The Minnesota Duluth men's hockey program has seen a number of high-end players come through its ranks the last three years, with six from last season's Frozen Four team signing NHL contracts in the offseason.
But one name -- that of an undrafted free agent returning for his senior year -- continues to surface year in and year out in conversations with scouts, opposing coaches and those inside Amsoil Arena.
It's senior Karson Kuhlman, the 5-foot-11, 190-pound wing from Esko who will captain the Bulldogs in 2017-18 after serving as assistant captain as a sophomore and junior. He's the player who teammates say never takes a shift off.
He's the first one in Amsoil Arena, the last one out, and his contributions can't be measured by what you read in a box score.
"He always is doing the right things on and off the ice. The coaches see it, the players see it," said fellow senior forward Jared Thomas of Hermantown. "If you watch him play and know the game, you see that he does everything well. Penalty kill, power play, blocked shots, plays well defensively -- he does all the little things you need from a hockey player.
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"Points and goals are obviously part of the game, but there is so much more to the game that some people don't see."
Kuhlman, who played for Dave Esse at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton through his junior year, is the fourth Northland native in five seasons to captain the Bulldogs, following Dominic Toninato and Andy Welinski from Duluth East and two-time captain Adam Krause of Hermantown.
But Kuhlman will be leading a much different team than his predecessors did. It's a young squad that replaced seven seniors and three early NHL signees with 10 freshmen, six of whom are between the ages of 18 and 19.
"I can't really change too much what I do. I still have to go the rink every day -- it's a cliche -- but work hard and hope others follow, lead by example," Kuhlman said. "At the same time, you have to be understanding. They're young and not just in the fact that it's their first year of college. They're 18-, 19-year-old kids. Any time I can grab them outside the rink or after a practice to check up on them, that's going to be a big thing that guys in the past maybe didn't have to do because we've had a lot of experience and a lot of older guys." Ask anyone, and they'll tell you Kuhlman is the perfect player to wear the 'C' this season because of his consistency and work ethic. Coach Scott Sandelin said if he was a young player, he'd mirror his game after Kuhlman.
As would Kuhlman's assistant captain this season, junior wing Parker Mackay, who highlighted his captain's commitment to the program. Kuhlman shows up every day and holds himself accountable first and foremost before everyone else, Mackay said.
"You know what you're going to get from Karson day in and day out," he said. "He's a competitive kid who wears his heart on his sleeve all the time. He's definitely someone I look to follow and try to model my game after."
Kuhlman's consistency is what comes up again and again from those outside the program and inside, especially from Sandelin. It's something the Bulldogs coach said he noticed when he first started recruiting Kuhlman as a Lumberjacks sophomore. He saw it again from Kuhlman in junior hockey and all four years at UMD.
Sandelin credits Kuhlman's upbringing -- his father serves in the Air National Guard -- for that work ethic and consistency. As a coach, Sandelin said he always looks for players with consistency, because it's how you develop trust in a player.
"As a coaching staff we have a lot of respect for how he goes about his business day in and day out. He's just a tremendous kid," Sandelin said. "His work ethic is so consistent. Whether it's on the ice, the classroom, the weight room. Every day he goes out there and really leads by example that way. I always say the best compliment you can give a leader is they are the hardest worker, and he is."
Kuhlman has yet to miss a game at UMD, posting 26 goals and 34 assists in 122 career games. He posted a collegiate-high 22 points last season, but a collegiate-low six goals. Kuhlman scored 12 goals as a sophomore and 26 during his one full season of juniors with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League in 2013-14.
Sandelin said he thinks Kuhlman can score more goals, and hopes he does, but at the same time, doesn't want to see his captain change his game in any way -- even in a season when UMD has to find a way to replace its top six scorers from last year.
Kuhlman feels the same way. He said he wants to be that guy the coaches turn to in every situation and the player that bolsters every line he lands on.
"I'm just going to focus on being the 200-foot guy I always have been and continue being the hardest-working guy on the ice," Kuhlman said. "If pucks go in, great. I just want to contribute and really just lead by example."
This article is written by Matt Wellens from Duluth News Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.