Minnesota Wild NCAA and European prospects savor playoff hockey

By Peter Prohaska
Alex Tuch - Minnesota Wild

Photo: Minnesota Wild first-round pick Alex Tuch led Boston College in points as a freshman. (courtesy of Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire)

 

For any organization dedicated to the near-term goal of a Stanley Cup, having the bulk of the team’s prospects in colleges or European leagues is sound policy. The young men get their chances to grow as people, the team’s contract status is unaffected, and there is less rush to decide on a player’s future. The pressures of pro hockey in Europe are real, especially for younger players, but so is the NCAA Tournament atmosphere. Both make for excellent developmental opportunities.

The Wild is an organization that emphasizes character and work ethic over raw talent, maybe even to a fault at times. Yet when two teams of nearly equal skill meet in the playoffs, the mental habits of toughness support all the physical conditioning that these young athletes do. For this group, the skill level is a work in progress. The Wild and its supporters will look to see if personalities that do not accept defeat begin to emerge when playoff competition increases the stakes.

NCAA

Steve Michalek, G, Harvard University (ECAC)
Drafted 6th Round, 161st Round, 2011

Michalek had a rough start to his collegiate career that put his future with the organization at risk. But with two excellent seasons in a row he is tracking well: a progression that one can certainly claim as a chief benefit of NCAA hockey for the right person. Harvard has been a good team this season, able to outscore teams, but Michalek has been a steady player. He has now put up a .924 save percentage in two consecutive seasons, but was asked to play almost every game for the Crimson this season. Furthermore, the Crimson are a top-heavy team led by Jimmy Vesey (NSH), meaning Michalek was busy many nights. Harvard has a good chance to advance out of the Midwest Regional, especially if Michalek is on top of his game.

Alex Tuch, RW, Boston College (Hockey East)
Drafted 1st Round, 18th Overall, 2014

Matt Dumba is graduating as a prospect this spring and Alex Tuch becomes the top prospect in the Wild system. A player with impressive physical gifts in terms of his frame, he is also a skilled and creative forward. Tuch is learning different ways to score after a junior career where he could rely on his size and elite linemates a little more. He still has a size and strength advantage, even in college hockey, but he is a smooth and creative stick-handler and distributor and improving those areas as well. The matchup of Tuch’s forechecking versus Denver’s highly-skilled defensemen is an interesting storyline for the East Regional.

Mario Lucia, LW/RW, University of Notre Dame (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th Overall, 2011

Mario Lucia is a naturally-gifted goal-scorer but his overall game leaves one wanting. Notre Dame’s roster featured so many drafted players during Lucia’s time there that it seemed they should have been perennial title contenders. The team fell a little short so far, albeit not without some successes. Lucia is a player with a lot of talent and he is still a young player. With Notre Dame losing some good players to graduation and the pros, Lucia must figure out whether he will assume even more of a leadership role next season in college or take the next step in a professional hockey career. His ability to score, his size, and his natural strength all point to a player who could have a pro career if the desire is also there.

Louis Nanne, LW, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (ECAC)
Drafted 7th Round, 188th Overall, 2012

Nanne is part of one of Minnesota’s most famous hockey families but he chose to head east to find his own path as a player and a person. Thus far, as a freshman at RPI, Nanne has been productive. It is good to see him have some collegiate success, especially coming on the heels of two disappointing seasons. One in the BCHL was impacted by a shoulder injury; one in the USHL was underwhelming. He had ten points on the year and that was good enough for top ten on his team. Nanne does not turn 21 until the summer, and will look to improve his game and RPI’s standing next season, after the team struggled within the conference this season.

Avery Peterson, C/RW, University of Nebraska-Omaha (NCHC)
Drafted 6th Round, 167th Overall, 2013

Avery Peterson, Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey of 2014, is having a good freshman season at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Despite having to fight for minutes with a talented group of upperclassmen, Peterson has earned some power play opportunities. His production has been solid for a freshman, though he has not added to his total of ten goals and nine assists lately. The big-bodied Peterson scored this season with a mixture of skill and scrap. His willingness and ability to be physical in the Tournament may be what separates the Mavericks at the right time. They will face Steve Michalek and Harvard in the first game of the Midwest Regional.

