A slight developmental gap appears to be a weakness in the Minnesota Wild‘s overall scheme. General manager Chuck Fletcher’s maneuvers between the 2010 Draft and the present assembled an enviable group of inexpensive young talent capable of augmenting a nice mix of somewhat more pricey veterans.
However, there is nothing like a surplus of talent in the Wild’s junior system, partially due to drafting college-bound players with early picks, partially due to having sent away some futures for established players. On the upside, most of the players still playing junior hockey are trending in the right direction. None of them are going to provide a solution in the NHL this season or even next, so help for the NHL club has to come from elsewhere. The wealth of experience, good and bad, being accrued by this group of young men should ultimately help them reach their full potential as players.
Dylan Labbé, D, Shawinigan Cataractes
Drafted 4th Round, 107th Overall 2013
It looks increasingly as though Matt Dumba will graduate this year as a prospect, and fellow rookie Christian Folin might accomplish that same feat. This would mean a big turnover at the top of the prospect depth chart, with Gustav Olofsson taking a slight step back this year due to his shoulder injury and Dylan Labbé taking a step forward. One way or another this will be Labbé’s last season in the QMJHL and the Wild seems eager to have Labbé join the Iowa team after he showed well in a brief stint late last season.
Labbé has had a tough go of things as Shawinigan rebuilt following a Memorial Cup win as host in 2012. He has been asked really to anchor a blue line without much support, but things are starting to look up in Shawinigan. With very good young forwards in Anthony Beauvillier and Dennis Yan leading the way, Labbé has been able to provide an experienced point of view as well as put up some points. It is really no surprise that Labbé is leading the Cataractes in points by a defenseman again. He plays around 25 minutes a night and in all situations, but finally has the support he lacked in the past. On pace for 50 points, Labbé with any luck should finish his junior career with a playoff run that rewards him for sticking with his club even when times were tough.
Labbé was chosen to represent the QMJHL in the 2014 Subway Super Series.
Alexandre Bélanger, G, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
Drafted 7th Round, 200th Overall 2013
Alexandre Bélanger’s place in the Wild’s plans is less certain this year than last. A late selection in the 2013 draft, Bélanger drew the attention of scouts by way of his athleticism and work ethic. Now in his third full season with Rouyn-Noranda, the improvements are hard to spot even with the caveat that so much of a young goalie’s success is contingent on the play of the team in front of him. Nonetheless, in Bélanger’s case his teammates have been more impressive. Rouyn-Noranda has deployed its three goaltenders on a nearly even basis, and Samuel Harvey has come out looking the best of the three, with Jérémy Belisle not far behind. Bélanger is still the putative starter and has seen more action than the two rookies, but will certainly need to put together a few solid outings to bolster his case. While the QMJHL often boasts offense at the expense of team defense, the top goalie prospects seem to find a way to perform. Bélanger has not performed notably worse than league average, but it is hard to consider his season a success thus far.
Chase Lang, RW, Calgary Hitmen
Drafted 6th Round, 167th Overall 2014
Chase Lang is one of the youngest players in the Wild’s system but he is playing in his third season with Calgary. The experience, the offseason work and the opportunity to thrive with top linemates all have Lang poised for a breakout season. Playing often on a top line with Adam Tambellini and Radel Fazleev, Chase has been the beneficiary of a deep Calgary squad. That said, the positive aspects of his game -his ability to play special teams and an overall sense of responsibility- are paying off with a point-per-game pace. That pace has slowed a bit since the end of October, so Lang will have to find his focus again as the competition gets more intense in the tough WHL.Lang is a smart player who is really beginning to grow into his role.
Reid Duke, C, Brandon Wheat Kings
Drafted 6th Round, 169th Overall 2014
It was a turbulent start to the season to say the least for Reid Duke. He had a decent summer, showing some skill at the Traverse City Tournament and Wild training camp. Shortly thereafter, it was made known that Duke had no desire to toil again for the WHL’s most troubled franchise, the Lethbridge Hurricanes. Though he eventually reported, the team traded him to Brandon a few games into the season. Now, instead of being a leader for Lethbridge, Duke has more of a supporting role for a Wheat Kings club that boasts talent like Jayce Hawryluk, Rihards Bukarts, and Peter and John Quenneville. It affords Duke the opportunity to work on his overall game in support of players who may have more natural talent, but also to prove that he can produce points regardless of the quality of opposition. So far he has established that he has that ability with a respectable line of just under a point-per-game. It would be disappointing to see that slip too much, but Duke has done a good job so far of putting a tough situation behind him and focusing on playing good, solid hockey.
