The Minnesota Wild organization does things just a little differently than other teams. Rather than relying heavily on the CHL or the European leagues, the Wild has drafted many players bound for U.S. colleges in recent years. This affords the team additional flexibility with contracts and salary while also potentially yielding professional assets who may have had a longer developmental timeframe (Erik Haula is the big success story so far).
Last year’s rough season for the Iowa Wild may have been at least partially attributable to the developmental gap arising from this draft-and-follow strategy. To address the depth problems, the Wild moved to restock its AHL team with some free agents with upside. These moves should vastly improve the Iowa squad and make it a playoff team. The Wild is in contending mode at the NHL level too, which buys some of the prospects additional time to improve at lower levels of play. Another developmental year in college makes the coaches and fans of those teams happy too and should help players turn professional when they are physically and mentally ready for that transition.
Overall, there are some intriguing players poised for big developmental years around the world.
Top Pro Prospect
Matt Dumba, D, Iowa Wild (AHL)
Matt Dumba is a player whose skills are needed on the Wild blue line. While Jared Spurgeon has been a revelation in his young career, the other defensemen on the Wild are not really elite offensive options, whatever their other merits are. Matt Dumba was drafted in the first round because he can become an elite offensive option from the blueline. He is extremely mobile, can handle the puck, pass, and shoot all at the highest level but he has to improve his decisions at times.
In the modern NHL it is impossible to shelter defensemen on a team that expects to compete. Dumba will have to prove capable of pushing play against top competition, but he will especially have to limit the opportunities he gives up so that they do not lead to offensive chances for the opposition. Iowa head coach Kurt Kleinendorst and his assistants will have to find the right partner for Dumba while also refining his game. His talents are obvious, and there is no question that he will see some NHL time this season. Dumba has a big role to fill when he does solidify his presence in St. Paul and his success in it will go a long way toward determining his team’s fate in 2014-15.
Johan Gustafsson, G, Iowa Wild (AHL)
Being a goalie for the Wild has meant a life of chaos over the last few years. Veteran Nicklas Backstrom had season-ending surgery that caused him to miss the playoffs after two shaky seasons in a row, Josh Harding is suffering from Multiple Sclerosis and possibly anger management issues, Darcy Kuemper has battled concussions and a contentious contract negotiation, Ilya Bryzgalov was run out of Philadelphia but found a niche as the starter of last resort for the Wild in the playoffs, Matt Hackett got traded, Steve Michalek got suspended, but Johan Gustafsson merely struggled.
His team was not very good last season, but the Wild’s other goalies, Darcy Kuemper and AHL veteran John Curry, were simply much better than he was. Gustafsson, however, has been through this before. His first season in Sweden‘s Allsvenskan was also mediocre, and the next year he moved up a league and showed he could be a competent starter for the SHL’s Lulea. He maintained a high save percentage over two seasons in Sweden’s top league, and it should not be a surprise to see his save percentage take an upward trend this year. He is playing for a second contract this season as well, but the addition of Swedish countrymen and solid defensemen Gustav Olofsson and Christian Folin (among others) should be huge for the goaltender as he takes another step forward.
First Year Pro To Watch
Guillaume Gélinas, D, Iowa Wild (AHL)
A free-agent signing that carries very little risk but could provide enormous upside, Guillaume Gélinas is an average-sized defenseman with great offensive acumen. If Gélinas can deliver a significant proportion of the value he brought to Val d’Or to Iowa, the Wild will have greatly improved their anemic blueline offense. The Wild will not have Val d’Or sniper Anthony Mantha to finish plays, but Gélinas also managed to score 23 goals of his own.
