Minnesota Wild prospect pool benefits from newcomers in the Top 20

By Peter Prohaska

Christian Folin - Minnesota Wild

Photo: Christian Folin’s shot differential numbers from last season strongly suggest he might have been the team’s best option for the sixth defenseman slot (courtesy of Brad Rempel/Icon Sportswire)

 

10. (5) Michael Keranen, RW, 6.5C
Signed as free agent, June 2014

Michael Keranen has long been on the radar for those who follow Finnish hockey, but as a player who will be 26 years old before this season is over, Keranen has more than likely already showed his ceiling. That is to say, he has been a very good European pro and helped make an argument that the Finnish Liiga is not all that far behind the AHL. As far as his prospects for making the NHL go, one should not count on much. Keranen is a playmaker but an average physical game severely limits what he can accomplish without the puck. He just does not possess the speed or the skill of players he competes with like Justin Fontaine, Jordan Schroeder or Erik Haula, who have shown themselves to be limited at the NHL level. Though Keranen was a good addition to Iowa last season, providing a much-needed infusion of ability with the puck, it would not be much of a surprise to see Keranen return to Europe after this contract runs out. With no NHL experience to date, it remains difficult to imagine that he will be a contributor at this stage of his career.

9. (15) Louis Belpedio, D, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd round, 80th overall, 2014

All arrows point up for Louis Belpedio, whose freshman campaign at Miami University showed him to be a player to watch carefully next season. Given some good opportunities on the power play to showcase his game, he scored an encouraging 19 points (with six goals). Belpedio was fearless going into the zone and showed excellent skating, with more strength and decisiveness needed on the puck. He was a fun player to watch and eventually displayed a better zone game he acquired over the course of a college season. Belpedio performed well at Team USA camp this summer and should be a part of Team USA at the World Juniors. Miami had a strong year to say the least, getting all the way to the Frozen Four, and the sophomore defenseman’s continued growth will go a long way to determining if the progress continues for himself and the squad.

8. (4) Tyler Graovac, C, 7.0C
Drafted 7th round, 191st overall, 2011

Tyler Graovac was the only Wild prospect to make his NHL debut in 2014-15, and that was a very limited audition. The late-blooming Graovac showed great scoring ability in the OHL, possessing a long frame and a powerful shot. As his pro career has progressed, his additional strength and experience have allowed him to develop into a capable AHL scorer as well. He was the best player last season on a team that struggled in all facets. His position in the Wild Top 20 is similar: he ranks highly because there are no better options. Graovac’s scoring level in the AHL suggests he can chip in some points if given the chance, but even though he is a good story, his upside remains limited in this system. Ultimately Graovac will be competing with more physical prospects like Kurtis Gabriel and Brett Bulmer for NHL duty, despite his superior skills.

7. (7) Christian Folin, D, 6.5B
Signed as free agent, March 2014

Christian Folin nearly graduated from prospect status in his first full professional season, and probably should have done so. Regardless, a coach’s preference plus the need for extra bodies to help Iowa – plus the high stakes and narrow margins the Wild were confronted with midseason – all conspired to limit him to 40 games. In those games he showed a bit too much confidence at times, but Folin is a good option for the number six defender. He has the size and strength to play a physical game and some ability to handle the puck as well. It would be somewhat surprising for Folin not to be on the opening night NHL roster, but with plenty of competition for the roster spot – if not the exact role – Folin might have to prove again he is trustworthy.

6. (8) Kaapo Kähkönen, G, 7.5D
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2014

It goes without saying that goalies are hard to figure out. Teams have to make bets on youngsters whose ultimate level of ability may not be evident for several years in the distance. Looking to Finland for these prospects is a hedge against the uncertainty, and in the case of Kaapo Kahkonen, the Wild seems to have made a sensible guess. His list of accomplishments and accolades continues to grow, with this past season seeing the young Finn named Best Goaltender in the Mestis (Finland’s second tier league) as well as Rookie of the Year for that league.

Kahkonen returns to the top Finnish league, Liiga, this season where he is likely to be the starter in the absence of Eetu Laurikainen (EDM) for Blues. Wild fans in North America will most likely also get a chance to see Kahkonen playing for Team Finland at the World Juniors. The big contract for Devan Dubnyk eliminated some uncertainty for the Wild, but in a couple of years, the need will be there to start developing an heir in-house. Kahkonen has the inside track on that position for the foreseeable future.

