Wild 2008 system audit

By Phil Laugher

Despite the team’s top two prospects from the start of last season graduating to the NHL, and two other highly touted former prospects leaving the minor-league system in the past several months, the Wild organization continues to supply prospects to the big club. Three of the club’s top prospects started the year with Minnesota this season.

Former first-round draft picks James Sheppard and Josh Harding made breakthroughs with the Wild at the start of last season, leaving an apparent void of NHL-ready prospects in the Minnesota system. What was left at the start of last season was a group with respectable potential, but a myriad of issues that had to be smoothed out before the next wave of prospects cracked the lineup in St. Paul. Forwards Benoit Pouliot and Cal Clutterbuck were on the cusp of the NHL last season, and have improved their all-around game in the past 12 months. Both have been getting much longer looks with the big club at the start of the 2008-09 season. Former first-rounder Colton Gillies joined them on the starting roster for the Wild this season. The progression of this trio has gone a long way toward washing away any sour taste left from the Roman Voloshenko fiasco.

Left Wing

Pouliot and Voloshenko had long been the offensive jewels in the cap of the Minnesota forward prospect corps. Both wingers brought excellent offensive ability to the table, but both faced deficiencies in their games. Pouliot matched his excellent offensive ability with game-breaking speed, but had a hard time adapting to the professional ranks. There were also concerns about his attitude. Perhaps Minnesota should have been more concerned with Voloshenko’s attitude, as the former 33-goal scorer bolted to Europe after being demoted late in last year’s training camp. He is no longer in the organization.

Pouliot, however, has taken a bit of a step forward in the past 12 months. After struggling in the first half of his first professional season, he began to put his game together in the second half, as he started to adapt to Houston coach Kevin Constantine’s focus on defense. Learning that he has to play at both ends of the ice, Pouliot earned himself a late-season call-up in which he put up three points, and also saw time in the NHL playoffs for the Wild. Pouliot was given ample opportunity to earn a top-six roster spot with the Wild for the start of the 2008-09 regular season, and has appeared in all of the Wild’s games thus far this season, posting two goals and one assist. In the final year of his entry-level contract, he will look to make a statement with the Wild. He has tremendous upside, but a long-term stint in the organization will be incumbent upon him continuing to improve his all-around game.

After Pouliot in regards to potential offensive impact is Ryan Hamilton, a former undrafted free agent signing, who had a breakout year with Houston last year, posting 20 goals and finishing second on the team in scoring. Coupled with his solid offensive ability is a willingness to use his impressive size effectively. He has struggled with his skating at the professional level, and will have to improve that aspect of his game before the Wild give his skill and tenacity a look at the top level. Still, he is a late bloomer who will be given time to improve. Joining Hamilton in Houston is Slovakian winger Peter Olvecky, who began his fourth professional season with the Aeros this season. He has posted modest, consistent numbers in his three previous seasons with Houston, but has had a fast start to the year this season, with six points in seven games. Like Hamilton, he brings a gritty edge to the rink. If he can continue his strong start, Olvecky may see a call-up to the Wild at some point in the season. Also playing on the left flank for Houston is hulking forward Matt Kassian. He is pointless thus far in his AHL career, but it is his ornery physical game, as opposed to his colleagues’ slick offensive ability, that will be the driving force behind his professional career.

Playing over in Europe is Minnesota’s 2008 fifth-round draft pick Eero Elo. He also boasts good size and drive to the net, but also has a decent offensive upside. Still quite a project, it will probably be a while before the Finnish winger shows up in North America. Meanwhile, playing in the ECHL is hulking Riley Emmerson. Drafted as a defenseman, the 6’8 banger was converted to the wing with Texas. With little skating ability and only five goals since he played midget, his offensive game is nearly non-existent, and he is a long shot at best at present.

Center

The void created by the graduation of Sheppard late in the 2007-08 regular season was filled by former first-round draft pick Colton Gillies, who is currently deemed by Hockey’s Future to be the top prospect in the Wild organization. While he won’t be able to solely make up for the goal-scoring gap likely to be created by the rumored forthcoming departure of Marian Gaborik, he should be able to hold his own in the offensive zone, bringing a crash-and-bang style of play, coupled with responsible play in his own end. One of the better young power forwards to emerge in the past couple of seasons, Gillies creates space and on the fore check and is also a responsible player in his own end. A natural leader, Gillies could very well be the face of the franchise a few years down the line.
 
Another pivot who could be in line for the Wild in the near future is Danish import Morten Madsen. Madsen came out of nowhere to impress in the QMJHL with Victoriaville, before making the jump to the AHL for the 2007-08 season. While Madsen experienced some growing pains in his rookie campaign, the influx of a few veterans to the Houston roster will help alleviate the pressure placed on his young shoulders, allowing him to hone his all-around game this season. He burst out to a quick start in his sophomore season, having already matched his goal total from last year before the end of October. If he is to move up the depth chart with Houston (and thus, in the Wild organization), he will have to hearken back to the strong, responsible two-way play that he displayed in junior. He has great size, and excellent stickhandling ability; he just has to bring a more consistent effort to the rink this season.
 
