July 4th, 2012 changed the Minnesota Wild’s course for the foreseeable future. Twin 13-year contracts for Zach Parise and Ryan Suter switched the Wild into win-now mode: an expensive and risky move that is easier announced than accomplished. Three seasons later, the team has qualified for the post-season in each season and won two playoff series total.
Though limited success is better than none at all (certainly from Chuck Fletcher’s perspective), the issue with the Wild is that other teams have added better players that will make it increasingly difficult to keep the playoff streak alive. Very expensive veteran acquisitions in the forms of Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville added legitimate – albeit declining – NHL talents who have not been the answer to the playoff struggles. The prospect pool suffered some thanks to the focus on adding players for the present, but the Wild’s scouting staff – led by Guy Lapointe and Brent Flahr – has done a decent job making smart bets.
That said, the Wild operates at a talent disadvantage in the forward ranks. Forced to cut bait with 2011 first-rounder Zack Phillips (BOS), hampered by Mario Lucia’s slow and discouraging progress, and having no NHL-ready prospects from the 2013 or 2014 drafts, the team relies on a youthful core drafted in 2010 to learn on the job. Although the players under 25 years of age compare well with the rest of the league, neither the top talent nor the prospects are a real strength at this juncture. The exception is 2014 first-rounder Alex Tuch, who might face the difficult choice to leave college after this season.
A shameful job of building an AHL presence in Des Moines thus far could see better times ahead soon. Free agent signings like Zack Mitchell, Brady Brassart and Michael Keranen were but modestly helpful. Adding Christoph Bertschy adds some more speed and professional experience while Grayson Downing might also contribute some needed scoring.
In college, upperclassmen defensemen like Carson Soucy, Nick Seeler and John Draeger continue to develop and promising incoming freshmen Jack Sadek and Nick Boka will be interesting to follow as well, but again the lack of forward prospects is troubling.
In all, the Wild did much to help the cause with a strong 2015 draft, but the team remains weak prospect-wise relative to the rest of the league. If the team can continue its growth, it will almost certainly have to come thanks to progress from the likes of Matt Dumba, Nino Niederreiter, and Mikael Granlund. Its veteran core has been relied upon to do too much and a resurgence might be asking a lot at this stage of most guys’ careers – especially in a league that increasingly emphasizes high-end skill and speed. Next season will speak volumes about the gamble in 2012, but there are bright spots on the way regardless.
20. (NR) Gustav Bouramman, D, 7.0D
Drafted 7th Round, 201st overall, 2015
It has much to do with the popularity of the OHL, but Gustav Bouramman was highly-touted as a good pick around the hockey world. He played on a very good Sault Ste. Marie team, with first rounders like Jared McCann (VAN), Darnell Nurse (EDM) and Zach Senyshyn (BOS) as well as the OHL’s top scoring defenseman Anthony DeAngelo (TAM). All that said, Bouramman slipped into the top ten in scoring as a rookie. The Greyhounds were undoubtedly happy that Bouramman fell to them near the end of the first round in the 2014 CHL Import Draft, and the Wild certainly seemed pleased that he was still around in the seventh round last June. He is not a physically-imposing player but he is willing to battle. The Swede’s ability stands out best on the power play, but more than half his points last season came at even strength. His time on ice will increase dramatically next season and the challenge for him will be his conditioning and his ability to win one-on-one battles. The skill level he possesses suggests a tremendous draft day value for the Wild.
19. (11) Avery Peterson, C, 7.0D
Drafted 6th Round, 167th overall, 2013
Nebraska-Omaha’s rapidly improving program is a testament to the experienced hand of Dean Blais and to a fine job by his staff in recruiting some talented young men. Despite considerable team depth, freshman Avery Peterson found himself in a great position for success this past season. By the playoffs, Peterson had earned top-six linemates and some power play time. Though he could not quite cash in during the Frozen Four’s frantic drama, the freshman offered glimpses of his ability throughout his first season. Peterson is a big player with quick hands. The patience and the strength he needs to be a completely effective player in his style at the college hockey level are still a year off. However, if Peterson’s skating continues to improve, his contributions next year should be notable.
18. (15) Reid Duke, C/RW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th Round, 169th overall, 2014
Duke was a fifth overall pick coming out of bantams back in 2011. Sadly, the team that drafted him, the Lethbridge Hurricanes, have not had the resources to build a successful program. After two full seasons striving to stay competitive, Duke requested a trade and got his wish, ending up with a powerhouse Brandon Wheat Kings squad. Duke played more of a depth role this past season, scoring a respectable 51 points in 52 games, but suffering injury that limited him most of the second half of the season and was re-aggravated during the too-brief playoffs. Likely to return again for another chance at a WHL Championship, Duke has amassed a lot of experience in the league. It would not be a surprise to see his numbers tick upward again. With a lot of time to work on being ready, Duke is positioned to close out his junior career in fine form.
17. (13) Chase Lang, C/RW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th Round, 167th overall, 2014
After being a somewhat dubious pick in the 2014 draft, Chase Lang provided a vote of confidence last season for the western scouts who supported him. With a September birthday, Lang is still only 18 years old, but has held his own in three seasons with the Calgary Hitmen. The 2014-15 season was a marked improvement that saw Lang step into some new special teams roles with considerably higher ice-time totals. The Hitmen boasted a high-quality team, and Lang dropped off a little bit when Jake Virtanen (VAN) returned to the lineup. Nonetheless, he finished fourth in team scoring and contributed points in the playoffs as well, though he missed games with an injury. As he continues to grow in stature and experience, Lang could end up with impressive totals.
