The NHL’s salary cap forced Chuck Fletcher and the Minnesota Wild into a tough balancing act. On the one side are the well-paid veterans whose skill levels are established, if subject to bad luck and other kinds of decline. On the other side are the players on a first contract or an entry-level deal: the rookies and the young core. These players offer occasional glimpses of their best selves, but often disappoint with mistakes or other kinds of regression, especially when they are thrust into new roles. Mediocrity is the result when rookies fail to make the leap to consistent good play and veterans fall back a step.
Observers will wonder, has there been any progress this year with the Wild? As of the All-Star break, the Minnesota Wild sits well outside the Western Conference playoffs with plenty of good teams to catch. The Iowa Wild is the worst team in the AHL by any standard measures. The team’s prospect pool is mostly unremarkable as well, and the Wild’s greatest advantage remains its youthful core of first-round talents. Even so, Jonas Brodin, Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle have all been thrust into roles more suited to a veteran presence. Also worth noting is that Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon are not much older and have also struggled to replicate some of last season’s strong results.
Apart from off-ice issues like the sudden losses of Bob Suter and J.P. Parise -towering hockey figures in the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota- which have Ryan Suter and Zach Parise playing with heavy hearts, the reasons for the team’s collective inability to win games have been many. Poor goaltending, a power play that turned merely mediocre after an abysmal start, and a drastic drop in shooting proficiency from some top-line players (especially Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek) have likely doomed the Wild to golf outings in May. Patience with regard to the youth and a highly-targeted offseason should set this franchise back on track, but this season has shown that the team was not as sturdily constructed as some thought.
The Wild has graduated several prospects since Chuck Fletcher took over the team’s management. Though one could quibble as to whether some needed more time in a development league, the team showed discretion as needed. Jason Zucker proved himself at the AHL level over parts of two seasons and was no guarantee when he made the NHL roster out of training camp. He has been a bright spot for the Wild and has a role to play in its future success as long as expectations are reasonable. Zucker’s strengths are his speed and his ability to generate shot attempts. Though he has probably been somewhat lucky in getting goals this season, the simple fact is that a shot on goal is one play that is usually the right decision and the 20-goal mark is one he should achieve consistently over the next several years. Zucker has shown the courage, energy and skill necessary to be a difference-maker.
Center Erik Haula also graduated as a prospect earlier this season. Unlike Zucker, Haula has not enjoyed the same success as last season, but expectations for him might have been a little high coming after an excellent playoff run. He remains an intriguing young player with good skill in several areas, including faceoffs and penalty killing, and his next contract with the Wild might be a difficult negotiation. Though he has been cast as a defensive specialist, the skill is there for some upside in the offensive zone as well.
Another recent graduate is goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who started the season as the number one goaltender in brilliant fashion, posting three shutouts in the first four games. His confidence seemed shaky at times thereafter, but he has also suffered from some unclear upper-body issues of a more physical nature this season. Since returning from injured reserve, Kuemper finds himself possibly serving as a backup to the more experienced Devan Dubnyk. Kuemper did come in to the last game in relief of Dubnyk and kept a clean sheet, despite an eventual overtime loss. If each goalie can push the other to consistent and competent form, the Wild could salvage the season, but the three-goalie dynamic is unusual and undesirable for all parties.
Christian Folin, D, 23
Chuck Fletcher has shown himself to be a big fan of signing rookie free agents, players who represent a low-cost way to augment the team’s depth as long as the scouts can be trusted. Jared Spurgeon is a great example of this strategy working, and Christian Folin is trending upward as well.
Folin’s path to pro hockey was a somewhat unusual one, having traveled from Sweden to the NAHL to the NCAA. With UMass-Lowell, Folin showed a mature defensive game that earned him several suitors. The Wild seems to have made a good bet with Folin. Though he lacks some of the puck skill that would make him a great top-four option, he is aggressive and solid in his own end and possesses a good shot. Folin is still learning the NHL game, as any rookie is, but so far has been one of the more reliable defenders who come in to spell the workhorses of the top-four.
