Graduations leave new names atop Minnesota Wild Top 20 update

By Peter Prohaska

Matt Dumba - Minnesota Wild

Photo: Defenseman Matt Dumba takes over the top spot in this edition of the Minnesota Wild Top 20. Dumba opened the 2013-14 season in the NHL, but he is currently skating with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks (courtesy of Brad Rempel/Icon SMI)

Jonas Brodin, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Nino Niederreiter have graduated from prospect status and now appear to be legitimate NHL players, though all still at various early stages of their careers.

These graduations, as well as the losses of Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett and a first round pick in 2013 to trade with Buffalo, have left the Minnesota Wild prospect group a little less impressive than it has been lately. It is a fine balance between the bright promise of youth and the grizzled experience of an NHL veteran, one which each General Manager must tread with caution. The Wild is not without some talent in the pipeline, but the Iowa team has struggled, players have suffered a slew of injuries, and the ranks of available help have thinned. The Wild right now looks like a playoff team, but probably not a true contender in a Western Conference full of bigger, more experienced teams. This means that the making of the Wild is at a critical stage and its weaknesses most likely will need to be addressed in the summer, via free agency or trade.

1. (5) Matt Dumba, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 7th Overall, 2012

Dumba has had a bit of a mixed year for a franchise's top prospect. Starting off the season with a tenuous roster spot on the Wild, Dumba got into 13 NHL games. He showed his ability to jump up into the offensive zone and tried to showcase his effective shot, but he clearly still lacks the strength to deal with most NHL players and needs to continue to hone the instincts to be effective without the puck.

Sporting a pretty full blue line even without Dumba's growing pains, the Wild decided to lend Dumba to Team Canada for the 2014 World Junior Championships. There he served as an alternate captain and was expected to anchor the blue line as well. Dumba's experience in that tournament has to be characterized as less than satisfactory. He managed only a single assist over seven games, and Team Canada again failed to medal.

With the tournament ended, the Wild officially returned Dumba to junior. In a savvy move, the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks had traded for his CHL rights and should benefit from the addition to their blue line. Portland has a very good group of players that ought to see a lot of postseason action, with Dumba hopefully able to play up to the expectations his ability creates.

2. (6) Jason Zucker, LW, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd Round, 59th Overall, 2010

Part of the 2010 cluster now making waves for the Wild at the NHL level, Jason Zucker is also getting closer to the graduation mark. He is still not fully entrenched with the Wild, but he is showing that he can be a good pro in different roles. Zucker has proved to be more of an opportunistic scorer than a distributor or possessor of the puck. He can create problems when he uses his speed on the forecheck but also sometimes seems a little uncertain in his own end. Zucker has decent puck skills, but his strength is in his quick, not necessarily elite, shot. He had one of the highest shot rates in the AHL last season and has found ways to get scoring chances. As Zucker grows in strength and gets more opportunities to play with top talent, he should generate more points.

3. (7) Darcy Kuemper, G, 7.0C
Drafted 6th Round, 161st Overall, 2009

Chuck Fletcher would no doubt have preferred Darcy Kuemper to be having another good season with the Iowa Wild at this point in this season, but with Josh Harding on the shelf with medical issues stemming from his battle with multiple sclerosis, Kuemper has had to learn in a hurry how to be a number one goalie at the NHL level. Having struggled in other NHL appearances, Kuemper was pressed into service with a low ebb of confidence despite excellent numbers in the AHL this year. It is a credit to Wild goalie coach Bob Mason that Kuemper turned it around, and that he is keeping the Wild in the playoff hunt. Though Kuemper still tends to overreact at times, his mostly solid play has given the Wild a chance in every game.

4. (8) Erik Haula, C, 7.0C
Drafted 7th Round, 182nd Overall, 2009

The play of Erik Haula has been a pleasant surprise for Wild fans this year. Presumably called up from the Iowa squad to provide some extra offense in a sheltered role, Haula has instead run with the fourth line center role. The smallish, skilled Finn out of the University of Minnesota is far from an obvious choice to replace guys like the departed Zenon Konopka or veteran Torrey Mitchell, but Coach Mike Yeo has elected to run with Haula's good hands and hockey sense over 20-plus games. Though he has played just over eight minutes a game, Haula has also been a decent penalty killer as he adapts to the pace and physicality of the NHL game and earns the trust of the coaches.

Despite missing a couple months' worth of games during his stints with Minnesota, Haula ranks third on Iowa in scoring and was red-hot while assigned during the Olympic break. With Mikko Koivu likely back from his injury soon, Haula may be out of an NHL job for now, but the coaching staff is surely considering how to keep Haula with Minnesota.

