Minnesota Wild prospect depth poses more questions than answers

By Peter Prohaska
Stephen Michalek - Minnesota Wild

Photo: Harvard University product and current Quad City Mallard Steve Michalek is off to a good start as a pro, being named the ECHL rookie of the month for October (courtesy of Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

Chuck Fletcher’s name comes up in the discussion for best general manager in the NHL. While his record is not without blemish, and he cannot really claim the title without a championship, the consensus is that he has done a good job of building a contending squad from one that seemed to be running in place. However, some of that success came at the cost of organizational depth. The AHL results have been poor, and misguided drafting takes some blame for the lack of skill in the developmental league.

On the bright side, the 2015 Draft helped restore some balance and promise to the prospect group. With a lot of players in the college ranks, Fletcher and the Wild also have a degree of contract flexibility that could come in handy soon. The Wild has yet to be gifted a franchise superstar, but Mike Yeo’s system has produced a team that plays a modern puck-possession style, one capable of dynamic offense thanks in large part to its excellent group of defenders.

Yet despite its potential for success, fans in Minnesota still await a Stanley Cup. The notion that this prospect group may yet produce a player capable of helping the team achieve that goal is not as far-fetched as it may seem, but patience is still paramount. There are assets at each position, and one can feel optimistic at this early stage of the 2015-16 season.

Left Wing

2015 fifth-round pick Kirill Kaprizov is one of the top young players in the KHL, sitting fifth in under-24 scoring, and producing at a historical pace for his age on last place Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Kaprizov is not a true rookie, since he got into 31 games his draft season (scoring a respectable eight points), but he has already more than doubled his point production from last season and doesn’t turn 19 until April. The speedy winger will be a key component of Team Russia’s attack at the 2016 World Juniors.

2015 second-rounder Jordan Greenway is off to a tough start to his college career, after modest scoring totals on a stacked USNDP U-18 squad suggested he might have some troubles with the transition, despite a powerful stature. The Boston University freshman has plenty of work to do to establish himself, but he has the natural talent -size and skill- to become an NHL player.

Mario Lucia is a player who had at one time the same type of second-line potential that Greenway does, but has not come along as planned when the Wild first gave up multiple assets to draft him in 2011. His career at Notre Dame has not been exactly lackluster, but his game often lacks necessary intensity. Now in his senior season, one can expect offense but his future with the Wild remains as dubious as ever.

2012 second-round pick Raphael Bussières is one of the Wild’s key drafting mistakes at this point in his career. He has been a near point-per-game player in the ECHL, but lacks the tools to thrive at a higher level. The moment his name was called, It was a questionable high pick spent on a project player and time has not made it look better. The same must now be said for Brett Bulmer, whose injury troubles have also set him back. Bulmer had the size and skating ability to be a good forechecker, but his lack of offensive output as a pro probably means that the AHL is his ceiling at this point.

Louis Nanne was a seventh-round pick made due to his family connections to the Wild, and though his career has gone the indirect route – due in part to injuries – he chose a college route at RPI where he will get playing time and educational opportunities, and has put some points up for the Engineers.

Center

2015’s first-round pick Joel Eriksson Ek is far from becoming the face of the franchise, but the quick rising Swedish prospect is worth getting to know. The second-year SHL standout is a capable scoring threat for Färjestad, but plays a limited role on the contending squad. With his tools coming together week by week, his ceiling is not yet in sight. The Wild need not feel pressure to bring him to Iowa, but he will be capable of impact at the NHL level sooner than many think. Like Kaprizov, he has a major role to play for his nation at the World Juniors.

Tyler Graovac has been a very good story for the Wild as a late-round pick who has become a solid pro. His career is in a tough spot currently, as he rehabs a groin injury after making the Wild out of training camp. The ill-timed setback might put Graovac back in Des Moines, where the team obviously misses his skills and scoring already this season.

