Devan Dubnyk described rookie defenseman Nick Seeler as “mean.” The Wild goalie meant it as a compliment, a form of flattery that underscores Seeler’s impact only 25 games into his NHL career.
Seeler blocks shots without hesitation. He battles hard for pucks. He sticks up for teammates with hits or fists, if necessary. He gives the Wild something it desperately needs in the lineup, a tough customer at 6-2, 200 pounds who plays the game with a hard edge.
“You see the intensity on his face when he plays,” Dubnyk said. “I’m sure nobody wants to go in the corner with him. I know no one wants to drop the gloves with him.”
Seeler played the best game of his young career Sunday to help spark a 6-2 victory over the Winnipeg Jets in Game 3. He collected two assists and blocked four shots. He was a workhorse on the penalty kill, sacrificing his body to protect the lead.
“He’s not playing like a guy that has only played 20 games in the NHL,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said.
This experience has been a little surreal for Seeler and his family. He won two state high school hockey championships at Eden Prairie, played one season for the Gophers and has carved out an important role after being called up from the minors by the hometown team that drafted him.
Seeler’s parents, Dan and Kris, have been season-ticket holders with the Wild since Day 1, and the North Stars before that. Nick grew up going to Wild games. His parents have a favorite photo of their son in his Wild hat at a game, staring down at the ice, a young kid fixated on the action.
Now, he’s down there having the time of his life.
“You kind of get chills,” he said. “You have to pinch yourself.”
Then he snaps himself back to reality and his switch turns on.
Two of Seeler’s former coaches used the term “warrior” to describe his playing style, including Dean Blais, his coach at Nebraska Omaha for two seasons.
“Off the ice, he’s a choir boy,” Blais told the Star Tribune in 2012. “But on the ice, he’ll run you through the glass.”
Seeler has displayed a fiery temperament for as long as his parents can remember. So fiery, in fact, that “we had to reel him in a little bit playing youth sports because losing didn’t sit well with him,” his dad said.
“He has a fire that burns in him all the time,” Dan Seeler said.
His competitiveness occasionally crossed the line. Former Gophers coach Don Lucia has known Seeler since he played pee wee hockey with Lucia’s son, Mario.
Lucia said Seeler often took retaliatory penalties if he didn’t like something that happened on the ice, especially if it involved one of his teammates.
“There would be times when he would get upset, his eyes would roll back in his head and uh-oh, here it comes,” Lucia said.
Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith witnessed that cutthroat competitiveness daily in practice. One of Seeler’s best friends is Kyle Rau, who played at Eden Prairie and is now a Wild minor leaguer. Rau is intensely competitive, too.
“If they were going against each other, it was pretty spectacular to watch how hard they went after each other,” Smith said. “Neither one of them wanted to give an inch.”
Seeler wasn’t difficult to coach, his coaches say. He is respectful but ultra-competitive. He will do anything to win.
Seeler said he played only one shift in the state tournament as a sophomore. It came with three minutes left in the Class 2A championship game with Eden Prairie leading Moorhead 3-0.
He got a cross-checking penalty.
“I didn’t want them to score or get in front of the net,” he said.
Smith remembers it vividly.
“He went out there and just hammered a kid from Moorhead,” he said. “I think it was bottled-up emotion ready to come out because he had been waiting his turn. He took it out on a Spud.”
Lucia said Seeler learned to “throttle back” his emotions during the season he sat out with the Gophers as a transfer. He has matured as a competitor without losing his edge.
“It’s been ingrained in me, that competitiveness, from an early age,” Seeler said. “As you get older, you definitely have to learn how to manage your emotions. Be on the edge, not over it.”
Those who know him best aren’t surprised that Seeler leads the Wild with 10 blocked shots in this playoff series. Or that he fought Detroit heavyweight Luke Witkowski in a bloody slugfest after Witkowski nearly drilled Zach Parise in open ice. Or that Boudreau trusts him enough to play in the second defensive pairing because he’s tough as leather.
“He’s been playing this way forever,” his dad said. “It’s the only way he knows how to play hockey.”
Injuries opened the door for Seeler to get his shot to play in the NHL. He’s proving that he absolutely belongs here.