The story has already been written (literally by Russo) that Woodbury-native, Brennan Menell got had a rough go of it when trying to develop in his home state of Minnesota. Instead he’s had to live and play in four different cities since being cut his sophomore year at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights.
Now Des Moines could be his fifth, but this time with an ELC.
Of the seven defensemen picked by the brothers Vanelli for the 2012-13 varsity season, only one was drafted and has an NHL contract. Three are currently playing for D-I programs, one plays in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, one plays college football for USC, and one is nowhere to be found on HockeyDB.
Now Menell has the opportunity to make money playing for his hometown team, something that seems pretty far away for the rest of those guys. He also doesn’t have to wake up for an 8:30 Intro to Eastern Philosophy GenEd either.
The one guy who has made it to an NHL contract, Jack Dougherty, did what every young person in the “State of Hockey” was supposed to do: play Minnesota High School hockey, earn that D-I scholarship, and represent your state proudly when you, Hockey Gods willing, get drafted.
Dougherty did, in fact, do all of those things and just finished up his first pro year in the AHL with Nashville’s affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, but along the line he did something that Menell did also: buck the trend and go learn to play the role of offensive-defenseman in the WHL.
Without getting any scholarship offers after playing AAA in Omaha and Chicago, the WHL appeared the best way to move forward with his career:
“I went to camp in Vancouver just as free agent and they liked me and wanted me to stick stick around. I saw all the stats about all the pro players that are coming out of the Western Hockey League [and] I wanted gave myself the best chance to do what I wanted, which was play pro hockey.”
In opting to not play college hockey as a walk-on, he was also given the opportunity to be a part of the WHL’s Scholarship Program, which allows for one year of tuition at a post-secondary institution, provided they don’t sign with a professional team.
Now it looks like he won’t have to worry about college for at least three more years.
I asked him about the biggest difference between playing in a top major program like the ‘Dub compared to the American game or in Minnesota. The answer was something he’ll have to deal with at the professional level: depth.
But there are always downsides and critics to playing in the Canadian junior system, especially for a defenseman. Leagues like the O and the ‘Dub are predicated on speed and scoring. Even if you’re a great defenseman, there’s such a high pressure to put up points that the defensive game may slip by the wayside. However, Menell was able to put that into perspective:
“There [are] a lot of talented players and the fact that there’s a lot of offense just means that you gotta have good defenders to be able to play against those really skilled guys. So, I would say my defensive game has improved dramatically in playing in [the WHL].”
Although Menell was the fourth leading scorer for Lethbridge last season with 71 points, the majority of them (59) came in assists, something that falls into Boudreau and Lalonde’s philosophy in scoring from the blueline:
“[I need to] make a clean first pass out of the zone. I think that the less time you can spend in your zone the more goals you can score, and also I like joining the rush. I think having that offensive-defenseman can help and that’s the [what] the NHL and AHL is going for.”
When asked about the parting advice from the Minnesota Wild staff, one word came to mind: confidence.
Newsy said at PDC that a lot of attention was being paid towards the guys that went undrafted in the hopes of finding the “next Jared Spurgeon.” Again, that story has already been written. But what Menell is looking at now in Des Moines is the opportunity to play with guys five years older, and five years of professional hockey wiser.
At first thought of Menell, Lalonde had the look of a coach excited to see the development process at work:
“I’m just really excited for him [...] Our entire message to the group [at Traverse City] was, ‘we want to be the organization where you have to earn it.’”
As an undrafted kid coming in as an invitee, this meant that he had to wait his turn:
“[Menell] sat out the first Traverse City game. We went with our benefit of the doubt to our draft picks [and] from that point on, we want guys to earn it [...] On a whole [he] had a great tournament, and then it just kept going into [Minnesota’s] camp.”
When asked about his skill-set, Lalonde had nothing but positive thoughts for the Woodbury-native, something that both Iowa and Minnesota fans should be excited for in the coming years:
“I like him with the puck, he’s special with the puck. He still has to learn [to play] away from the puck. The good thing is those are habits that are teachable.”
He may not have played in college, but he’ll still be getting an education. In playing in such an offense-heavy league like the WHL, Lalonde made the point that he’s not playing against 16-year-olds week-to-week anymore. However, he did appear confident that Menell could have something to offer in Iowa:
“The difference is now you’re playing with [grown] men. I’ve always been a fan of dominating where you’re at. If he can [earn] a spot with us, we’re going to be very open-minded with him here. If we feel we can give him good development minutes in a role that suits his skill-set, we’ll keep him.”
If he can do it, Gustav Bouramman will be having to look over his shoulder at the next top offensive prospect on the blue-line. If not, there’s no harm in returning to Lethbridge and with a little cash in his pocket.
Iowa has their first scrimmage tonight at Wells Fargo Arena and have their first pre-season match-up against the Manitoba Moose (Winnipeg Jets) Friday at the Ralph in beautiful Grand Forks, ND.