Mikael Granlund premieres as Minnesota Wild’s top prospect

By Peter Prohaska
The eighth overall pick in the 2010 NHL draft, Mikael Granlund, immediately makes the Wild’s prospect pool more competitive. (Photo Courtesy of www.webtvfinland.fi

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Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher and his team did a targeted reload at the 2010 Entry Draft, specifically adding skill players who can play along the wings. This strategy, along with some free agent prospect signings, gives the Wild’s Top 20 a greatly renovated look from last March. With a lot of new youth, and a lot of players about to start their seasons in brand new leagues, the Wild’s depth chart compares favorably with other teams around the league.

Top 20 at a glance:

1. (NR) Mikael Granlund, C, 8C
2. (2) Marco Scandella, D, 7C
3. (1) Tyler Cuma, D, 7C
4. (3) Colton Gillies, LW, 6.5B
5. (4) Matt Hackett, 7C
6. (6) Cody Almond, 6.5B
7. (NR) Johan Larsson, 6.5B
8. (NR) Casey Wellman, C/RW, 6.5C
9. (NR) Joel Broda, C, 6.5C
10. (7) Erik Haula, LW, 7D
11. (5) Maxim Noreau, D, 6.5C
12. (NR) Nate Prosser, D, 6.5C
13. (8) Justin Falk, D, 6.5C
14. (NR) Brett Bulmer, RW, 6.5C
15. (NR) Jason Zucker, LW, 6.5C
16. (NR) Chad Rau, C, 7D
17. (9) Kris Foucault, LW, 6.5D
18. (12) Carson McMillan, RW, 6C
19. (14) Jere Sallinen, LW, 6.5D
20. (10) Petr Kalus, LW 6.5D

1. (NR) Mikael Granlund, C, 18
Drafted 1st Round, 9th Overall, 2010

An extremely gifted playmaker who starred as a 17 year old in the SM-Liiga, Granlund takes the top spot. Possessing good scoring skill, excellent skating, and superlative awareness, Granlund was considered one of the top players eligible for the draft, and was ranked number one among European skaters by most scouts.

Coming to a franchise who has just committed to its Finnish captain, Mikko Koivu, will also be of help in this young man’s transition to the NHL. He did not play on a particularly strong HIFK team, but averaged nearly a point per game while playing roughly 16 minutes a game.

Granlund is full of promise and easily the best prospect in Minnesota’s pipeline. He will naturally need to work on his strength and durability to make a successful transition, and his north-south skating is a minor concern as well.

2. (2) Marco Scandella, D, 20
Drafted 2nd Round, 55th Overall, 2008

Scandella made his pro debut last season after a good career in the QMJHL. Though his upside is as a top-four shutdown defender, Scandella has developed steadily, and while Minnesota tends to take their time with defenseman, Scandella could be a physically impactful player in the near future.

Scandella’s nasty streak got him in trouble last season, when he served a fifteen game suspension for a head shot on Alexandre Durette. Nonetheless, this young man should be able to find a way to focus that intensity into a good pro career. Depending on how the 2009-10 season goes for the Wild, Scandella could see a late-season cup of coffee.

3. (1)Tyler Cuma, D, 20
Drafted 1st Round, 23rd Overall, 2008

Tyler Cuma and Marco Scandella are pretty similar prospects, with Cuma having slightly more upside. That upside has been somewhat limited by injury, however, and Cuma slots in at number three. Cuma’s skating ability and offensive skill are definitely better than Scandella but his durability is a major concern. In 2009-10 Cuma only laced up for 52 games, the season prior, only 21.

Cuma is signed to an entry-level deal but it would make sense for him to return to the OHL for another year of seasoning.

4. (3) Colton Gillies, LW, 21
Drafted 1st Round, 16th Overall, 2007

Expectations have been tempered for this first rounder. Many will point out his development as not being particularly well-handled, but some of that responsibility still rests with the player himself. Gillies still has the necessary tools to succeed as a professional, preferably in a well-defined role. Gillies still brings an impressive package of abilities including his 6’4 frame and excellent foot speed.

