By way of reintroducing the good people of Des Moines to professional hockey, the Wild fell well short of making a splash this season. In the NHL, a playoff berth and first-round series win over Central Division winner Colorado are real accomplishments, but there were moments of intense growing pains.
All across Minnesota Wild prospectdom, the guys seemed to fall short of meeting their goals for themselves and their teams, but we will still hand out some awards in the hopes of spurring even greater efforts while recognizing that hockey is a tough and cosmically unfair games at times.
Although it must certainly be acknowledged that anyone who manages to play hockey at a high level has put in countless hours of training and sacrifice, this award goes to a player who has already earned a reputation for putting in the extra hours, Kurtis Gabriel. He completed his career with the Owen Sound Attack this spring, reaching the 100-point mark over 232 career games. The player who went undrafted out of bantam to being a third-round NHL draft pick consistently pushed the tempo when on the ice, playing a fully engaged physical style. Making his professional debut with Des Moines, Gabriel put up four points in seven games. No, Gabriel is not the most gifted player on the ice usually, but if he can consistently be an exemplary player, his future is encouraging.
Matt Dumba had a mixed season. The Wild would have liked the young defenseman to be ready for NHL action, and for the second year in a row kept him with the team for a fairly long period before sending him to play in the World Juniors. Dumba got his first NHL goal this season during his 13 game stint, and it is that moment that gives Wild fans hope that the first-round pick can be a positive difference-maker in the near future. Dumba's defensive game is very much a work in progress, but he is on a very good Portland Winterhawks team now, and keeping things simple so the talented forwards can do their jobs. He did manage eight goals during the regular season, and has three goals in the playoffs. For Dumba, finding his timing and getting that shot to the net consistently will be the difference. The Wild's power play has not been great and adding a big shot from a point would be a key way of making it more of a weapon next season.
Best Defensive Prospect: Gustav Olofsson, D, Colorado College Tigers (NCHC)
The signing of Christian Folin makes this award a bit of a toss-up, since Folin was a big part of University of Massachusetts-Lowell's stingy defense en route to the Frozen Four. Olofsson however has been part of the Wild's group slightly longer, and his early departure from Colorado College suggests that the organization sees him as a key component who needs professional seasoning sooner than later. Add to that Team Sweden's reliance on the lanky defenseman at the World Juniors and it is apparent that Olofsson has what it takes to be a difference-maker. He combines physical gifts of raw size with impressive mobility and positioning. Though he is not really expected to be an offensive contributor, Olofsson can take the kind of shots that create goals and will join a rush too. Folin's signing may have pushed him down the depth chart, but that is all to the good and contributes to the sense that the Wild will be patient and develop properly.
Fastest Skater: Erik Haula, LW, Minnesota Wild (NHL)
This award traditionally has gone to the speedy Jason Zucker, but after suffering a hamstring injury he was really unable to show much this season. One hopes he will rebound quickly and successfully. Erik Haula on the other hand, though we hate to double up winners, has shown that concerns about his skating were overblown and he has taken this aspect of his game to the next level.
Prospect of the Year: Erik Haula, LW, Minnesota Wild (NHL)
No other Wild prospect had, or is having, this kind of season. Erik Haula has had one incredible year as an NHL rookie, but then after being a standout at Shattuck-St. Mary's, with the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, at the University of Minnesota and with Iowa of the AHL, it should not have come as much of a surprise. He was also Hockey's Future's pick to breakout this season, so we can take some credit for that.
Haula has excellent passing skills and processes the game at a very high level, but his deceptive speed is another major asset. Injuries to Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund opened up a space for Haula to get some minutes with the Wild. He finished fourth in scoring on the Iowa squad despite playing in less than half the games. Haula gained confidence at the NHL level at an impressive rate, moving from a fourth-line role to the top offensive center role, being flanked by Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville. He showed his ability to penalty-kill and consistently made good, smart passing plays. Haula even shows a real lack of intimidation that speaks well for his future as a key supporting part of the Wild.
Darcy Kuemper was also strongly considered for this award.
Breakout Player for 2014-15: Adam Gilmour, C, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Adam Gilmour was part of a big group of Wild prospects playing at a higher level for the first time this season. While one can certainly hope that one or more players in this group comes out and has a big sophomore season, Adam Gilmour looks like he will have a great opportunity to do so. With the graduations or pro signings of much of Boston College's powerhouse group, Gilmour is one freshman who had the confidence of Head Coach Jerry York even in the season's final moments. Gilmour has a good frame but at times it was clear that he had not yet put on the kind of muscle needed to deal with stronger 21- and 22-year-old players. With his high level ability to think the game and his good playmaking ability, Gilmour is on the right path. We also considered Avery Peterson and Dylan Labbé for this award.
