Having gone undrafted by the NHL as a teenager, Minnesota Duluth senior defenseman Nick Wolff could have signed with any one of 31 NHL franchises after his college career ended.
Wolff’s defensive partner the previous three seasons with the Bulldogs, Scott Perunovich, also had the option to become an unrestricted free agent on June 1 if he didn’t sign with the St. Louis Blues, the team that drafted him two years ago.
Both in recent weeks decided to reward the franchises that stood by their sides the last two years. Wolff signed a one-year entry level contract on March 18 with the Boston Bruins, the team that brought him to development camp the previous two summers. On Friday, Perunovich and the Blues agreed to a two-year deal that will go into effect whenever the NHL resumes play in 2019-20 or 2020-21.
While not every team in the NHL was in play for Wolff after the NCHC and NCAA canceled their postseason tournaments due to the COVID-19 pandemic — hence ending his college career — there were a couple other teams interested in the 23-year-old, 6-foot-5, 203-pound physical blue liner from Eagan, Minnesota.
Wolff said he never gave those offers much thought. After he attended the Calgary Flames' camp in 2017 between his freshman and sophomore seasons, he spent the next two summers with the Bruins. So when their offer came in within days of the season being over, he signed it.
“I felt very comfortable with everyone in the organization and how they treated me, how great the organization is and the history behind it,” Wolff said. “It was strange with how everything ended. Monday morning we got the call from (UMD coach Scott Sandelin) saying everything is being shutdown, it was over. Everything happened pretty quickly after that because my mind was made up.
“It’s very humbling to be part of a great organization and to just keep on playing, furthering my career. It’s an honor. I’m going to miss Duluth like crazy. They’ve taught me a lot of life lessons, the coaches have. I’m going to miss it dearly, but it’s time to move on and take the next steps.”
The 21-year-old, 5-10, 175-pound Perunovich was taken by the Blues in the second round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft at No. 45 overall. Because the Hibbing native was turning 20 at the time, the Blues only retained his rights for two years.
So the Blues treated the two-time (soon to be three-time) All-American like he was a free agent, though one they had exclusive access to. Development coach Glen Wesley attended as many Bulldogs games the last two seasons as Perunovich’s own immediate family. The team’s director of player development, Tim Taylor, and director of player recruitment, Keith Tkachuk also kept in constant touch.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was at Lawson Ice Arena in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in late February to watch Perunovich and the Bulldogs take on Western Michigan. That was a moment that stuck with the 2019-20 NCHC Player of the Year and top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award in the days leading up to his eventual deal with St. Louis.
“When Doug Armstrong came to Western and talked to me after, that meant a ton knowing that they care to make the trip out there,” Perunovich said.
For Wolff, the person in the Bruins’ organization that left a strong impression on him was the team’s player development coordinator, Cloquet-native Jamie Langenbrunner.
“It was a good relationship and that’s where it all started, with Jamie Langenbrunner,” Wolff said. “He came to a lot of games, a Cloquet guy. We built a really good relationship the last couple years going to their development camps. It just really seemed like a great fit.”
Minnesota Wild assistant general manager Tom Kurvers, who previously worked in the scouting departments and front offices of the Phoenix Coyotes and Tampa Bay Lighting, said building relationships with coveted undrafted free agents, like Wolff, is just as important as building a relationship with a draft pick, like Perunovich.
If you fail to establish a relationship with a player early and step in at the buzzer, you’re too late, he said.
“You’re finishing the process, from (the Wild’s) point of view,” said Kurvers, the 1984 Hobey Baker winner out of UMD and first of five Bulldogs to win college hockey’s highest individual honor. “You don’t have a chance to get a college free agent unless you’ve shown interest and worked on developing a relationship to the extent the player wants to deal with it. We try to be real sensitive to the fact that they’re playing for their team and we don’t want to get in the way of that. We keep in touch with the agents and we’ll check in with the coaches of the college teams.
“Most of these teams that are aggressive in (college free agency), have a basic way of behaving, almost an expected way they go about their business. We’re trying to establish a very upfront and honest approach with everybody involved — that means the player, his current coach and player’s agent.”
Business as usual for NHL executives, sorta
Like much of America, Kurvers is working from home these days. But he and the rest of the Wild front office are still keeping in constant touch about the flow of information coming from the league office. There’s hope the 2019-20 NHL season won’t meet the same fate as the 2019-20 NCAA hockey season did due to the coronavirus.
“There is optimism that at the appropriate time when it’s right, we might be able to finish our season,” Kurvers said.
In the meantime, the Wild have signed a trio of draft picks whose major junior seasons were canceled early like the NCAA. The Wild also nabbed what Kurvers described as a “big target” in forward Mitchell Chaffee, an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts.
“It’s somewhat business as usual,” Kurvers said. "Once the college season was officially cancelled, we were in pursuit.”
Kurvers also serves as the general manager of the Wild’s top minor-league affiliate in Des Moines, the Iowa Wild. With the AHL season also suspended, he hasn’t been able to sign any college players to amateur tryouts (known as an ATO). Teams use them as a way to test out a player at the pro level, or to allow a prospect like Chaffee or Wolff — whose contracts don’t go into effect until the 2020-21 season — to get some pro games under them before their rookie seasons.
Samberg in holding pattern
The News Tribune caught up with Bulldogs junior defenseman Dylan Samberg last week. Since the college season was cut short, the Hermantown native has been keeping up with school online. He’s done some social distancing fishing.
“Really, just kind of bored to be honest,” said Samberg, a 2017 second-round pick of the Winnipeg Jets.
While NHL teams like the Bruins — who also signed St. Cloud State senior defenseman Jack Ahcan last week — and the Wild have been busy during the stoppage, the Jets have not. As of Sunday, the Jets are one of 15 teams in the NHL to have not signed a college player. A total of 31 NCAA players had signed as of Sunday afternoon, including 17 free agents and 12 underclassmen.
Samberg estimates he’s only about 20 credits away from graduating with a degree from UMD, and said last week he hadn’t made a decision yet on his future.
There’s no need to rush anything at the moment with the current NHL season suspended, he said.
“Right now everything is just on hold,” Samberg said. “Their player development guy contacted me to see how things were going, seeing if I was safe, if my family was safe. They are trying to figure out what they are going to do with their season still and how this whole thing is going to end up. There is no reason to rush anything. Just waiting to see where things go.”