Listing the Minnesota Wild‘s Top 20 Prospect Group is a more difficult exercise this fall, with a fairly clear-cut top four (including Erik Haula, who should graduate soon) followed by another 20 or so players with only a little separation. The Wild also added a lot of new blood to bolster the farm system, pushing some familiar names out of the Top 20.
Some of the players that did not make this list either need a bounce-back year for various reasons (Brett Bulmer, Christoph Bertschy, Tanner Faith), are stepping into a higher level of competition (Avery Peterson, Pavel Jenys, Guillaume Gélinas) or just have a little less upside at this point. All in all, the Wild’s group may lack elite talent but there are solid pieces at every position.
Overall, the Wild’s decision to trade some early-round draft picks in 2013 and 2014 for established NHL talent has worked out well. It has also left the prospect group not as strong as it was two years ago. Nonetheless, general manager Chuck Fletcher and his staff have been creative and bold in adding players via several different channels. Those efforts should make Iowa a much better place for development than it was last year, and that will help raise the stock of the entire organization.
1. (1) Matt Dumba, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 7th Overall, 2012
Matt Dumba had a mixed season in 2013-14 but retains his position as the top prospect in the Wild’s system regardless. Dumba was always presumed to be a work in progress in terms of his ability to play his position. He has the physical gifts to make up for many of his positional or tactical errors and brings some offense, too. The Wild has a good deal invested in Dumba’s future, even burning a year of his entry-level deal last season to keep him around the team past the nine-game limit. The team can afford some patience with its current depth, but Dumba’s game is full of risk at this point and a lot of pressure falls on Iowa head coach Kurt Kleinendorst and his staff to remedy the defects. Dumba would probably not be the worst option for sheltered minutes in the NHL either, but the more fine-tuning the better for this talented player.
2. (NR) Alex Tuch, RW, 7.5C
Drafted 1st Round, 18th Overall, 2014
Alex Tuch was a riser in the pre-draft rankings, but the Wild probably had him in its sights for much of the year. He is already built like a professional power forward, and though that precocious size and strength gave him a considerable advantage during the season with the US Development Team, he has fared well in his age group. Tuch has also benefitted from playing with talented linemates like Sonny Milano and Jack Eichel the past season, and while Milano opted out of college, Tuch should still have some skill on his line during his freshman year at Boston College. It is both a good sign that his coaches see him as a valuable complement to other skilled players but the fact that he has not always had to do the heavy offensive work should cause some to pause. The college game should challenge Tuch, but he is a high character young man with the physical gifts to thrive as he takes the next step.
3. (9) Gustav Olofsson, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 46th Overall, 2013
Gustav Olofsson’s fast progression from college freshman to potential difference-maker in the AHL is reflected in his rise in the Top 20 ranking. While there was some turmoil at Colorado College last season, eventually leading to a coaching change, the storied program has done a good job over the years identifying NHL-caliber defensemen and helping to develop them. The Wild staff clearly thought Olofsson was ready for the pro game, however, and it is a defensible belief. Olofsson is a multi-faceted player who has a very good understanding of the game. His frame is a still a bit thin, but he has natural strength and will likely report to training camp a bit heavier even than the 190 pounds he played at last season. He plays with an aggressive edge as needed, joins the rush and makes sound decisions, and while he does not possess the same dynamic skating as Matt Dumba, he may be overall a safer bet to join a group of top-four NHL defensemen. Presumably he will spend 2014-15 with Iowa, but that is a testament to his quick growth as a prospect.
4. (4) Erik Haula, C, 7.0A
Drafted 7th Round, 182nd Overall, 2009
Little more needs to be said about Erik Haula, who is most likely going to graduate from this list in November. After being a near point-per-game player in the AHL over different stints in 2013-14, Haula was brought to the NHL to help fill in for an injured Mikael Granlund. Earning a full-time spot with his responsible play, Haula punctuated a breakout four goal, three assist playoff performance for the Wild with a trip to the World Championships with Team Finland, where his jaw was broken by Russia‘s Evgeni Malkin during the final game.
