BUFFALO, N.Y. – Don Granato said the only thing Wild fans need to know about Luke Kunin is he captained a U.S. Under-18 team that had Auston Matthews, the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL draft, and Matthew Tkachuk, the No. 6 pick, on it.
“I call him ‘Little J.J. Watt,’ ” said Granato, Kunin’s coach with the U.S. National Team Development Program. “Luke just works. He loves working. He’s as determined as you get.”
With the 15th pick in Friday’s first round, the Wild added a versatile 6-foot, 195-pound forward who thinks of himself as a center and, maybe most importantly for the Wild and its offense-starved fans, a goal scorer.
Kunin was the second-youngest college hockey player in the country in 2015-16 as a 17-year-old for Wisconsin. The Missouri native, who grew up playing with fellow first-rounders Tkachuk, Logan Brown, Clayton Keller and Trent Frederic, chose the college path instead of major junior because he wanted to play against men. He ended up with 19 goals and 32 points in 34 games for the eight-win Badgers. The 19 goals were tied for third in the nation behind Michigan’s Kyle Connor and North Dakota’s Brock Boeser.
“He’s not only got a great shot. He doesn’t need a lot of time,” said Granato, who coached Kunin for two years in Ann Arbor and now is on the Badgers staff as associate coach for brother Tony Granato. “He’s got a quick, short, compact release.”
The selection came hours after the Wild informed a disappointed Thomas Vanek that he was being bought out of the final year of his three-year, $19.5 million contract.
The move is designed to give the Wild more salary-cap flexibility and set the table for potential trades or free agency. Even though multiple sources say the Wild was in the middle of trade talks for Edmonton Oilers center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Friday, as of now, no trade has been consummated. Buying out Vanek gives the Wild another $5 million of space this summer and brings its available cap space to roughly $14 million. Nugent-Hopkins, the 2011 No. 1 overall pick signed through 2021, has a $6 million tab.
The Wild is willing to deal one of its young defensemen, and it’s believed Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin’s names have come up in talks with Edmonton and other teams.
The Oilers were said to be “in the middle of everything” by one league executive, but they have yet to trade one of their young forwards. Sources say all Oilers forwards not named Connor McDavid are in play.
Just because the Wild didn’t make a trade Friday doesn’t mean that ship has sailed. In fact, Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr said the Wild has had “constant dialogue on a number of different scenarios. … I don’t think it’s over. I think you’ll see more [trades] potentially [Saturday] or even through July 1.”
GM Chuck Fletcher, who joked the Wild was 76 picks away from being on the clock with only three draft picks Saturday, said he’ll take advantage of the start of free agency courting by talking to agents Saturday.
“Something doesn’t have to happen [Saturday],” Fletcher said. “It may take time and we’ll be patient.”
The opening bell of free agency rings Friday. The Wild could be aggressive and perhaps pursue Islanders right wing Kyle Okposo or St. Louis center David Backes.
As for Kunin, he captained the U.S. to gold at the 2015 under-18 world championships (six goals in seven games).
Don Granato made him captain as a “testament to his leadership. He would take charge both vocally and take initiative when our team needed it as a youth 17 player. Unwavered. He’ll speak up to his teammates and call them out. But he’s respected by everybody because his actions speak, game to game.”
Flahr said Kunin “has a tremendous work ethic, great speed, and an NHL shot. He’s got an unbelievable shot. He goes to the hard areas. He’s driven to score. He doesn’t need the puck on his stick very long before he gets it off.”
Kunin, a Type 1 diabetic like Blaine’s Riley Tufte (who went to the Dallas Stars at 25th overall), said words couldn’t describe the feeling to be able to share Friday with his family.
His father, Mark, actually cut Luke from a team as a 7- or 8-year-old, instead putting Tkachuk, the son of longtime former NHL power forward Keith Tkachuk, and Luke’s brother, Nick, on the team.
“I think it taught to me to this day nothing’s ever given to you and you just have to work for everything you get,” Kunin said.
Asked why Dad cut him, Kunin said: “I wasn’t good enough. He wasn’t going to give me an easy ride just because I’m the coach’s son. At the time, I was pretty upset.”
The Wild will continue its attempt to improve the team. Before buying out Vanek, the Wild had roughly $64 million committed to 15 players next season. That only left about $9 million to sign unrestricted free agents, promote from within and re-sign some of its own, including restricted free agents Jason Zucker and Dumba and maybe Darcy Kuemper.
Kuemper, on the trade block, may be returning. Calgary, the only obvious team in need of a No. 1, acquired Brian Elliott on Friday.
“We’ll just keep having conversations and see where it takes us,” Fletcher said regarding trades.