A player who loves to hit, Gillies is somewhat limited in his overall effectiveness by a lack of scoring touch. He should be able to chip in a few more goals than the ten he has managed so far in 128 NHL and AHL games.

The Wild have a lot forwards under contract so Gillies might be forced to start the 2010-11 season in the AHL regardless of his performance in training camp.

5. (5) Matt Hackett, G, 20
Drafted 3rd Round, 77th Overall, 2009

Matt Hackett stays at the fifth spot, although this season, his first as a professional, will provide some actual evidence as to his eventual upside. His junior numbers were very good, and he finished last season with a .925 save percentage for a Plymouth Whalers team who got shelled night after night. He did eventually lose his temper with all that abuse, and got suspended for the final game of his junior career.

The competitive nature is a positive; the lack of focus is something he needs to work on. The Wild’s AHL affiliate, the Aeros currently have a bit of a logjam between the pipes, and Hackett will have to outplay incumbent Anton Khudobin and probably Darcy Kuemper as well for his minutes.

6. (6) Cody Almond, C, 21
Drafted 5th Round, 140th Overall, 2007

A good defensive forward with limited offensive upside, Almond is nonetheless likely to be an NHL regular at some point in the near future. He wasn’t much of a scorer in junior, but had a remarkable playoff run in 2008-09, with 27 points in 22 games. Since then, he has been asked to play tough minutes on an Aeros squad that struggled. Though the seven goals and 11 assists in 48 games weren’t all that impressive, Almond’s demonstrated the ability to create offense.

As that team improves, so should his numbers. Almond is quintessential tough minutes forward, who will block shots, hit, and still generate his offense. He has the ability to contribute in a scoring role but would make an ideal third-line forward. Expect him to start the coming season in the AHL, with an eye towards a mid-season call-up.

7. (NR) Johan Larsson, LW (6.5B), 18
Drafted 2nd Round, 56th Overall, 2010

Larsson’s numbers hadn’t impressed much, until he got to the World U-18s tournament. Larsson is an intelligent player, tenacious and opportunistic. Slightly nicked for his skating mostly, different scouts had him ranked all over the place. Without going too overboard, he does warrant comparisons to Detroit star Henrik Zetterberg, from his size to the two-way style of his game. Larsson’s dominance in the faceoff circle is the other skill that will serve him well.

Next season will be the real test as to whether his skills and grit are equal to a full season against the top competition of the SEL. Work ethic, awareness, and leadership are all among his strong qualities. Though he projects now as a defensive specialist, bursts of offense like he showed at the U-18s are probably no fluke.

8. (NR) Casey Wellman, C/RW, 22
Signed as a free agent, 2010

A very effective scorer at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Wellman has a bit to prove at the professional level. The fact remains that goals are not that easy to come by in NCAA hockey, and Wellman produced, scoring 23 goals and 45 points in a 36 game slate last season.

A decent late season tryout with the Wild went about as well as could be expected, seeing Wellman pot one goal and three assists in 12 games. This has produced some understandable excitement among the Wild faithful, but Wellman is unlikely to be the answer for a still unremarkable offensive team. At around 170 pounds, he is undersized and his skating leaves much to be desired. He does however possess a quick, accurate shot. It will be interesting to see how much time he and fellow newly acquired sniper Joel Broda get to spend in St. Paul this season.

9. (NR) Joel Broda, C, 20
Signed as a free agent, 2010

A fifth round draft pick (144th overall) of the Washington Capitals in 2008, Broda has found himself another path to a pro career. Broda had a very productive junior career playing with Tri-City, Moose Jaw, and Calgary. He scored the most goals in the WHL in 2008-2009 with 53, and scored 39 the season after that. He had one of the hardest shots in the league, played with a physical edge, and was at least decent defensively.