After Madsen, the remaining three center prospects in the organization will have a longer road to the NHL. Chris Hickey and Cody Almond are still playing in college and junior hockey respectably. Hickey has just begun his playing career with the Wisconsin Badgers, while Almond is playing in his fourth season with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. Hickey posted modest numbers in the USHL last season with Tri-City, and will play in one of the most renowned college programs in the nation for the foreseeable future. Like Gillies and Madsen, and prototypical of most Wild forwards, Hickey displays great awareness at both ends of the ice, and has the makings of a checking line forward. Almond, too, has good two-way ability, but relies mostly on his physical game (which has given him the label of being rather undisciplined in recent seasons with Kelowna). His energy and enthusiasm will be welcome with the Wild, but he will have to learn where to pick his spots.
 
Swiss centerman Julian Walker was selected by the Wild in 2004, but has spent the duration playing for Basel in the Swiss league. While he, too, has good size and a gritty game, his offensive game is non-existent, and there is little evidence that he will leave the confines of the Swiss league any time soon.
 

Right Wing

 
Of the four right wing prospects in the Wild organization, one is currently seeing a regular shift with the Minnesota squad, and it was anticipated that by now, another would be as well. Yet, that does not appear to be happening any time soon.
 
Cal Clutterbuck, a rambunctious, gritty winger, has already suited up for several games with the Wild after only one professional season. Bringing a crash-and-bang, lead-by-example style to the ice, he is already beginning to develop a reputation as being one of the better pests in the game. And it’s a good thing, too, for his offensive game is not great. An energy-line lifer, Clutterbuck gets by with his tireless work ethic and his physical play, and will be a welcome fixture as a depth forward for the Wild for the next few seasons.
 
Petr Kalus appears to be the antithesis of Clutterbuck at this point. Kalus is an excellent offensive weapon, with great finishing ability and a physical tinge; he just could not seem to put it together in the Wild organization. The former second-round draft pick was acquired from the Boston Bruins in the Manny Fernandez trade, and found himself at the mercy of Constantine for his lackadaisical work ethic and unwillingness to buy into the team concept Constantine tried to instill with Houston last season. It was hoped that Kalus would be humbled and enter camp with a clear mindset, however things only got worse, as Kalus left the team to return to Europe after having only played two games for Houston. He has played in the NHL with Boston prior to the trade, and may do so again, but perhaps not with Minnesota (if they cannot work out their differences). Regardless, he is still under contract with the Wild through the end of the 2009-10 season.
 
After Kalus’ departure, there is still one right winger playing in Houston. Danny Irmen is in his third professional season, all with the Aeros. His attitude is a complete reversal from Kalus, and he plays a gritty game, but has had difficulty finding his niche at the professional level. He is in the final year of his contract, and will have to take the next step forward if he is to see time in the Wild organization beyond the end of the 2008-09 season.
 
The final winger in the Wild system, Carson McMillan, is playing in his fourth season with the Calgary Hitmen. He, too, plays a gritty, hard-working game – like many of his fellow prospects in the Wild organization – and has been more a depth player in previous seasons. With an increased role in Calgary this season, the Wild will be able to see this season if he can be counted on for more than occasional flashes of offensive ability in the future.

A happy, productive Kalus would make the situation on the right flank much more positive. With his status for the final years of his contract up in the air, as well as question marks among the other two right wingers in the organization, it is entirely feasible that Clutterbuck may be the only right wing prospect among the current group to see time with the Wild in the foreseeable future.
 

Defense

  
Despite their dedication to the defensive aspects of the game under Jacques Lemaire and Doug Risebrough, only two junior-aged players drafted by the Minnesota have suited up in the NHL during the nine-year history of the Wild. And of those two, one – Brent Burns – was drafted as a banging winger, and was only converted to a stalwart defenseman after having debuted in the professional ranks. The Wild have hoped to address this problem in the past two drafts, having used five of their previous nine draft selections on defensemen, restocking the cupboards with a cadre of steady, safe defensive prospects.

The brightest defensive prospect in the organization is Ottawa 67s blue-liner Tyler Cuma, who was Minnesota’s first-round selection in the 2008 Entry Draft. The Wild were tickled to be able to grab Cuma that late in the round, and expect him to be a valuable contributor in the organization, likely as early as next season. He is a stalwart shutdown defenseman who also has solid offensive instincts (having spent some time as a centerman in his younger years). Accompanying this solid two-way play is a willingness to mix it up physically, strong skating ability, and an excellent work ethic. Cuma will be playing big minutes for the 67s this season, and given his leadership ability, is in the running for a roster spot on Canada’s World Junior championship team. A short stint in Houston is likely in the offing for Cuma next season, but if he continues on this path, he is probably the most likely non-NHL prospect in the organization to make it to the big show.

