Wild 2003 draft evaluation

By Dan Aronen

The Minnesota Wild picked a pretty good year to make an improbable run to the Western Conference Finals as an expansion team in 2003. In other years, drafting at No. 20 would not yield as good of a player, but 2003 NHL Entry Draft class featured one of the deepest talent pools in recent memory. All but one player taken in the first round has seen NHL action and many are now among the league’s stars.

The Wild made eight selections in this draft including emerging stars Brent Burns and Patrick O’Sullivan. Also selected by the Wild in 2003 was current prospect Danny Irmen. One player is now out of professional hockey, playing semi-pro in Quebec. The rest are playing professionally in Europe.

Brent Burns, D

1st round, 20th overall – Brampton Battalion, OHL
Status: NHL player
NHL games played: 278

Burns emerged this past season as a star in the NHL. He established franchise records for goals and points by a defenseman (15 and 43), and was also named the top defenseman at the 2008 World Championships. He’s had more than a few big hits, fights, and goals including some dazzling shootout winners. His path to stardom, however, was not exactly orthodox nor direct. He was the fifth of seven defensemen taken in the first round, although at the time it wasn’t clear that he was a defenseman. He had been moved up to wing starting when he was playing for Brampton (OHL), and the Wild played him there as recently as the 2006-07 season. He also went through a tremendous growth spurt in the year before the draft, and often struggled during his first three professional seasons. During his rookie year of 2003-04, he was a frequent healthy scratch, played mostly at wing, and put up only six points and was a -10 in 36 games. 2004-05, the NHL lockout season, he spent in Houston back at defense where he had 11 goals, 16 assists and was a -11 in 73 games.

Coming back to the Wild after the lockout, he was still struggling to put it all together and scored only 16 points and was a -7 in 72 games. It took a while for him to smooth out the mental hiccups that plagued him early on. He finished second on the team the next season in the plus/minus category at +16, to go along with his 7 goals and 18 assists. He started to really come on strong at the end of the season and in the playoffs which carried over to his emergence in 2007-08. Now that he’s gained confidence in his game, he’s become the Wild’s top defenseman who logs a lot of ice time in all situations. He’s got great size at 6’5 and 219 lbs., can skate like the wind, has nifty puck skills, a deadly wrist shot from the point and loves to mix it up physically against anyone. Not surprisingly, he has become one of the most popular players with the Wild fans. He signed a contract extension through 2012 last fall.

Patrick O’Sullivan, C

2nd round, 56th overall – Mississauga Ice Dogs, OHL
Status: NHL player
NHL games played: 126

O’Sullivan is one of the great stories of the 2003 draft. A great offensive talent, he already had received a lot of attention — some for his brilliant career in the OHL and with the U.S. National Junior team, but also for the abusive relationship with his father. Certainly it wasn’t any fault of his own, and the way he dealt with it belied a maturity beyond his years. Yet many hockey observers think it was this baggage that led to him tumbling all the way down to the 56th overall pick, after being ranked in the top 20 by many scouting services. The Wild made what now appears to be the right call by selecting him when he was still available to them late in the second round.

After graduating from the OHL in 2005, O’Sullivan spent the first year of his pro career in the Wild system with the Houston Aeros of the AHL, setting a team record for goals (47) and team rookie records for assists (46) and points (93) in 2005-06. In the summer of 2006, he joined the Kings organization as part of the trade that brought Pavol Demitra to Minnesota. O’Sullivan split time between the Kings and their AHL club, the Manchester Monarchs in 2006-07, which included a playoff run to the third round of the AHL playoffs in which he had 17 points in 16 playoff games.

O’Sullivan has overcome adversity to be in a position to score 22 goals and 31 assists while playing all 82 games for the Kings this past season, a notable achievement indeed.

Danny Irmen, RW

3rd round, 78th overall – Lincoln Stars, USHL
Status: NHL prospect
NHL games played: 0

The Wild traded their third and fourth-round picks in 2003 to move up and select Danny Irmen 78th overall after he had led the Lincoln Stars (USHL) to a Clark Cup trophy. He then went on to star at the University of Minnesota for three seasons, highlighted by a sophomore season in 2004-05 in which he had 43 points in 43 games for the Gophers and an injury-abbreviated junior season in 2005-06 in which he played 30 games and put up an impressive 38 points. He signed with the Wild in the spring of 2006 and joined the Houston Aeros for the end of their regular season and playoff run. He’s played the past two seasons in Houston with 17 goals and 20 assists in 2006-07 and 10 goals and 13 assists in 2007-08. While his offensive numbers are down a bit, his plus/minus got on the right side of the ledger at +5 after going -3 in 2006-07. To be fair, just about everyone had a down year offensively in Houston, but made great strides defensively this past season.

Irmen will be turning 24 later this year. meaning his days as a prospect are numbered. So far he hasn’t been able to translate his gritty garbage goal game that he played in college to the pro level. He could still have a future in the NHL, however, as an agitator/checking line wing as he is solid on the defensive side of the puck, has a great work ethic and likes to get under an opponent’s skin. But still needs to improve his skating and strength to get there. Breaking through in that role with the Wild may prove difficult as there is no shortage of third and fourth line wings currently in the system. It should also be noted that Irmen is a RFA this summer, so it is possible that his future could be with another club.

