Injuries, lack of skill forwards plague minor-league affiliate of Minnesota Wild

By Peter Prohaska
Photo: Since drafted in 2008, defenseman Tyler Cuma has struggled to play a full season of hockey without missing a chunk of the season to injury. His first professional season has been no different as the 20-year-old has laced up for only nine games with the Wild’s AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros.

(Photo Courtesy of www.ontariohockeyleague.com)

The success of the Wild’s farm team is a reflection of the issues the organization has had over the past couple years. Currently the Aeros don’t have a scorer in the top 75 AHL scorers, and the Wild don’t have one in the top 30. Both teams are also struggling to stay at .500. The problems start from duplication: too many guys with similar skills, with checking forwards often forced to fill more offensive roles. The goaltenders have also struggled, even when the team puts up a few goals. However, there are bright spots. The defensemen are learning their trade reasonably well, and a lot of injury problems with the Wild means NHL icetime for the prospects.

AHL

Cody Almond, C, 21

Cody Almond is one of the top five scorers for the Aeros this season, which is a credit to him and not a very good sign for the team. Almond is an above-average checking center and penalty-killer who is getting most of his goals on the power play. He has made improvements in scoring numbers each season and with eight goals and eight assists through 31 games, this season is no exception. Almond’s skill set, a high energy forward with moderate offensive ability, is unfortunately a little redundant in the Wild organization. That said, his combination of ability and leadership, and an amazing Memorial Cup performance in 2008 make him a valuable asset nonetheless. He is one of several prospects to get a very brief callup so far this season, but didn’t have the opportunity to do much.

Joel Broda, C, 21

Broda had a decent start to his pro career, but the Aeros have too much veteran presence at center to make a spot for Broda. With that in mind, the former WHL standout has split the season between the ECHL and AHL, with the idea he could get far more ice-time at the ECHL level with the Bakersfield Condors. Broda’s numbers thus far haven’t been bad, he has seven points in four ECHL games and has shown some offensive acumen at the AHL level, posting five goals and two assists through 19 games.

Casey Wellman, C, 23

A smart free agent signing, Wellman wasn’t able to make an impact during his twelve game stint with the Wild, but looks at home with the Aeros with 14 points in 20 games, including a four goal effort. If he can maintain that kind of pace, he should get more opportunities with the NHL club. Wellman is a sniper who doesn’t necessarily need the man advantage to be successful. Despite his age, he is still finding his way in a league that seems to get a little tougher each year.

Chad Rau, C, 23

Colorado College standout Chad Rau is in his second season with the Aeros. He is just making his way back to full strength after an early season injury, but already has eight points in 14 games. Rau did have 28 goals his junior year at Colorado College, so he has the ability to put up points. He finished in the top five scorers for Houston last season, and his return should help the inconsistent offense find some balance.

Colton Gillies, LW, 21

The Wild, as fans will recall, traded up to select Gillies in the first round of the 2007 draft. So far, the move hasn’t quite panned out, but he is on pace to exceed his numbers from last year. Gillies seems to lack the will to use his skating and size to score regularly, and the defensive awareness that would make him a unique asset just plainly lacks. Questionable penalties continue to plague his game, though the grit is what attracted scouts to him in the first place. He was definitely brought to the NHL too soon, but struggling as an NHL rookie in his role is no shame. Gillies is still a young man and he has time gain confidence and develop as a player.

Matt Kassian, LW, 24

Kassian is yet another Aero regular who has received the callup this season. He only got into four games, but he fought NHL heavyweights Jared Boll and Jody Shelley and handled himself very well. Even chipping in with a point here and there, Kassian knows his role and executes effectively while being also the Aeros’ reigning ‘Humanitarian of the Year’.


Jarod Palmer, RW, 24

Jarod Palmer‘s point-per-game senior campaign at Miami University earned him a free agent deal and he is delivering on it so far, another credit to the Wild’s NCAA scouts. He possesses a good shot, but this season he has thrived as a setup man. The skating that made scouts wary once is much improved and his all-around game is solid.

