Last year's Aeros team came up just short in the Calder Cup finals but has built off that deep playoff run to come out strong again. Despite losing a number of key pieces to the Wild or free agency, veteran head coach John Torchetti has the team contending from the get-go. An infusion of skill and continued growth from key prospects has provided that continuity so essential to establishing the franchise's foundation for years to come. That despite the fact almost every prospect has seen a call-up. This year has gradually turned into a revolving tryout for many of the team's talented prospects.
Cody Almond, C, 22
The product of the Kelowna Rockets has been hampered by back problems in his third year with the Houston Aeros. Seemingly back at full strength, Almond has been a recent call-up to the Wild owing to that team's many and varied injuries throughout the roster. He registered his second NHL goal, but the focus of Almond's game is mainly to play the defensive side of the puck. That said, Almond has become a reliable checking presence in his third professional season. He offers enough offensive ability to remain a very viable prospect, who can one day play a similar role as that currently occupied by Kyle Brodziak.
Casey Wellman, C/RW, 24
Wellman is a tantalizing prospect, scoring at a decent clip while with the Aeros, but slightly overmatched when he gets a chance to skate with the Wild. With 54 points in 62 AHL games, Wellman seems on the cusp of figuring out what he needs to do to find success. Not hampered by his skating or release, like other AHL scorers often are, Wellman has finally found his range this season as a call-up (four points in seven contests) playing in the top six for the Wild. Unfortunately, a wrist injury has him on the shelf for the time being. He doesn't have the skills of Devin Setoguchi or the physical power of Guillaume Latendresse, so it's unclear where he slots in at the NHL level going forward. Wellman is at the older edge of prospect range, but he has shown plenty this season so far to stay in the conversation going forward.
Chad Rau, C, 24
Rau is a skill center, capable of scoring elite goals, but he currently loses too many physical battles to slot in as an effective second or third line center at the NHL level. Rau turns 25 in January, and though the Wild organization hadn't seemed to view him as much of an option, he has been an important part of the Aeros's successes over the last three seasons. Needing a little more skill in the lineup, Rau finally got his chance as a call-up, but whether he actually gets ice time remains to be seen.
Jarod Palmer, RW, 25
A true offensive standout while at Miami (Ohio), Palmer has transitioned to more of a checker's role as an Aero. In that capacity, he has played well, but it may not necessarily reflect the best use of his skill set. His scoring numbers since joining the Aeros bear this out, but it may just be a case of having to find other ways of scoring against superior talents. Upon his call-up to the Wild, Palmer may have demonstrated that he is capable of playing a more offensive role for his team. He has both the size and shooter's instincts to find a potential role. His speed holds him back some, but he did come into his NHL debut with the confidence to use his shot.
David McIntyre, C, 24
A 2006 fifth round pick of the Stars, McIntyre came over from the Devils organization in a trade for Maxim Noreau. The former Colgate standout is a steady performer in all areas of the game and the kind of trade asset Chuck Fletcher deserves credit for identifying and acquiring. He has a bit of toughness, a bit of scoring ability, and is the kind of utility player every team needs. Mcintyre got two games with the Wild this season, but got around ten minutes of icetime and did not register a point. He has recently been a healthy scratch for the Aeros.
Joel Broda, C, 22
Broda's shot is a formidable weapon, but his mobility and decision-making continue to be a bit of a detriment. This year is a slight improvement on last year, when he was sent down to Bakersfield (ECHL). Broda was able to play at nearly a point per game pace at that level, but hasn't been able to find the range yet in the AHL. It took him until November to score a goal, but he should be able to take advantage of some more favorable minutes to add to that total. He is a younger player on the Aeros, so he still has some time to add tools to his kit.
Kristopher Foucault, LW, 21
Foucault struggled a bit in his final year of junior, not quite getting to that next level that demonstrates dominance. Foucault does have excellent puck skills, but still has a bit of growth to do with his overall game, especially for the increasing demands of the Wild system. He is currently one of the very few Aero players with a negative plus-minus, even though he is chipping in some points.
