By now it has become clear that fielding a competitive AHL team is just not part of Chuck Fletcher and the Wild’s plans. As of this writing, the Iowa Wild is again in last place in the AHL, with the fewest points and the most games played.
It remains an open question just how much of an NHL franchise’s successes can be traced to those of its minor-league affiliates, but the AHL’s role in providing depth for NHL teams is unquestionably important in a salary-cap league.
Fletcher has acquired veterans like Erik Christensen, Sean Bergenheim, Chris Stewart, Mike Rupp, Chuck Kobasew, Matt Moulson and now Jarret Stoll to supplement his teams when a better AHL source might have preserved those draft picks or saved on salary while providing more value. While the need for experience is real, a consistent pipeline is the definition of a stable, progressing franchise. It won’t always be achievable, but it is a worthy goal.
Since falling in the Calder Cup finals to the Binghamton Senators in 2011, the Wild’s AHL affiliates have not finished better than fourth in the division. The success of that team should make one wonder why the franchise has decided to let its development flagship founder. The 2010-11 Houston Aeros featured players like Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, and Nate Prosser – all of whom gained valuable experience in that playoff run. The team was bolstered by the presence of Patrick O’Sullivan, the Wild second-rounder who was making a roundabout return trip to the franchise, and provided the kind of offensive skill the AHL ranks have missed ever since.
In 2012-13, the Aeros lost to the eventual league champion Grand Rapids Griffins in the first round of the playoffs but have been one of the worst teams in the entire league ever since moving to Iowa. To fix the issue, the Wild installed Assistant GM Brent Flahr at the beginning of this season and his moves have been encouraging. A willingness to assign struggling bodies to the ECHL might salvage the career of Raphael Bussieres. Addressing the goaltending by signing Leland Irving and taking Jeremy Smith on loan from the Boston organization gives Steve Michalek and Brody Hoffman the opportunity to develop at the appropriate level for their experience – while also providing some timely saves to keep games close.
In all, the Wild might look at its recent NHL success – a pair of first-round playoff wins – and choose to ignore the AHL results. The league exists in part to instill the habits necessary to work as a professional hockey player, but the habits of winning largely depend on support from the organization at large to thrive.
Tyler Graovac, C, 22
The season started great for Graovac, making the Minnesota roster out of training camp. As last year’s leading scorer and best all-around AHLer, Graovac seemed ready for the next step. But one game later, he was on the shelf with a groin injury that has held him out until recently. It might take some time to get back to full strength, and that might mean Graovac sticks in Iowa for the rest of the season. It is hard to imagine him not getting another chance and his presence balances the Iowa lineup such that things are bound to improve.
Michael Keranen, RW, 25
A European pro who was once on the radar for the NHL draft before having a breakout season in the Liiga in 2013-14, he has been one of Iowa’s brightest stars since arriving, though held back by injury to start this season. The Wild took a reasonable risk in acquiring his rights as a free agent. Leaving Finland for the chance at some NHL money makes sense, and from the Wild’s perspective, Keranen has been one of the best values per dollar on the team. From his perspective, toiling in the AHL with only a single NHL paycheck to his name so far may not have been worth the trip, but it is rare for a player his age to make the transition to the NHL level.
Jared Knight, LW/RW, 23
Knight fit the mold of a Bruins pick when he was selected in the second round of the 2010 NHL Draft: a sturdy forechecker with some decent junior offense. He had pedigree too, coming out of Detroit’s Compuware program and the OHL‘s London Knights. Despite that, he has not shown that he will be a pro scorer and may not bring enough to other areas to remain in the Wild’s plans. Knight is a useful player for Iowa, and will probably have a career at this level. He was the return for the equally-disappointing Zack Phillips, but it is doubtful that Knight will remain with the organization after this season.
