Forward Luke Kunin had hoped this opportunity would come sooner.
He wanted to resume his career after recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee in the same career spot he suffered the injury — with the Wild.
But after detouring to the minors to rebuild his strength and conditioning while also reacclimating to game action, the 21-year-old feels the diligence exercised by team brass was the smart approach — a patient process that enabled Kunin to rejoin the Wild feeling confident about his play.
“I feel great,” he said. “I really like where my game’s at, so I’m looking forward to playing.”
The Wild recalled Kunin from the American Hockey League on Sunday, with captain Mikko Koivu sidelined with a lower-body injury suffered last week during a knee-on-knee hit from Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano. The contact resulted in a two-game suspension for Giordano.
Koivu’s status is considered day-to-day and although he wasn’t on the ice for practice Monday, coach Bruce Boudreau said Koivu was working out.
Kunin did skate with the group, teaming with center Joel Eriksson Ek and winger Jordan Greenway on a line poised to debut Tuesday when the Wild begins a four-game homestand against the Montreal Canadiens.
“I found when I played if I played with guys who were either called up or guys who were my age,” Boudreau said, “I didn’t feel intimidated by having to get guys pucks. So it makes it a simpler transition for him.”
The unit also has the potential to supply the Wild with energy as a quick checking line, attributes Kunin believes he didn’t lose while he healed up.
“I haven’t changed anything,” the former first-round pick said. “I still think I’m an aggressive, physical player.”
Less than a week after he was called up from the AHL to help the Wild’s playoff push last season, Kunin tore his ACL when his skate caught a rut during a March 4 game against the Detroit Red Wings.
He underwent surgery and rehab. Even though he started skating weeks before reporting for training camp, Kunin wasn’t cleared for contact and began the season on injured reserve before getting assigned to Iowa.
“Definitely the most challenging thing I’ve gone through,” said Kunin, a former captain for both the U.S. junior national team and Wisconsin who was taken 15th overall in 2016 by the Wild. “It’s been pretty smooth sailing until that injury happened. But I think it definitely tests your patience, your character, your mental toughness, who you are, and I think I came through on the other side a better person and stronger person. So I’m very happy with how I handled it.”
In 21 games with Iowa this season, Kunin chipped in eight goals and 15 points. Six of those came in his last four games, a span in which he scored three times — one of his most productive stretches of the season.
Through 19 career games with the Wild, Kunin has two goals and two assists.
“He works hard,” Boudreau said. “He finishes checks. He’s a hardworking guy that competes really well. If he can compete really hard like that, then that’s a good thing.”
Boudreau indicated Kunin’s recovery was the reason he wasn’t ushered up to the Wild earlier, while also acknowledging the stint could be brief.
But what matters to Kunin is his chance has finally arrived, and he plans to capitalize.
“I still have to prove myself,” he said. “It’s just nice to be back where you were and where you wanted to be before all this stuff happened. So [I’m] looking forward to the opportunity and just make the most of it.”
• It wasn’t that long ago that the Flames and Ducks were tangled in a clump of teams in the middle of the Western Conference. Now, they’re among the leaders. Such seems to be the way of the West this season, with clubs rising and falling like a game of Chutes and Ladders. Calgary’s climb to the top of the pack amid a 7-2-1 run has been fueled by terrific play from its top line and steady goaltending from Mike Smith and David Rittich. As for the Ducks, their 8-2 showing in the last 10 games has put them back in contention for one of the top spots in the Pacific Division after a rough finish to October and up-and-down start to November.
• The Coyotes’ push to remain competitive in the Pacific will carry on without goalie Antti Raanta. He’s out indefinitely, potentially for the entire season, after undergoing a procedure Saturday that revealed more extensive damage. Raanta had been sidelined with a lower-body injury. In his absence, Arizona is carrying three goalies — former Wild netminder Darcy Kuemper, Adin Hill and Calvin Pickard.
• Tampa Bay is also without its No. 1 goalie. Andrei Vasilevskiy continues to recover from a fractured foot. But that hasn’t stalled the Lightning. It sits atop the NHL, and the performance of backup Louis Domingue has helped key the team’s recent surge. Domingue went 3-0 last week with a .957 save percentage and 1.33 goals-against average.
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and NHL hockey for the Star Tribune.