Badgers men’s hockey: NHL draft pick Luke Kunin reaches expert level at tuning out distractions
Luke Kunin was sitting in class when he found out he was leaving school.
Or so the social media speculation spun that midday on a November Tuesday, two days before the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team was set to leave for a non-conference series at North Dakota. Kunin, then a freshman winger, saw his phone light up about a rumor that was making its way around Twitter.
The tweet, from an account that claims to report insider information about the comings and goings of Ontario Hockey League players, said Kunin was telling people at UW he was headed to play in Canadian major juniors.
Kunin instead was headed to tell his coaches the rumor was untrue. Then he let teammates know.
Three hours later, Kunin quieted down the noisy social media speculation on his immediate future with eight words and a hashtag: “Can’t wait to play North Dakota this weekend. #Badgers”
The speculation and the intense interest in the movings of a college player tell you how highly Kunin is regarded as a prospect.
But looking back on it now, Kunin said the episode was illustrative of the challenges that will come his way in a high-visibility position.
“As I’ve been told numerous times, the higher up you get in hockey and the better levels you go to, there’s going to be more distractions and things trying to weigh you down or get in your way,” he said.
As he enters his second season with the Badgers, Kunin said he knows there will be more of those distractions, especially because of the label he earned over the summer.
In June, the Minnesota Wild made him a first-round NHL draft pick, taking him 15th overall. It was something of the midpoint of a whirlwind offseason of camps, combines, conditioning and coaching changes.
And he earned one more designation a few weeks before the season began: team captain. He’s the first sophomore to serve in that capacity for the Badgers in 41 years, since Mike Eaves did in the 1975-76 season.
But part of the reason the Wild selected Kunin was because they know he can handle his surroundings, even at a young age.
Kunin finished high school in three years to be able to start in college hockey last year at age 17. Then he had to go through a disappointing 8-19-8 season with the Badgers, even as he showed the kind of individual talent that made him a top prospect.
“He’s a pretty mature kid for a young guy,” said Brent Flahr, the Wild’s assistant general manager. “He’s played in a lot of big games as a young player. He handled a relatively tough situation last year, being a young player and getting a big role right away. And obviously he hates losing more than anybody.
“You read it: He had lots of opportunities to leave, lots of pressure from junior teams up north trying to drag him up there and he wanted to see it out, fulfill his commitment to the University of Wisconsin and get things turned around there. It’s an honorable thing.”
This season, Kunin said he and his teammates are seeking to recast UW hockey as a hungry group, out to show the past two seasons were unacceptable as representations of the program.
Coach Mike Eaves and his staff were fired after a second straight losing season, the first of which was the worst of the team’s modern era.
The hiring of Tony Granato as coach and Don Granato and Mark Osiecki as associate head coaches stirred up some excitement for Badgers hockey in the community. Kunin said players know they can’t waste that with subpar showings on the ice.
“All these guys, we expect to win. We should win,” Kunin said. “That’s the way we’re going into it. There always is a little pressure if you want to get into details, but a big program like this, we’re expected to win.”
A lot is expected of Kunin, a center by trade who led the Badgers with 19 goals in 34 games last season while playing mostly on the wing.
One analyst said the Chesterfield, Missouri, native should be in the preseason debate about the best players in college hockey this season.
Sean Ritchlin, a former Michigan player who calls college hockey games for ESPN, first saw Kunin play last season in a game at Penn State.
“He was the best player on the ice by not a small margin,” Ritchlin said. “When you’ve got a kid like that on your team that can take over games, and he has the tenacity and mentality to carry a team, I think this year is going to be a great example of his ability and what he can do.”
Ritchlin said Kunin probably would be among his top three preseason picks for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top player in Division I men’s hockey.
And he said the Badgers’ top line of Kunin, junior Cameron Hughes and senior Grant Besse could prove to be the best in the Big Ten.
Tony Granato said there’s a possibility that trio will spend some time on different lines as the season gets started. But he acknowledged they support each other well and can produce goals.
More than one-third of the 93 goals the Badgers scored last season came from either Kunin, Hughes (5) or Besse (11).
Kunin’s right-handed shot is a pro-level tool, Flahr said, combining a hard and quick release with high accuracy.
And his competitive level is something that will help him get to the next level, Flahr said.
“We refer to him as a gamer because of his competitiveness and willingness to get involved, and the fact that he can not only score goals but also be relied on defensively and play in a lot of different situations,” he said. “Those type of players are very valuable at the pro level.”
Branded a tough competitor in his playing days, Tony Granato knows what goes into being a pro. So when he saw Kunin going through solo offseason workouts with strength and conditioning coach Jim Snider or sneaking in a few shooting drills, he saw the inner drive that’s necessary.
“He’s going to continue to do those things day to day,” Granato said. “And that’s what you want as a coach, to have players like that because they’re contagious. When the other guys see the success that he’s having, if they want to be like him, they’ve got to do like him. That’s the example that he’s set for his teammates.”
Workouts pay off
After school-year team workouts ended last spring, Kunin went to work with Snider to prepare for the NHL Scouting Combine. They focused on lower-body explosiveness, and it showed in testing.
Measured at the combine, Kunin’s vertical jump of 28.98 inches was more than 2 inches better than the next-closest prospect.
Besides the draft, Kunin’s offseason included on-ice sessions with skills coaches, a prospects camp with the Wild, more skating back in Madison and the USA Hockey evaluation camp for potential World Junior Championship players.
Being left off the World Juniors team last year didn’t sit well with Kunin, who said he used the snub to fuel his competitive fire a little more.
With the poor taste from the team results last season still lingering, he’s been working on the small parts of his game: refining his shot and getting the puck off the boards in tight spaces.
Flahr says defensive zone positioning is critical for someone Kunin’s size: 6 foot, 197 pounds — not the largest prospect out there.
A player like Kunin sometimes tries too hard to compensate for teammates in the defensive zone, Flahr said. He needs to hold his position and be patient for the puck to come to him.
Kunin picks apart his game on video — “Maybe sometimes a little too much,” he said — but said he’s able to trust the Badgers coaches to put him in the right positions.
Don Granato was his coach with the U.S. National Team Development Program for two seasons, and he said Kunin did all the right things on and off the ice to put himself into the captain’s role on a team that won the Under-18 World Championship.
“Luke had to play a third-line role for us,” Don Granato said of a stacked U.S. team that included 2016 No. 1 overall NHL draft pick Auston Matthews. “We needed a guy that just, ‘I’ll do a third-line role if it means winning.’ That was his approach to it.”
There wasn’t enough winning last season for the Badgers, which may have been why the rumors starting rolling about Kunin, then still 17, leaving for Canada.
UW went the first six games without a victory and was 2-3-3 when Kunin had to address the speculation.
When he further put the issue on the back burner by dressing for the series opener at No. 1 North Dakota, he didn’t stop there. He scored the go-ahead goal in the second period of a 3-1 victory, considered a massive upset of a team that went on to win the NCAA title.
This could be Kunin’s final season with the Badgers, but he said he’s not worried about that right now.
He just wants to get better — here.
“I want to be at Wisconsin until I’m ready to play in the NHL,” he said.