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Faber Fits In

The 21-year-old defenseman is proving that he belongs – and thrives – in the NHL.

Brock Faber makes smart decisions with the puck while playing a stretch of games with 30+ minutes of ice time. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Brock Faber’s play in overtime of the Minnesota Wild’s Dec. 14 victory over Calgary almost certainly has been long forgotten. It didn’t result in a goal, it didn’t come in the offensive zone and, because it was made by Faber, it looked easy.

That play, however, is the exact reason Faber belongs in the conversation for the Calder Trophy as the NHL Rookie of the Year. It’s also the reason why coach Dean Evason and his successor, John Hynes, have not hesitated to use the 21-year-old Faber in any situation.

A refresher on what happened: With Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon out because of injury, Faber was in the midst of logging 2 minutes, 9 seconds of ice time in the 5-minute overtime, when he got caught in a puck battle behind his own net. This is where a mental error by an exhausted defenseman can bring a quick end to the game.

This came in a game where Faber was on the ice for a then-career high 30:08, a total that would have made Ryan Suter blush. But Faber didn’t make a mistake and made the play as if he was a Norris Trophy winner.

Hynes, coaching his eighth game at the time, marveled at what he had seen.

“He’s completely exhausted, but not only (gave) a second effort, he’s got the wherewithal to bump the puck back so we can gain possession and get a line change,” Hynes said. “I think if you look at just that one little component, that’s where we’ve been talking about not just his talent, but his mindset and mental ability to handle the minutes he has and situations he’s in.

The Wild prevailed with a 3-2 win in the shootout and had their latest reminder that a trade they likely didn’t want to make has worked out better than anyone could have expected.

Faber’s rights came to the Wild from the Los Angeles Kings, along with a 2022 first-round pick that was turned into standout left winger Liam Ohgren (Sweden), for the rights to restricted free agent Kevin Fiala on June 29, 2022.

Brock Faber has stepped in as a top defenseman with the void of Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin out with injuries. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

Fiala had established himself as a valuable scorer in three-plus seasons with the Wild — 79 goals, including 21 on the power play, in 215 games — but the salary-cap strapped Wild weren’t going to be able to meet his asking price.

General manager Bill Guerin knew he had to move Fiala, but how was he going to get close to a quality return? Every GM he dealt with knew that Guerin wasn’t dealing from a position of strength.

Faber quickly adapted from college to pro hockey
Faber had been drafted by the Kings in the second round in 2020 before his first season with the Minnesota Gophers. A native of Maple Grove, Minn., Faber was a standout during his three seasons with the Gophers, but he has been nothing short of phenomenal since joining the Wild last spring after the Gophers suffered a shocking overtime loss in the NCAA championship game against Quinnipiac.

Faber signed with the Wild only hours after the defeat, played two regular-season games and was a regular on the blue line in a first-round playoff loss to Dallas. That was no small feat for a guy who had been playing college hockey only a few weeks earlier.

But what Faber has done this season is far more eye-opening – especially with Spurgeon and Brodin having been lost for extended periods. Brodin had been Faber’s defensive partner before suffering an upper body injury on Dec. 8 when he was checked into the boards behind his net by Edmonton’s Evander Kane.

Spurgeon (out with a lower body injury), the Wild’s captain, was lost for the second time this season only two days after Brodin was lost. Hynes put Faber with Spurgeon’s regular defensive partner, Jake Middleton. Faber also was made the quarterback on the top power-play unit. Both have been seamless transitions.

“Being a young defenseman in the league is probably the hardest position to come in and have the responsibilities that he has,” Hynes said. “He’s been really consistent, he’s got the physical ability to play the minutes and style of game that he plays. He’s got the mental maturity to handle it, be consistent in his play and also recognize the situations he’s in in the moments of the game. Those are usually big ones, hard matchups, a lot of minutes. He’s done a really good job. He’s been impressive.”

Faber, like most hockey players, isn’t about to pump his own tires.

“I feel like when I’m clicking, I’m using my feet, making smart decisions and I’m clean on breakouts,” Faber told reporters.

The expectation is that Chicago Blackhawks center Connor Bedard will win the Calder. Bedard, the first pick of the draft last summer, headlines a hot-shot rookie class and led all rookie scorers entering Wednesday with 13 goals and 30 points in 33 games. He’s also a minus-15 in the plus-minus category playing for a bad team.

Faber entered Wednesday’s game against Detroit in a four-way tie for eighth in rookie scoring with two goals and 16 points and was a plus-10. Anyone who watches Faber on a nightly basis knows what a difference-maker he has been for a team that wouldn’t be 11-3, or turned its season around, under Hynes, if it wasn’t for the rookie.

National pundits have started noticing what Faber is doing and the minutes he is playing. He had been on the ice for more than 30 minutes in four of his past six games, entering Wednesday, and was 10th in the NHL in ice time (24:44). This included a season-high 33:25 in a 4-3 overtime win over Montreal on Dec. 21.

Hynes, who coached the New Jersey Devils for four-plus seasons and the Nashville Predators for three-plus seasons, was asked if he could compare a defenseman from his previous stops to Faber.

“Not as a young defensemen, in the way that he’s playing the game now, the role that he’s taken on,” Hynes said. “He doesn’t get sheltered. He plays against top lines, he plays hard minutes, he plays every situation.”

In other words, he’s the type of defenseman who is hard to find. Fiala, meanwhile, is second on a very good Kings team with 30 points (seven goals, 23 assists) in 31 games. The guess here is Guerin wouldn’t reverse the trade if given the opportunity.

Not with Faber looking like a guy who could be in the race for the Norris Trophy for years to come and the Calder Trophy this spring.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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