This has not been a great year of the prospect for the Minnesota Wild. The team arrived at a point in its process where it became ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. This has been somewhat to the detriment of its prospect pool, although any fan will take the tradeoff. Nonetheless, Hockey’s Future makes an annual tradition of handing out some imaginary hardware to players who stood out during the course of their seasons.
Hardest Shot: Matt Dumba (Minnesota Wild)
Matt Dumba could have realistically won all of these ‘awards,’ and in a sense he is the only prospect who matters in 2014-15. Dumba was the Wild’s top prospect for years after being selected seventh overall in 2012. The Wild wisely exercised some patience with him, trying to get the young defenseman ready for the important role he had to play, and is expected to play throughout his career. Dumba even saw 20 games of AHL action this year – receiving an All-Star nomination no less – before being called back up to St. Paul.
It is a credit to the staff organization-wide that one way or another Dumba arrived as a legitimate player, bringing with him the work ethic, skating, defensive ability, and the risk and reward that very few athletes can offer. With eight goals on the season for the Wild, plus another in the playoffs, Dumba makes the Wild a more dangerous team. He is a power play asset but he can attack the zone at even strength as well. His growth this season has been a pleasure to witness and is a source of real optimism for the franchise.
Hockey demands a lot of its participants, from just putting on all the gear day after day to grinding out hours in the gym and on the ice. Then there is the mental aspect of training to be the best and refusing to fail. For young Czech Pavel Jenys there was the additional commitment of leaving his home of Brno, Czech Republic after being drafted in the first round of the CHL Import Draft by the Sudbury Wolves. Once in Ontario he faced not just the adjustment of a new city, culture and language, new school, teammates and coaches, but the additional challenge of playing for the worst team in the OHL. The Wolves even fired Head Coach Paul Fixter during the course of the season, creating even more turmoil for its young players.
Throughout it all, Jenys persevered, ultimately finishing the season as the team’s top scorer with 45 points in 63 games. With the OHL season at a merciful close, Jenys got the opportunity to join yet another last-place team, the Iowa Wild. Yet again Jenys set to work and amassed three assists and 14 shots on goal in eight professional games. He may able to play an important role for Iowa next season if this brief audition is any indicator.
With Dumba graduated from prospect status, the next player in line is Gustav Olofsson. He went from being a somewhat unknown second-round pick in 2013 to a college standout to a player whose pro career was looking very bright. Unfortunately he sustained a shoulder injury in the preseason that required surgery and shelved him for nearly the entire 2014-15 season. He remains a prospect of great interest nonetheless, possessing good size and a complete skill set. Not just due to the injury, but he should be expected to spend the majority of the 2015-16 in Iowa, further honing his understanding of the pro game.
The top prospect in the depth chart is Christian Folin, however. He lost his place in the lineup when the Wild got healthy, then acquired veteran Jordan Leopold at the deadline. Folin never seemed quite to get past Nate Prosser on the depth chart either. It only takes one or two mistakes to lose a coach’s trust when the stakes are so high, but Folin showed that he is a solid player who is an asset in the bottom-pairing, capable of hard-nosed physical play as well as offensive skill.
Although the Wild currently look like one of the fastest teams in the league at the NHL level, boasting great skaters like Jason Zucker, Erik Haula and Jonas Brodin, the prospect group lacks some speed. Miami University freshman Louis Belpedio is one exception. A very promising defenseman who was All-Rookie in the NCHC, Belpedio is an excellent skater who made several highlight reels with a diving save on an empty net in the NCAA Tournament. Beyond that play, Belpedio is a dynamic defenseman with offensive skills who will certainly be one of college hockey’s players to watch next season.
Prospect of the Year: Tyler Graovac (Iowa Wild/AHL)
Tyler Graovac deserves some special recognition for his career thus far, and as the only Wild prospect to make his NHL debut this season, he stood out in a good way. Graovac led the hapless Iowa squad in goals, points and shots on goal, all by considerable margin. For two seasons running now, Iowa has been the worst team, or near to it, in the AHL and throughout these struggles Graovac has proven to be a competitor who brings a solid effort night after night. He is a crafty center who could still stand to develop a big more aggression in his game. Graovac, the 199th pick of the 2011 draft, probably won’t catch the Lightning’s Ondrej Palat, the 208th pick, in scoring. Graovac however has been a very pleasant surprise for the Wild system. He may yet have a role to play in the NHL.
Breakout Player for 2015-16: Avery Peterson (University of Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks/NCAA)
Peterson, like Alex Tuch and Louis Belpedio, had a very good freshman season. Tuch in fact led the Boston College Eagles in scoring and should improve on his freshman campaign. These three are some of the most promising players in the Wild system. Peterson gets the nod as a possible breakout player thanks to his team’s somewhat improbable run to the Frozen Four. The Mavericks do lose their most valuable player, goaltender Ryan Massa, but the skaters return mostly intact. Peterson proved to be an important part of the team in his freshman season, albeit one who needs a bit more seasoning and some improvements in his skating. With a big summer, Peterson should return ready for a sophomore campaign that shows to the college hockey world that his team’s run to the Frozen Four was no fluke.
