As the Minnesota Wild goes through periods of unforeseeable injury and head-smacking offensive inability, several burgeoning talents from the Iowa squad have stepped up into NHL roles.
This has left the minor-league team in a familiar position for Wild fans generally: struggling to score. Justin Fontaine, especially, is missed on an Iowa squad that sits near the bottom of the league standings. Offensive leaders Jason Zucker, Erik Haula, and Brett Bulmer have also spent some time with the NHL team. It is on some of the younger forwards to step up and provide some of the missing offense for Iowa. The Wild currently do not have one player in the top 100 AHL scorers.
The defensive side of the ledger has not been much better, save for mostly solid goaltending from the tandem of Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson. The team has been outshot, often out battled, and has a deficit to overcome in the standings. Most damning perhaps is the team's one-win record when trailing after two periods. Coming from behind to win demonstrates character, skill and effort: the traits most valued in the Wild organization. The team should be better in the second half, as its shooting percentage improves and the younger players build on their experience to help their goaltenders out a little.
Iowa Wild / AHL
Johan Gustafsson, G, 21
Gustafsson came out strong to start his rookie year, his first season in North America, but has faltered since, fully yielding the starter's role to Darcy Kuemper. With a sub .900 save percentage and just over three goals surrendered per game, Gustafsson has clearly struggled with the offensive tempo of the AHL compared to the Swedish Hockey League in which he excelled. As noted, though, the team is collectively giving up more than 30 shots per game, asking a lot of a rookie, or any other, goaltender.
Recently reassigned to Iowa, Gustafsson is another prospect that has been on recall to the NHL while Josh Harding deals with some medical issues. He has not yet made his NHL debut, and it would not have been prudent to read too much into his performance there. Gustafsson is a solid goaltending prospect, but nothing prepares an athlete for the rigors of the best league like repetitions and experience. Gustafsson is at an early stage in his development, and he needs more of both now that he is back in the AHL.
Darcy Kuemper, G, 23
Darcy Kuemper's play has been a bright spot for the Iowa Wild this season. His .929 save percentage is currently best in the league, though he has been solidly top ten all season in that metric. Though he will get picked on for a slightly high goals against average (2.47), Kuemper has been doing his part in trying to win some hockey games. More than once this season already, Kuemper has had to make more than 20 saves in the first period of a game. The season has been a trial for the former Red Deer standout, but no doubt Kuemper relishes the challenge. Having the pressure of a successful and highly-regarded backup in Gustafsson seems to have brought out even an increased measure of confidence in Kuemper. His most recent game, a 44-save shutout of Hamilton, offers evidence.
The unfortunate trend with Kuemper has been his inability to perform when called upon by the NHL squad. He was shelled in both games he played this year after looking very shaky in his unexpected playoff appearance last season. With Josh Harding battling through the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and Nicklas Backstrom fading away, Kuemper needs to demonstrate to the Wild brass that he is capable of stepping into a backup role at the very least. Gustafsson was the most recent call-up while Kuemper gave the Iowa squad a better chance to win. Kuemper just needs to bring the same fearless play to his next NHL opportunity that he has evinced in Iowa.
Brett Bulmer, LW, 21
Bulmer was injured for long portions of last season and never really got himself going. This was a very disappointing development given that he stuck with the Wild in the fall of 2011. His nine-game pro stint made the Wild's decision to send him back to junior difficult, but his subsequent time back in Kelowna excelling, in Houston last season struggling, and with Iowa this season finding his range have collectively shown the wisdom of patient development.
Bulmer is the current goal-scoring leader (9) for woeful Iowa this season, and among the leaders in shots on goal (66) as well. He is an aggressive player who wins puck battles, but importantly he has learned how to do so without taking penalties. His point totals are modest, but Bulmer has already proven to be a useful player. He was called up December 12th to the NHL and seemed to be effective in his role there before he was returned to Iowa. It is not a bad spot for a player of his skill set to be, and he can be more productive in the AHL right now than he can be at the NHL level.
Jason Zucker, LW, 21
Zucker's performance at Minnesota's training camp this fall earned him some public criticism from head coach Mike Yeo. The suggestion was that Zucker had come in expecting an NHL job and did not play as intensely or as effectively as he could have done. Zucker has therefore split time between Des Moines and St. Paul this season. He has been one of the better players for Iowa, as expected. Zucker has scored eight goals and 13 points in 22 games, and generates a lot of chances for his team while on the ice. He has also played with a newfound physical edge.
Zucker has certainly crossed the line with some aggressive play, and served suspension for it, but as a smaller player, he will have to impose himself occasionally. As the season continues, the players in Iowa have to salvage what they can and move forward with some wins. Zucker is a huge part of that despite his age. He needs to lead not just with his dynamic offensive game, but with a total commitment to being a top professional.
Erik Haula, C/LW, 22
Haula has played 10 games with the Minnesota Wild, but has nonetheless been one of the better players for Iowa during his time there this season. A plus player on a team that is collectively a significant negative in goal differential, Haula has made a smooth transition out of college hockey to the pros.
Haula is quite elusive, creative with the puck, and possessing excellent vision and anticipation. Though he did not seem comfortable with the checking and defensive ability of the NHL regular, Haula acquitted himself reasonably well in somewhat sheltered circumstances. Mikael Granlund's return sent Haula back to Iowa. A tough task for a rookie to lead the AHL squad, but the Finn has beaten the odds regularly in his career so far.