Haula played a very effective penalty kill role for the Wild and showed that his skating at the NHL level was excellent. Haula remains a bit undersized for a putative checking role and his playmaking skills go underutilized, but he was a very solid contributor as a rookie given some tough zone starts. As a Minnesota high school player, a Minnesota Golden Gopher and a Finn, Haula represents the prototypical Wild player. His role with the team will probably remain somewhat limited nonetheless barring opportunity stemming from injury.
5. (NR) Jordan Schroeder, C, 7.0C
Signed as Free Agent, July 2014
The former Vancouver Canucks first rounder was a fairly productive player with Vancouver’s various AHL affiliates, though somewhat less so at the NHL level. It was a surprising for the Canucks to let him go to free agency, but the Wild seemed excited to add a Minnesotan of his pedigree to the organization. He is a very quick, very intelligent hockey player of modest offensive skill, but Schroeder does not have an obvious role with the Minnesota squad at this juncture. Nonetheless, he is a versatile player capable of switching to right wing as needed. He may start the season in Iowa, but Schroeder probably will graduate as a prospect in the season’s first half. Mike Yeo can be traditional, but having a checking third line with skilled and defensively responsible players like Justin Fontaine, Erik Haula and Jordan Schroeder on it could yield positive results.
6. (2) Jason Zucker, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 59th Overall, 2010
Last season was a tough one for Jason Zucker, a player who likely believed himself inked into the Wild lineup after a strong showing with the NHL club late in 2012-13 and in the brief 2013 playoffs. Instead of progress, though, Zucker put up an identical four goal, one assist stat line in his NHL time and bounced up and down between St. Paul and Des Moines until a quad injury forced him to have season-ending surgery.
Zucker has been a very effective, if not elite, AHL player in his two seasons. His excellent speed and puck-tracking allow him to get a lot of shots on net, and he has been a productive scorer at the AHL level. Unfortunately for him, the way the Wild is currently constructed at the NHL level does not lend itself well to Zucker’s chances. He needs for to prove that he can handle defensive-zone starts. If he can play his game from the bottom-six then Zucker could be a big part of the Wild. He needs a very good training camp to stay in the discussion for an NHL job out of the gate but his recently signed two-year deal shows that the organization still believes in him.
7. (NR) Michael Keränen, RW, 7.0C
Signed as Free Agent, June 2014
Free agent signing Michael Keränen is somewhat slightly built for the NHL, but he does possess good speed and passing skill. He was a very effective scorer for Ilves of the SM-liiga in a breakout season that saw him tied for the league lead in points. Though he could surprise with a strong camp, as an older prospect asking him to transition directly to the NHL is asking a lot. The question must be posed as to where he fits in the Wild’s scheme. While his offense should translate at the AHL level, Keränen may not want to stay at that level for long. In short, he is an intriguing player with long odds at making the NHL at this point.
8. (3) Darcy Kuemper, G, 7.0C
Drafted 6th Round, 161st Overall 2009
Like Erik Haula, Darcy Kuemper is fairly close to graduation, but the Wild’s current glut of goalies makes it a less sure proposition. Kuemper’s history of injury is the other present concern. His play last season likely inspired some confidence that he could hold his own at the NHL level, but for all of his skill and his size, Kuemper is still learning the positional requirements of an NHL goaltender. This apprenticeship period necessitated the signing of Ilya Bryzgalov, just as it forced the Wild to hold on to Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom through their struggles. While Kuemper no doubt sees himself as the successor to the number-one job, he has some learning yet to do.
9. (7) Mario Lucia, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th Overall, 2011
Mario Lucia had a fine sophomore season for the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, improving his point totals while taking on more responsibility. Lucia may have been more focused in refining his game last season in order to become a three-zone player, but he is a natural scorer who seems at times to lack the urgency and intensity that helps a player get to the next level. Lucia has the speed and natural talent that have allowed him some lassitude in his game, but he needs to refine his decision-making. A player who appears to have every tool available to excel at the collegiate level, Lucia just has yet to generate a truly exceptional season. His junior campaign is his likely time to break out, and anything less than a 40 point season would probably be disappointing at this point in his development.
