7 p.m.
Saturday: vs. Columbus, 5 p.m.
All games on FSN
Player to watch: Zach Werenski, Columbus
It’s not only forwards Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews wowing as rookies. The Blue Jackets teenager leads all rookie defensemen in scoring and is a bona fide Calder Trophy contender.
“We have to keep winning if we want to catch Chicago.”
Veteran Eric Staal showing the Wild’s expectation is to win the Central Division, not finish seventh or eighth for a fifth consecutive season.