5. (14) Justin Fontaine, RW, 6.5B
Signed as free agent, April 2011

Justin Fontaine led the Houston Aeros in scoring for two seasons so it should not have come as much of a surprise that he was able to stick with the Wild this season. Fontaine brings a lot of creativity to a responsible two-way game, and although his overall size is not an advantage to him, it will not be a surprise to see him graduate from prospect status this season. Fontaine has mostly played with two guys who scored well as juniors before settling into third-line, hard minutes roles as pros in Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. Fontaine's speed and playmaking has generated decent scoring chances in that role in around twelve minutes a night.

6. (9) Zack Phillips, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 28th Overall, 2011

While there still appears to be a player here, Phillips is already looking like a mediocre pick at the position. It is possible that Phillips was somewhat buried last season with players like Granlund, Coyle, Fontaine and Zucker getting more special teams time, but he has hardly improved this season. Long criticized for an ungainly skating style, Phillips has work to do on his mobility. His puck skills and creativity have brought some results this season, but worries will remain about his ability to make the leap to the NHL, especially in a quick skating system like the Wild uses now.

7. (10) Mario Lucia, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th Overall, 2011

It is important to remember that Mario Lucia is not yet old enough to buy a pint of beer in the United States. Almost a full year younger than Zack Phillips, Lucia is coming along nicely in his sophomore year on a strong Notre Dame squad. Already ahead of last year's scoring totals in fewer games played, Lucia has also played more of a leadership role for his team, meaning less favorable zone time and more responsibilities. Stronger and bigger, Lucia is looking like a good pick who brings a good set of offensive skills to an organization in need of them. While he could certainly benefit from another year of collegiate hockey, one looming question is whether he is capable of playing a hard enough game to find success as a pro, and that can hardly be settled if he can physically dominate smaller collegiate players.

8. (11) Johan Gustafsson, G, 7.0C
Drafted 6th Round, 159th Overall, 2010

Gustafsson has benefitted from the circumstances around Darcy Kuemper's call-up to get more starts for the Iowa Wild. While Kuemper had been among the best goaltenders in the American Hockey League this season, Gustafsson is looking like a rookie, but faring reasonably well as the season progresses. The Wild's recent signing of John Curry will take some of the workload and some of the pressure off Gustafsson. The Swede may have had the benefit of some solid defense during his pro career that he lacks this season, but the test will serve his apprenticeship well.

9. (17) Gustav Olofsson, D, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 46th Overall, 2013

Olofsson and his Colorado College team have certainly struggled at times this season, but it is easy to see what the Wild scouts saw in Olofsson at the draft. A player with a solid frame that can probably take some more muscle, Olofsson is already adept at the poke check but does not shy from physical play either. He has good offensive instincts – with both a good accurate shot and a first-pass ability – and they were on display at the World Juniors with Team Sweden. Olofsson is still filling out but he has the look of a very good pick as a freshman, and though the Wild might like to see him playing more, he appears to be an important part of the system already.

10. (13) Brett Bulmer, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 39th Overall, 2010

Through a mixture of bad luck and playing style, Brett Bulmer has had a hard time staying healthy since turning pro. When he is in the lineup, Bulmer brings skating ability, physical strength, and some offense. The Wild organization has shown great faith in him and would clearly like to have a player of his type in the lineup. As much as a player like Stephane Veilleux brings in terms of effort, Bulmer has a bit more upside in all facets of the game. Whether it comes from training, smarter play or better luck, Bulmer will have to find a way to avoid the injuries that are eroding his role with the Wild.

11. (14) Raphaël Bussières, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 46th Overall, 2012

Another one of the rookies on the Iowa Wild, Bussières is finding his way this season. While he has not managed to avoid injury altogether, Bussières is back playing his game. At his best, he combines excellent distribution skills with a tenacious defensive side. He can also look confused by the pace and positional requirements of Coach Kurt Kleinendorst's system. Overall, Bussières is trending fine and using this AHL time to refine a few aspects of his game.

12. (12) Tyler Graovac, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th Round, 191st Overall, 2011

Going from the OHL to the AHL has been a somewhat tough transition for Tyler Graovac. Though he has the size and finishing skill to thrive, his skating is not his strong point and he has struggled at times with coverage at this level. That said, he is part of a rookie group that supplements a mixture of veterans who lack a real elite go-to guy. Graovac has been merely decent, like most of his Iowa teammates, in this learning year. The season is far from lost, but with Graovac and others coming back from injury the time is now to find extra effort and execution. As with Bussieres and others, Graovac is starting to find the timing, which is so key at the higher professional levels.

