Minnesota Wild prospects face limited opportunities for NHL experience

By Peter Prohaska
Gustav Olofsson - Minnesota Wild

Photo: If Minnesota Wild prospect Gustav Olofsson is ready for NHL minutes soon, he might make another young defenseman expendable (courtesy of Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

 

 

Now past the midpoint of the 2015-16 season, a relatively healthy and whole Minnesota Wild team is cooling of late. Offense is down, shots for are down, shots against are up, and points have been lost in the NHL’s new 3-on-3 overtime format. The Wild has dropped four in a row while the rival Chicago Blackhawks are on a 12-game winning streak.

The expectation of success means the Wild again faces fan and media despair. People aren’t sure if they’re seeing a very good team play down to occasions, or maybe an average team that can’t really score despite (or because) of its responsible team structure. An infusion of elite-level talent from a rival squad is unlikely to occur – even at the high cost to the franchise of a player like Matt Dumba or Jonas Brodin. Tonight’s game against another team that has struggled offensively, the Anaheim Ducks, becomes a big statement game for a team struggling to hold on to a wild-card spot.

In a perfect world, a team should use some of these downturns to experiment with a minor-league player or two. You can’t know what you have in a potential NHLer if you don’t see what he can do in the NHL. But with the fewest points (and fewest penalty minutes) in the AHL, the Iowa Wild has not proven to be an immediate source of help. This is a credit to consistency and health on the one hand, but an indictment of the minor-league depth on the other.

Kurtis Gabriel, RW, 22

The Wild does not have the skill in the AHL to add both energy and scoring, but it tried by way of an audition for 2013 third-rounder Kurtis Gabriel. Gabriel is a good story but looked as out of place in his NHL minutes as he did in the preseason. He has the strength and the courage for pro hockey, but those elements are only part of the total requirements. His audition lasted only three games, in which he totaled almost 14 minutes of ice-time. He fought Winnipeg tough guys Chris Thorburn and Anthony Peluso too, to some effect.

Gustav Olofsson, D, 21

Gustav Olofsson, the Iowa Wild’s representative in the AHL All-Star Game, also saw limited ice-time in his two-game NHL stint but managed to surprise Tuukka Rask with a shot that hit the post. He is still a ways off from being an NHL regular ideally but he should hold his own relative to other young players learning on the job. Olofsson has good instincts all over the ice and though he needs more strength, probably fits in well in the Wild’s somewhat-sheltering system.

Mike Reilly, D, 22

Mike Reilly clearly has some of the skill set of a top-four regular, even a possible Kevin Shattenkirk or Tyson Barrie style of player if all goes well. Players of that caliber are rare though, and Reilly has to show more before he gets to their level. He roams well and has confidence handling the puck. Where he gets into trouble at times is in distribution, and he may not match well physically with many of the dangerous forwards in the NHL. The Wild’s success with Jared Spurgeon should give cause for optimism in Reilly’s case too.

The potential that exists for Reilly is part of the reason Brodin and Dumba have been publicly shopped but of course it remains potential. Ryan Suter’s heavy minutes generally mean less opportunity for young defensemen to skate, though his results speak for themselves.

Christoph Bertschy, C/RW, 21

Christoph Bertschy took a bit of a risk coming from the charming snow-capped mountains of his native Switzerland – where he spent the last six seasons in Bern – to a challenging situation in Des Moines. The Wild gave him his first forward call-up of the season in early November, at a time when he led the Iowa Wild in points. His stints were of the 24-hour variety though. A good debut in which he had over eight minutes played, and two shots on goal, was followed by unremarkable six-minute outings. Bertschy has proven to be a decent pro in the Swiss NLA and in Iowa, and he has some puck skill to go with a high level of straight-ahead speed. He is not a great shooter but can get the puck to the net. The Wild’s patience in signing Bertschy to his entry-level contract may be rewarded here.

Michael Keränen, RW, 26

Michael Keranen finally got his ticket to the big show after a long season in the AHL in 2014-15. To his credit, Keranen showed his commitment to the organization, but his contract expires at the end of the season and it’s hard to imagine he sticks around for another. His 37 points tied for second on the team last season, and he was a durable pro who offered some skill and some patience with the puck. This season has been hampered by injury, and though he could still beat last season’s point totals, six minutes of NHL play in two seasons is probably a good indication of the franchise’s assessment of his future prospects.

Brett Bulmer, RW, 23

Like Gabriel, Bulmer came up to play a physical game and he did so willingly during a three-game November stint. He lost his one fight badly, though, and despite returning for the next game and playing eight minutes, Bulmer has lost some of the speed he once had. With just three points in 28 games on the season in Iowa, his future with the Wild organization seems bleak.

Christian Folin, D, 24

About to turn 25 and close to graduating as a prospect, Christian Folin has yet to earn Mike Yeo’s trust enough to stick in the NHL. Despite looking like a more dangerous offensive player than Nate Prosser, Folin has been down in Iowa since late November. At the AHL level, Folin scores at a respectable pace, using his shooting ability well. The coaching staff surely have their reasons for favoring the more experienced player, leaving Folin to bide his time until the opportunity comes.

2016 World Junior Championships Report

The world’s top players in the premier under-20 age group tournament included several Wild prospects in prominent roles.

