As COVID and injury struck the Minnesota Wild, it forced Bill Guerin to make his first call to Iowa. Only, when the call was made, Guerin called up Jon Lizotte as the replacement defenseman. An odd decision, considering that top prospect Calen Addison was said to be on the shortlist for an injury call-up when final cuts were made after training camp. Lizotte played okay but didn’t help the team in a loss against the Seattle Kraken.
Minnesota immediately rectified the situation and called up Addison for the next game. He jumped in, much as he did in a short stint last year, and had success. He even scored his first career NHL goal against the Ottawa Senators. The goal-scoring shouldn’t come as a surprise. His offensive talents are well-known. He was third among all AHL defensemen in scoring last season, accomplishing the feat as a rookie. Ask Iowa Wild head coach Tim Army what’s different with Addison, and he says, “When he’s on the ice, you have the puck.”
Addison has had a noticeable presence when the Wild have called him up. In Addison’s two games with the Wild, he and Jon Merrill controlled 69.97% and 70% of all the shot attempts on the ice. Considering Merrill has played the rest of the season with a 54% CF, Addison has immediately impacted the Wild lineup in terms of puck possession.
However, Addison continues his growth in Iowa, waiting for his turn to stick in the NHL full-time. Iowa is fourth in the AHL in goals per game. With the talent and firepower the team can sport any given night, it’s not surprising to be at the top of the league in that department. But the points haven’t come in bunches for Addison yet. He only has three assists on the season, but his defensive growth is quite noticeable. Despite shaky goaltending to start the season, Iowa still ranks eighth in the AHL in goals allowed per game.
While in Des Moines, Addison, the only right-shot defenseman on the roster, has been paired with Joe Hicketts. “We tossed around ideas on our pairings,” Army said. “We stuck Ottie (Turner Ottenbreit) with Mermy (Dakota Mermis), who’s a good veteran player to help, and Ottie is growing nicely. We put Lizzo (Lizotte) with [Kevin] Czuczman because they played together in Wilkes-Barre, so we believe that they might have some rhythm.”
Hicketts, a former Detroit Red Wings undrafted signee and six-year pro, has aided in that growth. On Saturday night, Hicketts scored his fourth goal of the season, after scoring the overtime winner against the Rockford Ice Hogs a few nights before. Addison may not have the points to match but hasn’t made that pair any less dynamic.
“They’re very dynamic. I think what they’ve done is they’ve been able to protect when the other is engaged offensively,” Army described. “They read off each other well. Joe is a really good player, and they have similar strengths.”
Army’s group has been able to attack and defend as a five-man group. “We call it ‘five-connected’ in every area of the game,” Army explained. “In the modern game, offensively, the D have to be involved. You have to be able to attack with numbers.” The ‘five-connected’ style is predicated on each position group being on the same page all the way up the ice. From clean zone exits and entries to making plays in the offensive zone, there’s a level of synchronization on the ice that must occur. “You have to have the puck. If you’re going to attack five-connected, you have to have the puck, and when [Addison] is on the ice, we have the puck.”
This idea of working as five-connected has been echoed by Dean Evason at the NHL too. The Minnesota Wild have 42 points by defensemen through 14 games this season, making up 33.8 percent of their offense. Addison pitched in too. During his time with Minnesota, Addison made plays in the offensive zone all night long. Of the six defensemen in the two games, he had the highest individual expected goals with 0.23. He edged out Matt Dumba (0.19) and Jonas Brodin (0.11) in roughly half the time on ice.
The development on the defensive side of the puck has been as on-point as his mustache grooming technique. It was especially apparent during the second period of Saturday’s big 5-0 win over the Milwaukee Admirals. Hicketts fanned on a shot and the puck squirted out to the neutral zone. It was up to Addison to defend the ensuing 2-on-1 break. “Calen played it beautifully,” added Army. The defenseman pressured the puck carrier for the Admirals and forced him to go backward, which allowed the backchecking forward to break up an Admirals scoring chance. “That’s the growth in Calen’s game,” said Army. “He wasn’t quite there eight months ago. He wasn’t quite there that efficiently.”
Addison looked ready to stick in the NHL after two games. The numbers show he was among the best defensemen for Minnesota. But the signings of Jordie Benn and Jon Merrill have created a numbers game on the NHL roster. Add in Addison’s status, and the option to send him down without waivers are the only justification for him being back in Des Moines.
It’d be normal for a young kid to look around the room, watch the film, and think that he’s got what it takes. Those thoughts could fester and begin to affect a young player’s game. Army won’t allow an NHL hangover to happen.
Army likes to get with each player right away when they come back to him. “They’ll meet with Dean [Evason] and Billy [Guerin] when they get reassigned to us,” he said. “When they come back, the conversation we have is, ‘How did it go? What did you think? What are you learning? What do you need to get better at?’” Then he’ll let them know what he thinks and where they’re at in his mind before they get back to action on growing and getting better as a player for the next time.
“They’re all great players with innate abilities that will make them NHL players eventually,” the head coach articulated. “But they also have deficiencies too, and we work with them so maybe next time it’s 10-12 games. They might come back to us and play some more. Maybe the third time they go, they never come back. We just try and continue to enhance what they do extremely well, and work on the areas where they’re deficient.”
For the Wild, they have a player in Addison that came to them as a top prospect via trade. While Addison has the poise and skills to be in the NHL right now, it just might take a couple of trips back and forth before he sticks. As he improves and grows his game, he’ll also be a kid that will only improve the Minnesota Wild once he makes that jump. And when that day comes, no one will be happier than Army. “The best call is when Mike Murray (Director of Hockey Ops and Iowa Wild GM) calls and says, ‘Don’t expect so-and-so back, he’s going to stay.’”