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What Can the Wild Expect from their Gophers Alumni?

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Will they be relegated to Iowa or will they have a chance to have an impact in the NHL?

2014 NCAA Division I Men’s Hockey Championships - Semifinals Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

As an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a fan of the Golden Gophers, I like to keep tabs on former Gophers in the NHL. Fortunately for me, the Wild have a habit of attracting their fair share of former Gophers on both their NHL roster and with their AHL affiliate (see Vanek, Thomas; Schroeder, Jordan; Leopold, Jordan; etc.). [Insert joke about how if the Wild want to know how to win championships, they need to sign more UMD alumni here]. The Wild currently have Nick Seeler, Kyle Rau, and Justin Kloos in their system. What are the odds we see them in St. Paul and what will their likely impact be?

Nick Seeler - Defense

Nick Seeler was with the Gophers for one season after transferring from the University of Nebraska - Omaha. In 2015-16, Seeler put up no goals and ten assists in 43 games for the Gophers, establishing himself as a workman like grinder who isn’t afraid to use his size. After some seasoning in Iowa, Seeler got called up to the Wild in 2017-18 and immediately helped stabilize the third pair after (fellow former Gopher) Mike Reilly and Gustav Olofsson failed to get the job done. Seeler immediately impressed, and was able to play up in the lineup when injuries struck. Though his point totals don’t jump off the page (0 goals and 4 assists in 22 games played), Seeler did well in his first stint and earned himself a new 3 year contract worth $725k annually.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Minnesota Wild
Seeler is not afraid to drop the gloves as evidenced by his fight with Detroit’s Luke Witkowski on March 4, 2018.
Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

We can expect more of the same this season from Seeler. He’s a near lock to make the team out of camp and he and Greg Pateryn will form a physical, #gritty, blue collar 3rd pair the Wild haven’t had for years. Hey, maybe one of them will even stand up for a teammate if he gets illegally crosschecked in the head in front of the net in a playoff game.

Kyle Rau - Center

Kyle Rau was the sort of player former Gophers head coach Don Lucia loved; he was skilled, stayed at the U for all four seasons, and consistently produced. Rau was drafted in the third round of the 2011 draft by the Florida Panthers. Unfortunately for Rau, he never stuck with the Panthers, only playing 33 games combined in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. Rau was, somewhat surprisingly, not tendered a qualifying offer by the Panthers at the end of the 2016-17 season, so he signed a 1 year deal with the Wild. He put 50 points in 69 (nice) games with the Iowa Wild and played 3 games with the big club, notching one assist.

The Wild re-signed Rau to a 2 year contract, and I see him as Jordan Schroeder 2.0. Like Schroeder, Rau will become increasingly familiar with I-35 as he goes between St. Paul and Des Moines (hey Kyle, there’s a great Taco Johns in Albert Lea in case you get hungry #olesforlife). Rau is skilled enough to do well in the AHL, and he won’t look out of place on a NHL roster. I’d love to see Rau be given a chance at a permanent spot on the 4th line to add a scoring dynamic to that line and have a chance to develop chemistry with Marcus Foligno and J.T. Brown. Unfortunately, GM Paul Fenton had other ideas and signed Eric Fehr and Matt Hendricks, both capable of filling the 4C role. Rau will have to bide his time in Iowa and hope for an opportunity to prove himself.

Justin Kloos - Center

Justin Kloos’ biography looks a lot like Rau’s, a 4 year Gopher who consistently put up points from 2013-14 to 2016-17 (if a bit fewer than Rau did). Kloos signed with the Wild after the end of the college season in 2016-17, and played his first full professional year in 2017-18. Kloos posted 50 points in 76 games with the Iowa Wild, and got a taste of the NHL playing just 1 game but recording no points.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Minnesota Wild
The Kloos is (not) Loose
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

You can pretty much copy the second paragraph about Rau above and paste it here. Kloos has got some skill, but hasn’t yet proven himself to be anything but a ‘tweener. Kloos is a year younger than Rau (24 and 25 respectively), so there is a little more time for him to grow and develop. For next season, I expect Kloos to be a good depth option for the NHL team, though Rau will likely be the first call up in case of injuries.

Other Gophers I’ll be Watching

With only Seeler set to be the only Gopher to log significant minutes with the Wild, here are some other former Gophers to keep an eye out for:

  • Casey Mittelstadt - Buffalo Sabres - Center. Expect significant Calder chatter for Mittelstadt as he is set up for success on the Sabres second line likely playing with Conor Sheary and Kyle Okposo (hey look another former Gopher).
  • Nick Bjugstad - Florida Panthers - Center/Wing. This is likely a make or break year for the former first rounder. Bjugstad seems to have found a home playing on the wing in Florida’s stacked top 6, but if he fails to produce he could find himself in a diminished role or traded. Think of him as Charlie Coyle but with a better tan.
  • Erik Haula - (Las) Vegas Golden Knights - Center. Hey remember him? Haula had a great year in an expanded role with (Las) Vegas slotting in as their second line center. Haula put up 55 points (29g + 26a = 55p) and the Golden Knights rewarded him by signing Paul Stastny to take his job. It’ll be interesting to see how Haula does in a diminished role.

While University of Minnesota alumni are less prominent with the Wild than in past years, there are three good players who add value to the Wild in the form of depth and could play themselves into bigger roles in the years to come. Additionally, there are other former Gophers making waves around the league to keep an eye on and make the program proud. I’ll end with one of the most beautiful images in all of hockey: Gopher alumnus Phil Kessel eating hot dogs out of the Stanley Cup.

Stanley Cup Champion Phil Kessel
Photograph from Phil Kessel’s Instagram via Sportsnet.ca