13. (19) Adam Gilmour, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th Round, 98th Overall, 2012

Although Adam Gilmour has benefited in many ways from being on one of college hockey's strongest teams, the BC freshman has not necessarily had easy assignments. Gilmour has been on a putative fourth line and managed to put up decent points and impress his coaches. Several players in the Wild's prospect group have stepped up into a higher league of competition this season, and really among them Gilmour has adjusted best. Next season will be far more telling as he may be asked to be a primary offensive driver in his sophomore season. A good program can only help this player who appears to be thriving.

14. (16) John Draeger, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 68th Overall, 2012

Faribault native John Draeger missed significant time early this season with a knee injury, but he has picked up where he left off last season since returning. The Michigan State sophomore is a defensive quick study. Whether his total physical gifts combined with that good hockey sense will equal a top four pairing NHL player very much remains to be seen, but he is trending pretty well. If not for the injury, the Wild may have opted for him to leave school early, but another full season of college hockey could hardly hurt Draeger given the minutes he gets and the deep state of the Wild's defensive depth chart.

15. (NR) Dylan Labbé, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th Round, 107th Overall, 2013

Labbé is a hard player to get a read on as his Shawinigan team labors through a tough rebuilding season. Labbé gets a lot of minutes in all situations, which accounts for his rough plus-minus rating. His goaltender Marvin Cupper also sports a save percentage which is sub .900, meaning the team as a whole struggles to keep the puck out of their net. The challenge for a player like Labbé is finding the balance between creating offense and staying honest in his own zone. This is made much more difficult when the team lacks depth. Labbé will no doubt appear a more effective player in a more favorable context.

16. (18) Tyler Cuma, D, 6.5D
Drafted 1st Round, 23rd Overall, 2008

Cuma has slipped on the Iowa depth chart with the free agent signings of Jonathon Blum, Steven Kampfer, Jon Landry and others over the years. Still a solid AHL pro when healthy, Cuma has struggled along with the other Wild players this season to generate offense. The organization obviously still had enough faith in Cuma as a leader and a player to offer him a contract extension, but as a prospect, Cuma may have reached his ceiling.

17. (NR) Daniel Gunnarsson, D, 6.5D
Drafted 5th Round, 128th Overall, 2012

Gunnarsson is an average prospect who has good size and can bring some offense as a power-play specialist. But even in the low-scoring Swedish Hockey League he has yet to blow observers away with a second gear. His numbers could certainly see a bump in the playoffs, as Lulea has just added the enigmatic Linus Omark to bolster its lineup, and Gunnarsson did play well in last year's second season. It would be somewhat of a surprise for the Wild not to extend a training camp invite to Gunnarsson, since his experience and upside would be welcome assets in the organization. However, the likelihood of this player making the leap to North America is probably diminishing.

18. (20) Christoph Bertschy, C/RW, 6.5D
Drafted 6th Round, 158th Overall, 2012

Although he is just 19 years old, this is Christoph Bertschy's third professional season with Bern of the Swiss League. He missed significant time with an ankle sprain this year but he is already looking better than last season when the presence of NHL superstars ate into his minutes and perhaps sapped his confidence. Now former NHL coach Guy Boucher has been brought in to take over the struggling club and perhaps his methods will also help Bertschy find his total potential. This is a young, talented player who has shone on the international stage with Team Switzerland and should not be counted out as a prospect of interest.

19. (NR) Nick Seeler, D, 6.0C
Drafted 5th Round, 131st Overall, 2011

Eden Prairie native Nick Seeler was certainly a high school standout, but this is his first appearance in the Wild Top 20. A sophomore at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Seeler has seen his responsibilities grow as a player, but the results remain middling. A sturdy defenseman who plays an aggressive style, Seeler does have a little bit of finishing ability too. The Wild certainly can be patient with Seeler, who is coming along slowly and steadily as a defensive prospect.

20. (NR) Carson Soucy, D, 6.0C
Drafted 5th Round, 137th Overall, 2013

Carson Soucy debuts in the Top 20 over fellow 2013 draftee Nolan De Jong of the University of Michigan by virtue of his imposing size and his usage under Minnesota-Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin. Soucy has seen more power-play time, and shown some measure of puck skill, but he is still a player with a lot of defensive apprenticeship ahead of him. Soucy is clearly a good all-around athlete, but his freshman struggles look to mean he could benefit from at least two more years in Duluth. With his natural talents, Soucy could potentially be an effective player down the road, but if a player lacks in his ability to process the game defensively, it can be hard to get the necessary remedial work in over the college schedule. With all the college defensive prospects, the Wild has some time to decide.