That all said there are red flags, such as the multiple junior teams, and the fact that despite leading the Hitmen to a league championship last season, the Capitals couldn’t find a reason to sign him. That organization’s loss might prove the Wild’s gain, as Broda brings a solid combination of ability and pedigree.

Many junior stars finds the AHL a tough place to replicate his success, but Broda has skills that give cause for some optimism. Perhaps the snub from the Caps provides an additional source of motivation for Broda at training camp.

10. (7) Erik Haula, LW, 19
Drafted 7th Round, 182nd Overall, 2009

Erik Haula tore up the USHL last season, with 72 points in 56 regular season games. As a Finn who has shown a desire to play North American hockey since his prep days at Shattuck-St.Mary’s, he is positioned to be a fan favorite. He will attend the University of Minnesota this fall, and will probably get good opportunities to generate some counting numbers.

It remains to be seen whether Haula’s skating ability and frame are equal to the test of NCAA hockey. His situation could be comparable to former Wild forward Danny Irmen. No one has ever knocked this young man’s character, and certainly Minnesota fans will have a very good reason to check out the Golden Gophers this fall.

11. (5) Maxim Noreau, D, 23
Signed as Free Agent, 2008

Noreau went undrafted, but finished second on the Aeros this season in scoring with 18 goals and 34 assists. As he toils in the AHL, one wonders exactly what this player has to do to earn NHL ice time. Looking back at his career with the Victoriaville Tigres in the QMJHL, Noreau elevated the play of teammates Benoit Doucet, Toby Lafrance and the occasionally-maligned Morten Madsen.

Noreau obviously possesses some considerable upside as a puck-mover and shooter, without giving up too terribly much as a defensive defender. He is somewhat smaller than some NHL defensemen at 5’11, 198, but is certainly a player with no shortage sandpaper to his game. One has to think he is a mere Marek Zidlicky injury away from getting a second cup of coffee with the Wild, and should acquit himself pretty well in the role of a second pairing defender and power-play specialist.

12. (NR) Nate Prosser, D, 24
Signed as Free Agent, 2009

Prosser’s numbers playing for Colorado College of the WCHA don’t speak of tremendous offensive potential. His 28 points in his senior year was an immense improvement over a tough junior campaign however, and with this type of signing the Wild got a good player to bolster their blueline depth.

A former Mr. Hockey out of Elk River, Prosser has always been a leader, wearing the C with Sioux Falls and serving as an alternate captain with Colorado College. He made the NCAA All-Academic Team, and players with intelligence and character are important at every level. Besides that, Prosser can skate, plays a physical game and could be counted on in tough situations. He only got a one-game tryout with the Wild last year, but should be a big part of an improved Aeros squad this season.

13. (8) Justin Falk, D, 21
Drafted 4th Round, 110th Overall, 2007

Justin Falk is another good defensive prospect for the Wild, who seem to have an entire generation defense corps ready to step up if needed. Falk has excellent pro size (6’5, 214) and enough offensive instincts to be a threat with his big shot. He became a dependable regular with the Aeros last season, but the team will need more from him next season, particularly in the shots department. Yet another Wild prospect with some success on his resume, Falk won a Memorial Cup with Spokane in 2008.

He is going to be an important part of turning around the Wild’s AHL franchise this season.

14. (NR) Brett Bulmer, RW, 18
Drafted 2nd Round, 39th Overall, 2010

Taken somewhat earlier than projected, the Kelowna Rockets forward might be a bit of a project. He brings a somewhat similar package to Colton Gillies: a big man who can skate, but needs work on the offensive side of things. This pick was a bit of a surprise to some observers, but Bulmer’s upside is undeniable if he continues to work hard on the finer points of his game.

Expect him to return to Kelowna if not for one, two more years, particularly to work on his offensive game.

