This past off-season was one of change for the Minnesota Wild. Gone are long-time GM Doug Risebrough and coach Jacques Lemaire. Chuck Fletcher moved over from the Pittsburgh organization to take on the role of GM of the team. He hired former Sharks assistant coach Todd Richards to serve as the team’s new head coach.
Along with the new regime came a new attitude and philosophy. More importance will be placed on the draft as well as developing prospects properly than under the previous leadership group. This new attitude was demonstrated during the 2009 entry draft where Fletcher, who served as assistant GM scouted players, did a very good job drafting quality talent in the mid to late rounds. After only one draft, the Wild organization is far deeper than in the past.
The strength of the Wild depth chart is on defense where Minnesota can count several blue liners with solid NHL careers ahead of them. The main weakness with the organization is a lack of high-end scoring among the forwards.
The premier forward in the Minnesota organization is former Saskatoon Blade Colton Gillies. Gillies spent the entire 2008-09 season in the NHL, playing 45 games for the Wild. Although he didn’t display much of a scoring touch during the time he played, he did demonstrate a serious work ethic and an enthusiasm for the game that all young prospects should have. With the new regime in place, the decision was made to send Gillies to the AHL Aeros at least to start the 2009-10 campaign. The increased in ice time and responsibility will ultimately help his development. Through his first four games in Houston, he has one goal and one assist.
Thus far Benoit Pouliot’s career has been a story of inconsistency. The 2005 fourth overall pick joined the Wild organization with great expectations placed upon him. For a number of reasons, Pouliot has not lived up to those expectations and his development has been slow. Poor attitude, ineffective defensive play, and the inability to adapt to various coaching systems have been his main issues. So far this season, Pouliot has played in six games with the Wild. He has fared reasonably well, scoring one goal and adding an assist. This season is make or break for the 23-year-old Pouliot in the Minnesota organization.
Returning to North America after quitting the Aeros last season is rugged winger Petr Kalus. Disappointed at starting another season in the AHL, Kalus bolted to the KHL where he played in only 17 games for Balashikha. This season, Kalus failed to make the Wild roster out of camp again. At this point it is becoming clear that Kalus won’t become a top-six forward at the NHL level. He does, however, have enough skills that with an attitude change and better focus he may eventually land a role as an agitator in the NHL.
The next left winger down the organization’s depth chart is a bit of a wild card in regards to long-term potential. Kris Foucault skated for three different WHL teams before finding his way late last season with the Calgary Hitmen. He was a scoring machine down the stretch and deep into the playoffs for Calgary, impressing the Wild so much that they took him in the fourth round of last summer’s entry draft. Foucault has the same knocks against him that Pouliot does. He has been called lazy and a poor worker in the past, but he’s had a good start to the 2009-10 WHL season. So far, he has totalled eight points in 11 games and looks to be picking up where he left off last season. Foucault has the scoring touch and size to be a reliable power forward in the NHL.
As with Foucault, fellow 2009 draftee Erik Haula is also a bit of a project that potentially could pan out well for Minnesota. The speedy winger has a great scoring touch and is also a fine playmaker. He is small and will need to add strength if he is to make it. He is currently playing for Omaha of the USHL where he is off to a fast start. Haula is committed to attend the University of Minnesota next year.
Playing in Finland again this season will be 2008 draft pick Eero Elo. Elo has good scoring ability and knows how to use his size well. His overall skills are still very raw, however, and will be a long-term project. He plays in the Lukko Rauma organization and will attempt to crack the club’s SM-Liiga roster this season.
Also in Finland, 2009 draft pick Jere Sallinen is attempting to get his career back on track after losing most of last season to a back injury. The power forward has played seven games so far with the Espoo Blues in the SM Liiga. He has one goal and no assists in those seven games. As with Elo, Sallinen is a long-term project.
Tough guy Matt Kassian will be patrolling the ice in Houston this season. Entering his third AHL season, Kassian is in the last year of his entry-level contract and will need to show the Wild organization that he is capable of more than fourth-line minutes in the AHL. It looks as though Kassian has already reached his ceiling. In three games this season with the Aeros, Kassian is pointless and has five penalty minutes to show for his efforts.
Starting his first pro season with Houston, pivot Cody Almond is coming off an outstanding final year of junior with the Kelowna Rockets. Almond’s solid two-way play was a major factor in Kelowna taking the WHL championship last season. His skill set and talent level makes him a prime candidate to grow into an energy or role player at the NHL level.
Danish center Morton Madsen can’t say he didn’t get a fair shake at cracking the Wild roster. He played two seasons of AHL hockey with Houston but never showed the offensive production that he did with Victoriaville. Madsen never really managed to step up to the North American pro game. After failing to make the Wild roster out of training camp again, Madsen had no desire to return to the AHL. The Wild loaned him to Modo of the Swedish Elite League. He is listed as being on a try-out with the team.
Minnesota’s final pick in the 2009 draft came as a surprise to many. Midget major player Anthony Hamburg was expected to sail through the draft unclaimed. The Wild, however, saw enough scoring touch and enough raw talent to add him to their prospect pool. In his first season of USHL hockey with the Omaha Lancers, Hamburg is a project.
The two remaining centers on the Wild depth chart are Chris Hickey and Julian Walker. At this point, both players can be considered busts. Walker has never played in a league outside of Switzerland, choosing instead to develop in the Swiss A and B leagues. He currently plays for Ambri-Piotta. Former Wisconsin Badger Chris Hickey is currently out of hockey after playing only eight games the team last season. He is no longer with the Wisconsin hockey program and must sit out a season before returning to NCAA hockey.
