The Minnesota Wild are close to shaking their reputation as a desert of prospect development. The last drafts have produced a number of prospects of interest, and an assortment of trades and free agent signings have generated respectable depth. The Aeros' winning the Western Conference last season demonstrates not only a positive institutional strategy for procurement and development, but also a return to a patient policy with its players shared by winning franchises.
The Wild have some elite prospects for the first time in several years, starting with Mikael Granlund, continuing with college stars Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle, and finishing with two top Swedish junior pros in Jonas Brodin and Johan Larsson. Allowing each of these players, as well as Zack Phillips, another year in their respective leagues is a sure step in the right direction as far as developmental philosophy goes.
The Wild system boasts some good size in its defense prospects, but it could certainly use a bit more offensive skill as well. One of the few mistakes GM Chuck Fletcher made was dealing promising first-rounder Nick Leddy for Cam Barker, who was cut loose after a very frustrating season with the Wild.
A pair of talented collegians lead the way to the future on the left wing. Denver's Jason Zucker has quickly become a very talked-about prospect after a highly impressive freshman year that saw him named NCAA Rookie of the Year. Zucker has excellent speed, an excellent release, and a knack for elevating his game. He has shown well in international tournaments too, with three gold medals to his name. Skill aside, Zucker is also a very effective at stirring the pot.
Finn Erik Haula has been used at center by University of Minnesota Coach Don Lucia in the early going of the WCHA campaign, but seems more comfortable working the half-walls. He is a gifted playmaker, and he has put up gaudy numbers so far this season. Haula was no slouch last year as a freshman, and has stepped up his play on an improved Gophers squad.
Colton Gillies, who earned the trust of his head coach throughout the AHL playoffs, is getting a second chance to start his NHL career. The first-rounder wasn't ready the first time around, but he appears more confident in his hitting and the game is slower for him now. Gillies has decent playmaking ability and could start to show his top-six potential if he puts it all together.
Johan Larsson can play all three forward positions, though his relative lack of mobility will likely slot him on the wing going forward in his career. He struggled a bit in his first pro season, but is off to a good start now with Brynäs of the Swedish Elite League, playing on the top line, and sometimes being played at center.
Kris Foucault and Joel Broda are competitors for the same role, to at least a degree. Broda struggled initially last season and spent some time down in Bakersfield, while Foucault had a disappointing end to his junior career. Both players scored well in the WHL, both have good shots, though Foucault has excellent puck skills to boot.
Finally, Mario Lucia is dominating at the Junior-A level with Penticton. He is headed to Notre Dame next year, and the rigors of college hockey should provide a better assessment as to what Lucia might offer.
The Wild have yet to develop a franchise center in the mold of captain Mikko Koivu, a player possessing size, skill, offense, defense, and tons of leadership. Possessing some of those traits is Mikael Granlund, who is the best prospect out of Finland since Koivu and one of the best prospects in all of hockey. The persistent criticism of Granlund is his propensity for taking big hits and how that will affect his ability to create in the offensive zone. Regardless, the 19-year-old has been a top player in Finland's top professional league for two seasons and counting, and his performance at the World Championship proved to many that the early hype was justified. Obviously the hard part lies ahead, proving himself in the world's best league.
After Granlund, the most intriguing prospect is Zack Phillips of the Saint John Sea Dogs. He too is occasionally discounted, having played on a junior team that was best in the CHL by a good margin. Phillips played a considerable role in that team's good fortunes for two seasons. He is yet another case of a junior player returning to his club with very little to prove at that level, and though as a native of New Brunswick, he might not welcome a trade to another squad, such a move could probably showcase his ability to drive an offense in the absence of such talented teammates.
Casey Wellman was signed as a college free agent, a move that initially sparked hopes that he could contribute at the NHL level. His game may not be particularly well-suited for the NHL, but he does have good skating and a quick shot. Wellman currently leads the Aeros in scoring and has been consistently productive in the AHL, so he probably will get further opportunities to play in the NHL. Also off to a good start with the Aeros is former Devils project David McIntyre. He has less upside than Wellman, but plays a solid game, and offers further depth for the farm.
Cody Almond is a player with good defensive awareness and limited offense, willing to block shots and perform checking assignments. He has been limited with back injuries since last year's Calder Cup playoffs. Chad Rau is a Minnesota native who is a good performer at the AHL level. He has been shuffled down the depth chart this year and his productivity has suffered so far.
