ST. PAUL, Minn. — Jonas Brodin is only 19 years old and is playing a season outside of his native Sweden for the first time, yet his “Welcome to Minnesota” moment came in the most unusual way possible this week.
Brodin, the Minnesota Wild’s wunderkind defenseman selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, was in Minnesota on Monday after making his NHL debut last Friday in Detroit. He was waiting with teammate Matt Kassian, ready to go to dinner when a stranger stepped into a waiting car with the two of them. Kassian said Brodin was pressed up against his side of the vehicle, unsure of what to expect from the surprise guest.
“We thought maybe he just saw the car and came over to hop in,” Kassian said. “Not some guy (who) just came in to sit next to Brods. . . . I would probably say it was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever had happen to me.”
Imagine how the newcomer Brodin felt.
“I don’t know who it was, but it was crazy,” Brodin said.
Brodin hasn’t had his awkward, uncomfortable moment in the NHL yet. The second of the team’s heralded group of prospects to make his way to the Wild, Brodin has played four games and has looked more like a veteran than what he is — the youngest active defenseman in the NHL.
Minnesota coach Mike Yeo is so comfortable with the young Swede that he paired Brodin with free-agent prize Ryan Suter on the Wild’s top defensive grouping after only two games. Brodin and Suter — who signed a much-heralded 13-year contract last summer — could be matched up for years.
“Quite possibly,” Yeo said. “Certainly we’re projecting down the road for Brods to be that kind of player. At the same time, again, let’s be fair and let’s give him a fair chance. (Tuesday) is only his third game in the NHL, so we are asking a lot of him, but we do think he’s capable of doing it.”
Brodin isn’t exactly new to Minnesota. He has made a couple of trips to the state each summer to participate in the Wild’s prospect camp, but this will be his first extended stay. Minnesota has thought highly of the 6-foot-1, 180-pound defenseman since making him its first of two first-round draft picks in the 2011 draft.
He was an elite defender in his home country, helping Sweden win a gold medal in the 2012 World Junior Championships, and later played on Sweden’s 2012 World Championships team. With Brodin, Sweden earned silver in the 2011 World Juniors. As an 18-year-old, Brodin played for Farjestad’s team in the Swedish Elite League last season, tallying eight assists and a plus-6 rating in 49 games. Last March, in its annual “Future Watch” rankings, The Hockey News rated Brodin the 12th-best prospect in the NHL.
Brodin made the decision to come to North America this season and played in nine games for Minnesota’s affiliate in the American Hockey League, the Houston Aeros. He had two goals and two assists but missed time with a broken clavicle. The injury likely kept him from starting the season with the Wild, but it didn’t take much time to get playing time once he proved he was healthy.
Though 18-year-old Mathew Dumba was kept around Minnesota for the opening week of the season, it was always the suddenly overshadowed Brodin who was likely to get a chance with the Wild this season. Dumba returned to his junior team after not playing a game. Back from his injury, Brodin returned to Houston for one before earning his first call to the Wild.
“It’s a big difference to the NHL,” Brodin said. “You have to be focused all the time, every shift, and if you make a mistake it’s going to be a goal. . . . Of course, I needed that time in Houston. I played nine games. It’s good to learn all the stuff around ice hockey, outside of ice hockey. I’ve been here five months and it’s getting better.”
Accustomed to playing with older players, Brodin appears to belong in the NHL. He has two assists and has an even plus-minus rating through four games.
“Very composed, skilled and he plays beyond his years,” said Wild defenseman Marco Scandella, who was paired with Brodin in Houston. “He’s a great skater and makes heads-up plays.”
Brodin’s new partner agrees.
“He’s just steady,” Suter said. “He’s not a flashy guy. He goes out and makes the right play. He’s very patient with the puck. He’s a good young player.”
Even after his awkward run-in with a stranger, Brodin said he feels at home in Minnesota. The Wild seem set on keeping Brodin around this season, but Minnesota is also dealing with more depth than it has in several years. In this 48-game sprint to the playoffs, with heightened expectations after the arrival of Suter, Zach Parise and another young sensation, Mikael Granlund, the Wild are focused on the playoffs. There is no time for tutoring in this NHL season.
Brodin will need to prove he’s healthy and maintain his level of play over the course of a season.
“What’s going to be important for him is, obviously, you come into the league and there’s always adrenaline and you feel good,” Yeo said. “But how will he handle himself a little bit further down the road when the grind kicks in a little bit more for him, and there’s going to be times where things don’t go well for him when he’s on the ice. How you adjust to that and how you react to that is going to be key.”
If his car run-in is any indication, Brodin should handle it as smoothly as his skating ability.