Tyler Graovac knew he was starting to earn Bruce Boudreau’s respect when the veteran coach began calling the Wild center by his nickname, “Grao.”
Before that, Graovac would know it was his line’s turn during drills or in games when Boudreau called his line by its practice sweater color or one of his wingers, perhaps Chris Stewart.
“There were a couple times when I got called up, it would be ‘The white line’ or ‘Stewie’s line,’ ” Graovac, all smiles, said after scoring the first winning goal of his career in Saturday’s victory over Arizona. “I was kind of just the middle guy, so I was like, ‘OK. I’ll just follow Stewie.’
“There was one time he just pointed at me and was like, ‘Uh. You go that way.’ Now we’re at a good point, I think. When he knows my name, that’s a good start.”
Boudreau scoffed at the idea he didn’t know Graovac’s name, saying he sometimes calls the next line by the winger.
“I don’t know, things come out of my mouth, sometimes I don’t know what they are,” Boudreau cracked.
But Graovac’s not exaggerating, either. Even Boudreau admitted last week that Graovac was a “100 percent different player” than the youngster who didn’t show him anything during training camp.
Graovac went to Iowa, hit “rock bottom” and built his game back up after last season’s injury-plagued year that included sports hernia surgery after making the Wild’s opening night roster.
In Saturday’s seventh consecutive Wild win, Graovac, 23, discovered his coach definitely knew his name after Erik Haula suffered a lower-body injury two minutes in.
“Bruce was rolling with three centermen and saying, ‘Grao you’re up. Grao you’re up.’ I’ve never heard him say my name so many times,” Graovac said, laughing.
Graovac topped his career high in ice time by more than five minutes, logging 18:45. That was second among forwards, even more than captain Mikko Koivu and 61 seconds behind Eric Staal. He had five shots, three hits, eight faceoff wins and a big blocked shot that led to his third career goal.
Previously, Graovac, who has played 27 career games, played more than 10 minutes only seven times.
“You can see he’s coming into his own here,” Stewart said. “He’s getting more comfortable every day and definitely feels he’s part of the team now. … He’s earned it, he’s demanded it, he’s deserved it. I’m sure he’ll step up and get the job done for the boys [if Haula is out long].”
Graovac started between Stewart and Teemu Pulkkinen in Saturday’s game, then took Haula’s spot between Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. But he also got shifts with wingers Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund and Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
He had to adjust his game depending on which winger was to his right or left.
“Whenever I had Zucks I had speed on the left, and whenever I had Granny I had eyes on the right,” Graovac said. “You kind of had to play off them and support them.”
Graovac generated seven shot attempts and arguably scored on his worst. His goal was actually a flubbed attempted pass to Zucker on a two-on-one that banked in off goalie Mike Smith’s right pad.
It was Graoavac’s first point since he last scored Nov. 19.
“I kept staying positive and kept trying to get it to the net,” Graovac said. “Supporting through the middle is the biggest thing for me and pushing the pace. So one of them had to go in.”
Boudreau wouldn’t call Saturday’s performance Graovac’s best game. He noted that with the extra ice time and responsibility, Graovac was simply more visible. But there’s little doubt he was skating with confidence and creating chances.
“It was pretty complete,” Boudreau said. “He could’ve had three or four goals.”
At a minimum, Boudreau should have the confidence to continue giving Graovac an extra load if Haula has to miss a significant amount of time.
Graovac should get used to hearing, “Grao, you’re up.”
“I’ve tried to prove that I can do a little more than just play that fourth-line role,” Graovac said. “I don’t know how long Erik is going to be out for. Hopefully not long at all. … But I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”