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Luke Kunin will need adjustments to build on his rookie season

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Kunin showed a two-way game, but his elite scoring ability wasn’t quite there.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Kunin is aggressive.

That was on full display in college, where he scored 41 goals in 69 games at the University of Wisconsin. That prolific scoring was due to his tenacity as a shooter, as Kunin had one of the highest shot totals in the country during that time.

You also saw it at the World Junior Championships. Kunin peppered the net and took every important defensive draw as he Captained his USA team to a Gold Medal.

So it’s not surprising that Kunin’s plans for his development were, well, aggressive.

By the time the Minnesota Wild drafted him with the 16th pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, Kunin already had completed his freshman year at Wisconsin. After his sophomore year, at the age of 19, Kunin signed his entry-level contract with the Wild.

He wasn’t just content to go pro, however. He wanted to make the team. Kunin turned heads in training camp with his speed, physicality, and willingness to shoot. Despite the Wild needing all those elements, salary cap concerns dictated Kunin start his season in the minors.

But Kunin got his opportunity just a short while into the season, when Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Nino Niederreiter went down with injuries. He even had a strong start, scoring 2 goals and 4 points in his first 7 games while skating in a Top-6 role.

Kunin didn’t keep that momentum up. After a few rough games, Boudreau moved him down the lineup, where he was paired with Daniel Winnik and Joel Eriksson Ek. One might have expected a two-rookie line to get overwhelmed in the NHL, but they were mostly fine. But their big weakness was that they didn’t score. Kunin went 10 games without a point before getting sent back to Iowa.

Despite the disappointment, Kunin did fine in Des Moines. He scored a respectable 17 points in 34 games, and even made the AHL All-Star Team. At the trade deadline, Minnesota had seen enough from Kunin to make room for him on the roster. Minnesota waived Chris Stewart, and didn’t make an acquisition with the hopes that Kunin was finally ready.

Unfortunately, this didn’t work out. In just his second game back following the call-up, Kunin tore his ACL and was done for the season.

The best thing about Kunin’s season was that he didn’t look overwhelmed at 19. He was solid defensively and didn’t take many penalties. He even got trusted early on to be part of Minnesota’s penalty kill. In fact, his first goal was short-handed, where he finished on a royal road pass from Eric Staal. He also wasn’t afraid to make contact, as he threw hits more frequently than anyone on the team, other than Marcus Foligno.

And Kunin came as advertised as someone who loves to shoot the puck. The Wild rookie finished the year 5th on the team with 8.3 shots per hour at 5-on-5 play. But still, there’s room to improve there.

Kunin was good at getting shots on net, but he wasn’t doing a good job at making sure those shots were dangerous ones. Kunin might have been 5th in getting shots, but he was actually 9th in getting scoring chances at 5-on-5. As for high-danger scoring chances, he was just 13th on the team, behind players like Stewart and Foligno. While the old hockey phrase “There’s no such thing as a bad shot” has truth to it, Kunin will need to work for better opportunities if he wants to beat NHL goalies consistently.

Kunin’s size and skill set profiles similarly to players like Jason Zucker and Zach Parise. They use their speed to throw defenses out of position and get to the scoring areas, and they crash the net for rebounds. Kunin would do well to learn from them, and one assumes he will once he fully adjusts to the NHL.

If pressed to give a letter grade to Kunin, I’d probably give out a C. He was passable at a young age, and there’s plenty to build on. But since he got only two games in his second crack at the NHL, I only find it fair to give him an Incomplete on the year. We’ll see if he can make up for the lost time in his sophomore season.