Zack Mitchell, RW, 22
The free-agent signing out of Guelph has been one of the positives as far as Iowa is concerned. He was a top-five scorer for the Wild in his rookie season, and sits atop the leaderboard again, despite a slow start. Mitchell is an honest and smart hockey player who does not have top-drawer skills but knows where to be on the ice and can finish his chances as they come – and leads the team in shots on goal. He has been a great addition to the franchise, all things considered, and should earn some NHL time by next season.
Brett Bulmer, LW/RW, 23
Some observers were surprised when Bulmer signed a one-year extension in the summer. The 2010 second-rounder has had his share of injuries, and they have contributed greatly to his lack of chances. The Wild still like the idea of having some toughness to take up the bottom-six forwards, and Bulmer fits that bill. To that end, he has dressed for three Minnesota games this season to add to his career total of 17 and fought Bruins forward Matt Beleskey in an ill-advised tilt. Bulmer has not been a scorer for Iowa however, and his offense has trended down again this season. His future with the organization depends on some luck. Bulmer has been a determined player to his credit, and like Knight has pedigree and a solid pro record to his name.
Kurtis Gabriel, RW, 22
Although it is still early in the timeline, the 2013 NHL Draft looks to be a deep group of players. Gabriel is one of many to have made his NHL debut, but the roster spot for a player of his skill level is becoming a thing of the past and the value of this pick is in question. Gabriel is a player who skates to intimidate and does not shy away from some bare-fisted engagements. With that in mind, and knowing that the Wild organization is a fan of his role and his personal character, Gabriel probably finds a way to stick with the Wild for the foreseeable future. One could do worse for a teammate, but on an Iowa team that struggles to prevent shots and score goals, Gabriel is not the most obvious solution.
Christoph Bertschy, C/RW, 21
A three-year pro in Switzerland’s top league, Bertschy amassed 66 points in 153 games for a veteran-laden SC Bern squad – one that incidentally boasted John Tavares, Roman Josi and Mark Streit during his second season. He benefited from NHL-level coaching when Guy Boucher took over the club, and that probably helped Bertschy with the transition. He started this season off well, cooled some, but still sits tied for first on the team in scoring. Bertschy’s greatest asset is his speed, but he has the hands and vision to rack up some points as well. His upside is ultimately modest, but in his limited NHL exposure he may have established a longer window to determine just what that might mean.
Grayson Downing, C, 23
The undrafted Downing played four full seasons with the University of New Hampshire Wildcats before earning a two-year deal from the Wild. When healthy, Downing has been the best player for Iowa. He is an energetic forward that finds ways to get shots on goal consistently, keeping pace with Jordan Schroeder in terms of generating shots, and scoring just under a point-per-game. His performance in this rookie campaign certainly suggests he could find his way onto an NHL roster in the near future.
Brady Brassart, C, 22
Brassart and Zack Mitchell came aboard at the same time, a pair of free agent signings out of the CHL. Brassart was a leader for the Calgary Hitmen who scored 35 goals in back-to-back seasons. As often happens, that kind of offense just hasn’t been part of Brassart’s game as a pro. While Brassart has fine-tuned other aspects of his game in his second season, his struggles have been part of the overall failure in Iowa’s plans. He is among those who has another year to turn things the right direction, but the plateau in his performance is not a promising sign.
Mike Reilly, D, 22
Reilly’s performance thus far in the AHL is not encouraging. As expected, he has put up some points but has been victimized by the talent level he must defend. Currently with the Wild, Reilly’s game will depend on power play opportunities if this season is any indication. He must be harder on the puck and the man to reach his potential as a top-four defenseman in the NHL.
Gustav Olofsson, D, 21
The 2013 second-rounder is coming into form after missing almost all of last season with injury. He is an organizational favorite, and though his defensive game is raw as expected for his age, Olofsson has a lot going for him as a player. He has gained strength and combines high-level skill with a powerful frame. Even more so than Reilly, Olofsson represents the Wild’s organizational acuity when it comes to blueline prospects. Even in his brief NHL appearance this season, Olofsson showed that a middle-pairing role in the heart of his career is a likely outcome.
