The road from seventh round draft pick to the National Hockey League can be a long and winding one.
But for Tyler Graovac, picked by the Wild in the final round of the 2011 NHL Draft, the end of that road appears closer and closer.
After a breakout year last season with the Ontario Hockey league's Ottawa 67's and Belleville Bulls, the 6-4, 203-pound Graovac signed his entry-level contract with the Wild in April and appears ready to battle for a spot with the Iowa Wild this fall.
While Graovac's journey to the American Hockey League -- and hopefully the NHL shortly thereafter -- isn't all that uncommon, he was tested along the way, making him someone to pull for as prospect camp dawns next month at Xcel Energy Center and training camp eight weeks after that.
A three-year veteran of the OHL with the 67's, Graovac began his career in Ottawa playing third and fourth line minutes. But a slew of injuries, including a broken jaw, a broken forearm and a bout with mononucleosis, kept him from the ice. It was especially frustrating for a young player trying to improve his draft stock.
"It took a lot of patience," Graovac said. "But I think it helped me a lot. Mentally it was tough, but it just goes to show that I bounce back really quick. I got mentally stronger and physically stronger. I think with professional athletes, it's how well they bounce back from their woes."
And bounce back he did.
Graovac put together a season for the ages this winter, being traded from the downtrodden 67's mid-season to Belleville, where he was able to take part in yet another playoff run with the Bulls. He played 30 games in each locale during the regular season, scoring four more goals with Ottawa but assisting on seven more tallies with Belleville. He was a minus-16 with the struggling 67's but was a plus-23 with the Bulls.
He also scored 22 points in 15 playoff games.
"Over the years, I've really tried making myself a complete player," Graovac said. "Half the battle is trying to stay healthy sometimes. I think with the opportunities I was given this year, I was able to go with it. I gained some confidence this year."
For a player as big and skilled as Graovac, health and confidence have made him a different player. He's always been tall, but was considered a bit thin around this time two years ago. It's one of the reasons why Graovac slipped all the way to the 191st overall pick, several slots below where many projected him.
Finding a talent like Graovac so late in the draft process is a credit to Wild Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr, who spends seemingly endless amounts of time watching players, scouring video and meeting with coaches and scouts — all in hopes of landing a big-timer.
"He's been a good story," Flahr said. "You can see the talent with him. He was a tall skinny kid that really lacked strength. But he had a really good skating stride and skill. His game wasn't fully matured yet.
"But he's worked really hard. Both summers, he's put on weight. The first year after we drafted him he came down with mono, but he came into this last season after making big strides in the summer and everything started coming around for him. He started to realize himself that he was a good player."
For guys like Flahr, reeling in a talent like Graovac in the seventh round is a coup. His strategy is simple: Find someone with flaws but ones that are fixable with good coaching and organizational support.
"You're not getting a perfect player," Flahr said. "When you get to those later rounds, I want our guys thinking about players that have a strong asset that has a chance, whether they're scorers, extremely smart and maybe their skating is underdeveloped. He may be missing something but it's something we can help improve."
For Graovac, he needed time to grow into his body and develop consistency. Finally awarded a top-six role this season, he showed exactly what he could do.
Graovac said playing a variety of roles over the years has also made him a more complete player.
"Two years ago, if you asked me [what weaknesses remain in your game that you work on], my answer would've been completely different," Graovac said. "Two years ago, I was playing third and fourth line and playing a huge defensive role on our team, so my defensive game really improved. Last year, playing as a top center, you need to put up points and numbers, and I was able to improve my offensive touch as well."
All of that means Graovac is poised to make the jump to professional hockey starting in September.
"He's put himself in a position to get into the American League this year," Flahr said. "He looks like he's ready with his speed and his size and everything, but we need to realize too, it's going to be a process for him. It's a big transition, like it is for a lot of players in the American League. There's going to be some ups and downs."
Graovac says he understands that, and is prepared to do whatever is necessary to prove the Wild right for selecting him after 29 other teams passed on him, in St. Paul, at the draft two summers ago.
"Definitely motivation for me the last two years," he said. "I like to look at myself as an underdog, going to tryouts last season for the [Canadian Junior Team], against a bunch of first rounders and top prospects. I didn't make it, but I gained a lot of confidence from that experience."
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