Run to Calder finals sign of growth for AHL prospects in Minnesota Wild system

By Peter Prohaska
Photo: In his first full professional season, Marco Scandella was one of the top defensemen for the Houston Aeros and even saw a 20 games in the NHL. He will be expected to compete for a regular spot at the NHL level in 2011-12. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

A new coaching staff brought renewed energy to the Wild’s Houston affiliate. Mike Yeo, Daryl Sydor, Brian Wiseman and the rest of the staff took a team that barely finished .500 last season all the way to the Calder Cup Finals. The Aeros in fact were little changed from last season, adding a couple of NHL veterans in former Wild second rounder Patrick O’Sullivan along with journeymen Jed Ortmeyer and Warren Peters. The team was built for winning tight games, only faltering when faced with some key injuries in the finals.

A successful farm team won’t always translate to immediate success at the NHL level, but the confidence and experience generated from a deep playoff run should pay great dividends throughout the organization. Observers could see the rewards of patience, giving these young men the opportunity to learn the professional game before being thrust into the pressures of the NHL.


Forward

Cody Almond, C, 21

When Almond went down with a knee injury in game five of the Calder Cup championships, the team seemed to suffer a bit. Almond is not a flashy player, but the fifth round pick of 2007 seems to find a way to elevate his game when the stakes are highest. Almond does all the little things necessary to win. Six assists won’t seem like much, but he excels at other intangibles.

Casey Wellman, C, 23

Wellman’s free agency signing created some hope with the Wild faithful that the team had added a legitimate scorer on the cheap. His college results were very promising, but he has not yet shown NHL-level ability. However, Wellman proved a very valuable part of the Aeros this year. In just 42 games he managed 14 goals and 35 points, good for sixth on the team in both categories. Wellman also had a decent playoffs, with six goals and eleven points.

He is a sneaky fast skater and has a good quick shot, but is not yet at the power level for a truly complete game. The evidence is in the 15 games he played with the Wild, when he managed only a single goal and assist. There is power play time available next season most likely, and Wellman will have to compete hard to be a candidate for it. He is a restricted free agent with a somewhat rich contract, and the Wild have been somewhat slow to sign players this offseason. Wellman does figure to re-sign, as his skills are somewhat rare, and his promise is certainly real.

Chad Rau, C, 24

The Eden Prairie native and Maple Leaf seventh rounder was hampered by a knee injury to start the season, but came around as a valuable performer again for the Aeros. Rau’s numbers aren’t great for the league at large, but just like last year, he was a top five scorer for the Aeros, tallying 40 points (13 goals) in 60 games. He also had some timely scoring in the playoffs, with six goals and nine points.

There is much to commend in Rau’s game, but he may have reached his ceiling. He will likely see an enhanced role with the Aeros next season.

Colton Gillies, LW, 21

Gillies always seemed to struggle with the high expectations of being a first-round pick. This season, and more specifically this postseason, he may have finally grown into a role where he will find success.

After registering just 20 points (seven goals) last season, some had begun to write him off. Indeed his regular season scoring this season was not a huge improvement, with just 26 points. He found the rhythm during the Aeros’ playoff run, sparking the team with timely goals and tying for the team lead with seven. Gillies also led the squad in plus-minus (plus-eight). He is still prone to using his physical game at the wrong time, taking penalties that no coach can tolerate. That said his skating ability and willingness to make a hit can be harnessed effectively.

The former first-round pick will likely have every opportunity to stick with the NHL team this year. He will needs to improve his focus however.


Carson McMillan, RW, 22

McMillan is one of the younger players who also showed definite signs of improvement this year, going from eight points in 56 games his rookie season to 22 points in 78 games this season. These numbers reflect his progression year to year in junior almost exactly, and one could optimistically expect a 40 point season from the speedy winger next year. McMillan chipped in during the playoffs as well, with five points in 21 games. He can be thought of as an agitating type, but he also keeps his game pretty clean. He showed pretty well in his NHL debut as well, picking up a goal and assist in a four game audition. On the last year of an entry-level deal, McMillan is a decent bet to get some depth minutes with the Wild next season.

Jarod Palmer, RW, 25

The college free agent signed out of Miami of Ohio somewhat quietly had a very solid debut to his pro career. Palmer finished in the top ten of Aeros scorers with 28 points (nine goals) in 65 appearances. Though his scoring touch was a little less present in the playoff run, with just three goals and five points, he was on the roster for all 24 games. Palmer scored at an excellent pace in the NCAA, and the expectations for him were pretty high. He is a power forward type, with a decent shot. More favorable minutes for him could lead to a big improvement in scoring chances.

A restricted free agent, his future with the organization is uncertain at this point.

Matt Kassian, RW, 24

Kassian is effective at his role. He chips in a few points each season, while willingly taking on other teams’ toughest fighters. The limitations of that role are clear, since he only got into eight playoff games this season. However, Kassian is well-liked in the community and the locker room, and respected by his opponents on the ice. The second round pick of 2005 fits the bill of the needed enforcer, but isn’t likely to be too much more. The Wild do lack the heavyweight at the moment, so Kassian could earn an NHL paycheck on those occasions when his brand of toughness is called upon.