Another 2008 draft selection with similar intangibles, but further away from the big show is Val d’Or Foreurs defenseman Marco Scandella. Scandella was quietly a solid contributor in the QMJHL last season, bringing a safe, stay-at-home game to the table. He has respectable size, but excellent positioning in his own end, making him a key shutdown defenseman, seeing action against the league’s top lines even as an 18-year-old. Like Cuma, he also is willing to play a physical game, and also has shown spurts of offensive ability. He will chip in some points; just don’t expect gaudy numbers. He is a bit of a late bloomer, and will likely require at least one season in Houston before he is ready for any extended stints with the Wild.

Four Wild defensive prospects are currently suiting up for the Aeros in the AHL. The longest serving of the four is Clayton Stoner, a former 2004 third round pick. He plays a fearless, aggressive game, but that has also been his downfall in the professional ranks. Currently in his fourth professional season, he has seen his fair share of injuries, and could certainly use a full season under his belt. Another stay-at-homer who plays with by-any-means-necessary enthusiasm in his own end, his leadership is invaluable, but for someone who plays a risky game, his seeming fragility is of concern for the future.

Maxim Noreau is also playing for Houston, having been signed as a free agent after his junior career. An offensive defenseman with Victoriaville in the QMJHL, he has also begun to hone his play in his own end after buying into Kevin Constantine’s defense-first plan. Noreau is joined by another offensive-minded undrafted blue-liner in Paul Albers. Albers is a good puck-moving defenseman, but his defensive game has been slower to come around than Noreau’s. Coupled with mediocre skating ability, Albers is a much longer shot to make it to the NHL. Also playing for the Aeros is newly-signed Justin Falk, who spent last season with the Memorial Cup-winning Spokane Chiefs. Falk, a former 2007 draft pick, is a rangy stay-at-homer who uses his size more for positioning rather than aggression.

Three Wild prospects are currently playing in the NCAA, with Anthony Aiello being the longest serving among them. Aiello is a senior at Boston College. One of many veterans on the BC blue line, he has been able to work on his all-around game without having to carry the defense on his back. He has great offensive upside, but has only posted modest numbers. He is a pretty safe prospect, but has to take the next step to make an impression when he turns pro. Also playing in Hockey East is Kyle Medvec, a sophomore with the University of Vermont. Medvec brings excellent size and a respectable physical game to the table. Still lanky, he still has plenty of filling out to do. He has the potential to be a mean shutdown blue-liner once his college days are done, but he will have to improve his all-around game to make the next step. Also playing college hockey is freshman Sean Lorenz. Drafted in the fourth round of this past year’s draft, Lorenz joined the Notre Dame program this year. One of three freshmen on the roster, Lorenz will have to establish himself early to ensure plenty of playing time. The product of the U.S. under-18 program is another solid stay-at-homer, but unlike many of the others in the organization, he only has average size.

Rounding out the Wild defensive corps is Harri Ilvonen, who was selected in the sixth round in 2007. He has seen spot duty as a depth defenseman with the Tampere organization in Finland’s SM-liiga, playing a good two-way game, but has seen most of his playing time in the lower levels in the past couple years. He is calm and cool in his own end, and has a good lead pass.
While he seems quite happy to be playing at home in Finland, he has also shown that he is at least moderately interested in playing in North America, having participated in the Wild developmental camp in the off-season. The Wild will have to try to sign him this year.

The Wild are deep on the point, with a healthy mix of stay-at-homers, solid two-way players, as well as a gritty physical tinge. While they do not have any NHL-ready defensemen in the system at present, there are several long-term projects among their defensive prospect corps. Surely with the likes of Cuma and Scandella developing, the number of drafted defensemen will rise in the coming years.

Goaltenders

The situation between the pipes is of the least concern at present for the Wild. With veteran Niklas Backstrom, and former top-ranked prospect Josh Harding, Minnesota should have a solid tandem this season, and Harding sitting as the goaltender of the future within the organization. Should Harding falter, there are veteran options available in Houston. However, no Wild goaltending prospects are playing above the ECHL level. That does not mean that top goaltending prospect Anton Khudobin is a long shot within the organization. Far from it. Khudobin put together a stellar 2007-08 regular season with the Texas Wildcatters. He was named the top goalie in the ECHL last season, posting gaudy numbers as the primary goaltender for Texas; losing only one game in 27 appearances. He was assigned to the Florida Everblades at the end of Houston’s training camp, where he will play alongside fellow Wild prospect Riley Emmerson, and former Wild first-round draft pick (who went unsigned) A.J. Thelen. Should Khudobin have a year approaching that of the 2007-08 campaign, it will serve notice that he will be in the running for at least a regular position in Houston at some point in the season, and closer to an eventual spot as Harding’s back-up with Minnesota.

The only other goaltending prospect in the organization is lanky Finnish netminder Niko Hovinen, who was selected in the sixth round in 2007. The 6’7 goaltender spent the bulk of his career in various levels of the Jokerit organization in Finland, but will play for Pelicans this coming season after having an off year in 2007-08. He plays well in a butterfly style, but still has plenty of adjustments to make: in regards to both his large frame, and in regards to his reading the play as it develops.

Harding has shown to be very capable between the pipes, so the lack of another potential number one goaltender in the system is not of much concern at present. The lack of goaltending depth, however, is something that will have the be address in the upcoming two entry drafts.