Marcin Kolusz, C

5th round, 157th overall – Podhale Nowy Targ, Poland
Status: NHL bust
NHL games played: 0

Drafted out of Poland, Kolusz took a shot at the North American game and was picked up by the Vancouver Giants of the WHL for the 2003-04 season. After an unimpressive season in which he had just 18 points in 64 games, he was not invited back for a second season. He has since moved on the play in the Czech Extraliga for Trinec Ocelari HC as well as for the Polish national squad in international competitions. His numbers from the Czech league are just as unimpressive as his WHL stats so it is safe to say the NHL is not in his future. He is, however, regarded as one of the top Polish players.

Miroslav Kopriva, G

6th round, 187th overall – HC Kladno, Czech Republic
Status: NHL bust
NHL games played: 0

Kopriva played the first two seasons after his draft with his hometown team, HC Kladno, in the Czech Republic. Between 2005 and 2007, he made stops with Houston in the AHL, Texas in the ECHL, Austin in the CHL, and even dressed for a couple of Wild games, though he never did see any NHL action.

With the Austin Ice Bats (CHL) in 2005-06 he posted a 12-3-0 record with a 2.33 GAA and .938 save percentage, but he was less impressive when he got the call-ups to Houston (AHL) that season.
The 2006-07 season was a similar story for Kopriva only he was bouncing between Texas (ECHL) and Houston (AHL). He was decent in the ECHL with a 9-1-2 record, but 3.03 GAA and .898 save percentage, and not very good in the AHL. He was reassigned back to Austin to begin the 2007-08 campaign. His return to Austin was less impressive than his previous stint and he ended up leaving the team and going back to Kladno, most likely ending his career in North America.

He did very well in Kladno though with an 8-2-0 record, 1.82 GAA and a .954 save percentage. He also became a minor celebrity in the hockey world with an amusing shootout save celebrations captured for posterity on a popular YouTube video.

Georgi Misharin, D

7th round, 207th overall – Yekaterinburg, Russia
Status: NHL prospect
NHL games played: 0

The Wild took Russian Georgi Misharin, a pesky stay-at-home defenseman, in round 7. He played for the Saginaw Spirit of the OHL in 2003-04 after being drafted by the Wild and had a respectable season with 5 goals and 22 assists in 65 games, leading the Spirit defense in scoring. However, he decided to go back home to Russia to continue his career in the Super League where he has done well on a number of teams, this past season with CSKA Moscow with whom he had 6 goals, 4 assists and was a +6. Other notable achievements include a roster spot with Russia at the 2006 World Championships where he saw some action in a backup role.

While it’s theoretically possible that with more experience Misharin could return to North America to give the NHL a try, it seems unlikely in the near future, especially with the expansion and investment being put into the new Continental Hockey League in Russia. Right now he’s a good player, but probably not quite good enough for the NHL.

Adam Courchaine, C

7th round, 219th overall – Vancouver Giants, WHL
Status: NHL bust
NHL games played: 0

Courchaine is a small center, listed at 5’10 and 175 lbs., who put up consistently solid numbers with Vancouver in the WHL. He signed a minor-league contract with the Aeros in 2005 and played 10 games with no points there in 2005-06, spending most of the season in the ECHL with the Pensacola Ice Pilots, where he did well, putting up 21 goals and 28 assists in 42 games, and the Gwinnett Gladiators, where he had 2 assists in 3 regular-season games and 5 goals and 8 assists in 17 playoff games.

In 2006-07, he took Austria’s Nationalliga (2nd tier) by storm, scoring 44 goals to go with 61 assists for Zell am See. This past season he played in Germany‘s top league for the Duisburg Foxes, where he has continued to thrive with 28 goals and 22 assists in 56 games. Clearly, Courchaine is a talented scorer putting up impressive numbers in one of the better European leagues. While Courchaine is now too old to be considered a prospect, he wouldn’t be the first player to take the long route with a detour through Germany to the NHL. It’s not inconceivable with the numbers he’s putting up, but it would have to be considered a long shot at this point.

Mathieu Melanson, RW

8th round, 251st overall – Chicoutimi Sagueneens, QMJHL
Status: NHL prospect
NHL games played: 0

Melanson had a good junior hockey career, going out a winner of the Memorial Cup in 2006 with the Quebec Remparts. He has spent most of the past two seasons in the ECHL, plus eight games with the Manitoba Moose of the AHL this year. In 2006-07, he briefly attended Dalhousie University before becoming a member of the Stockton Thunder (ECHL), scoring 14 goals with 12 assists in 17 regular season games to go with 3 assists in 3 playoff games. He had a good 2007-08 season playing mostly with the Florida Everblades (ECHL), getting an ECHL All-Star Game nod. He also played two games for the Phoenix Roadrunners.

Jean-Michel Bolduc, D

9th round, 281st overall – Quebec Remparts, QMJHL
Status: NHL bust
NHL games played: 0

Bolduc was a big physical defenseman in the QMJHL, and it was reflected by his 2005-06 season in which he racked up an astonishing 206 penalty minutes in 71 games with the Rimouski Oceanic. After his junior career ended he was on the Texas Wildcatters training camp roster, but didn’t make the team. He has since been bouncing around various semi-pro leagues in Quebec, taking a shot at the Ligue Nord Américaine de Hockey, often referred to by hockey fighting aficionados simply as "the Quebec league." He played this last season with Saguenay in the Ligue Centrale de Hockey, a rough and tumble Senior AAA league, totaling 3 goals, 5 assists and 36 penalty minutes in 14 games.