Raphael Bussieres, LW, 20
Bussieres is a player that the Wild need to develop well. He was an effective agitator with decent offense in the QMJHL, but for a second round pick, he never did put up the kind of gaudy numbers one likes to see from a playmaking wing in junior. If the plan for Bussieres is to ease into Matt Cooke's spot one day, it would be great to see some more productivity at the AHL level. Bussieres probably lacks the top-end skill for an NHL top-six forward, but is an intriguing prospect nonetheless.
Although Bussieres is not relied upon yet to provide offense, the rookie has shown a propensity for taking somewhat needless penalties. While the nebulous concept of grit is often applied to this young man, it is a quality that is better cultivated in the form of puck possession, takeaways, and strong defense. In a season that has been very trying for veterans and rookies alike, it needs to be remembered that an education is also taking place. Bussieres looks raw thus far, but not out of his element.
Kristopher Foucault, LW, 23
Foucault has developed into a fairly dependable player at the pro level. He is still streaky and has limited value beyond his offense, but he has already beaten the odds for his draft position and junior resume. After dealing with a knee injury most of last season, Foucault is picking up his pace. He is unlikely to one day figure it all out, and it is average skating that holds him back some, but he is actually a bright spot for Iowa's struggling team. With his good size and physicality, and some puck skill to boot, Foucault is a good option for Iowa, but somewhat buried with the Wild's overall left wing depth.
Zack Phillips, C, 21
It would be foolish to close the book on the 2011 first round pick at this point, but the Wild's decision-makers have to be somewhat discomfited at Zack Phillips's apparent lack of progress. Like many players who had success as playmakers in junior, Phillips is having to unlearn certain habits at the AHL level. Passes that once found teammates for tap-ins are unavailable against professional players. His skating, which was a draft day issue, needs to improve even more. He has however been shooting more this season than last, which is a positive sign that he is finding ways to get into open space and improve his release. Though his counting numbers show a slow start, points are coming for Phillips and he now has 14 points in 29 games. That said, even with the gains in his confidence and leadership this season, Phillips is one of several Wild players who needs to have a big second half.
Tyler Graovac, C/RW, 20
Graovac is another player who had some lofty expectations attached to him to start the season. After some bad luck with injuries during his early OHL days, Graovac came on in a big way last year, benefitting some from good teammates like Sean Monahan (CGY) and Brendan Gaunce (VAN) toward the end of his junior career, but certainly playing strong hockey. It is always worth remembering what a tough league the AHL really is and looking for some bright spots as young players learn the trade. Graovac had a two-point assist night most recently, putting five shots on goal. These are all signs that Graovac might put it together this year.
Because of his late round draft pick status, and his relatively slow start in junior, Graovac might not have the kind of attention in the organization as other players do. He has a lot of skill though, and once he adds the necessary strength, his big frame will be hard for defenders to deal with. A player with good character and skill like Graovac possesses certainly has a role to play if he can continue on his current good course.
Tyler Cuma, D, 23
Cuma has not played a game since December 4th, but has mostly been his usual reliable self for the Iowa team this season. Defensemen in hockey take a lot of physical abuse, and Cuma is no exception. The durability question will continue to dog this player, fairly or not, until he can put together a record of healthy consistency. Actually one of the youngest blueliners for Iowa this season, his new contract is a positive sign that the Wild organization believes he can put together a good season. Cuma is capable of providing competent play, defensively responsible with some ability to move the puck. Although he is behind Jonathon Blum and Steven Kampfer (at least) on the AHL chart right now, Cuma remains in the mix.
Kyle Medvec, D, 25
The Wild took its time with Kyle Medvec post-draft, letting the big bodied defender fully develop over four years at the University of Vermont. He has shown a decent measure of both physical ability and offensive ability since turning pro three years ago, but has fallen off drastically this season. Medvec's one assist in October currently stands as his only point of the season. While the team has had its struggles, it is somewhat hard not to lump Medvec's performance in with the underachievers.
Josh Caron, RW, 22
The pugilist has yet to contribute on the score sheet for Iowa in seven games this season. Caron has only played a few games for the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL as well as he bounces between leagues. Caron had yet to even fight this season until he tussled with tough customer Stefan Fournier of Hamilton in December. Caron's taking some shifts at defense over the years shows that he is willing to adapt his game as the role of the designated fighter diminishes in pro hockey.
Orlando Solar Bears / ECHL
Colton Jobke, D, 21
It is unclear where Jobke fits into the Wild's plans at this point, but the tough-minded defenseman out of British Columbia has been playing pretty well down in Florida. Although Jobke does have some offensive ability, he is more of a utility player for the Solar Bears. Still slight for a pro blueliner at 180 pounds, it seems that he will have to figure out how to put up some numbers to catch the attention of Wild management. With players like Jon Landry and Corbin Baldwin holding down the back end in Iowa, Jobke has been in tough this season to get into the AHL. With Jon Blum earning a call-up to Minnesota, Jobke will join Iowa and have his first shot at the AHL in 2013-14.
He could reasonably be expected to step in as a stopgap, but the lack of an opportunity to do so thus far is obviously not an encouraging sign for him.
Minnesota Wild / NHL
Top prospects Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, and Matt Dumba (who at 19 years old is not AHL eligible) are members of the Wild professional prospect pool outside of the minor-league discussion. Coyle already surpassed the 65-game mark and graduated to the NHL lineup by Hockey’s Future’s standards, while Granlund, who recently returned to the Minnesota lineup, is close behind him. Matt Dumba, the Wild’s seventh overall pick in 2012, stuck with the Wild to begin the 2013-14 season. Currently on loan to Team Canada for the 2014 World Junior Championships, Dumba is too young to play in the AHL and will either return to the Wild or have to be assigned to the WHL.