Wild prospects Cuma, Gillies getting taste of NHL
On the third day of the Minnesota Wild’s development camp, recent first-round selection Tyler Cuma took a high stick near his left eye and spent the latter portion of the afternoon being stitched up.
Welcome to the NHL, kid.
Cuma, who was grabbed at No. 23 by the Wild at last month’s draft, was in good spirits Wednesday afternoon after being patched up. The important thing to the 6-foot-2, 180-pound defenseman is he’s getting a taste of life in Minnesota’s organization.
“It’s going fine so far,” Cuma told NHL.com. “It’s good to get on the ice and learning from the coaching staff here. I’m getting to be with some of the older guys, and they’re really taking us under their wing. It’s pretty much everything I expected. It’s a lot faster. You’ve got to make sure you’re in good shape coming here.”
With Cuma still on the board in the first round of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft and Wild brass anxious to secure him, Minnesota dealt the No. 24 selection – and a third-round pick in 2009 – to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for the No. 23 pick. Just like that, Cuma became a member of the Wild.
Nearly a month later Cuma still can’t believe that he was able to fulfill one of his lifelong dreams by being taken in the first round of the draft.
“I don’t think it’s completely sunk in yet. It’s pretty surreal,” Cuma said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to be called up on that podium on draft day, especially in the first round. It’s satisfying that all the hard work and dedication you’re putting in is paying off.”
Colton Gillies certainly understands where Cuma is coming from. Minnesota’s first-round selection from 2007 (No. 16) is also participating in the Wild’s development camp. Gillies, 19, had a goal and seven assists in 11 games with the American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros late in the 2007-08 campaign. The 6-4 center began the season with the Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League, posting 24 goals and 23 assists to go along with 97 penalty minutes.
“I’ve been working out here for about three weeks,” Gillies said. “Obviously, I’ve been trying to get bigger, stronger and faster. Here, I’m just working on power skating and whatever they give us, you take in.”
Just as he did in Houston.
While he wasn’t there long, Gillies came away awfully impressed with the talent level of the AHL. In the end, he believes the brief stint helped his development.
“I thought it was a good league,” Gillies said. “I didn’t know if I was going to play the first game or if they were going to let me slowly ease into it, but they ended up throwing me in there right away. I think I did really well and helped them make the playoffs. It was a really good experience.”
While it’s highly likely that Cuma will return to the Ontario Hockey League’s Ottawa 67’s for a third season of junior hockey, Gillies has a chance make the Wild’s roster this fall. If he doesn’t play in Minnesota, Gillies will return to Saskatoon for a fourth season. He can’t play in Houston due to the fact that he still has junior eligibility.
“It’s either make this team or go back to junior,” Gillies said. “I think if I just keep working hard and I listen to them, I think things will go well.”
Gillies also admitted that being a first-round selection carries a little extra weight. In the end, he realizes that where he will play next season is ultimately Minnesota’s decision.
That being said, he’s prepared to make that decision a difficult one.
“I’ve kind of learned to deal with it, but there definitely is pressure,” Gillies said. “All I can really do is work hard and just help them out as much as I can. The way I see it is it’s not my decision to be there. If they think that I’m ready, and if I can help out the team and the organization, then I think I’ll be there.”
Cuma, on the other hand, understands he may still be a season or two away from playing in the NHL. The Toronto native had four goals, 28 assists and 69 penalty minutes in 59 games for the 67’s in 2007-08.
“Realistically, I think I’ll probably play another year in Ottawa,” Cuma said. “I haven’t really grown into my body yet, so I think the physical part of the game – especially for a defenseman – I need that. But I know it’s coming. I’m obviously going to try to make the team right off the get-go, but if worst comes to worst, I’m going to go back to Ottawa and continue to develop there.”
As for feeling added pressure as a first-round pick – combined with the fact that the Wild traded up to get him – Cuma brushed off such a notion pretty quickly. In fact, he feels he may even be tougher on himself than any member of the Wild’s brass.
“It’s not too much pressure,” Cuma said. “I’m pretty hard on myself as it is. They’re not rushing me. There’s no rush in my development. It’s going to take some time before I’m ready to play in the NHL. They haven’t really put too much added stress on me, but it’s nothing that I can’t handle, anyways. I thrive off those situations. I like the challenge. Whatever they want from me, there’s no doubt in my mind I’ll do it.”
It’s only fair after the desire the Wild expressed just to draft him, right?
“It’s always good to go to a team that wants you,” Cuma said. “They even traded up to get me, so it just goes to show you even more so that they wanted me. They even mentioned afterwards that they were trying to get me all night. It’s good to see that they had a lot of interest in me, and I’m happy to be in Minnesota.”