Wild Top 20 prospects, Spring 2008

By Dan Aronen

With hints of a movement towards youth this summer, the door is open for some names on this list to find their way to the NHL in 2008-09.  Only a handful of regular roster players are signed for next season and superstar Marian Gaborik will be in the last season of his current contract.

Additionally, of the players on this list, the Wild have decisions to make with Shawn Belle, Danny Irmen, Clayton Stoner, Peter Olvecky — all restricted free agents this summer — as well as Ondrej Fiala, Julien Sprunger and Niko Hovinen who will either be signed or their rights lost.

Top 20 at a glance

1. Josh Harding, G, 23
2. Colton Gillies, C, 19
3. Ondrej Fiala, C, 20
4. Benoit Pouliot, LW, 21
5. Cal Clutterbuck, RW, 20
6. Petr Kalus, RW, 20
7. Shawn Belle, D, 23
8. Clayton Stoner, D, 23
9. Danny Irmen, RW, 23
10. Julien Sprunger, RW, 22
11. Anton Khudobin, G, 22
12. Ryan Jones, RW, 23
13. Chris Hickey, C, 19
14. Morten Madsen, C, 21
15. Peter Olvecky, LW, 22
16. Justin Falk, D, 19
17. Paul Albers, D, 22
18. Niko Hovinen, G, 20
19. Harri Ilvonen, D, 19
20. Roman Voloshenko, LW, 22

 

1. Josh Harding, G, 23

2nd round, 38th overall, 2002
 
Harding spent the 2007-08 season with the Wild as Nik Backstrom’s backup, and barring any big roster changes at the goalie position, will report to camp in the same spot. The Wild’s top prospect struggled a bit adjusting to a full-time NHL backup role. He recorded a shutout in his first start of the season and then made 33 saves on 34 shots in his second start. All signs indicated he was picking up where he left off in 2006-07, when he was great in Houston and almost unbeatable playing in spot duty for the Wild. But then the rookie started to look more like a rookie. He had a strong month from mid-December to mid-January where his record was 7-2.  Harding finished with a 2.94 GAA and .908 save percentage in 29 games. It’s a goaltending cliche, but the key for Harding will be to find consistency at the NHL while getting spot duty in the backup role.
 
 

2. Colton Gillies, C, 19

1st round, 16th overall, 2007
 
Colton Gillies is a player in the mold of his uncle, former NHL great Clark Gillies. He’s a big, fast, north-south player who’s yet to meet to hit he didn’t like. He will win a lot of one-on-one battles, and should only get better in that department as his 6’4 frame fills out, though a better scoring touch would really round out his game. He was the Saskatoon Blades (WHL) team captain and MVP this past season, and played for Canada on their gold medal World Junior Championship team. The Wild signed him to a three-year contract at the conclusion of the Blades’ season and then sent him to affiliate Houston Aeros for their playoff run where he turned a few heads with his play, notching a goal and seven assists in 11 regular-season games. At his age, 19, he’ll either go back to Saskatoon or be in St. Paul when the season starts, and as a power forward on a team that is lacking in that area, there’s a decent chance his WHL days are over.
 

3. Ondrej Fiala, C, 20

2nd round, 40th overall, 2006
 
A linemate of Gillies with the Blades this past season, Fiala was Saskatoon’s leading scorer in his final WHL season with 20 goals and 32 assists in 58 games. The Czech is a hard worker with excellent skating, good size and a solid all-around skill set and defensive game as well as a willingness to muck along the walls and battle in front of the net. There are concerns about injuries and discipline, and so those will be things to watch as he begins his pro career. He should get a long look in camp this fall with the Wild.
 

4. Benoit Pouliot, LW, 21

1st round, 4th overall, 2005
 
Pouliot is sliding down the ranking, which is worrisome. But if Pouliot does bust, it won’t be for any lack of talent. He still has the world-class skating, shooting and puckhandling skills that merited his high selection, but red flag words like attitude, commitment, character, work ethic, and team player are often brought up in terms of things he needs to work on. The last few seasons have repeated a similar pattern. He looks good in camp and is one of the last cuts, but then he seems to sulk, and not perform up to expectations, as his last two unimpressive AHL seasons document (36 points in 67 games in 2006-07, 24 points in 46 games in 2007-08). He flashed his skills with the Wild at the end of this past season, including a nice two-goal game vs. Calgary, but it’s going to take a lot more than that for him to make his mark on the NHL. He will be in the last year of his contract this season, which makes now the time for Pouliot to prove he belongs with the Wild.
 

5. Cal Clutterbuck, RW, 20

3rd round, 72nd overall, 2006
 
With a name that seems to fit his game, Clutterbuck is moving up this list quickly. He was called up for a two games with the Wild early in the season because the team was looking for someone hard-working to take the slot.  Call him an energy guy, a pest, or an agitator — his game is not subtle. Whenever you find somebody mixing it up, Clutterbuck is almost sure to be in the middle of it. Hard work is going to be his ticket to the NHL as a mucker and grinder, and he’s also going to need to be a disciplined player and keep his time in the box to a minimum.  This season he had 24 points and 97 penalty minutes in 73 games as a rookie with the Aeros.
 