Wild fans may think they have seen this situation unfold before with Maxim Noreau or Chay Genoway, but neither put up the kind of points Gélinas did before going pro. In a sense, the fortunes of the Iowa squad are embodied in the native of Québec. He proved he could produce on a good team. The Wild made enough significant additions that real improvement is expected in Des Moines, but will Gélinas himself be able to drive the power play and generate enough points in transition to justify the bet? The fall is a time for optimism in the hockey world, and though Gélinas has a lot to prove to earn special-teams minutes, he could be an important part of Iowa’s improvement.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Brett Bulmer, LW, Iowa Wild (AHL)
Once upon a time, Brett Bulmer seemed ready to stick with the Wild on a full-time basis. Wisely, the team sent him back to junior to refine his game, which he did with a very strong final season for the Kelowna Rockets. Now two full years later, his future with the Wild is somewhat shaky through little fault of his own.
Staying healthy has been an issue for Bulmer. Given the rigors of the AHL, the role he has been asked to play, and his track record to date, this is no certain feat. Bulmer’s ability to score at the AHL level has not been consistent enough either, and while he is not looked at as a finesse player, he has enough skill to make better decisions with the puck. He could be a veteran leader for the Iowa Wild this season and surprise with some of the offensive ability he flashed as a junior while also showing his value as a physical presence as needed. Bulmer will need to be at his best with players like Brady Brassart, Raphael Bussières, Curt Gogol and Kurtis Gabriel challenging for his playing time and role.
Dylan Labbé is relatively far down the Wild’s defensive depth chart, with free agents like Guillaume Gélinas and Christian Folin making it even tougher on the 2013 4th round pick. He is having a strong camp, however, and Labbé is certainly a player worth tracking as a prospect.
He has been asked to do a lot on and off the ice for Shawinigan, a team that has been struggling to compete ever since its 2012 Memorial Cup win. Labbé has to play a lot of minutes, but he has been able to develop good all-around skills due to the relative lack of depth. The Cataractes certainly don’t currently have a player like alumnus Jason Pominville to help carry the offensive load, but they are improving as the team grows together.
Labbé’s strong training camp with the Wild will help him be prepared for what looks to be another tough season, but players in junior are likely to grow in good ways through adversity. Labbé should return to Iowa in the spring well-seasoned and ready to contribute at the pro level.
There is almost no way Tanner Faith could have a worse season than he did in 2013-14, missing all but ten games due to a shoulder injury. With that surgery and rehab work behind him, Faith can return to honing his skills. He has pro size already as a teenager, and aimed to add strength during last year’s time off the ice.
The second round pick did not put up great offensive numbers during his rookie season with the Ice, but he showed glimmers of what he can contribute. Faith has some puck skill to go with his imposing frame, and this season presents a very good opportunity to show his skills. Kootenay might well struggle to be competitive even if Sam Reinhart comes back to junior, but Tanner Faith’s ability to persevere in the face of adversity is not a question at this point.
While there were a lot of players drafted out of the Czech Republic in the early 2000’s, of late the junior programs had faltered some. That looks to be changing, with the national teams competing better of late, and with promising players like Pavel Zacha and Jakub Zboril (both draft-eligible in 2015) making their North American debuts this season.
Zboril’s Kometa Brno teammate Pavel Jenys is another. A player who slipped to the Wild in the seventh round of the 2014 NHL Draft, Jenys has the size and skill to be an impact player in the OHL this season. He picked up a bit of pro experience with Brno in the Czech Extraliga, but showed his commitment to the NHL path in making the tough choice to leave home. Picked in the first round of the CHL import draft by Sudbury, Jenys should have ample opportunity to contribute to a team with a bit of a void up front. A good skater with an excellent frame, Jenys is also a natural playmaker who should be in for a very good season with the Wolves.
Although one can say of Alex Tuch that his impressive numbers may have been the results to a degree of his highly-skilled linemates Jack Eichel and Sonny Milano, a player still has to be able to play with that skill. The Wild’s 2014 first-round pick, Tuch is a strong, skilled young man capable of finesse play as well as physical engagement. Although the ease of his transition to Boston College was somewhat compromised when his Team USA running mate Milano decided to head to the OHL, Tuch will still likely have good players to his left.