Matt Dumba, D, 20
Dumba offers so much that the Wild need while also showing how hard it is to be a legitimate NHL player. Long considered the Wild’s top prospect, he started the season in the NHL but by December he was skating with the Iowa Wild, and putting up some points too. Dumba was named to the AHL All-Star team for his efforts in fact, but the Wild recalled him in mid-January for a quiet introduction in the form of a game against the Sabres. With a goal, a fight and a reasonable 16-plus minutes of ice-time, Dumba looked more confident than he had before his assignment.
The growing pains are still something the team has to be able to absorb. For a player like Dumba, who will never be effective as an NHLer if he doesn’t rush the offensive zone and play on the power play, patience and careful coaching are of the highest importance. Any expectation of Dumba being an impact NHL player this season was short-sighted, but he will have played a lot of hockey this year to help him be a solid option for the coming fall.
Tyler Graovac, C, 21
It speaks volumes about the Wild’s development strategy that Graovac is the only Wild prospect to make his NHL debut so far this season. Although Michael Keränen or Zack Mitchell might still get the call as a reward for some solid play for Iowa, neither player is a likely candidate to step in and reverse the team’s fortunes in a heated playoff race.
The good of it is that Graovac handled the brief taste of NHL action pretty well, and should probably get some more games in if the season continues to go poorly. In three games, Graovac did not generate good numbers, but the leap from the AHL to the NHL is a giant one and the sample too small to draw conclusions. The bad of it is that ideally there would be some more players who have shown enough ability at the AHL level to be considered ready for the next step. For his part, Graovac has been a competent performer at the AHL level and could easily be a cheap way to replace unrestricted free agent Kyle Brodziak next season. Whether he will bring enough offense to replace Brodziak’s defensive acumen is a big question for the Wild brass to consider.
Jordan Schroeder, C, 24
It was a reasonable bet for the Wild to sign Jordan Schroeder once the Vancouver Canucks decided not retain his services, but this team does not seem overly enamored with him either. Schroeder has gotten into only three NHL games, despite being just under a point-per-game for the hapless Iowa squad. And despite good performances in those three games, the team seems much more committed to Justin Fontaine, a player of similar skills but more experienced. Schroeder brings some speed and creativity with his puck distribution, but he is neither a strong shooter nor the kind of physical presence the Wild needs to force mistakes onto other teams. He has another contract year to work his way into a role that helps him succeed, but the path is far from clear.
2015 World Junior Roundup
The tournament could have gone much better for Team USA and the Wild’s 2014 first-round pick, Alex Tuch. The Boston College freshman started on Jack Eichel’s (2015) right wing, and the familiarity those two had from last year’s US National Development Team just did not lead to enough goals. Tuch failed to cash in on several opportunities against Team Canada and it was probably that lack of luck that saw him demoted in the all-important game against Team Russia. In a short tournament, a coach has to make quick decisions, but not having Tuch on the ice for puck retrieval purposes led to pucks going the wrong direction at the end of that game. Whatever the disappointment he felt from that showing, Tuch is clicking with the Wild’s Adam Gilmour (who is having a strong sophomore campaign) and is looking comfortable against NCAA competition.
The Wild’s 2014 fourth-round pick Kaapo Kähkönen served as Team Finland’s third goalie in that team’s abbreviated tournament. Juuse Saros (NSH) struggled some but another fine prospect, Ville Husso (STL), was there to provide capable goaltending for the rest. Kähkönen gets credit for making the trip and with his excellent play this season for TuTo of the Finnish Mestis could potentially be called on for next year’s tournament on his home turf.
Prospect of the Month
The Wild lacks a high-end scorer in the prospect ranks, but one thing the team has shown is an ability to get some utility out of late-round draft picks. Chase Lang, the Wild’s second of three sixth-round picks in 2014, is having a bit of a breakout season for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL.
He started out on an impressive scoring pace, with six goals and eight assists in October. Although he has slacked off that pace since, including a tough run in November, Lang still has 41 points in 41 games. Worth noting is that Lang is the youngest prospect in the Wild’s system, almost eight months younger than fellow sixth-rounder Reid Duke. Despite his age, and his average size, this is his third season with Calgary. He has gone from a player who was used in limited situations to an all-around useful option. Not yet a game-breaking type player, Lang is nonetheless putting together an impressive season to the credit of the Wild’s scouts out in western Canada.
Follow Peter Prohaska on Twitter at @pprohaska