The Wild’s Kaapo Kähkönen was not considered Team Finland’s starter when the 2016 Tournament began. The young man who this season has begun to compile a truly impressive resume playing in Finland’s Liiga took the job as far as he could. After relieving Veini Vehviläinen as Finland traded goals with an always-dangerous Team Canada in the quarterfinal, Kahkonen showed real resilience after being beaten early. He played well enough to win that game, held Sweden to a single goal in the next, and then again showed some junior nerves after being named the starter in the gold-medal game against Team Russia. After taking a careless and unlucky delay of game penalty when the Russians had not registered a shot, Kahkonen let in a Russian power play goal that sent a palpable anxiety around Helsinki Arena before his high-flying teammates established a lead. Later, he rebounded to make several important saves as Russia looked desperately to tie the game. With six seconds to go, the Russians succeeded, and an overtime session began. A game that might have gone on forever on neutral ice ended with Kasperi Kapanen (TOR) scoring a wraparound golden goal for the Finns, who also won this tournament in 2014.

Wild 2015 fifth-round draft pick Kirill Kaprizov was on the losing end of things (though a silver medal is no small accomplishment), but the young KHL star showed promising upside on this stage. He is not the biggest player by any measure, but in a manner similar to Zach Parise, Kaprizov is a powerful and energetic skater who is willing to take the puck along the boards and to the net and always looks engaged. He and the Russians were a surprisingly low-scoring group, but Kaprizov created many chances that might have been more. Much more so than in this short tournament, his performance with Novokuznetsk in the KHL this season has raised his profile immensely among the Wild’s prospects.

The Wild’s 2015 first-round pick Joel Eriksson Ek was less impressive at the WJC. Perhaps hampered a bit by injury this season, JEE did not produce much for Team Sweden and played second- or third-line minutes with some power play time. He did draw penalties and was able to use his skating and puck possession tools to create chances, but his shot was underutilized. With the young Swede still playing a somewhat minor role for Färjestad of the SHL, he has shown both the promise of his draft position and the wisdom of perhaps letting him develop in the SHL this season and next. Eriksson Ek needs to add some more muscle to find success but his style of play fits well with this organization’s prevailing philosophies.

Miami University standout Louie Belpedio had to play second-fiddle to future Columbus Blue Jacket and current Michigan Wolverine Zach Werenski in this tournament, but as a second-pair player he acquitted himself well. He has the confidence and skating skill to carry the puck out of the defensive zone, and although he loses physical battles at times, Belpedio has shown a lot of positive development. He did not score much, but had a huge goal against Team Canada in the first round. Some aspects of Team USA’s roster selection were criticized, but the defense corps – guided some by Chris Chelios – were generally effective and balanced pairs and of course Belpedio’s inclusion is a credit to his hard work. It is American nature, so we are told at least, to feel disappointment at a bronze medal. In a tournament with several good teams, against many young men with professional hockey experience, and real pressure of many kinds, the medal is a big accomplishment for the players and the staff alike.

2015 fourth-rounder Ales Stezka and the Czechs suffered a terrible performance against Team USA in the quarterfinals, one in which Stezka was inserted to rally a slumping Czech squad already trailing in the game. The skill disparity was as much to blame as the effort level though, and Auston Matthews wide open in the slot is unfair for most any goalie. Stezka did well to make the national team in the first place, and he has a decent international record for the Czechs, this game excepted. His numbers in the USHL this season are less encouraging, but the young man has time to get things pointed the right direction. 

Non-Rookie Prospect Update

Near the top of the Wild’s NCAA scoring leaders is a familiar name, albeit a somewhat surprising one. Sophomore Lou Nanne has been a big part of RPI’s surge to second in the ECAC standings, with 14 points in 24 games – good for second among the Engineers. Boston College’s two Wild prospects have played supporting roles, but neither sophomore Alex Tuch‘s 16 points in 21 games nor 12 points in 22 games for junior Adam Gilmour should be viewed as cause for concern – their importance to the team goes beyond the scoreboard. Nick Boka is another player whose modest point totals – five assists in 21 games on an offensive juggernaut – do not tell the story of his excellent defensive play. One has to also consider that the freshman Boka is one of the youngest players in college hockey, yet has earned second-pairing minutes for the Wolverines. Back in Minnesota, Golden Gopher Nick Seeler clearly used his NCAA-mandated season off to hit the weights. The junior has four assists in 20 games, but is getting the best of the opposition physically, and taking the occasionally dubious penalty for it. His freshman teammate Jack Sadek has one less point than Seeler despite playing in just seven games, but has some high school bad habits he needs to shake to gain more trust from the coaches.

In junior hockey, Gustav Bouramman has struggled to put up points while also being the go-to defenseman for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He does lead the d-corps in scoring, but has seen his totals drop off from last season’s pace after the team lost a lot of top talents to the pros. The trade that sent Chase Lang to the Vancouver Giants has been good for his career. He plays a more prominent role with his new squad, and has seen his scoring tick up into better than a point-per-game. The opposite has been the case for Pavel Jenyš, who has just six points in 19 games with Niagara since his early-season trade.

Prospect of the Month

Grayson Downing - Minnesota WildThe top scorers in the AHL are usually a mix of high draft picks in need of refinement and veteran players. Grayson Downing, the undrafted free agent signing out of the University of New Hampshire, bucks both trends. The 23-year-old has just 29 pro games on his resume, but has averaged a point in each one. While he lacks size to a degree, Downing is adept at finding ways to generate opportunities to score. He possesses a quick shot that he is willing to use. It is very much an open question as to whether he would find the same success playing in the NHL, but it is no stretch to imagine he gets the chance to find out sooner than later.