Among the junior prospects, Reid Duke is in the best position to succeed this season, playing for the powerful Brandon Wheat Kings. He is near a point-per-game pace again but needs some good health to make a full impact. Also in the WHL is Chase Lang, recently traded from the Calgary Hitmen back to his native British Columbia’s Vancouver Giants. He is looking to find a comfort zone on a less able squad. Both players are competent scorers who lack elite skills, and have also seen a lot of time on the wings in their CHL careers. Pavel Jenyš nearly stuck with the Iowa Wild, who could have probably used the young Czech from a skill perspective. He is better off in the OHL, even though the Sudbury Wolves continue to struggle. Jenys is a big body and while he is not the most complete player, he has shown that his skills can translate to AHL scoring.

Avery Peterson is off to a brutal start to his sophomore season, after getting excellent opportunities in Nebraska-Omaha’s run to the Frozen Four last season. With his size and skill, the slump should end sometime soon, but it has raised questions about his overall upside. Junior Adam Gilmour experienced a disappointing sophomore season in terms of team performance, but Boston College looks like a legitimate national title contender again. Gilmour is not the most naturally-talented player on the ice, but he has intelligence and some speed to go with a body that has finally gained the necessary strength to compete effectively at the NCAA level.

At the AHL level, Christoph Bertschy is leading the poor team in scoring, and one hopes the modest totals will be helped by Michael Keränen‘s return to health. Bertschy managed his NHL debut, though it would be asking a lot for the Swiss NLA veteran to step in and handle NHL competition so soon in his North American rookie season. Brady Brassart was a free agent signing meant to bolster the AHL depth, and he has been a decent tough-minutes pro at that level. He has adequate size but not enough speed to crack the NHL. Grayson Downing was another free-agent signing, and the college standout looks like he can play at the AHL level as well. The team missed his skill as he missed much of the beginning of the season with injury.

Right Wing

2014 first-rounder Alex Tuch is the class of this group, but he is also off to a slow sophomore season, perhaps a little hindered by a knee injury sustained in summer competition. As noted, BC has tremendous depth and Tuch should start to see more production soon.

In the AHL, Michael Keranen has been a good pro for Iowa since making the leap from Finland. He has yet to see actual NHL game-play, but has enough skill to take advantage if needed. Zack Mitchell has taken a step back this season, after being a consistent player last time out. Kurtis Gabriel, yet another high pick spent on a big body with little offensive skill, provides great energy for Iowa but lacks in other areas of the game.

Jared Knight was also a high pick, a 2010 second-rounder of the Boston Bruins, who has not been able to establish himself as a scorer at the AHL level. Like others on the Iowa roster, he brings effort each game but the “change of scenery” trade has not really panned out either for Knight or for his counterpart, former Wild prospect and 2011 first-round pick Zack Phillips.

Defense

As mentioned above, the Wild has a wealth of defensive players in the pro ranks. Among the not-quite-established, Christian Folin has played half the season in the NHL in the bottom-pairing slot and graduates from prospect status most likely in the next month or so.

Highly-touted free agent acquisition Mike Reilly has had struggles with the big bodies and pace of the AHL, and his offensive talents have not yet had the chance to shine. Gustav Olofsson has also struggled to start this season, his true rookie campaign. Both players are logging minutes and doing the necessary work to develop into reliable professionals, despite the lack of obvious results on the scoreboard. A bit further down the depth chart, Dylan Labbé is also a rookie, one who has yet to register a point, while older college free agent signing Zach Palmquist has been more effective in his limited role. With a couple of well-traveled veterans in Tyson Strachan and Maxime Fortunus around to do the heavy lifting, one would expect more from the prospect group as the season progresses.

Also in the pro ranks are Guillaume Gélinas and Alex Gudbranson, two opposite types – Gelinas a puck-mover, Gudbranson a physical force – who find themselves in the ECHL nowadays. Gelinas has finally found some of the offense he showed in the QMJHL, but expectations have been tempered by AHL results last season.