Most Improved Prospect: Darcy Kuemper, G, Minnesota Wild (NHL)
This award goes to Darcy Kuemper who played extremely well over the last two seasons in the AHL. Last year, he made Matt Hackett expendable as a trade asset. This year he was called up to the NHL when Nicklas Backstrom was predictably injured and Josh Harding's treatments for his multiple sclerosis made him too ill to play at a top level. With the season and probably certain careers on the brink of disaster, Kuemper stepped up and played better than league average. His solid play – with a couple of speed bumps too – allowed the Wild to get its bearings and eventually lock down a wild card spot. Kuemper eventually came back down to earth, perhaps due to a shoulder injury. He is still a young player, one who has been a top ten goalie in the AHL and elsewhere. There is every reason to have confidence in Kuemper as a backup going forward. There is not yet a lot of evidence to support the notion that he is an elite NHL goalie but his excellent stretches this season, including his recent postseason play, show that he is headed in the right direction.
Overachiever: Zack Mitchell, RW, Guelph Storm (OHL)
The Wild signed free agent juniors Brady Brassart and Zack Mitchell to help shore up its thin pipeline of forward prospects. While both had good junior careers, we will give this award to Zack Mitchell who is enjoying a tremendous final season with the Guelph Storm. After finishing in the league's top 20 scorers during the regular season, he leads all scorers in the OHL playoffs. One always has to take into account a player's age and teammates, and while the accomplishment is impressive, it should be kept in context. Mitchell had a 37-goal, 75-point season back in 2011-12 so his scoring is hardly out of nowhere. The Wild see him as a two-way winger, and he is obviously an intelligent young man besides. Despite the tone of this award, Mitchell is a good addition to the prospect group even if he may not blow people away at the next level.
Underachiever: Zack Phillips, C, Iowa Wild (AHL)
First off, the Iowa Wild struggled as a team. When the team moved from Houston to Des Moines, they forgot to pack the offense. The team finished worst in goals scored by a discomfiting margin (two teams scored 100 more goals on the season). During the previous lockout season, the team got a lot of points out of guys like Mikael Granlund, Justin Fontaine, Chad Rau, and Johan Larsson: none of whom were with the team this year. Nor did the team seek to replace these players with AHL veterans to help the incoming class out with the transition. With Erik Haula, Jason Zucker and Justin Fontaine up in St. Paul, the scoring disappeared. Defenseman Brian Connelly was asked to carry the offensive load with a significant group of rookies in tow and it did not go especially well. The talented young group of Phillips, Raphael Bussieres and Tyler Graovac showed real growing pains as they transitioned into a much tougher league.
So it may be unreasonable to ask so much of Zack Phillips in only his second pro season. He finished tied for first on the team in points, and showed again that he was a resilient player by playing all 76 games. His slight uptick in goals is encouraging, and he does project more as a playmaker than a scorer, so his productivity is somewhat dependent on finding people to finish plays. In a sense, this award as such goes to Phillips because he has a year's head start on the cluster in Iowa and expectations are higher for him as a first-round pick. With all these caveats stated, as the other young guys grow as pros, Phillips will too.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Mario Lucia, LW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)
Trading up or down in the draft already creates a risk that the alternative player or players turn out much better than the targeted one. Not many people today would trade Zach Parise for Marc-Antoine Pouliot, to name one example. Thus Mario Lucia has some burden of living up to his second round pick status. He also must know that the Wild needs a player of his skills. Lucia has natural goal-scoring ability, he can skate well, he is a big body, and he has pretty good hockey sense. Somehow these desirable attributes have not yet equaled a dominant player at the college level. Lucia's numbers are fine, certainly, but one would love to see a next level, a greater willingness to win physical battles and to make the right play with the puck regardless of the engagement needed. Next season could be a breakout season for the young man, or it could signal stagnation in a promising prospect. If it is the latter, the system as a whole is in pretty mediocre state from what it was considered just a couple of seasons ago, as far as forwards go especially.
This award could have also gone to Matt Dumba or Darcy Kuemper.