Road to St. Paul runs through Des Moines

Photo: Darren Abate

by Tom Witosky | AHL On The Beat

The distance between Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines – the home ice of the Iowa Wild – and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul – the home ice of the Minnesota Wild – is roughly 244 miles; a 3.5 hour drive depending on weather conditions.

But after seven years, that distance for players on the Iowa roster seems to be a lot shorter than it used to be.

Just ask defenseman Brennan Menell, goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, or forwards Gerry Mayhew, Gabriel Dumont, Luke Johnson or Nico Sturm – all of whom have made the journey north this season to play in the NHL and are ready to contribute as they have so far this season.

“As an organization right now, Minnesota and Iowa are doing a good job,” Kahkonen said after arriving back in Des Moines after posting a 3-1-1 record in Minnesota that included winning his first NHL game. “When I was up there, I knew a lot of the guys like (Luke) Kunin and (Jordan) Greenway because we played together in the playoffs. This year Gerry, Nelly (Menell), Dumont, Johnny and Nico have been up there as well. They’ve been helping the team to win as a team and as an organization.”

The influx of players from Iowa onto the Minnesota roster has been steadily growing from last season when Kunin, Greenway, and Ryan Donato joined the Iowa team to help the Wild qualify for the Calder Cup Playoffs for the first in franchise history, where the team eventually made it to the second round.

Right now, five players on the Minnesota roster – Carson Soucy, Joel Eriksson Ek, Kunin, Greenway and Donato – spent significant time in Iowa last season. With the addition of the six players this season, all six players on the Xcel Energy Center ice have, at times, been Iowa Wild alums.

Tom Kurvers, the Iowa Wild general manager and Minnesota’s assistant general manager, said the Minnesota coaching staff’s comfort level with the call-ups from Iowa began early this season with the emergence of Soucy.

The 25-year-old defenseman had been penciled in to start the season in Iowa, according to Kurvers, but got a chance to remain with Minnesota following an injury to veteran Greg Pateryn. Then, with an injury to Jared Spurgeon, Soucy became a regular on the blueline. In 37 games, he has five goals and five assists and as important a plus-15 plus/minus rating.

“Carson has been there all year and he wasn’t penciled in there at the beginning of the year,” Kurvers said. “He took advantage of the opportunity and when he got his real chance to play after the Spurgeon injury, he’s just been excellent.”

Since then, Iowa players like Kahkonen, Menell, and Sturm have received unexpected opportunities to play in Minnesota when roster spots opened-up because of injuries or other problems.

Kaapo Kahkonen (Photo: Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)

“You don’t ever want to take someone’s place because of injuries or other problems,” said Kahkonen, who took Devan Dubnyk’s spot when the veteran goalie needed to take family leave. “Last year, Minnesota helped us out when we needed it in Iowa and now they’ve needed help and our guys go up there and contribute. That’s a pretty good thing going on right now for both teams.”

Tim Army, Iowa’s head coach, takes particular satisfaction from the contribution this year’s group already has provided to Minnesota as the team staged a major resurgence into NHL playoff contention after a dismal 1-7 start.

“We’re happy on our end of things that our guys have gone up and they’ve helped,” Army said. “They’ve helped the big Wild maintain the pace of play that they’ve had for a while even though they’ve had a number of injuries. Our guys have been able to go up and contribute to help them maintain that level of play. So we take a lot of pride in that.”

For players like Kahkonen and Menell, the thrill of getting their first taste of the NHL was thrilling and instructive.

“Clearly it was a special moment,” Menell, the Woodbury, Minn., native, said of wearing a Minnesota sweater the first time and going onto the ice to a deafening fan roar that included most members of his family. “I didn’t really know what was going to happen. It kind of caught me by surprise, but once I heard it I realized this is something I’ve been dreaming about my whole life and there’s a lot of anticipation and excitement and nervousness.”

Menell said his experience with the team has given him a substantial amount of increased confidence in his game. When he was placed on Minnesota’s second power play unit, it surprised him.

“There’s a lot of skill guys up there and a lot of talented guys,” Menell said. “It was a great honor to do that. And it was great to know that the coaches trusted me to just play hard.”

While in Minnesota, Menell learned what he has to do in Iowa to get to the NHL permanently – get stronger and more able to battle with the big forwards in the NHL.

“I need to work on getting the puck out, getting the body on guys,” Menell said. “As a smaller defenseman, you need to battle harder against the biggest guys out there and there are a lot of big men in the league.”

Brennan Menell (Photo: Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

For Kahkonen, his time in Des Moines will be spent on making sure he is ready to go back to St. Paul on a moment’s notice.

“If you come back down here and not focus in practice and not focus on each game, then that’s not going to work,” the 23-year-old Helsinki native said. “You still have to do the same thing every day just to keep yourself ready if you get another chance to go up and contribute again.”

It’s that kind commitment to preparation and effort, Army said, that benefits both teams, not just the parent club.

“If Minnesota is going to win a Stanley Cup, our guys have to go up and help them win,” Army said. “They must manage the game and play in tough situations. And not only playing up tough situations, but to excel in those situations and to help the Wild continue to win.”

Iowa then benefits as it did last season by making the AHL playoffs for the first time in franchise history and again this season, where the Wild are in second place in the AHL’s Central Division.

“Conversely, with what we’ve had available to us here in Des Moines, we’ve been able to continue to win hockey games and play at a good pace,” Army said. “We feel like we can still achieve our goals coming into the season.”

Kurvers, who travels the 244 miles from St. Paul to Des Moines and back again frequently, said the organization sees both teams continuing to develop strong talent and playing competitive hockey on both levels.

“The beauty of the American Hockey League is the scheduling and the fact that the caliber of competition is higher than anything we’ve seen anywhere else,” Kurvers said. “It’s still another level up to play in the NHL, but we’re real happy with the performance of those guys who have come up and how they are playing in Des Moines.”