16. (6) Mario Lucia, LW, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2011
Mario Lucia is a player that seems to be missing a top gear at times. He puck-handles well and is often used as a power play setup man similar in style to Thomas Vanek thanks to his ability to protect the puck. Lucia is not a great passer though, relying mainly on his size and shot to generate points. He is a reasonably fast skater in a big frame but his focus wavers at times with the puck on his stick. Perhaps it has been due to a somewhat conservative style of play that Lucia’s numbers seem somewhat lower than they might have been, but he has lagged behind other pedigreed names at the program. Named a captain for Notre Dame before the start of the 2015-16 season, Lucia has a lot to offer the incoming class by way of leadership and experience. A similar confidence on the ice would be welcome at this stage.
15. (15) Dylan Labbé, D, 7.0D
Drafted 4th round, 107th overall, 2013
Dylan Labbé is a difficult player to assess because his role next season will be drastically different than it has been for the last several. With Shawinigan, Labbé for three seasons had to play heavy minutes, often defending as the team struggled, but showing his offensive talents as the Cataractes improved greatly in the 2014-15 campaign. With Iowa, he will still have to prove capable of handling duties in front of his own net, but may not get the chance to freewheel as he did last season. Labbé is a talented player, a smooth skater who perceives opportunity readily, has puck-moving ability, and learned a lot from the responsibilities with which he was burdened in his junior career. His physical game lacked at times, and he will need to overcome the impulse to do too much on the ice as well as learning to handle a much more dangerous style of forecheck. Labbé should ease into the Iowa top four and is one of the best defensive prospects in the system.
14. (NR) Kirill Kaprizov, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 5th Round, 135th overall, 2015
Another player who fell a bit to the Wild at the most recent draft, Kaprizov was ranked 29th by NHL Central Scouting among European prospects. For the Wild, the move to take a Russian prospect at the draft was an unusual one that speaks to the quality of this player. Naturally, the fact that he was a first overall pick in the KHL draft suggests that not only the Wild recognize his talent level. As a KHL rookie, Kaprizov was already quite productive last season for Metallurg Novokuznetsk. With the 2015-16 season already underway, Kaprizov should be earning more ice-time than last season. He will need to add strength to emerge as a top professional, but the young man’s skill level is already enough to consider him one of the gems of the Wild’s system.
13. (14) Adam Gilmour, C/RW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 98th overall, 2012
Adam Gilmour stepped into the Boston College lineup as a freshman two seasons ago and made an immediate impact. Using his frame and skating ability, Gilmour put up a respectable 20 point campaign, mostly playing against the opposition’s lesser lights, since the main job was to contain Johnny Gaudreau in 2013-14. Last season, the Eagles added Alex Tuch and others, and while Gilmour showed some expected improvement, he has not shown the kind of scoring ability that projects to that of an impact player in the pro ranks. Nonetheless, he is a pretty sound forward who is benefiting from the extra conditioning work and excellent coaching one can expect at a top NCAA program. As a junior, Gilmour and company will have to push even deeper into the NCAA Tournament to consider the season a success. His ability to play with the talent around him this coming season will go a long way to determining what his ceiling might be a player once his college career comes to a close.
12. (20) Pavel Jenyš, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th round, 199th overall, 2014
Pavel Jenys was faced with a difficult decision last summer. Stay with his Czech club team, the champion Brno Comets, or report to Sudbury, the team that selected him 31st overall in the CHL Import Draft. The Wild suggested after the 2014 draft that for a seventh round pick like Jenys, the OHL would be a good place to adapt to the game and the culture. He may not have known that the Wolves would be the worst team in the league. That notwithstanding, Jenys persevered throughout a troubled campaign to lead his squad in points.
The Wild rewarded the Czech power forward with an opportunity to play some AHL games. Though they were meaningless contests for the hapless Iowa Wild, Jenys demonstrated some ability in the audition. If given the opportunity, Jenys would no doubt benefit from turning pro: he has the size and the skill to contribute, though his ice time would be drastically less. Sudbury, with returnees like Kyle Capobianco (ARI) and newcomers like Dmitri Sokolov (2016) and David Levin (2018), could use his leadership and his ability to help return them to respectability.
11. (NR) Steve Michalek, G, 6.5C
Drafted 6th round, 161st overall, 2011
2011 sixth-rounder Steve Michalek had a turbulent career at Harvard University. He came in as a true freshman and started 24 games for the Crimson, acclimating to the college game with a respectable .894 save percentage. His sophomore season was cut short by a suspension and he ended up struggling some in the USHL. The last two seasons Michalek worked himself back into one of the nation’s better goalkeepers, posting back-to-back .924 save percentages that put him up in the top 25 of NCAA players. The NCAA denied his appeal for an additional year of eligibility, so the Wild will see if Michalek can rise to the challenge of playing for the Iowa Wild. Veteran additions on the blueline might help with the adjustment, but much will be left to Michalek, a player who has seemed to thrive under pressure. He has added muscle, has some experience with intensity and adjusting to higher competition, but will certainly be tested as he faces pucks at the AHL level.