Shallow pool of Minnesota Wild prospects at junior level

By Peter Prohaska

Kurtis Gabriel - Owen Sound Attack

Photo: An energetic and hard-working forward, Kurtis Gabriel has added offense in 2013-14. He is one of two Owen Sound Attack skaters averaging over a point per game this season (courtesy of Terry Wilson/OHL Images)

With the team's largely Québécois scouting staff and its strong ties in and around the state of Minnesota, it makes sense that many of the Wild's junior prospects are found playing in those developmental channels.

Although top pick Matt Dumba could have played another year with Red Deer of the WHL, the players the Minnesota Wild drafted out of the rich pools of British Columbia and Alberta have ended up in U.S. college hockey, leaving western Canada a terra incognita this season. Players going the college route also means that the junior prospects appear less promising for the Wild than they have in past years, since their time of arrival as professionals is several years in the future. The junior prospects form a mixed bag, with all positions, projections, and possibilities present.

OHL

Kurtis Gabriel, RW, Owen Sound Attack
Acquired: 3rd Round (81st Overall), 2013

The Wild has adopted a multi-faceted approach to team building in recent years. The draft has given them exciting young stars in Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba who seem poised to form part of a long-term successful core. Aggressive courting in free agency allowed the team to lock up Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Bold trading with its surplus of prospects allowed the team to accelerate its competitive timeframe when the team acquired Jason Pominville. Raiding other teams' prospect cupboards in trades netted Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter. The signing of young, untested free agents added Jared Spurgeon and Justin Fontaine. All this is just to say that when the Wild does something at the draft that seems inscrutable at first, there may be a logic to it.

This third round pick spent on an overager who did not really jump out in terms of counting numbers had a few observers perplexed. Kurtis Gabriel though offers the kind of character value that teams can put to use in different ways. He is off to a fine start with the OHL's Owen Sound Attack, scoring more than a point per game through his first 19 games. The team's alternate captain is relied on to show the way every shift with his highly-touted energy level. His two-game suspension this season came as he stepped in for a teammate and got a third man in penalty. While Gabriel is far from a natural pugilist, he demonstrates courage in picking his spots and has packed on plenty of muscle in the last two seasons. His skating remains a bit questionable, but the additional strength helps him win battles consistently.

Gabriel may not have the raw skill to play at the NHL level, and any overager's scoring needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but the Wild seems to have made a deliberate decision in his case. Having a player who can play a rugged, playoff style and be counted on for physical engagement is good depth for the AHL team at the very least. Having a player who will put in the necessary work off the ice to fulfill a dream of being a professional hockey player is additional incentive and motivation for every one of the young men in the system to do the same.

QMJHL

Dylan Labbé, D, Shawinigan Cataractes
Acquired: 4th Round (107th Overall) 2013

Fourth round pick Dylan Labbé was a more orthodox type pick. He is a classic left-shooting, puck-moving, mobile defenseman with a projectable frame. That said, Labbé is very much a raw prospect. It should be mentioned again that a player's plus-minus is a weak indicator of his or her talents. Although Labbé again sports a dreadful minus in the double-digits already following a minus-40 last season, the team's leading scorer is also a minus-12 and there is not a single plus player in Shawinigan. No one player can turn around a struggling team, especially in a league where the disparity between teams is often severe. Shawinigan sits in last place in the league by a considerable margin, having been outscored by nearly fifty goals.

Labbé is the leading scorer among defensemen though, with 13 points in 25 games. Often a player learns more through adversity than through coasting on an offensive powerhouse in junior. While Labbé will have plenty of work to do to improve his defensive game, he is still a mainstay for his team in terms of minutes and responsibilities. Shawinigan is worse than expected this season, so perhaps Labbé could see a trade at some point. A better team would give him some additional opportunity to show his talents, but one must make do with the circumstances.

Alexandre Belanger, G, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
Acquired: 7th Round (200th Overall), 2013

The Wild has a decent track record when it comes to identifying goaltending prospects, although the team's depth is rather thin at the moment. Belanger goes against what seems to be a trend of large goaltenders (Pekka Rinne, Ben Bishop, Devan Dubnyk, and Darcy Kuemper, for example), but plays an agile game. Though Belanger was a seventh round pick by the Wild, Rouyn-Noranda selected him in the first round of the QMJHL Entry Draft in 2011, so he is a player with some pedigree.

Belanger's individual statistics thus far are not great. He carries a .872 save percentage and a goals against average of 3.40. These numbers are certainly near the bottom of the league among qualifying goaltenders. Teams do tend to score a lot in the QMJHL, and a middle of the pack team like the Huskies is prone to giveaways. This is not to say that Belanger does not need to improve, but a recent shutout should help his numbers and his confidence. He is already on pace for an improvement over last season. Belanger will get the work he needs to develop, and the numbers will be forgotten with wins that count.

USHL

Avery Peterson, C, Sioux City Musketeers
Acquired: 6th Round (167th Overall), 2013

Peterson is a good sized center out of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. He started pretty slow this season, and outside of a four-point game, Peterson has seemed to struggle a bit. In a sense, he suffered from being too big for high school players to handle, and put up 62 points in 26 games in his junior season. The next level has exposed his skating a bit, and playing on a good team has also limited his minutes, when he was used to many more. All this means that he will have to focus on learning about the details before he starts his college career with Dean Blais at the University of Nebraska-Omaha next season. Presumably Peterson's size and skill are there, but his overall agility needs to catch up with those pre-existing assets.

Louis Nanne, LW, Sioux Falls Stampede
Acquired: 7th Round (188th Overall), 2012

Although the Wild's picking of Nanne in the seventh round is justifiably called nepotistic, that does not mean it is necessarily derogatory of the player. Nanne was a pretty good high school player at Edina, but decided to forego his senior year in favor of the BCHL, just as Mario Lucia did. While Lucia's numbers with Penticton were eye-popping and suggested a player in a league he was too good for, Nanne's were somewhat more pedestrian, but still close to the point-per-game mark. After suffering a shoulder injury, Nanne then made the somewhat shocking announcement that we was de-committing from the University of Minnesota, where he had been scheduled to play in 2013-14. Nanne is still rehabbing his shoulder issue, but he plans to join the Sioux Fall Stampede of the USHL at some point soon. Leaving the Golden Gophers may not spell the end of his collegiate career as a player, but the additional uncertainty of the situation does not encourage. In fact, Nanne may well spend a second year in the USHL before arriving on the college scene eventually.