In today's salary-cap league, NHL teams need to pursue every available avenue to procure and retain good hockey players at reasonable cost. After going out and acquiring Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jason Pominville and Dany Heatley, the Wild has had to bank on some of the longer-shots in its prospect group developing into dependable NHL players who can fill out a top-heavy roster cheaply and effectively.
College hockey is of course a huge part of hockey culture in the state of Minnesota, but the collegiate route also offers a supplemental method for building team depth that may be preferable to the CHL route. For defensemen especially, the NCAA offers an excellent proving ground. A longer timeframe offers adequate opportunity for strength training and growth, while players also have the challenge of playing against older and often more physically ready opposition. In recent years, the Wild's scouting staff has stashed several promising prospects in the NCAA ranks with the hope of adding the next Duncan Keith, Justin Faulk, or Ryan Suter to the organization without the expenditure. Though the timeline may be longer for some players, there is a certain stability to a player's development arc in college hockey that often yields results at the NHL level, both in terms of the player's game and his character.
Europe by contrast has increasingly not been part of the Wild's plans. Never a franchise with much of an eye east of the Baltic Sea, the Wild has only two drafted players developing in Europe at all at this point. While the scouts no doubt will continue duly to monitor European junior leagues, as a matter of economy, to say nothing of regional pride, it makes sense for the organization to focus on keeping tabs on players in and around Minnesota.
Christoph Bertschy, C/RW, SC Bern (NLA)
Drafted 6th Round, 158th Overall, 2012
Young Bertschy's third pro season with Bern was a tough one. He suffered an ankle sprain that cost him a couple of months just when his season was starting to look good after a second pro year in which he struggled to contribute any offense at all. The injury also cost him a chance to represent Switzerland again at the World Juniors, and that team dearly missed his skill and leadership. While he improved his play after returning, Bern ended up missing the playoffs despite having added Guy Boucher as head coach.
The Swiss League, and a wealthy club like Bern in particular, is rather a strange mixture of former NHL players (Byron Ritchie, Rostislav Olesz), international pros (Hnat Domenichelli, Mikko Lehtonen) and Swiss stars (Martin Plüss, Ryan Gardner). It can certainly be a tough place for a young player to get needed developmental ice time. As the league has increased in quality to catch up with Finland and Sweden, a prospect like Bertschy could easily get lost in the professional need to win hockey games.
Bertschy did just sign an extension with Bern for 2014-15, which may signal a level of disinterest from the Wild. Considering Iowa's offensive struggles this season, it may have been in both parties' interest to bring Bertschy over, a possibility which seems foreclosed for at least another season.
Daniel Gunnarsson, D, Lulea (SHL)
Drafted 5th Round, 128th Overall, 2012
Lulea had a rather poor season considering its encouraging playoff run last year. While Gunnarsson is hardly to blame for the troubles, he was not much of a solution either. The big, right-shooting defenseman was second on the team in shots on goal, but only scored three goals, which seems a bit unlucky. The other interpretation of course being that he lacks the accuracy or velocity to beat SHL goalies regularly. Gunnarsson's mobility is probably somewhat short of NHL level as well, so despite his considerable talents it remains hard to see where Gunnarsson fits in for the Wild, which has focussed on its defensive depth almost to a fault.
Adam Gilmour, C, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th Round, 98th Overall, 2012
Adam Gilmour has some very good hockey pedigree in his favor, coming out of the prep powerhouse Noble and Greenough School, then being recruited by Boston College. Although the freshman is limited by his spot on the depth chart, Gilmour has been very productive this season. As a caveat, this Boston College team, led by Johnny Gaudreau (CGY), has outscored its competition two-to-one, so team effects are powerful here. That said Gilmour's accomplishments this year have come as a member of the fourth line and in limited power play time. Even so, four of his goals did come on the power play, and his shot totals indicate a player with a knack for driving offense, even without massive amounts of ice time. If he can continue to add size to his frame over the summer, Gilmour should see some real improvements in his scoring numbers as a sophomore.
Anthony Hamburg, C, Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers (Atlantic Hockey)
Drafted 7th Round, 193rd Overall, 2009
Anthony Hamburg has the distinction of being the first NHL-drafted player to play for RIT. Unlike fellow RIT products Steve Pinizzotto and Chris Tanev, Hamburg probably will not have a career playing hockey after his collegiate years are done. Though he had a decent scoring season for the Omaha Lancers in 2011-12, Hamburg managed just two goals in 22 contests this season. He is a dedicated student-athlete however, whose first college commitment was at Colgate. Hamburg won the USHL Scholar-Athlete Award in 2010 and was an Atlantic Hockey Academic All-American in 2012-13.
Mario Lucia, RW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th Overall, 2011
Wild fans may have a lot of emotional investment in the career of Mario Lucia. With not much in the pipeline in terms of elite scoring talent, Lucia's blend of goal-scorer's sense, size, speed and vision looks like a potential answer down the road. The Wild scouts certainly saw that when they moved up in the draft to pick him in 2011.
The Notre Dame sophomore has been good this year as the coaching staff has asked him, in the words of Head Coach Jeff Jackson, to be more of a "physical presence with the puck." Lucia has always been physically gifted, but reaching the upmost reaches of that ability will require even more hard work. Coach Jackson also called for Lucia to be "physically more engaged." While Lucia has put up very respectable numbers, he will need to continue to bulk up in order to engage with stronger competition. The looming question of whether he can find it in his nature to play a grinding, fully engaged game remains unresolved, despite his considerable upside.
