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Kuhlman on the fast track to playing hockey for UMD

Dubuque’s Karson Kuhlman, formerly of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, skates down the ice during a United States Hockey League game against the Omaha Lancers on Feb. 21. Kuhlman left CEC after his junior year to play for the Fighting Saints. He will sign a national letter of intent to play for Minnesota Duluth sometime this week. Submitted photo

Karson Kuhlman always has been one step ahead of the curve on a hockey rink.

Whether it was suiting up alongside older players at the youth level, moving up to the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton varsity as a freshman or taking the junior hockey route his senior year, Kuhlman has shown he can handle challenges.

“He always seemed to be ready to play with the next-year kids, and that’s continued all the way up until now,” his father, Dean, said earlier this week.

He’s ready to do it again.

Sometime in the next few days, the 18-year-old Kuhlman will sign a national letter of intent to play hockey at Minnesota Duluth in the 2014-15 season — one year earlier than anticipated. While Kuhlman had accepted a scholarship offer a year and a half ago, the move to college was fast-tracked after junior Caleb Herbert signed a pro contract with the Washington Capitals last month. Today marks the first day of the spring signing period.

“I talked with my parents about what the best plan was and we decided the best route for my hockey career was going to (college) next fall,” Kuhlman said. “I’m very excited. Whether it was next year or the year after, it’s a dream come true for me. I’m looking forward to next year.”

Kuhlman left CEC after his junior season to play for the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League. He’s scored a team-high 25 goals and has 44 points for Dubuque, which is tied 1-1 with Cedar Rapids in an Eastern Conference semifinal series. Kuhlman scored the winning goal in Game 1 last weekend.

Dean Kuhlman, who coached his son in youth hockey, says it was an extremely difficult choice for him to leave Dubuque.

“We talked about all the pros and cons, and then we said, ‘You have to do what’s in your heart.’ ”

First-year Dubuque coach Mark Shaw isn’t surprised that UMD chose to bring Kuhlman in earlier than anticipated.

“He was going to have an impact on his team at the Division I level,” Shaw said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he has NHL possibilities in the future. I think very highly of Karson. He has wisdom beyond his years in regard to his preparation and his detail and his maturity on the ice. He’s a player coaches love to coach. Wherever he plays, he’s going to will his way into the lineup and will his way into more and more ice time through his preparation and detail.”

Kuhlman, who stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 180 pounds, says playing a 60-game schedule against top junior competition helped prepare him for the rigors of college hockey.

“I don’t think (UMD) would have given me this opportunity if I wasn’t ready to come in,” he said. “I’m just going to do everything that I can and play my game, and everything else will work out.”

Kuhlman played right wing most of the season, though Shaw says he can play any position. He even played defense a few shifts this season when injuries and penalties claimed too many defensemen. That versatility should make Kuhlman a valuable commodity, Shaw says.

“He has an X-factor to him that people are going to put a lot of stock in and want to jump in his foxhole, just by how he prepares and plays the game,” Shaw said. “These are the type of guys you want to win and lose with.”

NCAA rules prohibit UMD coaches from discussing recruits until they sign a letter of intent.

The Bulldogs signed four other players — Blake Young, Brett Boehm, Blake Heinrich and Hermantown’s Jared Thomas — during last November’s signing period, but Heinrich opted out in order to play for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.