Tanner Faith, D, Kootenay Ice
Drafted 5th Round, 139th Overall 2014
Just when the season was looking up for Tanner Faith and his Kootenay Ice with the return of Sam Reinhart from his NHL baptism-by-fire, Faith was injured again. The big defenseman, who missed most of last season rehabbing from shoulder surgery, is surely disappointed to be shelved again by an “upper-body injury” but reports indicate that it is not likely to be a long-term situation. He had been one of Kootenay’s most reliable defensemen despite not putting up many points. Though Faith often sees top opposition, he has enough skill to put up points eventually. If the setback is temporary, Faith and the Ice should see a brighter second half of the season.
Hunter Warner, D, Prince Albert Raiders
Signed as Free Agent, September 2014
Hunter Warner has taken an interesting path in his young hockey career. A solid regular at one of Minnesota’s top prep programs, Eden Prairie, Warner was traded from Waterloo to Fargo for Duluth East standout Phil Beaulieu after a short time in the USHL. With Fargo Warner racked up 127 penalty minutes, but there is a bit more to his game than physical play or pugilism.
Warner was chosen for the All-American Prospects Game in 2013 and stood out for his strength at the USHL level, drawing the attention of the Wild. Warner had a strong development camp as an invitee, earning an entry-level contract after the close of camp. Having decided against attending Minnesota-Mankato, Warner’s choice of the WHL speaks to his physical courage and willingness to challenge himself to grow as a hockey player. He is still a lanky player but he has handled the size and skill of WHL competition pretty well in the early going. Warner is not going to impress often with offensive flair, but a simpler game will probably work fine for a Prince Albert squad likely to be chasing play this season.
Pavel Jenyš, C, Sudbury Wolves
Drafted 7th Round, 199th Overall 2014
For Pavel Jenyš, like many of the Wild’s juniors, courage in the face of adversity might be the big lesson this year. He went from last year’s Czech Extraliga runners-up Brno to what is now the worst team in the OHL, Sudbury. Although everyone obviously prefers winning, in a developmental sense the most important metric is individual improvement. Jenyš has good size and a promising set of skills but he was criticized by some scouts for inconsistent play prior to the draft. The middling reports may have caused him to fall below his Central Scouting ranking but the Wild looks to have made a smart bet.
Both inconsistency and improvement can be measured in different ways, but the 18-year-old Czech playing his rookie season in a strange new country and very tough league is doing well thus far. He is in the top five scorers for Sudbury and though he is slightly short of the point-per-game pace one would ideally see in his post-draft season, the surrounding factors make his performance so far a cause for optimism.
One would have to speculate that Jenyš could have an important role with the Czech team at the World Junior Championship as well.
Minnesota Wild Prospect of the Month: October
There may be no more forgotten prospect in the Wild’s system than Christoph Bertschy, off to a nice start with Bern of the Swiss NLA. The 2012 sixth rounder does not have a contract with the Wild at this point and may never end up playing professional hockey in North America. Bertschy, however, looked like a solid pick at the time it was made, coming off an excellent rookie season in Switzerland‘s top league. That strong showing was followed by a couple of lackluster years in which Bertschy battled some injuries as well as a veteran-laden depth chart.
His club team, Bern, went out and hired former NHL head coach Guy Boucher to help right the ship in early 2014. Since then not only has Bern been better, but Bertschy has earned a vote of confidence from his coach, being given the alternate captain’s honors for the first time as a pro. The points are also coming for the 20-year-old fourth-year pro and he will easily exceed his career bests this season. Bertschy has shown superior skills in international play, although he did decline to play in the most recent World Championship. The Wild has shown a lot of belief in developing players through the NCAA system, but the European scouting staff found a very good player in Bertschy. If his season continues in this positive way, he may yet earn an opportunity to show his skills in North America.
Follow Peter Prohaska on Twitter at @pprohaska