Days after the Minnesota Wild waived forward Chris Stewart, Luke Kunin has suffered an ACL tear. Stewart, who was waived in order to have enough cap flexibility to bring Kunin up from Iowa, was claimed by the Calgary Flames the following day. Kunin will miss the rest of the season and is expected to return in seven months.
Kunin’s Value to Minnesota
Kunin spent a considerable amount of time with both Minnesota and Iowa this season. He appeared in 19 games for the former and 36 for the latter. He made a big impact in Iowa this season, posting 10 goals and nine assists. For his efforts, he was selected to the AHL All-Star game. Kunin also had 34 penalty minutes and a plus-minus of minus-six on the season.
For the Wild, he registered two goals and two assists. He finishes the season with 13 penalty minutes and a plus-minus of minus-three. As a 2016 first-round pick, Kunin was expected to join the playoff push and bring a youth movement to the pro hockey club. His tenacity even earned the praise of head coach Bruce Boudreau who gushed about the young talent. However, with Kunin out for the season the Wild will have to figure out Plan B.
Open Roster Spot for the Wild
It sure would be nice to have Stewart back in the lineup, but that ship has sailed. The Wild will have to turn to the Iowa Wild again to find the next most pro-ready talent. The Wild traded their 2017 first-round pick in the blockbuster deal that sent Martin Hanzal and Ryan White to the State of Hockey. Their 2015 first-round pick Joel Eriksson Ek is already playing with the pro team. Going back to the 2014 draft, the Wild’s first-round pick Alex Tuch is now skating (and playing very well) for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Kyle Rau has spent a grand total of three games with Minnesota and registered a single assist. He is only 25 years old and would bring another young player into the mix. However, he is only 5-foot-8 and 179 pounds. That is a very small frame for the pro-level. It didn’t stop him from notching 14 goals and 16 assists in 49 games for the Iowa Wild. Rau is definitely a candidate to fill the void left by Kunin.
Zack Mitchell is another strong candidate to make an impact with the Wild now that Kunin is out for the remainder of the season. The 6-foot, 194 pound winger has already played 21 games for the Wild on the season. Head Coach Boudreau had some nice things to say about him, “I think Mitchell is a good player. He plays his position. He’s not anything fancy; he just does the right thing.” The 25-year-old has registered three goals and two assists in Minnesota this season. His success level in Iowa is certainly eye-popping with a plus/minus of plus-five displaying strong all-around play. His 13 goals and 14 assists in 29 games is very solid hockey and will nab him strong consideration for a call-up.
Stewart has been mentioned a few times now, yet the only suggested players have been athletes with offensive upside. How about a fighter? Enter Kurtis Gabriel. The 6-foot-4, 212 pound brute has spent parts of two seasons with the Wild, most recently during the 2016-17 season. He has played a total of 16 games for the Wild, registering a single assist. However, he has nabbed a whopping 39 penalty minutes in those contests. You can view 20 of those minutes in this compilation of fights. He certainly isn’t the best fighter and with his lack of hockey skills he probably wouldn’t be the wisest choice but he’ll give physical play.
Lack of hockey skills? This season, Gabriel has played 25 games for the Iowa Wild. He has registered two goals, three assists, and 20 penalty minutes. In his career with the Iowa Wild he has played in a stunning 215 games. In all those games he has managed just 25 goals and 20 assists. He has a plus/minus of minus-31 and has a staggering 365 minutes in the sin bin. So if the Wild are in desperate need of more time spent killing penalties and/or cheering on fights, Gabriel is clearly the best choice.
Should Wild Fans be Freaking Out?
No, nobody needs to panic at the moment. Sure, the Wild lost a really solid player who can contribute. Kunin isn’t going to be the rookie that comes into the playoffs and post 10 points, it just isn’t happening. He has a play style similar to Zach Parise and Jason Zucker. Luckily, the Wild still have those two guys which lessens the blow. Losing Stewart hurt before Kunin was injured, the impact now is simply amplified. Guys like Rau, Mitchell, or Gabriel all need to be ready because the time is now for some players to step up and give the team a shot of adrenaline. Let’s all just hope Mr. Kunin comes back healthy and ready to make an impact next season.