After five years on the job general manager Chuck Fletcher has made his mark on the Minnesota Wild, swiftly rebuilding a franchise that had lost its way. He has assembled a promising young core of Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Jared Spurgeon, Erik Haula, Darcy Kuemper, Matt Dumba, and Christian Folin. With a strong group of veterans brought in via trade and free agency to supplement the few holdovers from the prior administrative regime, this leaves very little room for true prospects at the moment.
That is good for the NHL team, but it could spell trouble down the road. The organization has some young players of promise certainly, but very few of whom can be ready to contribute this season at the NHL level. Of most concern, the Iowa Wild squad has struggled over the last year, really missing that overripe NHL-calibre talent that some teams seem to stow in the AHL until needed. The Wild’s top prospects graduated quickly to full-time status in recent years, and the team has been willing to ride out their growing pains as best it can. The Wild moved with speed to construct a contender, perhaps leaving some questions about systematic strength unaddressed. AHL center and defense depth has been bolstered in free agency, while the wings still lack elite speed and shooting skill. If Johan Gustafsson continues to muddle along, the pipeline at goaltender looks exceedingly thin.
Jason Zucker leads the depth on the left side. The 2010 second round pick is a speedy puckhound who lacks size and is not likely to be an elite scorer, but earned his spot with the Wild during a strong training camp. Zucker has already looked fairly good in a bottom-six role in the young NHL season, using his speed and tenacity to create offensive chances off the forecheck.
Another second round pick, Mario Lucia, is now in his junior season at Notre Dame. Despite being reasonably productive throughout his career, he seems to coast on his talent at times. That said, he has gotten on the scoreboard already for the Fighting Irish and should put up good numbers again.
At the AHL level, Raphael Bussières was also a second round pick and while his post-draft season was promising, his transition to pro hockey has been less so. The Wild did not keep Bussières in camp very long and he has slid on the depth chart. 2010 second round selection Brett Bulmer has also slipped on the depth chart a bit due to injuries and inefficiency over his pro career. While he has improved aspects of his game year over year, his third pro season has to show more of that progress. The organization was very high on him at one point and he does have enough NHL experience to possibly slot on the list of recalls for third or fourth line spot duty. Curt Gogol was acquired from the Sharks system in order to provide a bit more physicality and intimidation but seemed to be on the receiving end of it quite a bit during preseason play. He is a middleweight fighting option for the Wild, who put up over 200 penalty minutes last year.
Louis Nanne was a talented high school player out of a very good Edina program, drafted as much for his bloodlines as his upside. He is finally starting his college career at RPI after dealing with a shoulder injury during his time in Penticton of the BCHL and decommitting from the University of Minnesota for personal reasons.
The right side is a position of strength for the Wild, starting with the 2014 first-round pick Alex Tuch. The Boston College freshman is a natural power forward and should play a featured role despite his inexperience. One would think there could be a lot of pressure on Tuch to turn pro after this season, out of need more than any development concerns.
Minnesota’s AHL team has a few players who bring versatility along with skill. Zack Mitchell went undrafted out of the Guelph Storm, but he was a very good junior player whom his coach relied on heavily during his final season. His resume suggests a player who will have a modest offensive impact as a pro, but Mitchell is a smart player who could work his way up the depth chart eventually. Michael Keranen was an excellent scorer last year in the SM-Liiga, and looks comfortable so far at the AHL level. He will need an adjustment period but if recalled could certainly find himself playing in the Wild’s top-six. He is also a good playmaker, but his lack of NHL size is an obstacle. Not so for Kurtis Gabriel, who was a bit of a reach for a third round pick. The overager finished his junior career in strong fashion. Gabriel is a player that the organization is very high on for his leadership and character qualities, and while his game is raw, he has good strength and instincts enough to keep his style simple.
Drafted as a center, Chase Lang has also moved to right wing in his second full WHL season and has exploded out of the gate. Still only 18 and starting his second full junior season, Lang is a project worth tracking closely as he gets more minutes and responsibilities for Calgary.
The Wild has drafted many natural centers in recent years. The organization recently praised the development of Tyler Graovac, a player gifted with a big frame who also has some scoring ability. He trailed only Erik Haula for goal-scoring for the offensively-weak Iowa team last season and is already looking like a primary offensive driver for Iowa again this year with Haula a full-time NHL player now. A strong camp and an improved team move Graovac up the depth chart considerably. He is playing on Iowa’s first line with free agent acquisition Jordan Schroeder, a Vancouver first-rounder who could not get traction in that system. Schroeder is held back by his size but brings some offensive creativity.
Last season’s offensive leader in his second pro season, Zack Phillips was a bit of a questionable pick in 2011’s first round and an emerging class taken behind him makes the justification all the more difficult. He is a poised puck mover who has improved as a pro. However, with Iowa getting better, Phillips may also see his power-play and softer minutes diminish and will need to show that he has grown into a player capable of scoring against the other team’s best. Brady Brassart was a free agent signing out of Calgary, and is another rookie for Iowa. He is a fairly skilled player who also plays with a degree of physical aggression. Brassart has already gotten his first goal of the season but could show a bit more. With a relative lack of size throughout the ranks, Brassart could get his name in the mix for a recall by showing that his physical game is pro-ready.
At the collegiate level, a pair of centers with good size are developing under legendary coaches in Jerry York and Dean Blais. Boston College’s Adam Gilmour faces a sophomore season in which he may be asked to do much more hard work as a player. With last year’s top line gone, Gilmour looks like the center for defensive zone duties. He is not as offensively gifted as some other centers in the system, but Gilmour has been productive and plays a responsible style which will get better as his strength and conditioning improve. Grand Rapids standout Avery Peterson does bring some of that desired size to the Wild system but the Nebraska-Omaha freshman has some work to do on his overall game. The Mr. Hockey award winner will be brought along slowly, but Peterson was a very productive player at both the high school and the USHL level and should be able to translate some of that offense even in the much tougher environment of the NCHC.
