Here’s an article I wrote for Tuesday’s News Tribune:
Say this for Duluth youngster Vinny Pitoscia: He’s not shy about his expectations for the Minnesota Wild in 2012-13, even after last year’s free-fall.
“They better win every game,” Pitoscia, 10, quipped Monday at the Heritage Sports Center, where the Wild kicked off the Northland leg of their summer caravan.
Pitoscia made his bold declaration moments after getting the autographs of Wild players Nate Prosser and Jason Zucker. He was leaving the Heritage Sports Center after attending a summer camp session led by Duluth East hockey coach Mike Randolph.
And Monday’s caravan couldn’t have come at a better time for Pitoscia, who spent much of the past week tearing up soggy hardwood floors with his 6-year-old brother, Jack, at the family’s Hunters Park home in the wake of last week’s flooding.
Hockey is a way of life for Pitoscia, whose father, Eric, played for Randolph on East’s 1995 state-championship team.
In addition to Prosser and Zucker, two up-and-comers, Wild radio personalities Bob Kurtz and Tom Reid were on hand to sign autographs and discuss the state of the team. The prevailing theme Monday was one of optimism.
The Wild boast a plethora of young talent, with high-profile prospects checkering their system, many of whom are expected to finally make their NHL debuts in 2012-13. Included in that bunch is 20-year-old phenom Mikael Granlund, a flashy forward with a knack for scoring goals.
Asked if he took any grief from fans frustrated by the team’s recent mediocrity, Zucker chuckled. “No, not really,” he said. “Honestly, they’re all looking forward to next season. (General manager) Chuck Fletcher’s done an outstanding job” stockpiling young talent.
While the most popular jersey Monday appeared to be that of Mikko Koivu, at least one young fan was thrilled to get Zucker’s autograph. Tyler Smith, 8, of Duluth said Zucker is his favorite Wild player, in part because Smith was at Xcel Energy Center for one of Zucker’s first games, a shootout win over the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in March. Zucker tallied two assists that night, solidifying Smith’s loyalty in the process.
Smith, who plays hockey in the Congdon Park program, was attending an open skate at Heritage. Before lacing up, though, he took a crack at the Wild-themed chuck-a-puck contest — think bean bag boards, but with fluffy hockey pucks — and produced ringers on two of this three tosses.
About 100 fans attended the hour-long caravan stop. As they waited patiently in line, conversation centered on the team’s chances in the upcoming season. Almost forgotten, it seemed, were the struggles of last winter.
The retooled Wild — with key offseason acquisitions Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi — led the NHL in points in mid-December, but injuries and a punchless offensive attack led to a second-half swoon. They missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
But the addition of Granlund and his highly touted rookie counterparts, along with the expected return to good health of Guillaume Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Koivu, has fans and players alike anticipating a resurgence.
“I think we got a good team,” said Prosser, a 26-year-old defenseman and an Elk River, Minn., native. “We got a lot of young guys and a lot of guys got a lot of experience also, so it looks good. The future looks bright for the Wild, not only next year, but the years following.”