WINNIPEG – Tyler Graovac walked into the visiting locker room at MTS Centre on Tuesday and had nothing but good memories.
It’s where he made his NHL debut last season during a 3-2 Wild win Dec. 29.
“I’ll never forget that feeling walking into that room,” Graovac said before the Wild beat the Jets 1-0 in overtime. “I thought about it all summer and that feeling doesn’t get any better. It’s something that kept me going all summer. Looking back to that day, walking in that arena, I want nothing more than staying here and making an impact.”
To accomplish that, Graovac, a 22-year-old, 6-foot-5 center who has the frame, skating ability and all-around tools that whets the Wild’s appetite, has work to do.
After Graovac’s pedestrian first intrasquad scrimmage of camp, coach Mike Yeo said he can’t just “blend in” if he expects to make the team. Expecting a big response to that challenge, the Wild was disappointed with Graovac’s second intrasquad scrimmage.
In a preseason loss to Buffalo on Monday, Graovac seemed more assertive off the bat, but as the team’s game declined, so did Graovac’s.
Yeo described Graovac’s game as “probably similar to what his camp has been: OK. He’s getting a lot of attention. I’m not trying to pick on the kid, but we definitely need somebody to make a statement that they’re pushing hard to make this club.”
Yeo saw progression from Graovac against Winnipeg. He had three Grade A shots and won seven of 11 faceoffs.
Before Tuesday, Graovac admitted rustiness the first few days of camp. That’s surprising considering Graovac trained part of this offseason in Minnesota with teammate Kurtis Gabriel and arrived early for informal skates.
He did sustain a hip flexor issue before camp, but the Wild says he’s healthy.
“I came into this camp thinking I’m going to make this team and do everything I can to get a spot on this team, if not a spot then that first guy in line,” Graovac said. “I know they’re going to give me a good shot this year and I’m going to do the best I can to prove to them that I deserve a spot.”
Of the Wild’s professional prospects, Graovac is considered the best forward. Taken 191st in the 2011 draft, Graovac finished 10th in the Ontario Hockey League with 38 goals for Ottawa and Belleville in 2012-13. After a 13-goal, 12-assist rookie year with Iowa of the American Hockey League, Graovac led the Baby Wild with 21 goals, 46 points, nine power-play goals and 193 shots in 73 games last season.
At 5 and 6 years old, Graovac played with 9- and 10-year-olds. He wanted to be a goalie, but his father told him, “No, you’re not being a goalie. You’re too good a skater.”
One of the most appealing things about Graovac is there’s not many Wild players as big who can skate like he can. A big motivating factor was being taken in the last round of the 2011 NHL draft.
“I had that skill set, but I guess you can say I was a little bit of a later bloomer filling out my body and adapting to the game and the speed of the game,” Graovac said. “That’s what I worked on my first year in pros, the speed of the game and slowing it down and just being consistent in the corners, up through the neutral zone, staying in between the dots.
“I don’t know if I would be here today if I was a first- or second-rounder back then. Seventh round gave me that extra edge. I always wanted to come in and be that top prospect the last couple years and just earn my way up to here. I’ve taken little steps, but now that I have a chance to make an impact in camp, I have to take advantage of the opportunity. They want to see me stand out.”
Before Tuesday’s preseason game, Yeo was underwhelmed with Graovac and roster hopefuls Gabriel and Mike Reilly. He liked their response against the Jets.
“Communication’s part of our job, but it’s not our job to try to motivate a player into playing hard and wanting to be here,” Yeo said Monday. “I’m sure they all want to be here. Whether it’s nerves, whether it’s an opposition that’s out there, too, maybe they look at our roster, but what you want to see is guys with fight in them, guys who are not going to accept that the other team is having a good night, not going to accept that we have a lot of guys on our roster.”