The Wild has much of its prospect depth in college at this point, led by Miami University sophomore Louis Belpedio. He has taken on more responsibility this season, and has struggled some with that, but remains a high-upside prospect.

A pair of Wild prospects are with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. 2011 fifth-round pick Nick Seeler finally gets to play for his home state squad after sitting out a year as a transfer student. He plays a gutsy, safe, physical game and moves around pretty well. More mobile and more offensive-minded is freshman Jack Sadek, who will have some growing pains but possesses high-level skills.

Michigan State senior John Draeger was a standout freshman but injuries have slowed him some. He is a steady leader for the Spartans, although his upside is limited. To the east, the Michigan Wolverines also have a pair of Wild prospects in freshman Nick Boka and junior Nolan De Jong. De Jong is a mobile defenseman, but his lack of offense over his college career is concerning. Boka is a more pedigreed player coming out of the USNDP, is one of the youngest players in college hockey, and he has some physical upside going for him as well.

Finally, Carson Soucy of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs is a big body with some offensive skills and athletic gifts, but he remains prone to errors.

The junior ranks have less depth, but 2015 seventh-round pick Gustav Bouramman is a promising player as an offensive-minded blueliner. Off to a relatively slow start for the somewhat depleted Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he has the talent to pick up the scoring pace as the season goes. Out in the WHL, Tanner Faith is with a new team in Moose Jaw, and the 20-year-old is looking for his first full season in two years. He is big and skilled and could salvage a career with a bit of luck. Minnesota native Hunter Warner is mostly around for his imposing physical game, but is off to a nice start this season with Prince Albert.

Smooth-skating Pontus Själin was a name out of nowhere when he was drafted late in 2014, and to nowhere he seems to have returned. Unable to stick in the SHL this season, he is on loan to Asplöven of the Allsvenskan. The Swedish second-tier is probably a good spot for him this season, but he seems a long way off from helping the Wild franchise.

Goalies

The Wild organization has struggled with the right balance at goaltender for some time now. A long-term contract for Devan Dubnyk, coupled with Niklas Backstrom coming off the books at the end of this season, would seem to create an opportunity for a short-term deal with Darcy Kuemper. But Kuemper, who played so well as a junior and in the AHL, has not proven to be up to the challenges of the NHL on a consistent basis, leaving more uncertainty at the position.

Kaapo Kähkönen, the top prospect goaltender, is just now starting his pro career in earnest. After splitting starts to begin the season for Blues of the Liiga, Kähkönen has steadily taken over the starter’s role from Christian Engstrand. The 2014 fourth-rounder is the likely starter for Team Finland at the World Juniors as well. Kähkönen could be a solution long-term, but after watching Johan Gustafsson burn out, the Wild will be cautious with Kähkönen.

Stephen Michalek might well have preferred a final season with Harvard, but his pro career is off and running anyhow. Because of playing time concerns at the AHL level, the Wild has Michalek in the ECHL. It would seem to be a wise way to acclimate the netminder to pro hockey and he has been one of that league’s best keepers thus far.

Brody Hoffman finds himself in an unusual position. Since neither he nor Michalek seemed ready for the starting role in Iowa after camp, the team signed former Calgary Flames prospect Leland Irving – the 26th pick of the 2006 Draft- out of the KHL. Irving is no longer a prospect per se, but he is a good addition to the system, especially given the somewhat contentious relationship between Kuemper’s representation and the Wild. In addition, the Wild has Jeremy Smith – a 2007 pick of the Nashville Predators – on loan from the Boston organization. Smith put up a .933 save percentage for Providence last season and is stabilizing the nets for Iowa as well. A couple of rough outings in Quad City have left college free agent signing Hoffman out in the cold: collecting a paycheck but unlikely to get much in the way of playing time for the present.

Finally, Ales Stezka is a 2015 draftee out of the Czech Republic, just getting going in North America at the USHL level and having the ordinary ups and downs of a rookie for the Sioux Falls Stampede. As the Wild’s history shows, one never quite knows with goalies.