Justin Fontaine, RW, 24
The undrafted Fontaine earned a free agent contract after a superb senior season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in which he was part of the nation's best line and won the school's first national championship. He has made a nice transition to pro hockey, sitting in the top five on the team in scoring. He has continued a trend from his college years, with a balanced approach to his scoring. Fontaine is also a double-digit plus.
Carson McMillan, C/RW, 23
McMillan is a hard-hitting winger who is garnering a bit of an unfortunate reputation for high hits. He does play an honest game, bringing a ton of energy to his shifts, chipping in points and keeping things clean, similar to current Wild forward Cal Clutterbuck. The seventh rounder has also been hit by injury over the last few years, owing to his fully-engaged ice presence. He got four NHL games in last year and registered two points. The way things are going, it wouldn't be much of a surprise for him to get another call.
Nate Prosser, D, 25
Prosser was able to take advantage of blue line injuries to get into 14 games for the Wild this season. He was paired with fellow rookie Justin Falk much of the time, and the two often appeared overmatched. However, Prosser was able to play a fairly effective game, netting four assists during that time. With veterans Mike Lundin and Greg Zanon returning to action, Prosser returned to Houston. He was recalled again however, and in three games managed an assist, giving him five assists through 17 NHL games on the season. He'll likely spend the rest of the 2011-12 season split between the AHL and NHL.
Kyle Medvec, D, 23
Kyle Medvec had a nice four-year career at the University of Vermont, but he has struggled to elevate his game at the AHL level, failing to register a point in 24 games. At 6'5, Medvec's chief asset isn't rushing ability, he has little to no offensive game at all. He'll have another year to show he can chip in a little more, or at least find some of the aggression coaches seem to crave in players of Medvec's stature.
Tyler Cuma, D, 21
At this point, more has probably been written regarding Cuma's injury history than the actual skill-package that made him a coveted first round pick back in 2008. Though the injuries are an inevitable part of the story, he seems to be getting on track. Cuma has already equaled his four points from last season. Scouts liked the way he responded mentally, as well as his physical gifts, during his draft year, so he has that foundation. As Cuma gains strength and mobility, and learns the pro game, this year can hopefully be a key building block for establishing him as a top four defenseman for the organization.
Kris Fredheim, D, 24
A 2005 pick of the Canucks organization, Fredheim has worked his way toward being a regular on the Aeros blue line. He played four years at Colorado College, then joined the ECHL Victoria Salmon Kings for a brief playoff run. He was a steady contributor for the Aeros last season, but was left off the postseason roster when the Wild's season ended. Fredheim isn't the most physical player, but has decent offensive instincts and is valuable depth for the Aeros.
Chay Genoway, D, 24
The former University of North Dakota star was signed as a free agent partially to replace the offensive blue line presence lost when Max Noreau was traded. So far, the dynamic Genoway sits sixth on the team in scoring. Very eager to join the rush and possessing of excellent instincts, Genoway is excellent value. He doesn't have the hard shot or the natural battling ability that might allow him to slot in at the NHL level, but Genoway certainly doesn't seem out of place at all in his first pro season.
Matt Hackett, G, 21
After seizing the reins as a rookie last year, and performing well all the way to Calder Cup finals, Hackett proved more than worthy of his draft position and the organization's faith. He has not faltered a bit as a second year player. Hackett has improved his goals against average (2.22) and save percentage (.923) and taken full advantage of last year's momentum. He also set an NHL rookie record for shutout minutes when he was forced to step in cold for an injured Josh Harding. Though his performance in the NHL this season has been fantastic, he will see the majority of his starts this season in Houston.
Darcy Kuemper, G, 21
Kuemper had an absolutely fantastic season that established him as a prospect to watch, winning Top Goaltender and Top Player in the WHL honors. Upon turning pro he found himself somewhat blocked by the solid play of Matt Hackett and the presence of Dennis Endras. Consequently he was loaned to the Ontario Reign of the ECHL. Kuemper proved his success was no fluke with a dominant performance for that team (.941 save percentage in four games). With the Wild finding a place for Endras to get his minutes overseas, Kuemper returned to the AHL. Though he will play the backup role as long as Hackett isn't needed in St. Paul, Kuemper will undoubtedly benefit from facing AHL competition.