10. (NR) Kaapo Kähkönen, G, 7.5D
Drafted 4th Round, 109th Overall, 2014
This is in some sense a ranking base on reputation, but the Wild’s scouts and the Finnish developmental system have earned some trust when it comes to young goaltenders. Additionally, Kaapo Kähkönen was the top-ranked European goaltender by some scouts before faltering a bit toward the end of the 2013-14 season. All of this is to say that Kähkönen is long on potential and certainly has the pedigree and the opportunity to arrive as a starter one day. He will have the chance to play the bulk of games on loan with TuTo in the Finnish Mestis next year rather than work as a backup. The Wild can certainly afford some patience with the young Finn, especially with Stephen Michalek seeming to get his career back on track. As difficult as it is to project a goalie prospect’s success, Kähkönen has several things in his favor.
11. (8) Johan Gustafsson, G, 7.0D
Drafted 6th Round, 159th Overall, 2010
While he falls a bit in the rankings, it is worth remembering that Johan Gustafsson was the best Swedish goaltender in his age group at one time. His star has dimmed somewhat since making his North American debut, but a shaky team in front of him has not helped matters. While being stuck as a backup is part of the accepted course in one’s professional development, losing his starting job to a 30-year-old journeyman in John Curry had to sting the young Swede’s pride a bit. As bad as the Iowa Wild was last season, Gustafsson’s save percentage over 40 games needed to be better (it hovered around .900). The Wild clearly want to change the losing culture that set in last season, and Gustafsson is now in a fight to win that starter’s job back. It is a pressurized situation that could have disastrous consequences for his career or his future with the organization. However, also worth noting is that Gustafsson struggled as a rookie in the Allsvenskan as well but corrected course impressively the next season.
12. (6) Zack Phillips, C, 7.0D
Drafted 1st Round, 28th Overall, 2011
Any discussion of last season in Iowa has to acknowledge that the team struggled in profound ways. The transition to pro hockey has not been as smooth for Zack Phillips as it has been for players such as Erik Haula and Jason Zucker and the reason is a certain deficiency in his skating. While Phillips has excellent puck skills and proved himself a capable scorer and superb distributor throughout his junior career, he will be limited by his mobility as well as his strength as a pro. This was his second full season in the AHL and the improvements, especially considering the additional ice time, have been marginal. The skills are still there, but as a pure playmaker he is too reliant on others’ abilities to finish, leading one to conclude this is a player who is near his ceiling as a prospect.
13. (NR) Zack Mitchell, RW, 7.0D
Signed as Free Agent, March 2014
The Wild took the opportunity to bolster its depth in the spring by signing a pair of productive CHL players to free agent deals. Brady Brassart and Zack Mitchell both should contribute in 2014-15 by helping the Iowa Wild out of the mire, but Mitchell seems to have the slightly higher upside at this time. After playing five seasons with the OHL‘s Guelph Storm and helping them to a league title last season, Mitchell and company ultimately fell to an inspired and very talented Edmonton team in the deciding game of the Memorial Cup. Mitchell’s leadership was apparent throughout his overage season, especially in putting up 30 points in the 20 game playoff run, with five more points in the four game Memorial Cup tournament. Although he went undrafted, he had been productive throughout his Storm career. Mitchell is a versatile and responsible player with a lot of experience and it is no stretch to imagine him transitioning well to the AHL.
14. (NR) Christian Folin, D, 6.5C
Signed as Free Agent, March 2014
Christian Folin was a very low-risk signing by the Wild that could potentially pay great dividends just by keeping Dumba and Olofsson in the minors a bit longer. Folin is an older prospect who played for Frölunda in Sweden’s SuperElit and in the North American Hockey League before joining the University of Massachusetts-Lowell Riverhawks for a two-year stint. Folin was an important part of an elite defensive unit, backstopped by the nation’s best goaltender in Connor Hellebuyck. While Folin is not by any stretch a flashy player, he contributed some goal scoring by virtue of his good shooting ability. He will be counted on foremost to be a solid, responsible defender with the size to help make up for the loss of Clayton Stoner.
Folin was rumored to be coveted by many NHL teams as UMass-Lowell’s season ended last spring, and he offers the Wild an option who brings NHL size and some degree of additional maturity at low cost. Some additional professional seasoning is also in everyone’s best interests. The players he has to beat for a spot, namely Jon Blum, Stu Bickell and Keith Ballard, are ahead of him at this point by virtue of experience.