6. Petr Kalus, RW, 20

2nd round, 39th overall, 2005
 
Expectations were high for the skilled power forward Kalus, acquired last summer in a trade with Boston for Manny Fernandez, however, 2007-08 was one season Kalus would like to be able to hit the reset button on. It started out in pre-season with the Wild where he looked good, but couldn’t seem to bury any of his golden chances. Had he done so, chances are he would have made the squad. Instead he went to Houston where he often found himself in coach Kevin Constantine’s doghouse. His offense never really materialized and he finished with only 18 points In 58 games on the season. Then he was excused by the Aeros to join the Czech national team for the IIHF World Championships, only he didn’t make the team. He still has two seasons on his contract, so he’s got a little bit of time to turn things around, but this clearly wasn’t the season expected from him and he’ll need to bounce back strong.
 

7. Shawn Belle, D, 23

1st round, 30th overall, 2003
 
A former first-round pick of the Blues, and one of the Wild’s top blue line prospects, Belle got a taste of the NHL in 2006-07 for nine games, but with the Wild deep with veteran defensemen and few injuries, he spent the entire past season with the Aeros. A restricted free agent this summer, his future with the Wild is somewhat up in the air, though should he be kept on board he should have a fair opportunity to see some time with the big squad as the Wild blue line is thin going into next season. Keith Carney, Sean Hill and Petteri Nummelin are not expected back next year, and Kurtis Foster has a long road of rehab ahead after breaking his leg. Belle definitely has all of the physical tools to be an NHL defenseman. He’s a very strong skater, athletic, has a heavy shot and weighs in at an imposing 235 pounds, but there are questions about his confidence that have dogged him. He was a healthy scratch in Houston a few times in 2007-08, never fully gaining the trust of Constantine to be an everyday player, and while never a big offensive threat, he registered a career-low three points on the season. It will be interesting to see if the Wild give him one more chance to try and fulfill his promise or cut bait.

8. Clayton Stoner, D, 23

3rd round, 79th overall, 2004
 
Stoner was a teammate of Belle with Tri-City in the WHL and Houston in the AHL. Could they be teammates next season on the Wild in the NHL? The possibility is there because of the job openings on the Wild blue line. Stoner was a solid defender and key player for the defense-oriented Aeros this past season. While he is not the natural athlete that Belle is, Stoner is probably the more NHL-ready of the two. He’s an intense physical player who pays attention to the finer details of playing defense. The one knock on Stoner has been his inability to stay healthy playing the physical game that he does. Like Belle, Stoner is also a restricted free agent, and like Belle he’s at the stage of his career where he should be making the next step, or at least very close, or it may be a much longer route to the big league. 
 

9. Danny Irmen, RW, 23

3rd round, 78th overall, 2003
 
A Minnesota fan favorite from his days with the Golden Gophers, Irmen completed his second full AHL season with the Aeros this year. Like many in Houston this past season, Irmen had a solid season though didn’t really do enough to make himself stand out, and didn’t produce as much offense as was hoped (23 points in 77 games). While he’s not really expected to be a scorer, he will need to show a bit more there in order to distinguish himself. His potential in the NHL is as a hard-working third liner who can chip in with a bit of scoring, however, there is plenty of competition for this role in the Wild system right now and Irmen has slipped behind Clutterbuck.
 

10. Julien Sprunger, RW, 22

4th round, 117th overall, 2003
 
Switzerland is a country on the rise in hockey, and Mark Streit’s success in Montreal has blazed a trail to the NHL for the next wave of Swiss players.  Sprunger has potted three goals and two assists in seven games at this year’s World Championships. This was after a breakout season in the Swiss-A league where he led Fribourg-Gotteron in goals (27) and points (47). A tall forward at 6’4, he has good goal-scoring instincts and timing. There are also questions around his strength and skating, however, should he cross the pond and give the NHL a shot, he is one of the most promising young Swiss players.
 

11. Anton Khudobin, G, 22

7th round, 206th overall, 2004
 
Another former Blades teammate of Gillies, Khudobin is on the small side at 5’10 and 187 pounds, which probably has something to do with why he lasted until the seventh round in 2004. He comes from the Metallurg Magnitogorsk system in Russia and also has a strong track record in international competition in U20 and U18 tournaments. This past season was his first as a North American pro, and it was a great start as he was absolutely dominant in his first ECHL season with a 20-1-1-3 record and 1.99 GAA in 27 games, getting an all-ECHL first-team selection as the league’s top keeper. He also spent a couple of months in the AHL with Houston when Nolan Schaefer went down with an injury, where he was solid in his 12 appearances, including a shutout. One knock on him has been his ability to keep his composure under duress, but Khudobin looks like he’s maturing in that regard and on the right track.
 

