Minnesota Wild prospects made big impact in NHL playoffs and lower levels

By Peter Prohaska

Zack Mitchell - Guelph Storm

Photo: Zack Mitchell, signed as a free agent by the Wild in March, was a key player in all situations for Guelph as the Storm won the OHL title and made it to the Memorial Cup final (courtesy of CHL Images)

Playoff season is a marathon of several months, and for hockey fans it can be the best and the worst time of the year.

There is benefit in following several players over several leagues to hedge on one's stresses. The exhilaration of a classic goal like Mikael Granlund's overtime winner replaces the ennui of Iowa's failure to qualify for the post-season. An overtime high school heartbreaker is an important lesson in the unfairness of sports, but a long playoff run also forges friendships and gives all fans great memories of a time and moment in our lives. Minnesota Wild prospects had varied experiences at all levels this season, but the main thing was the real joys of the NHL playoffs being reintroduced to Wild fans everywhere.

NHL

During the course of the Wild's playoff run the world watched the promising group of young players General Manager Chuck Fletcher has added grow into exciting young NHL talents. Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niedderreiter, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Justin Fontaine were added to the Wild's prospect group in several different ways: via the NHL draft, via trade, and via free agency. Most of these guys were considered prospects just a year ago, and all contributed in important ways in this year's playoffs. It is the ultimate goal of every team to win a Stanley Cup and the Wild's collectively gained experience is an important marker of progress toward that goal. The best players on every Cup winning squad come to an organization via making the right choices at the draft table (having some lottery luck usually helps too) but those talents have to be supplemented with every means available to an organization. Finding value at every stage of the draft is one key to success and the prospects who contributed at the NHL level this year are proof of that.

Darcy Kuemper has already struggled with some injuries in his career but he played pretty well as part of the Wild's season-long goalie carousel, eventually finishing with a .913 save percentage in the playoffs, where he started six games before sustaining a presumed concussion. Kuemper is still early in his development curve but he showed great improvement over last season's playoff appearances and solidified his role with the team.

Erik Haula became one of the best stories of the postseason thus far with his play. The young Finn ended up scoring seven points during the Wild's run, including four goals. He generally provided a spark every shift, playing penalty kill minutes and using his underrated speed to create many good chances from what was essentially the third-line center role. It was not a wholly unexpected performance from the young Finn, who scored very well in the NCAA and the AHL, but it was a very encouraging one. Haula then joined Team Finland for the last six games of the 2014 World Championships, winning a silver medal. Though he recorded only a single assist, Haula played an important power-vs-power role alongside veterans Olli Jokinen and Leo Komarov and again generated chances consistently.

AHL

The Iowa Wild failed to qualify for the postseason in their first year in Des Moines, mostly due to a chronically anemic offense. Zack Phillips, Tyler Graovac, Raphael Bussieres, and Johan Gustafsson were among the Wild's black aces made available, though no one saw any post-season time this year. Other top prospects Brett Bulmer and Jason Zucker were injured and thus not rostered. The only very surprising storyline was Tyler Cuma not being recalled even as an emergency option, which is a discouraging signal for him to say the least. After a disappointing season, these prospects surely have a renewed sense of determination to carry them through the summer months.

WHL

Newly signed Brady Brassart had a very good run for the Calgary Hitmen, putting up nine points in their six-game series before ultimately losing to the underdog Kootenay Ice, led by Sam Reinhart.

Matt Dumba was enjoying a great run with Portland, having joined the team shortly after the 2014 World Junior Championships. The Winterhawks made pretty quick work of the WHL field before facing off with the defending WHL champion Edmonton Oil Kings. On the brink of elimination the Oil Kings showed great resolve to stay alive and take a series lead. In an epic game six, the Winterhawks overcame a three-goal deficit to win in overtime, with Dumba contributing a pair of goals. The deciding game seven though saw Dumba play a very poor game, and while judging a player on such gaffes is a mistake, such moments often become an indelible part of his reputation. Dumba did manage an impressive 18 points and eight goals over 21 games while anchoring the defense.

OHL

One of the Wild's newest prospects enjoyed a tremendous and ultimately disappointing playoff run. Zack Mitchell and his Guelph Storm captured the first OHL championship for that team in a decade. Mitchell's leadership was of great importance as was his 30 points in 20 games, including twelve goals. Though the Memorial Cup would ultimately be won by an inspired Edmonton Oil Kings squad, the Storm had much to be proud of this season.

QMJHL

In Québec, Alexandre Belanger put up an .885 save percentage in nine games as his Rouyn-Noranda Huskies managed to upset the Québec Remparts before being swept by Baie-Comeau in the next round. Dylan Labbé and the Shawinigan Cataractes were swept and he was held pointless.

NCAA

Adam Gilmour and the Boston College Eagles finished their mostly great season by falling short of a national title. Led by Hobey Baker winner Johnny Gaudreau (CGY), BC advanced to the NCAA Frozen Four before losing in somewhat surprising fashion to eventual champions Union. The encouraging aspect of this from the Wild's perspective was Adam Gilmour seeing ice time late in the game with the season on the line. A freshman line centered by Gilmour was increasingly relied upon to provide offense and will have to do so again next year.

Newly signed defenseman Christian Folin of University of Massachusetts-Lowell played a big role in his team's success this season as well. UMass-Lowell had come in to the season with a number one overall ranking and though top billing was not to be, the team captured a Hockey East Championship with back-to-back shutouts of Notre Dame and New Hampshire. While goaltender Connor Hellebuyck (WPG) gets a lot of deserved credit for his play, the overall defensive team effort was greatly aided by Folin. Both Hellebuyck and Folin were named to the Hockey East All-Tournament Team, while Hellebuyck received MVP honors. The NCAA Tournament did not go quite as planned, but Lowell did knock off Minnesota State-Mankato before falling to Boston College in the second round.

Europe

Christoph Bertschy and Bern SC failed to qualify for the postseason in the Swiss NLA despite summoning former NHL head coach Guy Boucher to help salvage their season. In the NLA, the bottom four teams play a relegation tournament, and Bertschy managed two assists in this six game competition.

Daniel Gunnarsson and Lulea did qualify for the postseason. The Swedish playoffs were no kinder to Lulea this season though and Växjö dispatched them in six games. Gunnarsson had a pretty good playoffs though, with three points in five games, having missed the deciding game six with injury.