15. (12) Tyler Graovac, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th Round, 191st Overall, 2011
As with Zack Phillips, Tyler Graovac’s struggles can be attributed somewhat to the team he played for in Des Moines. For Graovac, the silver lining is that he was second only to Erik Haula in goals, with 13. Graovac is another late bloomer, a player who lost much of one season to a broken jaw but came around nicely by the end of his junior career. He has a good sense of the game but he could use his big frame even more than he does. With his hard shot, the Wild need Graovac to be a 20-goal scorer next season, and that seems within the realm of reasonable as he puts his rookie struggles behind him. The question is whether Graovac can maintain his position in the depth chart with the Wild’s new additions.
16. (13) Adam Gilmour, C, 6.5C
Drafted 4th Round, 98th Overall, 2012
Adam Gilmour was part of a typically excellent Boston College team last season as a freshman. While the top line, led by Johnny Gaudreau, got a lot of minutes and well-deserved accolades, head coach Jerry York saw something in Gilmour, putting the freshman’s line on the ice late to try and produce a goal to bring the game within reach against eventual champions Union. The young center still has some growing to do physically, but he showed throughout his first season of college hockey why he was a highly-touted recruit. Gilmour may find himself with tougher checking assignments in the upcoming season and his team probably will not have the puck as often despite its impressive incoming freshmen. Since Gilmour projects as more of a defensive-minded center, learning the ropes against other schools’ top lines will be an important part of his hockey education.
17. (11) Raphaël Bussières, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 46th Overall, 2012
Bussières is another Iowa player about whom not much positive can be said due to the team’s poor performance. Bussières will have to find ways to be more effective in his assigned roles next season. A player who garnered a reputation in the QMJHL for being an agitator who could also produce offense, Bussières did not manage much of either last season. He can distribute the puck but mainly needs to be stronger and better with winning puck battles. Again, the Wild lacked possession last season, and Bussières can be a player who helps drive play. Although depending on every player from last season to be better this season might be asking a lot, one with skill like Bussières should be improved and more ready for checking duties.
18. (14) John Draeger, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 68th Overall, 2012
John Draeger is yet another player who did not have the kind of growth he would have liked in 2013-14. A knee injury cost him much of the first half of his sophomore season. Though he stepped back into the action fairly seamlessly upon his return, Michigan State is still in a bit of a rebuilding phase that finds the team less successful on the ice than they have been historically. Draeger should find himself being a blueline anchor next season, getting a lot of minutes in all situations. He was second on his team in scoring for defenseman despite missing all that time, and Draeger should continue that trend in his junior season.
19. (NR) Louis Belpedio, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 80th Overall, 2014
The Wild has several defensemen developing in the college ranks, with Carson Soucy of the University of Minnesota-Duluth and Nolan De Jong of the University of Michigan the other notables further down the depth chart. The programs seem not to matter to the Wild as much as the opportunity for young defensmen to learn fundamentals as well as testing themselves against some older and stronger players. Louis Belpedio will be a true freshman this fall at the University of Miami-Ohio as he makes his debut in the Top 20. He is a dynamic skater with very good offensive potential. Belpedio comes in with a sturdy build developed with the USNTDP coaches and should continue to grow. He is a player who has been looked upon as a leader on the ice at every level of his young career and should be tested as a freshman to refine his decision-making, but has the skill to thrive.
20. (15) Dylan Labbé, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th Round, 107th Overall, 2013
The Wild has in recent years adopted a bit of an interesting draft philosophy that sees the team target talented players playing for teams that struggled. In 2014 this was Reid Duke while in 2013 it was Dylan Labbé. Shawinigan improved slightly this season over Labbé’s draft year, but the Cararactes still lack an impact offensive player. This leaves Labbé having to do a lot on the ice both in his own zone and as a catalyst offensively. Whether this ultimately is to his detriment, shaking his confidence or seeing him develop bad habits, remains to be seen. Labbé nonetheless logs a lot of minutes in all situations and has been fairly productive. He is certainly not a flashy prospect, but one who has met a lot of challenges and coped with them admirably thus far.