Detroit – You heard a lot about Taro Hirose after the Michigan State forward signed with the Detroit Red Wings as an undrafted free agent in March.
Hirose used the final month of the season – quickly adapting and contributing – to possibly secure a roster spot for this season.
But for forward Ryan Kuffner, the other undrafted free agent the Wings signed near the end of the season, it was much different.
Kuffner, 23, played 10 games as the Wings’ season wound down, but didn’t register a point, with a minus-4 rating.
The NHL game seemed too fast, and Kuffner, fresh from his Princeton career, was learning on the fly.
Kuffner called the March audition with the Wings “a huge learning experience” and said it gave him a good idea of what he needs to work on this summer.
“Individual skills,” said Kuffner. “You’re playing against bigger guys. You hear that a lot. It’s about spinning out in the corner and working on the stuff that you see on the ice, the in-tight skills that are the difference-maker in the pros, and that so many of those guys do so well.
“I was able to witness it, but it’s just one thing I really have to work on.”
The jump from college hockey to the NHL is gigantic. But leaping into the NHL just days after your college career ended is a monumental task.
Kuffner handled the jump probably as well as could be expected, and will benefit for the experience, said Shawn Horcoff, the Wings’ director of player development.
“It was good for him when he signed to come in and get some NHL games,” Horcoff said. “A lot of these kids that leave college or junior don’t realize how good pro hockey is, especially the NHL. They always seem to take for granted even the AHL level. So anytime they can come in and get a little taste of what it’s like before they go into the summer, they’re at a huge advantage because the majority of them come up and they know what they need to work on.”
There will probably be roster spots available on the Wings among the forwards, but there are plenty of young players battling for those spots.
Prospects such as Michael Rasmussen, Hirose, Filip Zadina, Evgeny Svechnikov and Joe Veleno are all going to be in the mix for Wings’ roster spots, making the fight for jobs that much more intense.
Still, an impressive training camp and exhibition season could go a long way toward Kuffner’s bid to make the opening night roster.
Kuffner is doing everything he can to help himself do that. He’s spending this summer living with 2015 sixth-round draft pick defenseman Patrick Holway, while skating several times a week with the likes of Dylan Larkin, Darren Helm and Luke Glendening.
“Being here, it’s away from home (Ottawa) and it’s a great opportunity of just 24 hours a day, doing everything it takes (to become an NHL player),” Kuffner said. “A big thing for me this summer is just being here, with the guys, doing everything we can to make it a competitive environment, because that will make us better.”
Improving and strengthening his core and lower body is something else Kuffner is concentrating on, after losing too many personal battles in that NHL audition.
“In the corners, the tight spaces, if you can be on the opposite side of the pushing around, that’s massive,” Kuffner said. “Then it just opens up an extra second to make a play, and that’s more than enough time to be able to make a difference.
“It’s strength, especially on the bottom, but working the whole body and just getting as strong as I can.”
Having the summer to entirely concentrate on hockey, with his studies now over, is something Kuffner is relishing.
“Hockey was at the forefront (at Princeton) as long as you got your schoolwork done,” Kuffner said. “Now, it’s pretty much my whole life to dedicating myself to get better because I have the time, with no schoolwork there anymore.
“I have to adjust to the pro game. You have to learn and adapt as quick as possible.”