With the departure of Alexander Fallstrom in the Chuck Kobasew trade and Petr Kalus now playing left wing in Houston, the team’s only true right wing prospect is Carson McMillan. Like fellow CHL graduate Almond, McMillan is in his rookie season with the Aeros. Thus far in three games, he has one assist to his credit. McMillan is a versatile player who does a little bit of everything right. His top-end potential might be as a role player in the NHL one day.
For the past couple of years, the deepest area of the Minnesota organization has been on the blue line. In fact, the past two Minnesota first-round picks have been defensemen. The team’s top prospect was one of those picks.
The Wild selected Ottawa 67 Tyler Cuma 23rd overall in the 2008 draft. Cuma has a reputation for being a very stable presence on the back end. He is solid defensively and can be relied upon to chip in on offense. He is a smart player who understands the game well. Cuma’s development was slowed somewhat by a serious knee injury early in the 2008-09 season. The injury caused him to miss the bulk of the OHL season and also a chance to play for Canada at the World Junior Championships. He was considered by most as a lock to make the squad. He rebounded nicely from the injury and pushed hard at Minnesota’s training camp this fall, but was eventually one of the last cuts from camp and returned to an underachieving Ottawa 67’s team. Cuma stands a good chance at seeing NHL action next season.
Also a first-round choice, this time 16th overall in 2009, Nick Leddy is another highly regarded blue liner in the organization. While Cuma is considered a two-way defenseman, Leddy is far more offensive-minded. Last season with Eden Prarie, he led the team’s defensemen in scoring with 45 points in 31 games. Where many other young offensive defensemen lack the ability to play defense properly, Leddy is known for being a reliable player in his own end. The main knock against him when he was drafted was that he lacked size. In preparation for his first season at the University of Minnesota, Leddy added 15 pounds. The added size and strength should help him adjust to the NCAA game faster. He is potentially three or four seasons away from professional hockey.
A perfect compliment to Cuma and Leddy’s style of game, shut-down defender Marco Scandella’s development since being drafted has been impressive. The young blue liner has made every effort to improve his skating and on ice decision-making, two aspects of his game that were questionable at the time he was drafted. The captain of the Val d’Or Foreurs played well at this year’s Minnesota training camp, but was returned to junior for more seasoning. He will more than likely require a full season of AHL hockey before making the jump to the NHL.
Another QMJHL product, undrafted Maxim Noreau is now in his third season with the Houston Aeros. He led the team in scoring last year and is off to a fast start this season with three points in his first six games. There is no questioning Noreau’s ability to score and to quarterback a power play. Defensively, he is capable, but not great by any means. He is also smallish for the pro level. Providing he can overcome those stumbling blocks, he may turn into a serviceable NHL defenseman.
Hulking stay-at-home defenseman Justin Falk is now in his second AHL season. Falk’s rookie campaign was filled with ups and downs, but he grew steadier as the season progressed. Given his size and defensive ability, he should eventually see some time with the Wild.
This off-season, former Islander farm hand Jamie Fraser was signed as a free agent. The offensive defenseman’s addition is seemingly nothing more than AHL depth.
Rounding out the Minnesota’s blue line prospects are one Finn and a pair of NCAA rearguards. 2007 draft pick Harri Ilvonen is enjoying a strong start to his 2009-10 season. After only seeing spot duty last season with Tappara Tampere, he has so far played in all 13 of the team’s games and has done well. Defensive defensemen Sean Lorenz and Kyle Medvec are currently playing NCAA hockey. As with Ilvonen, they are long-term projects and have uphill battles to make the NHL.
After going undrafted, training camp invitee Bjorn Krupp was signed to a free-agent contract. The son of former NHLer Uwe Krupp could pan out to be a shrewd signing for the club as he has good size, and plays solid defense. His skating has improved a good deal in the past year. He is back in Belleville this season.
The Wild go into this year’s system analysis with a reasonably strong corps of goaltenders going forward. Fletcher bolstered their depth between the pipes during the 2009 draft by drafting two netminders from the CHL. The more promising of the two youngsters selected is Plymouth Whaler Matt Hackett. The nephew of former NHLer Jeff Hackett is in his fourth season of junior already. This season’s start hasn’t been kind to Hackett though, who has a five wins and fives losses through his first 10 games.
In the final year of his contract, smallish goalie Anton Khudobin is making headway. Bouncing from the ECHL to the AHL over the past two seasons hasn’t been easy or ideal for Khudobin’s development. However he made the best of it and came into his own during last season’s AHL playoffs where he helped the Houston go deep. He was involved in a three-way fight for an AHL roster spot in training camp this fall and made the team, avoiding the ECHL. Thus far he has outplayed veteran Wade Dubielewicz and looked more consistent than in the past. Khudobin is still a long shot to land a NHL gig, but he continues to improve and may be on his way to earning another contract with the Wild next season.
The second goaltender drafted by the Wild in 2009 was Darcy Kuemper. The Red Deer Rebel is currently in his second season as the No. 1 goalie. His season so far has been lackluster, recording five wins and five losses with 3.38 GAA. Kuemper is a big goaltender who takes up a lot of space. For a goalie his size, he is very agile and moves well. But his consistency is lacking thus far. He is a long-term project who could still pan out for Minnesota.
The final goalie on the depth chart is Finn Niko Hovinen. The No. 1 goaltender for the Pelicans of the SM-Liiga is steadily progressing into one of the more intriguing young goaltenders in Finland, but the 6’7 tender is still considered a long shot at this point.