Carson McMillan, RW, 22

McMillan has already exceeded his scoring numbers from last season, although they are still a far cry from the 31 goals and 41 assists he posted in a great overage season with the WHL‘s Calgary Hitmen. If there were a prototypical Wild prospect, it might be McMillan. He is an above-average skater and checker with decent hockey sense and scoring that flickers out at the pro level. That said, McMillan’s abilities are the type that every team needs and he should be a part of the system for the foreseeable future.

Petr Kalus, RW, 23

Kalus has been in a kind of free-fall ever since draft day 2005, when he was a second round pick of the Bruins. His hockey skills overall have never been in question, but that has not been the case with his temperament. He played a fairly significant role with the Aeros last year, but has dropped a little down the depth chart.


Maxim Noreau, D, 23

After a slow start, Noreau leads in Aeros scoring and shots on goal, just as he was last season. The biggest surprise with Noreau is that he has played in only one NHL game, but the Wild have a conservative approach with prospects. Noreau isn’t a h
ulk, but he doesn’t get pushed around either. That being said, he must be wondering how he got passed in the depth chart by Jared Spurgeon. To date, Noreau has seven goals and 12 assists through 34 games.

Marco Scandella, D, 20

Scandella has emerged this season, and although his time in the NHL wasn’t much more than a taste test, the organization seems to understand that defensemen need some AHL seasoning. Through 26 games, Scandella had eleven points and was still clinging to a positive plus-minus. There will be plenty of growing pains, but Scandella seems to be making all the right adjustments to even the small aspects of his game. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him spend the bulk of the second half of the season with the Wild in the NHL.

Jared Spurgeon, D, 21

Spurgeon is turning into a great story this season. After being cut free from the Islanders organization, Spurgeon not only got another chance with a free agent contract from the Wild, he has made his NHL debut and looks okay so far. Originally drafted as a puck-moving defenseman, he hasn’t done much of anything offensively, but hasn’t looked completely overmatched physically. As he grows in confidence, the offensive side of his game will be something he can feature.

Nate Prosser, D, 24

After an excellent career at Colorado College, Prosser was signed by the Wild with high expectations. Unfortunately, his game seems to have peaked somewhat, and he sits with just eight points in 32 games with the Aeros. The AHL is certainly a tougher league than the WCHA, but Prosser’s transition hasn’t gone quite as well as hoped. More power-play time would help, but ultimately he has to make more of his opportunities.

Justin Falk, D, 22

After starting the year with the Wild, where he registered two assists through 18 games, Falk returned to Houston to help anchor the blue line. Possessing a huge frame and decent passing ability, Falk currently lacks the mobility to be a top-four defenseman. He does however have the skill set to play a shutdown role and one day potentially anchor the penalty kill.

Tyler Cuma, D, 20

Cuma was very highly coveted by Wild scouts, looking like a minute-munching top-pairing defenseman who can contribute at both ends of the ice. Injuries however have plagued Cuma since he was drafted in 2008 and the young defenseman managed to play just nine games this season due to a lower body injury. Currently healthy, if he can remain that way for an extended period of time, the soon-to-be 21-year-old can hopefully put that part of his resume behind him.

Anton Khudobin, G, 24

Khudobin is the veteran presence on the Aeros, playing in his fourth season for the AHL club. A rather underrated player, he has a strong record of 11-8-1, a save percentage of .909 at this point and a 2.64 goals against average. While his numbers have slipped of late, Khudobin’s play had been a difference in getting the Aeros over the .500 mark and in reasonable position to make the playoffs.

Matt Hackett, G, 20

Seemingly groomed to be the next franchise backstop, Hackett has had his struggles moving to the professional game. With a record of 5-8-1, a 2.66 goals against average, and a .909 save percentage, he has been moved to the backup role. The AHL is a tough league though, and it is a steep learning curve for the goaltender position. With Josh Tordjman starting in Bakersfield, Hackett’s place with the Aeros seemed secure for this season. It might be a good move for his confidence to get some extra work in Bakersfield, but he remains with the Aeros for now.