The 2015-16 campaign was not very kind to the Iowa Wild. It marked the second consecutive year in which Minnesota’s minor league affiliate finished dead last in the American Hockey League and the third straight year they finished in the basement of the Western Conference. All in all, it was a season that should be offered as a sacrifice to the hockey gods so that upcoming harvest of prospects will be plentiful.
But even in seasons such as this one, where not a single Iowa Wild skater managed to tally over 42 points, there is a silver lining. Grayson Downing, an unsigned college free agent pickup in 2015 whom joined the Wild organization with minimal fanfare – he failed to crack last year’s T25U25 list – stepped out from the shadow of Iowa’s despair and into the gaze of Minnesota’s front office.
The 24-year-old Abbotsford native isn’t a stranger to flying under the radar. His juniors career was spent in the British Columbia Hockey League – part of Canada’s Junior “A” league – with the Westside Warriors where he put up 129 points in 131 games.
From there he moved on to the University of New Hampshire where he finally experienced a breakout performance as a Senior for the Wildcats, leading the team in goals with 21 and finishing second in points with 36.
After signing with the Wild he looked to carry his collegiate success over to the big stage in his first full year as a professional, but a knee injury suffered at the annual Traverse City prospect tournament put a damper on the start of his career. It would take 17 games of missed action before Downing would make his 2015-16 debut, but it was well worth the wait.
The six-foot, 192-pound pivot made an immediate impact with his skill and offensive ingenuity, resulting in five goals and five assists in his first 11 appearances. By the end of the season he was leading the Iowa Wild in points per game with 0.71 and power play goals with six.
His impressive performances managed to catch the attention of Minnesota Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr, who told the Star Tribune,” [Downing] is a very intelligent player with the puck with good hands who can distribute. He’s got a quick release and actually has a sneaky shot. He’s able to score.”
While there is plenty to like about Downing, Flahr also highlighted the things that he needs to improve upon. “He’s going to need to get stronger, although part of that is the health issues maybe. I think he has the skill level and the head for the game to be able to play in the NHL. Whether he’s strong enough or fast enough, we’ll see. For him right now, it’s his first year. He still has lots of things to learn on the defensive side. Right now it’s going well.”
The lack of strength and speed, coupled with an influx of promising prospects within the organization, will more than likely keep Downing in Iowa for at least another year. And in reality that is the best spot for him at this point in time. More seasoning on the defensive side of the puck and a year of building up strength should lead to another step in the right direction in his progression.