Wild praises a potential star
Tyler Cuma may be only 18 and bound for juniors again, but he left teammates raving about his maturity Sunday.
By MICHAEL RUSSO, Star Tribune
Last update: September 29, 2008 - 12:01 AM
By MICHAEL RUSSO, Star Tribune
BUFFALO, N.Y. - The Wild's blue line is full to the brim, so Tyler Cuma knows he's going back to his Ontario Hockey League team, the Ottawa 67s, this season.
But Cuma's future looks bright.
Wearing an NHL uniform for the first time Sunday night, Cuma's poise shone during the Wild's 2-1 exhibition victory over the Buffalo Sabres, a game in which Andrew Brunette scored both the tying goal late in the third period and shootout winner.
Cuma, 18, and the 23rd overall pick in June's draft, jelled marvelously with veteran Kim Johnsson, 32, the 286th and final player taken in the 1994 draft.
"The young boy, Cuma, he played an awesome game," said goalie Niklas Backstrom, who sparkled with 28 saves. "It was fun to watch a kid that young play that well."
Added Johnsson: "What a strong game. He was so calm out there. He sees the ice so well, he just makes the right plays."
Coach Jacques Lemaire called Cuma and Johnsson the Wild's best pair and said of Cuma, "You could see all camp, that's exactly the way he was playing."
"I came into camp and really wanted to work hard and show them what I have," said Cuma, who is from nearby Bowmanville, Ontario. His parents, stepparents and siblings got to make the 90-minute drive to watch him. "For the Wild to give me this opportunity, what more can you ask for?"
Cuma credited Johnsson, who was wearing the captain's 'C' again. "To play with a guy that experienced, he really helped me -- talking to me, encouraging me, keeping my spirits up," Cuma said.
Cuma's standing especially grew after the most recent world under-18 tournament in Russia. The Canadians won gold, and coach Pat Quinn threw loads of ice time at Cuma, who played on the top defense pairing and in all situations.
"This guy could be a really good matchup defenseman," said Wild assistant GM Tommy Thompson, who scouted Cuma 11 times last season. "He's not really big, but he's really quick. He's a tremendous backward skater. [The opponent] goes from 'A' to 'B,' Tyler's on 'B' before 'B' gets the puck."
Somebody played a not-so funny joke on Brunette.
Brunette forced overtime, then a shootout by scoring the tying goal on a power play with 2 minutes, 57 seconds left.
In the second round of the shootout, Brunette skated to center ice, but he was joined by teammate Benoit Pouliot. It wasn't Brunette's turn, so he skated back to the bench with his arms up.
"They were messing with me," Brunette said. "Somebody said, 'You're next,' so I went and made a fool of myself. I got pulled off the ice."
After Owen Nolan scored, Pouliot and Corey Locke couldn't. That gave Brunette his real chance, and he snapped a bullet by Patrick Lalime in the fourth round.
Because of the skill in Colorado, Brunette said, "it was rare" he got a shootout attempt. However, according to NHL.com, Brunette has never taken a shootout attempt.
Backstrom, who has the NHL's third-worst shootout winning percentage (4-15, .267) and second-worst save percentage (26 saves, 53 attempts, .491), vowed to be better this season.
He stopped three of four Buffalo tries.
"It's good for the confidence that you can go out there and see you can stop them," Backstrom said. "I still have to work on it, but good first step."
Gaborik on ice
Marian Gaborik practiced Sunday for the first time since aggravating his quadriceps injury Sept. 20.
"I had been skating for five days on my own, just trying to get some movement and conditioning and sprints," Gaborik said. "Just trying to make sure everything feels fine. And so far, so good."
The Wild has two home exhibition games this week, and Gaborik is hoping to play in one. "It's always good to get some preseason games under the belt," Gaborik said.
Staff Writer Brian Stensaas contributed to this report.
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