Adam Gilmour, C, Boston College (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th Round, 98th Overall, 2012

Adam Gilmour had a very good freshman season in 2013-14, but having Alex Tuch on his wing has also been good for him as a sophomore. Gilmour had some big obligations this season on a young Boston College team. He is not the most skilled player on the ice, but he is a responsible center with good reach and good sense. Gilmour is still a bit lanky, but his strength is improved over last season. This has helped him especially improve on faceoffs, of which he took the most on the team.

John Draeger, D, Michigan State University (Big Ten)
Drafted 3rd Round, 68th Overall, 2012

John Draeger started his college career in promising fashion, playing a big role for a rebuilding Michigan State squad. He has had some injuries in the three seasons since, and although the Spartans finished the season pretty well, they are no longer among college hockey’s elite. Draeger is a dependable player, with some size, some reach, and some skill, but he is not really an impact player at this level. Part of that is to do with his injuries slowing him down. He will most likely return for his senior year and anchor the blueline once again. If Michigan State improves next year, Draeger will be able to focus a bit more on contributing and less on making safe clearances out of his zone.

Louis Belpedio, D, Miami University (Ohio) (NCHC)
Drafted 3rd Round, 80th Overall 2014

Belpedio generated some excitement on draft day, and the freshman was already an impact player this season. Part of the NCHC All-Rookie Team, Belpedio is a big reason that the RedHawks are going to the NCAA Tournament. He is a top-pairing offensive defenseman thanks to his mobility and his overall skill level. Belpedio has a good accurate shot and good distribution skills. A true freshman, he still loses one-on-one battles, but will surely continue to improve his strength in his college career. Even if Miami loses a few key players, Belpedio’s growth should be worth something. Although they go to Providence to play fourth-seeded Providence College in the East Regional, Belpedio’s and Miami’s offensive ability and transition game can be hard to contain.

Carson Soucy, D, University of Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC)
Drafted 5th Round, 137th Overall, 2013

Soucy and the Bulldogs are also heading to the NCAA Tournament. The sophomore still has his defensive struggles, but added a valuable component to his game this season by figuring out how to get his shot past forwards and on net, going from 42 shots on goal to 65 so far this season. The Bulldogs have a balanced attack and with Soucy and Andy Welinski (ANA) putting up points from the blueline are able to stay in most games. Soucy is a big player and a good athlete who had a very successful season of growth as a player.

UMD faltered in the NCHC Tournament but now have a chance to knock off the school’s top rival, Minnesota-Twin Cities, and would then face either the 2013 national champions Yale, or Boston University and Jack Eichel. Soucy will need to be in top form for the challenge.

Nolan De Jong, D, University of Michigan (Big Ten)
Drafted 7th Round, 197th Overall, 2013

Michigan’s failure to qualify for the NCAA Tournament is probably the most disappointing one in college hockey. The Wolverines were a high-octane squad boasting super freshmen like Dylan Larkin (DET) and Zach Werenski (2015) but struggled to prevent goals. De Jong had some offense in Junior A but has yet to score a goal in two college seasons, and only two Michigan regulars scored fewer points overall this season. He is a player who has a conservative style and skates well and has put on some additional weight from his draft year, but is only moderately effective as a physical presence. His shot totals, modest as they were, were actually down from last season. The 19-year-old De Jong is still a long-range project, but weak point production on a team of that quality is a poor indicator.

Nick Seeler, D, University of Minnesota (Big Ten)
Drafted 5th Round, 131st Overall, 2011

Several Wild prospects had very little to no game experience this season due to injuries. In Seeler’s case, wanting to play hockey closer to home meant having to sit out a full season of games thanks to the NCAA’s byzantine, capricious, and often silly regulatory regime. Luckily for him, Minnesota’s coaches were excited to have the transfer student at the University. Seeler has had the benefit of practicing with the Gophers all season, and has some endorsement from the coaching staff as to his role next season. The Eden Prairie standout plays a physical style and will provide some maturity to a team that is likely to lose several upperclassmen at the close of the season.