Dylan Labbe, D, 20
Labbe, who turns 21 in early January, is experiencing some rookie growing pains that are common when the opponents all have professional hockey skill sets. Labbe’s best asset is his skating ability, but he no longer has that advantage to the same degree. Despite the struggles, he is coming around and has found ways to stick in the lineup to his credit.
Zach Palmquist, D, 25
Signed to a pro deal alongside Brody Hoffman last March, South St. Paul native Palmquist had a highly-decorated college resume from his time at Minnesota State-Mankato, including three WCHA All-Academic nods. More than his upside as a hockey player, Palmquist is an organizational acquisition that helps send a message about character. With Iowa this season, Palmquist has shown his maturity. A player of extraordinary durability, but ultimately little elite offensive skill, he has chipped in while playing a characteristically safe and dependable brand of hockey. He may be able to provide enough leadership to free up a veteran slot on the roster next season as well.
Guillaume Gelinas, D, 22
Gelinas’s inability to score points in the AHL is a mystery given his torrid pace during his final season in the QMJHL. Even taking away a significant portion attributable to Anthony Mantha, and the lesser competition, one would expect more production. Just as with Bussieres, Gelinas finds himself trying to improve the aspects of his game that will be necessary to find success as a pro. He put up 17 points in 25 games with Quad City, but is now back with Iowa for the time being.
Raphael Bussieres, LW, 22
The second-round pick out of the 2012 draft is not trending the right direction, but the Wild organization is doing its best to help Bussieres have a hockey career. A newfound appreciation for using the ECHL as a developmental league for its prospects is proving beneficial for some of the goalies, but Bussieres has been finding his game there as well.
He was a raw pick out of the QMJHL who slowly improved throughout junior. A concussion helped set him back as he was starting to grow into his identity as a pro. His offense with Quad City is indicative of the player the Wild thought he could be back in 2012: an aggressive checker who is capable of moving the puck productively. Bussieres is now one the primary drivers for the Mallards. It is too soon to think he will have an NHL role in his career, but it is also too soon to rule him out. With one more year remaining on his entry-level deal, Bussieres could still establish himself as a player with some skills who is capable of a bottom-six checking role.
Alex Gudbranson, D, 21
Gudbranson represents a decent depth bet that could still work out well. In the ECHL, Gudbranson is more than a hard hitter. He has put up some quietly impressive stats for the Mallards and helped that team to the top of the standings. If he can bring some of the offense back to Des Moines with him along with his physicality, he may earn another contract from the organization.
Steve Michalek, G, 22
Michalek was supposed to have this season with the Harvard Crimson, putting more work toward his education and a hockey team that came together in an impressive way last season. An NCAA ruling went against him and he finds himself on a faster-track to a pro hockey career, wisely making his rookie season count in the ECHL. His .924 save percentage puts him in the top ten of goalies, but most importantly he can build on these starts without feeling the same kind of frustration or pressure he would have in Iowa this season.
Brody Hoffman, G, 24
Hoffman is more likely to play a depth role in the future for the Wild, but one never knows with goalies. He put together a solid resume over three seasons at the University of Vermont before turning pro. Like Michalek, he is finding the jump to pro hockey to be a big one, but has settled in a bit. The situation has turned into a more even time-share, with Michalek having started 16 games and Hoffman 12. Both goalies should benefit from the situation in the long-run.
Prospect of the Month
As the hockey world turns its eyes to Finland for the World Junior Championships, Minnesota Wild prospect Kaapo Kähkönen is among those players with the most pressure. The likely starter for Team Finland, rookie Kähkönen has been one of the better goaltenders in the Liiga this season. With a save percentage of .921 he has shown that his performance last season in the Mestis was no fluke. Though he must now perform against his own age group rather than the professionals of the Liiga, his club team – Blues – has had the lowest-scoring offense. Team Finland will have the advantage of home ice for the tournament, but Kähkönen provides some Champions League experience to go with his natural ability.