The Wild drafted quite a few players out of western Canada in the last few seasons, with mixed results so far. Chase Lang was a bit of a surprise when his name was called. His draft season numbers were decidedly middling, with just 25 points in 68 games. Wild signee Brady Brassart had 85 points to co-lead the team that season, but Lang’s intelligent approach to the game caught the eye of some Wild scouts and the pick has looked good so far. Lang upped his totals to 25 goals and 56 points this season, though again Calgary’s depth chart has sometimes relegated him to fewer minutes. He has been a bigger part of the special teams and his play has certainly helped the Hitmen into the conference finals. Despite nursing an injury, Lang has seven points in nine games.
The two seasons prior to this, Dylan Labbé scored 28 and 27 points before breaking out to 51 points in 63 games this season. By all indications, second-year, 94 point scorer Anthony Beauvillier (2015 eligible) was good for the team. That is not to say that Labbé doesn’t offer a lot of upside of his own. He logged a lot of minutes for the Cataractes over his junior career, and had to do it on teams that struggled. It was a tough playoff series for the squad though, as super prospect Nikolaj Ehlers (WIN) led the Halifax Mooseheads to an upset. The consolation for Labbé came in the form of his entry-level contract, which he signed just after the close of the season. For the Wild there is some risk, having signed a truly prolific junior scorer in Guillaume Gélinas to a contract just to watch him fail to translate any of that to the AHL. Labbé has some AHL experience already and is the more well-rounded prospect, but he has as much to prove at the next level.
Underachiever: Kaapo Kähkönen (TuTo/Mestis)
It would be easy to put Iowa Wild players like Kurtis Gabriel, Raphael Bussières or Brett Bulmer here but they mostly just failed to get traction for various reasons. Some of that disappointment has to be reserved for the Wild’s decision to use high draft picks on players with limited upside however.
Despite the ‘underachiever’ designation, let us be clear that Kahkonen had a great season, with save percentages of .925 in the regular season and .934 in the playoffs. He remains the top goaltending prospect in the system, even though Steve Michalek is also pushing for a major role with the organization. In the case of the young Finn, it is only a matter of time. As for this season, he did play pro hockey and put up great numbers, but he did so in the Mestis, Finland’s second-tier league. He also made his national squad and participated in the top tournament for his age group, the 2015 World Juniors, but did not get one minute of ice-time. All of this still means that Kahkonen is a very good prospect. Next season should see him in the Liiga with Blues, and this offers a better chance for growth for Kahkonen, and more opportunity to assess his skill level.
Highest Risk/Reward: Mario Lucia (Notre Dame Fighting Irish/NCAA)
It is too soon to pass final assessments of the 2011 NHL Draft, but all current indicators suggest that the Wild’s scouting staff had a mediocre outing. There is little dispute that Jonas Brodin is a special talent, though a player who might be underrated throughout his career due to lack of offense, and the aforementioned Graovac could still cover the long odds of his seventh-round slot. But there was a first-round pick burned on Zack Phillips, who is no longer with the organization, and then second-round pick Mario Lucia, a player the Wild traded third and fourth round picks to get. Neither player has an NHL game to his credit, something that cannot be said of many picks in the first two rounds of that draft. It is not to say that the Wild would have, or ought to have, drafted Johnny Gaudreau, Ondrej Palat, Andrew Shaw, or Tobias Rieder in place of Lucia, but it puts an additional burden on the player to succeed. As acquisition costs go up, so too do the risks for the team.
Lucia has had a solid NCAA career with Notre Dame, and from all reports, been an excellent scholar as well. He is a player with every physical tool necessary to be a good hockey player, and has relatively little competition for a top-six role in the pro ranks next season. It is not an easy decision to leave college for an AHL job however, and Lucia and his advisors – not the least of which is his father, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia – must decide whether another year in college hockey is to his benefit.
Prospect of the Month
The state of Minnesota sent all of its Division-1 men’s hockey teams but one (Bemidji State) to the NCAA Tournament. Of those, it was Minnesota State Mankato that seemed poised to have the deepest run, after a great regular season. The season ended with a bit of bad luck, as one-game playoffs often do, but for senior defenseman Zach Palmquist it was still a run to remember. A player who had an outstanding college career, during the course of which he gained attention from several NHL clubs, finally signed a pro contract in the end of March. Palmquist brings to the Wild organization a lot of intangible gifts: he has been a three-time All-Academic in the conference and a second team All-American. He also put up some points in his college career despite not having a reputation for offensive skills. Palmquist is a nice addition to a system that can always use more defensive help and high character players.