5. (NR) Jordan Greenway, LW/RW, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2015

Jordan Greenway has been on the Wild’s radar for quite a long time. A bantam standout at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, he was also a teammate of Alex Tuch’s in the 2013-14 with the U.S. National Development Team juniors. Last year he played both with the juniors and the US U18 squad and acquitted himself well. Greenway is a player who will need to focus on his skating and balance though. He will not be able to overpower players as easily in the college ranks, but the Boston University freshman will be intriguing to watch. He has the hands and the awareness to be a distributor, but his size and shot make it easy to imagine that he can have success from the slot as well. In all, Greenway is a player who will benefit greatly from some time in the college ranks. He could reward the Wild’s faith in the near future.

4. (3) Gustav Olofsson, D, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd round, 46th overall, 2013

It may have been the rough hit against the end boards in a preseason game against the Winnipeg Jets that ended Gustav Olofsson’s 2014-15 season before it started. After leaving Colorado College after just one season, Olofsson looked like a very promising piece who could have potentially added a bit more puck possession to the Iowa Wild. Instead, he underwent shoulder surgery and missed nearly the entire campaign. While Olofsson has ready size and a skill set to be a difference-maker, his role in Iowa is not as secure as it was. With Dylan Labbé and Zach Palmquist stepping in as rookies, Maxime Fortunus and Tyson Strachan signed as veterans, and guys like Alex Gudbranson and Guillaume Gélinas having something to prove, Olofsson will have to earn power play time and prove that the organization’s hype can translate to effective professional minutes.

3. (NR) Mike Reilly, D, 7.5D
Signed as free agent, June 2015

NHL Central Scouting placed Mike Reilly just outside the top 50 North American skaters in its 2011 rankings. A prep star at Shattuck St. Mary’s in a year that lacked really significant NHL talent (Wild prospect John Draeger was a teammate) Reilly was a somewhat risky pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the fourth round. The slightly built defenseman had undeniable skill however, and built up a reputation through three seasons with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Choosing to become a free agent after his junior season, Reilly decided to stay in his home state. Whether or not this happens to work out for Reilly remains to be seen.

There is little doubt that he should start the season in Des Moines, and there is little doubt that his skills will translate to some AHL scoring. That said, even in Mike Yeo’s system – where the defense often has license to rush the puck – Reilly will need to work on a more complete set of skills. He has a lot more strength and bulk than he did on draft day 2011, but the transition could prove a little rough at first. There is a chance that the coaching staff likes his skill level enough initially to take a chance on throwing the rookie into NHL games as well, but beating out Christian Folin or Nate Prosser might have to wait until he has ironed out some bad habits.

2. (NR) Joel Eriksson Ek, C, 8.0C
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2015

Eriksson Ek’s quick rise in the pre-draft rankings had much to do with a breakout performance at the IIHF U18s last season. His numbers for his draft season were somewhat suppressed due to playing much of it on a men’s professional squad. The Wild scouts have done well in the past with late-bloomers (and also scouted Farjestad productively to draft Jonas Brodin) and Eriksson Ek fits that profile. A player who has some of the requisite qualities of a top-six center already, the top Swede of the 2015 draft class is still a work in progress. Scouts praised his willingness to fight for pucks and suggested that he is a player whose overall skill level is complete.

Still learning the professional game as a teenager on a deep Farjestad squad is no crime, and Eriksson Ek will no doubt earn much higher ice time totals during the upcoming SHL and Champions Hockey League campaigns. A natural shooter who has the frame to protect the puck and a wide-ranging, highly-competitive player who seeks to gain puck possession with every shift, his ceiling remains quite high even if he has yet to demonstrate it fully. He may lack the dynamic skills of some of the other centers in the draft, but Eriksson Ek has the pedigree and the natural skill to become an impact player in the NHL down the road.

1. (1) Alex Tuch, RW, 7.5B
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2014

It is already hard to imagine a player with Alex Tuch’s skills falling short of his goals. His scoring totals in college hockey were overshadowed by those of fellow freshmen (and former teammates) Jack Eichel (BUF) and Dylan Larkin (DET). He is not quite a player of that caliber, but Tuch did finish first on his team in scoring, which impresses of itself. The book on Tuch is clear: he is a big young man with very good puck skills. He already has the creativity, the strength and the mobility to be a good professional player. Tuch has also demonstrated the important ability to play with players more skilled than himself: to create space, to distribute the puck, and to finish plays. In all, he is a worthy top prospect who should see a nice uptick in his scoring. With talents like Colin White (OTT) and Jeremy Bracco (TOR) coming in, Tuch can remain a leader and perhaps too find some chemistry with players with high levels of skill.

 

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