Another tough environment is the CHL, at least as far as the Sudbury Wolves are concerned. Czech import Pavel Jenys is at least holding serve with his new club, though, getting a firsthand look at some of the great skill the OHL boasts. The big center is chipping in, but the struggling club will keep his numbers looking modest. 2014 sixth rounder Reid Duke had no interest in playing in that kind of environment and made his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Lethbridge a bit too public, effecting a trade to Brandon. Duke will probably see less ice with his new team and the overall benefit remains to be seen.
Christoph Bertschy has been used as a winger by Bern head coach Guy Boucher as the NLA season really gets rolling. Bertschy is still a young player on a veteran team, but his point totals are not trending the right direction. He has considerable talent but neither his on-ice performance nor the relationship with the Wild are particularly encouraging.
Matt Dumba made the Wild out of training camp and has been used with fellow rookie Christian Folin on Minnesota’s bottom pairing. Dumba has shown the skills that make him a top prospect for the Wild, but even small mistakes at the NHL level are too costly to go unaddressed. Whether Dumba ends up a healthy scratch or eventually logs heavy minutes at the AHL level remains to be seen, but the Wild’s top-four is very unlikely to change (barring injury) and Dumba will have to show improvement in a limited capacity. The story is much the same for college free agent signing Folin, who plays a simpler and safer style than Dumba but can nonetheless contribute offensively with a very good shot as well. The Swedish native is also older than Dumba and has a stronger physical presence right now.
Another young Swedish defenseman, Gustav Olofsson, stuck around training camp for a long time as coaches got a look at his quick-developing game against higher competition. Olofsson was injured toward the end of the preseason though, which will keep the big defenseman down in the AHL where he can refine his game for another season and develop his body.
Guillaume Gélinas had eye-popping numbers in his final season in the QMJHL and could have a decent offensive season for the Wild given the right opportunity. The signing of Danny Syvret eats into his place on the depth chart, but Gélinas should get ample power play time as he settles in against AHL competition. Alex Gudbranson was a training camp invite who earned an entry-level deal. A big part of Sault Ste Marie’s success the last two seasons, Gudbranson projects as a conservative defenseman but has an underrated ability to impact the game.
In the junior ranks, Dylan Labbé was another player who stuck with the Wild for a while at training camp after a decent debut in the AHL last spring. Labbé, like Olofsson, trails a few veterans in the current configuration of the depth chart but is coming along well and getting very heavy minutes for Shawinigan. He scored two goals in one game, and playing in front of a better goaltender should also help his stat line. Out west, it looks like it will be a long season in Kootenay for Tanner Faith, who suffered through a long season last year as he rehabilitated a shoulder injury. He has good size and more skill than the scoresheet may show. Another Minnesota native, Hunter Warner, got an entry-level contract out of training camp and is playing his first season in the WHL with Prince Albert. He has good size but may find the WHL a tough adjustment physically.
Shattuck-St. Mary’s product John Draeger once again had to have off-sason surgery, and recovery from a hernia operation might slow down the Michigan State junior blue liner a bit to start the college season, though he is expected to be a defensive leader and offensive contributor again. Although there is only his USNTDP resume to go on, 2014 third round pick Louis Belpedio already got his first goal as a freshman at Miami (Ohio) and should play a big part in any success that team has this season. Carson Soucy is a big-bodied defenseman with offensive skills. He is off to a hot start with Minnesota-Duluth and should see a lot of special teams time in his sophomore season. University of Michigan sophomore Nolan De Jong has yet to really make much impact on the score sheet but he is coming along fairly well. The 2013 7th round selection adjusted quickly to collegiate play thanks to his skating ability, and despite a lack of points De Jong is a solid prospect at this point.
Pontus Själin was an under the radar pick by the Wild and the Swede is off to a fine start for Leksands IF in the Swedish J20, leading his team in scoring for defensemen with just under a point-per-game rate in the early going.
Colton Jobke was forced down the depth chart by draft picks and signings and will be working on his game in the ECHL.
Darcy Kuemper is only nominally a prospect at this point and is on track to graduate soon as the de facto No. 1 in Minnesota. Contentious contract negotiations kept him off the ice until just before the season started, but he won the starting job immediately and recorded back-to-back shutouts to kick off the 2014-15 campaign. Though he still is not in the top tier of league starters due to inexperience, Kuemper has shown the ability to play well behind a good defense thus far.
After Kuemper there is a lot of uncertainty in the team’s depth chart. Kaapo Kähkönen has the pedigree to contend for a starting job someday, but the 2014 fourth round pick is several years away. He is off to a fine start to his season, on loan to TuTo of the Finnish Mestis and leading the league statistically.
Johan Gustafsson had a tough debut season in North America, although he played behind an inexperienced team. He is off to a better start in the early going of the AHL season but has yet to really settle in. Veteran John Curry will continue to share the load, but Gustafsson is a solid prospect who needs more repetitions to build his confidence.
Another goaltender on the upswing is Steve Michalek, who put together an impressive 2013-14 season as Harvard’s starter. The Crimson’s season has yet to get underway this year, but Michalek should get the bulk of starts again.
Alexandre Bélanger has yet to put up a truly impressive season in Rouyn-Noranda. In limited action this year he has both a shutout and a game surrendering five goals. He needs to be better or he will continue to lose playing time to rookie Samuel Harvey.
Follow Peter Prohaska on Twitter at @PProhaska