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Wild think Luke Kunin will be an NHL player, maybe very soon

Minnesoda Wild forward Luke Kunin skates with the puck during the first period against the Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Man., on Sept. 18, 2017. Terrence Lee / USA TODAY Sports

ST. PAUL — A couple of weeks into training camp, top prospect Luke Kunin is still hanging around. He hopes he can say the same on Oct. 5, when the the Minnesota Wild open the regular season against the Red Wings in Detroit.

"My goals have been the same the whole time," said Kunin, who signed an entry-level contract in March following his sophomore season at the University Wisconsin. "I want to make the team."

Kunin, 19, knows a lot is riding on the final two preseason games. After playing in four of the five, he was scheduled to be in the lineup for Thursday, Sept. 28's game against the St. Louis Blues in Kansas City.

Final audition?

"I don't think so," Kunin said. "I look at every game the same and focus and prepare the same way I always do and just go out and play my game."

His game has impressed the coaching staff despite the fact that he hasn't scored in 72 minutes, 27 seconds of ice time. Asked how much stock he'd be putting into Thursday's game, coach Bruce Boudreau quipped, "Well, if he scores four goals or something, then all of a sudden things happen."

"I mean, I think we've got the idea of what Luke Kunin is all about," he added. "He's going to be a solid NHL player for a lot of years, whether it's right now at the start ... or six months down the road. We know his character. He can play."

Kunin was the 15th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft following a stellar freshman season for the Badgers in which he recorded 19 goals and 13 assists. He followed that with an even better sophomore season: a team-high 22 goals and 16 assists while also captaining Team USA to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships.

Kunin finished last season with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League (AHL) after signing his entry-level contract. He played 12 games on an amateur tryout agreement (ATO), recording five goals and three assists, including a hat trick in the third game of his career.

His reputation at the lower levels reverberated around the Wild locker room long before he arrived.

"I heard a lot of about him before this," winger Charlie Coyle said. "You can tell he's very focused on making the team. He's just taking everything in. He's not the most talkative guy right now, which is understandable. He's doing his job. He's playing well. He's got good speed. I think he's going to be really good whenever he plays for us."

Kunin has played center throughout the preseason but can play any of the three forward positions.

"He probably has a little bit more familiarity playing wing the last couple seasons, so I think we've asked a lot of him," general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "We aren't quite as deep at center as we are at wing, so he's stepped up and just plays. You know, wherever we put him, he plays."

"We will continue to see what makes sense for him long-term," the GM added. "He's going to be a big part of our future. In the short-term, we'll have to see how it plays out here in the next few days."

Kunin understands that aspect of it, too, and while he's hopeful to make the Wild out of training camp, he knows this experience has been important for his development nonetheless.

"It's been good," Kunin said. "I just want to keep seeing that progress. ... There's still a long ways to go."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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