Grayson Downing, C/LW, University of New Hampshire (Hockey East)
Signed as Free Agent, March 2015

Downing was off and on a top player in college hockey throughout his career at New Hampshire. A sophomore season playing with Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Trevor Van Riemsdyk and current Lehigh Valley Phantom Kevin Goumas saw him approach the point-per-game mark. He had some injury issues as a junior. In his just-completed senior campaign, the senior tallied a team-leading 21 goals. Downing is not a huge body, but he is capable of generating goals in different ways and plays a smart game.

The Wild scouts may have been convinced by Downing after a strong quarter-final series against Providence in the Hockey East Tournament. He scored in all three games, including the overtime winner in the first, and had nine shots on goal in the second in a losing effort. Iowa has nothing to lose by playing its newest additions, Downing and 2014 7th round pick Pavel Jenys, down the stretch to see if the team can improve its outlook for next season.

Europe

Kaapo Kähkönen, G, TuTo (Mestis)
Drafted 4th Round, 109th Overall, 2014

Kähkönen is into the playoffs now with Tuto after finishing the regular season with the second best save percentage in the Mestis (behind one-time Wild player Frédéric Cloutier). The young Finn may have a long way to travel to the NHL, but he is off to a good start. His Tuto squad won their first playoff round, with Kähkönen putting up a .926 save percentage in seven games. This season also saw him travel with Team Finland to the World Juniors as the third goalie. It may have been mere benchwarming, but it also positions him for a future role with the national team.

Christoph Bertschy, C/RW, SC Bern (NLA)
Drafted 6th Round, 158th Overall, 2012

Bertschy was off to a good start this season, after two rather mediocre campaigns. Justifiably down due to team circumstances perhaps, but disappointing, given his rookie campaign.

This season, he played well with Guy Boucher’s endorsement as alternate captain. He sustained an ankle injury that limited him to 30 points in 44 games, but he was top five on the team in scoring and third in shots on goal. Bertschy got back for the NLA playoffs but his second-seeded squad struggled in the second round against HC Davos and was ultimately swept. Bertschy had three points in seven games playing a second-line role.

His status with the Wild is uncertain due to the lack of a transfer agreement between the NHL and the NLA. The Wild likely sees no reason to relinquish its rights to Bertschy, and the player has expressed willingness to come to North America. Bertschy, who will be 21 in April, is a skilled skater who would help the AHL squad. It is a situation that may not be resolved until late in the summer.

Pontus Själin, D, Leksands J20 (SuperElit)
Drafted 6th Round, 160th Overall, 2014

Själin was drafted out of Östersunds in Sweden’s Division 1. He spent most of this season with Leksands IF however, playing in the Swedish SuperElit J20 division. Själin was solid in competition with his peer group, putting up 19 points in 37 games.

Although he did not get playing time in the SHL, he signed a two-year rookie deal with Leksands in February and could potentially make that squad next season in a limited role. While Själin is a mobile and intelligent defenseman, he needs more physical strength and weight to be an effective pro.

Prospect of the Month

Dylan Labbé - Minnesota Wild

After several trying years as the number one defenseman for the rebuilding Shawinigan Cataractes, Dylan Labbé finally found himself on one of the better teams in the QMJHL. Labbé nearly doubled his points from the two prior seasons with 51, though thanks in no small part to top 2015 prospect, Anthony Beauvillier. Now the Cataractes enter the playoffs as first-round favorites and Labbé will be tasked with helping to neutralize one of the best juniors in the world in Halifax’s Nikolaj Ehlers (WPG). While Labbé has proven to be a player with a wide range of skills, for the Cataractes to advance far in the playoffs, they will need his leadership as well as his scoring. The 2013 4th rounder has waited some time for meaningful hockey games and now he gets his chance.