15. (NR) Jason Zucker, LW, 18
Drafted 2nd Round, 59th Overall, 2010

Zucker is an extremely well-regarded prospect from the United States developmental squad who now has the shine of winning on him, having earned two gold medals with the US Juniors (U-18s, U-20s) this year, and one (U-18s) last year. Zucker is a quick and crafty scorer and has some edge to his game. He’ll undoubtedly grow a little more as he begins his college career at University of Denver.

As a true incoming freshman, Zucker may see some growing pains, but the team has ice time available for this talented young man. His speed should afford him plenty of scoring opportunities as he works on his finish and two-way game.

16. (NR) Chad Rau, C, 23
Signed as free agent, 2009

Rau was a standout at Colorado College, scoring 28 goals in his junior year, and showing good productivity in all four years of collegiate play. Despite steady progress, the Maple Leafs opted not to keep ties with their 2005 seventh rounder and he was cut loose. The Aeros wisely gave this Eden Prairie native an opportunity and Rau had an excellent AHL season in 2009-2010, earning a two year deal.

Not overly gifted in any one area, Rau nonetheless proved able to compete as a professional and may even find himself a depth forward with the Wild in the near future. His numbers (38 points and 19 goals) could improve this year with the Aeros’ bolstered depth.

17. (9) Kristopher Foucault, RW, 19
Drafted 4th Round, 103rd Overall, 2009

Foucault has some very nice skills, especially stick-handling, but his compete level has been knocked a bit in the past and it remains to be seen whether his skating is good enough to score at the next level. That said, he has had a pretty good junior career, winning a WHL title last season. Foucault has scored at a good pace in the WHL playoffs the last two seasons, posting 32 points in 41 games, and this year’s Memorial Cup run also saw him at better than a point per game. Clearly he is a gifted sniper, he has some dangle, but questions will remain about his total game.

Foucault’s road to the pros also got a little tougher with the free agent signings of Broda and Wellman.

18. (12) Carson McMillan, RW, 21
Drafted 7th Round, 200th Overall, 2007

A pretty speedy grinder, McMillan is certainly covering the bet so far. He finished his junior career with the Calgary Hitmen with a solid 31 goals and 41 assists on the season and a good playoff run (three goals and eleven points over 18 games). He had a decent start to his professional career, scoring just eight points in 56 games, but holding his own against the tougher competition. McMillan did go minus-nine, but that was about average for the Aeros squad last year. If he can use his speed and strength to get the puck moving the right direction more regularly, he could find himself a big part of the team going forward.

19. (15) Jere Sallinen, LW, 19
Drafted 6th Round, 163rd Overall, 2009

Sallinen’s first pro season, with Espoo Blues of the SM-Liiga, was by no means a success on the level of Mikael Granlund‘s, but he held his own with some productivity, scoring eleven points over 38 games. He is somewhat similar in size and style to Jussi Jokinen, who similarly struggled his first pro season, before taking off with 37 and 38 point seasons as a 20 and 21-year-old.

Sallinen has some work to do, and can’t be considered a sure bet to ever make the transition, but next year bears watching. For a sixth-rounder, Sallinen is tracking decently enough to keep tabs on.

20. (10) Petr Kalus, LW, 23
Trade with the Boston Bruins, 2009

Petr Kalus finds himself running out of chances. His numbers have been in slow decline since his draft year, yet considered in aggregate he has been a reasonably effective AHL player. His one season with Providence was surely inflated by playing with countryman David Krejci, but showed good potential. Since being traded westward in the Manny Fernandez deal, Kalus has seemed out of sorts.

He had 12 goals and 11 assists in 66 games with the Aeros in 2009-10 and got called up for two games with the Wild. It was not for a lack of shooting the puck, but Kalus had difficulty scoring.

With his grit and skating, he may have another opportunity for a call-up and a rebound season. We haven’t seen him meet the potential of his previous seasons yet, and the clock is ticking down.

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