12. Ryan Jones, RW, 23

4th round, 111th overall, 2004
 
After a stellar year in which he was a Hobey Baker finalist, Jones led his Miami of Ohio team to the Northeast Regional finals where they lost to eventual national champs, Boston College. Jones then signed a contract with the Wild and played for Houston in their playoff run. Not the quickest guy, he is big, strong and can score garbage goals. He’ll need to prove he can continue to score goals in traffic in front of the net against the next level of defenders to make his way to the NHL.
 

13. Chris Hickey, C, 19

7th, 192nd overall, 2006
 
A multi-sport star in high school, on the ice Hickey is a heady goal-scoring centerman with good puck skills who likes to mix it up in the corners and drive to the front of the net. Hickey is seen as a long-term project for the Wild. After this season in the USHL with Tri-City, where he played well, he will be skating this fall with the Wisconsin Badgers.

14. Morten Madsen, C, 21

4th round, 122nd overall, 2005
 
Denmark, like Switzerland, is another up-and-comer on the international hockey scene. Playmaking center Madsen made the Danish national squad at this year’s IIHF World Championships. After an impressive 2006-07 season with Victoriaville in the QMJHL, where he was one of the league’s leading scorers (100 points in 62 games), and good showing in the Traverse City Prospects Tournament last fall, Madsen had a respectable first season as a pro in Houston. But he fell short of expectations when it came to production, which partially explains his drop in the rankings.
 

15. Peter Olvecky, LW, 22

3rd round, 78th overall, 2004
 
Olvecky was the third leading goal scorer for Houston this past season with 17 in 61 games, and a player who was relied on heavily. He has been a steady AHL player in his three seasons with the Aeros, but has topped out at only about a half a point a game. He’s another of the Wild’s many summer decisions, and if kept in the Wild system, Olvecky will be competing for a limited number of openings with other prospects like Clutterbuck, Irmen, and Jones. However he should get a good look as he has demonstrated that he’s coachable and will work hard consistently.
 

16. Justin Falk, D, 19

4th round, 110th overall, 2007
 
The stay-at-home defenseman Falk is a huge 6’5 and 217 lbs. He’s led the 2008 WHL champion Spokane Chiefs in plus/minus the past two seasons at +11 in 2006-07 and +27 in 2007-08. With his size, he can dominate at the WHL level, but will need to fine-tune his game and work on things like moving his feet better as he has been a bit prone to taking "lazy" penalties, which will become more apparent at higher levels of competition. Playing in the Memorial Cup tournament is next up for Falk.
 

17. Paul Albers, D, 22

Undrafted

Albers has come a long way since going undrafted. He played well enough with the Texas Wildcatters in 2006-07, racking up 43 points in 68 games, to earn a spot with Houston this past season where he had 21 points in 69 games. He will need to continue to improve his game and increase his production at the AHL level as well as improve upon his Aeros-worst -9 plus/minus rating before he can be viewed as potential NHL material. However, good puck-moving defensemen are hard to find, and so Albers will be given an opportunity to develop.
 

18. Niko Hovinen, G, 20

5th round, 132nd overall, 2006
 
Hovinen is a giant netminder, listed at 6’7. He put up respectable numbers (2.74 GAA, .905 save percentage) this past season in the Finnish Jr A league with Jokerit as well as spending some time with their SM-Liiga squad as a backup. One of the players the Wild need to sign by June 1 to keep in their system, he’s definitely a project. He was in prospect camp last summer so there does seem to be some interest in North America, but the question will be whether he’s interested in paying his dues in the ECHL, which would be his most likely starting place in the Wild system, rather than playing in the SM-Liiga back home.
 

19. Harri Ilvonen, D, 19

6th round, 170th overall, 2007
 
Ilvonen was one of the highest-rated Finns in last year’s Entry Draft, though it wasn’t a strong Finnish class last year. He got off to a nice start with a goal in the pre-season Nordic Trophy tournament, but then a broken wrist set him back in October. He put up 12 points in 14 games for Tappara in the Finnish Jr. A league before getting transferred to HPK Hämeenlinna. With HPK, he went up to the SM-Liiga and had two goals and two assists in 11 games, suggesting that the wrist has healed just fine.  He’s got good size at 6’3 and 187 lbs. and plays a smooth game with a cool head and natural athletic talent that suggests the NHL is definitely within his potential. He would be ranked much higher, but as with many Europeans who are not "can’t-miss" prospects, it’s not so much a question of talent and potential as it is time, as he will need to be signed next summer in order to keep him in the Wild organization. Whether he comes over to participate in the Wild’s prospect camp this summer should be a gauge of his interest.
 

20. Roman Voloshenko, LW, 22

2nd round, 42nd overall, 2004
 
After getting cut from the Wild last fall in training camp, Voloshenko decided to play in Russia rather than return to Houston and play in the AHL. He still has a year left on his contract with the Wild, but there’s no reason to expect him back in the Wild system.

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