Joel Broda, C, 21

The former pick of the Washington Capitals spent the greater part of the season with the Bakersfield Condors, the new ECHL affiliate of the Wild. He put up excellent numbers with the Condors, scoring 30 points (17 goals) over his 32 game assignment. Broda is a scorer certainly, whose ability to snipe has never been in question at any level. Rather he will need to prove that he has the hockey sense not to commit turnovers and other costly mistakes in the pursuit of those scoring numbers. He is too young and gifted to rule a comeback season out completely.


Defensemen

Maxim Noreau, D, 25

Noreau has been a top offensive player for the Aeros over the last two seasons. Although he lacks some of the necessary mobility to be effective at the NHL level, Noreau has proven one of the top offensive defenseman in the AHL for two years running. He was tied for third for points among blueliners this season with 54. He did look exposed in his brief callup to the Wild. Although his goal total slipped noticeably from the 18 he potted last year, he still gets the puck on net consistently. Noreau was good in the playoffs as well, chipping in twelve points (two goals) from his point position.

Like many of these players who were part of a special run, Noreau is a restricted free agent. At 25, the writing is on the wall regarding his NHL prospects. If he remains unsigned, the team loses one of the most effective defenseman scorers in the AHL.

Jared Spurgeon, D, 21

Spurgeon spent most of the season with the Wild, filling in admirably as various injuries required blue line support. Spurgeon is small in stature, but he has never let that kind of analysis diminish his drive to be an NHL player. After scoring twelve points in his 53 game NHL rookie season, and nine in his AHL rookie season, Spurgeon was a top scorer in the AHL playoffs. He had eleven points in the Aeros’ run to the Finals. Like Almond, he was injured at the worst possible time, missing the decisive game six. He should be ready for training camp, and will challenge once again for a role with the Wild.

Marco Scandella, D, 21

Much like Jared Spurgeon, Scandella probably made his NHL debut a little earlier than planned. He got into 20 games and registered a pair of assists. Scandella clearly took some time getting used to NHL play, and suffered a freak concussion during a practice. Despite this setback, Scandella got those all important first year minutes out of the way, and showed at times why he is a top blue line prospect for the Wild. His time with the Aeros were much more productive. He scored 19 points in 33 games and used his aggressive side much more effectively. He had eight points in 20 playoff games, joining the team for the Milwaukee series. Scandella will certainly challenge for the five or six slot with the Wild next season.

Justin Falk, D, 22

Justin Falk also had a season with some quality NHL exposure. He got into 22 games, registered just three points, and didn’t look terribly out of place. This was mostly due to his huge frame, which is above average even for the NHL. Falk needs to learn to use his bulk to intimidate, but his penalty minute totals for the playoffs show a meaner edge. He does have decent puck skills as well, and the addition of a heavy shot from the point to his skill-set would also go some long way toward solidifying his career prospects. He improved his scoring over last year, to a respectable 14 points (three goals) in 55 games.

Yet another RFA, Falk would seem to be a logical signing. As it is often said, you can’t teach size. Falk has that, as well as some offensive awareness, and now good playoff experience to boot.


Nate Prosser, D, 25

Prosser is not a player who will impress by flashy boxcars, but is an effective defender. He scored some this season, 27 points (eight goals) in 73 games, and had another four points in the playoffs (two goals, including the game three winner in the finals). He was ordinarily the top pairing defender, playing the stay at home for Maxim Noreau.

He is another restricted free agent on the late end of the development curve.

Jeff Penner, D, 24

Penner, who was acquired in the trade that sent Anton Khudobin to Boston, only appeared in ten games for the Aeros in the regular season. The AHL veteran showed in the past that he is capable of elevating his game for the playoffs, and he did it this year as well in limited service. He had four assists in five games, which is testament mostly to the depth the Aeros have at defense.

Currently a restricted free agent, one would think he could be a reasonably priced depth option, even if Penner is not really expected to have much impact at the NHL level.

Tyler Cuma, D, 21

Injuries seem to have robbed the first-rounder of his upside, but hopefully won’t cost him his career. Cuma played in just 31 contests this season, finally having gotten healthy after a devastating knee injury in 2008-09. Again it is a knee that has him rehabbing this summer, with every hope that he will be good to go come training camp. Cuma is a well-rounded defenseman who does think the game at a high level. So if the excellent mobility that prompted the Wild’s scouts to trade up for the Scarborough native can be regained, a full of year of AHL experience should show what kind of a player they have.


Goaltenders

Matt Hackett, G, 21

Hackett followed up an excellent regular season with a so-so playoffs. That said, he won a lot of one goal games and certainly deserves a share of credit. He made Anton Khudobin expendable, and took over the reins as a rookie. His regular season .916 save percentage is definitely a good sign; his postseason .903 somewhat of a troubling one. All in all, so much of a goaltender’s performance depends on the quality of the team in front of him that it’s hard to compare. Hackett came a long way in one season and lost the head-to-head battle with a player drafted the same year, Robin Lehner (OTT), who elevated his game at the right time.

He is not going to unseat Nicklas Backstrom, so the question facing the Wild is whether another year as a starter in Houston will be best for him. This season, he will be challenged by top German prospect Dennis Endras and CHL player of the year Darcy Kuemper. Hackett has proven his mettle under the toughest possible circumstances for him. The Aeros roster will likely rely even more heavily on its goaltender, who must maintain a course of positive development.