Gustav Olofsson, D, Colorado College Tigers (NCHC)
Drafted 2nd Round, 46th Overall, 2013
Although he is obviously at times a freshman in a tough league, there is plenty to like about Gustav Olofsson's overall game. His long wingspan allows him to make a good pokecheck, but he takes the body well too. Olofsson possesses aggressive offensive instincts and a good hard controlled shot. He can both skate the puck out of his own zone and make a good creative outlet pass if necessary. Though he looks to join the rush often, his positioning is generally quite sound and committed. Olofsson is a left-handed defenseman who plays both sides of the ice and is used sometimes as a roamer on Colorado College's big ice surface in power-play situations and seems like a player who can take a lot of minutes. Playing with Team Sweden at the World Juniors, Olofsson was used in a shutdown role and played very well against some of the best athletes in his age group. He rarely looked overmatched by older, bigger players in college hockey, and will have his chance to prove the same at the pro level sooner rather than later. The Wild signed Olofsson to an entry-level contract on March 24th.
John Draeger, D, Michigan State Spartans (Big Ten)
Drafted 3rd Round, 68th Overall, 2012
The move to the Big Ten conference this season did not make life any easier for a Michigan State group that is steadily improving, but still not quite at its historical levels of excellence. Missing John Draeger for much of the season's first half with a knee injury was unhelpful as well. The sophomore defender is probably not going to drive an offense but he played a lot of important minutes as a freshman and was counted on to do the same this season. Draeger's return helped stabilize the blue line a bit. He is a low-event type defender who manages his points mainly via getting his shot to goal and creating rebounds. Draeger was on pace to exceed last year's numbers if not for his injury. As with the other underclassmen, Draeger needs a bit more weight and muscle on his frame, but he is in a good position to step forward again next season as a leader for his squad.
Nick Seeler, D, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (NCHC)
Drafted 5th Round, 131st Overall, 2011
Seeler has a few tools, but it is still unclear whether he will be able to put it all together. The Nebraska-Omaha sophomore is only six months older than John Draeger and may finally be climbing the depth chart for Coach Dean Blais. His point totals this season are modest and only a slight improvement on his freshman year's numbers but he is ahead of the Wild's other NCAA defense prospects in that regard. Though he was a very proficient playmaker in high school and at the USHL level, Seeler has developed a grittier style in college. While penalty minute totals are not necessarily indicative of playing the game the right way, Seeler probably will need to be a hard checker to stay in the Wild's plans down the road. That will mean for him using his sturdy frame to play aggressive hockey.
Carson Soucy, D, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (NCHC)
Drafted 5th Round, 137th Overall, 2013
Carson Soucy is in a similar position this season as John Draeger was last season: a true freshman asked to take on top competition. Soucy was perhaps a little under-scouted out of Irma, Alberta due first to his participation in the world junior softball championships and second due to a knee injury, but the Bulldogs seem to have gotten lucky. Though by the numbers Soucy's freshman campaign is somewhat milquetoast, it may be due to decreased power play time later in the season. Bulldogs Assistant Coach Jason Herter sees potential for a very good player in Soucy, especially in his willingness to work hard at simplifying his game in areas like zone exits. Herter emphasized Soucy's "short memory" too: learning from mistakes but not dwelling on them. Although Soucy is in excellent shape, with good reach and strength, like a lot of young defenseman, he will need more muscle to take the next steps in his career, one of which will likely be an increased leadership role for the Bulldogs next fall.
Nolan De Jong, D, Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Drafted 7th Round, 197th Overall, 2013
The second youngest player currently in the Wild's system is yet another true freshman at an excellent program. As such, De Jong sits pretty low on the University of Michigan's depth chart. His results thus far this season will not leap out as overly impressive, but there is plenty of reason for optimism. De Jong has quickness and mobility that some of the other prospects may lack at this stage. His five assists have come without much power play time, he is generating some shots on goal on a regular basis, and he has been overall a positive contributor for his team. Take away a tough weekend for the team against Wisconsin in January, and De Jong's overall plus minus is much more impressive too. He is still in the process of putting on weight to fill out his frame, but De Jong is certainly bigger than he was in the fall. All in all, this has been a fine season for the British Columbian freshman. While there might not be much to be excited about, it has been a steady and encouraging development season.
Stephen Michalek, G, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Drafted 6th Round, 161st Overall, 2011
It has been a somewhat rocky road for Michalek since matriculation. He took an unexpected backseat to Raphael Girard in his freshman season, and then had to go spend a year with Cedar Rapids of the USHL while the details of an academic scandal were sorted. Neither year was probably all that pleasant for the Connecticut product who carried his prep team on his shoulders, but Michalek is back between the pipes for the Crimson and acquitting himself pretty well. In fact, observers could have taken from his February record that Michalek finally put things together at this level. The Yale Bulldogs just seemed to have his number though, and the defending champions chased him last weekend in troubling fashion. His save percentage is a solid .924 on the season nonetheless, a vast improvement over both his freshman year metric and his USHL number, and a tick better than that of Girard, whose impending graduation should clear the crease for Michalek to prove all doubters wrong next season.