Boston College has a lot of offense to replace from last season’s squad and Tuch will certainly be called upon to provide some of it. He is part of a very talented incoming freshman class, and though he will have to adjust to the physicality of the college game, Tuch has hefty expectations for himself and his squad in the upcoming season.
Freshman to Watch
Avery Peterson, C, University of Nebraska-Omaha (NCAA)
Avery Peterson was a high school junior in July 2013 when the Wild called his name at the NHL Draft. A northern Minnesota native who always seemed bigger than the opposition, Peterson spent time in both the USHL with Sioux City and at his hometown Grand Rapids High and put up gaudy numbers. He was the winner of the 2014 Mr Hockey Award, given to the state of hockey’s top prep player.
Nebraska-Omaha Head Coach Dean Blais preached patience for Peterson as he adjusts to the system and the competition, but also praised the freshman’s enviable blend of size and skill. With that teenage bulk turning into mature muscle, Peterson should prove a handful even in the tough competition of NCHC hockey as the season gets going.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Stephen Michalek, G, Harvard University (NCAA)
Stephen Michalek was almost a lost-cause prospect for a short period, but a strong 2013-14 season for Harvard has him back in the conversation. His .924 save percentage was good for a spot toward the backend of the top 25 in the nation playing behind a pretty average Crimson squad.
Michalek comes into the 2014-15 as the likely starter, a player whose ability to hold up under pressure and workload was a key narrative of his draft profile. It is no easy feat to maintain a lifestyle as a committed athlete and scholar at an institution like Harvard, and Michalek’s development in this role is a good sign of growth. Considering how far off Kappo Kähkönen and Alexandre Bélanger seem to be, Michalek may only need to prove himself this season to earn a professional contract.
Top European Prospect
Kaapo Kähkönen, G, TuTo (Mestis)
Kaapo Kähkönen is a highly-regarded goaltending prospect, but the Wild is taking the long view for his development. He has the size and the athleticism to be a top starter and the trust of the Finnish national team goes a long way as an endorsement of a goaltender.
After not looking particularly strong in his SM-Liiga exposure, for this season Kähkönen is on loan to TuTo of the Mestis. This allows the Turku native to stay close to home, get plenty of starts, and hone his game and his confidence. He is off to a fine start to this season, and could also see time with Blues next year. Though Juuse Saros seems to be ahead of him right now for the starter’s role, Kähkönen is still a strong candidate to make the Finnish World Junior team. He is a well-trained goalie who is aware of the long process involved in becoming a top pro.
European First Year Pro to Watch
Pontus Själin, D, Leksands (SHL)
The Wild’s selection of Pontus Själin in the 2014 Draft caught the NHL by surprise. Word was that the Wild and only one other team were in on the smooth-skating yet smallish Själin, playing at the time in the third-tier of Swedish hockey. In 2014-15 he is stepping up a level of competition and will join Leksands IF in Sweden’s U20 league.
Expecting an offensive breakout is a bit far-fetched, since Själin has not really produced so far in his career at any level. However, his mobility should prove an asset on a team that has some good pieces in place. He has quite a bit of work to do in terms of developing his frame, but Själin is a long-term project who could surprise.
Unsigned for 2015-16
Christoph Bertschy, RW, Bern (NLA)
The deadline for retaining Christoph Bertschy as part of the Wild’s system has already technically come and gone. He was not tendered a qualifying offer last spring, but the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and the Swiss League means his rights are retained. The situation is nebulous but apparently neither Bertschy and his representatives nor the Wild are quite ready to close the door on his professional chances in North America.
Bertschy was a good value pick by the Wild. He is a talented player who has stood out in a positive way when playing internationally for Team Switzerland, and who has now three years of professional playing experience. The arrival of former NHL coach Guy Boucher in Bern should help Bertschy round out his game more fully. While the lack of a contract cannot be viewed as a great sign for Bertschy’s North American prospects, a fully-motivated player with his skills is an asset that should be retained.
Follow Peter Prohaska on Twitter @pprohaska