Anthony Hamburg was a seventh round pick of the Wild in 2009, so it's much too early to give up on him. He struggled to find a role with Colgate last season, but was reasonably productive upon returning to Omaha of the USHL. He's off to a tough start this season, with no points and an anxiety-inducing head-injury.
Right wing is a somewhat shallow position currently, but it got a terrific boost via trade when the Wild acquired Charlie Coyle. The Boston University sophomore is a total package: size, skating ability, good distribution skills and some edge. He was a late first round pick of the Sharks, but his stock has risen steadily since, and he'll certainly make a push to make the Wild next year.
Brett Bulmer did not have a great junior career by the numbers, but his physical gifts positioned him to make the Wild out of camp. He hasn't looked out of place at all, and though he'll get stronger and make better reads as his career progresses, he's been productive and earned a spot at the head of the Wild's youth movement.
Jarod Palmer had an excellent college career at Miami of Ohio, but has seen his offense fall off at the AHL level as he works on a defensive game. Palmer does have pro size and some toughness to him. While he's not likely to get beyond the AHL, he has turned into a competent pro who certainly possesses a degree of upside.
Carson McMillan is a hard-working checker, with not much in the way of offense. He brings energy to each shift however, and as his game matures, he will have a role going forward. Also playing at right wing for the Aeros is college free agent signing Justin Fontaine. Fontaine formed part of the best line in college hockey last year with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, and he has transitioned well to pro hockey thus far. Whether he has the total package of physical skills to make it to the NHL remains to be seen.
Mikko Lehtonen was also acquired via trade (the Wild gave up longtime goaltending prospect Anton Khudobin) but he doesn't appear willing to play hockey in North America at this time. He had a very distinguished run with Providence of the AHL, but couldn't quite crack a very deep and experienced Bruins team. He will collect his paycheck in the KHL this season, although he appears to be struggling on a weaker squad, after benefitting from a very good Skelleftea roster last season.
Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon both appear ready to graduate this season. They've struggled along with the rest of the Wild, but Scandella in particular is a big piece going forward. He has size, puck skills, and a bit of an edge as well. They may be joined by Justin Falk as well, a player who brings decent agility and passing to a very large frame.
A first-round pick in 2007, Tyler Cuma really needs a strong, consistent season to reestablish his career track. With his ability, he should be a top option for the Aeros. Injuries have pushed his development course back a year or two.
Young Swede Jonas Brodin was the tenth overall pick at the 2011 draft. Though there were undoubtedly players on the board with more imposing physical gifts, Brodin's raw understanding of the game puts him in an elite class. He is already a leader of his SEL team, playing top pairing minutes as an 18-year-old. Brodin hasn't put up many points, but then neither has anyone on Färjestad. He is already a fixture of the national team as well.
Chay Genoway had a stellar career at the University of North Dakota and should thrive offensively at the AHL level. Kyle Medvec is a Minnesota native who had his senior year at Vermont marred by injury but certainly brings a nice package of skill and size.
Sean Lorenz gets occasionally lost in the shuffle, but picked up a very nice accolade last year, being awarded the CCHA Best Defensive Defenseman award (previous winners include Andy Greene, Mike Weaver and Mike Komisarek). He anchors the blue line for one of the nation's best college teams in Notre Dame, has size and has some occasional offense as well.
Colton Jobke was traded to Regina (WHL) this season after an injury-shortened 2010-11. He is a gritty, not particularly large, defenseman who offers some leadership ability and a pretty good defensive game.
Josh Caron, acquired the same day as Jobke, also as a free agent, returns for an overage year with Kamloops (WHL). He is mostly a fighting presence and is effective there.
The Wild don't have a lot of netminding prospects, but the ones they do have are high quality. It starts with Matt Hackett, who won the starter's job last season, and backstopped the Aeros to Game Six of the Calder Cup Finals. His numbers overall were good, not great, but he is still young and has shown a very good resiliency to go with solid technique.
Darcy Kuemper was a rather under-the-radar prospect until last season, when he rocketed up with Red Deer, winning CHL Goaltender of the Year, and WHL Top Goaltender accolades. Despite that, he had some trouble in the playoffs, and needs some seasoning. To that end, he was assigned to Los Angeles's ECHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign. He is presented with a challenge to earn the starter's role there.
Stephen Michalek rounds out the goaltenders. Like Kuemper, a sixth rounder (2011), Michalek comes out of Connecticut. He is the presumptive starter at Harvard, though the Crimson's season hasn't gotten underway. The Wild can afford to let Michalek develop slowly.