The Wild's prospect camp starts Tuesday in St. Paul, as 42 young hockey players are put through practice sessions, off-ice workouts, team activities, and a pair of open scrimmages.
Among the 42 players are four with direct ties to 2011 NCAA men's Division I champion Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs beat Michigan 3-2 in overtime on April 9 in St. Paul to win the school's first national title. Three players who were key members of that team are on the Wild camp roster, along with an incoming freshman with impressive bloodlines.
Fontaine might not see much NHL action this winter, but he will be a key member of the Houston Aeros. Not only that, but the experience he got at UMD should suit him well as the kind of player who can be a depth callup whenever necessary. Fontaine shouldn't be pigeon-holed as an offensive player. He improved his two-way play considerably at UMD, to the point that he became a member of the team's penalty kill. That said, his best skills involve getting the puck to the net.
Linemate Jack Connolly -- already named the Bulldogs' captain for 2011-12 -- will also be on hand. The Duluth native had 18 goals and 59 points for the Bulldogs last season. In three years at UMD, Connolly has 46 goals and 137 points in 125 games. He has yet to miss a game since joining the team. Connolly is a two-time All American who was among ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award this past season.
While not the biggest guy on the ice, Connolly impresses with his passing ability and smarts. He knows where to go on the ice to make plays, and he's shown a willingness to get to the net when necessary. Connolly has a great passion for the game, and the emotional images of him with the NCAA trophy after the championship game are memories UMD fans will have forever.
He also grows a mean playoff beard. He's no Brian Wilson, but really, who is?
(Fun fact: Connolly's older brother, Chris, is going to captain the Boston University Terriers this season. Oh, and he has a national championship ring of his own, as BU won the title in 2009.)
While J.T. Brown might not be a household name in the hockey world. it won't be long before he becomes one. Brown will be a sophomore at UMD this fall, and he's earned himself the right to be one of college hockey's prized free agents when the season ends. Brown racked up 37 points on 16 goals and 21 assists as a freshman, and he spent the entire season playing on UMD's second line with Travis Oleksuk and Kyle Schmidt. That line was UMD's best in the championship game, with Oleksuk setting up Schmidt for the overtime winner, and Brown was a beast in all phases during that game, including a couple penalty kills where he almost single-handedly kept Michigan from doing anything significant.
Before the season was over, Brown earned placement on UMD's top power-play unit, where he was joined by Fontaine, Jack Connolly, Mike Connolly (no relation to Jack, signed a free-agent deal with San Jose after the season), and Justin Faulk (one-and-done defenseman who signed with Carolina).
Brown is the son of former Minnesota Vikings running back Ted Brown, who is a fixture at Bulldog games.
The last player with UMD ties at this week's camp is freshman defenseman Derik Johnson. He played with the Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League last season. He spent two full seasons and part of a third with the Vees, playing 144 games. He's not an offensive force at all, but isn't afraid to mix it up. He racked up 251 penalty minutes with the Vees.
His father, Jim Johnson, is UMD's all-time leader in penalty minutes, and he played 829 games in the NHL, totaling 195 points and 1,197 penalty minutes with the Penguins, North Stars, Stars, Capitals, and Coyotes.
Derik Johnson is an undrafted free agent who will likely have a long career at UMD, but his character and work ethic could find him playing pro hockey once he's done with the Bulldogs.