The Wild’s NCAA prospects form the heart of the team’s developmental system, yet perhaps the team’s best assets are playing in professional leagues in Europe this season. College players have been central to Chuck Fletcher’s developmental approach – perhaps because he himself is a college man – with half of the Spring Top 20 coming out of NCAA programs.
The others are largely European trained, and it is in Europe that hope lies for fans of this franchise.
With the playoffs giving way already in many cases to a summer of preparation, the Wild can look at two major tasks. One being the building of a developmental pool capable of competing at the AHL level next season. The other is finding players in the draft or elsewhere who can transcend this current procurement model’s modest outcomes. There is skill in the system but it still needs stars.
Alex Tuch, RW, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Drafted 1st round, 18th overall, 2014
BC is through to the Frozen Four, led by some of the top players in the college game, with Tuch among them. Big, strong and skilled, Tuch has shown flashes of excellent offensive ability. While his numbers were not that encouraging to start the season, he was hampered some by a knee injury. Like many big men, it can appear that he is not giving a full effort on the ice when skating, but Tuch is capable of good north-south speed. In all, the Wild seem eager to have him turn pro. Whether or not is game is fully mature remains to be seen.
Jordan Greenway, RW, Boston University Terriers (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall, 2015
Greenway got some attention this season as befits a high draft pick playing at a high-profile program. The Terriers did not have Jack Eichel and Evan Rodrigues to lug the puck around, and were exposed for a lack of defense at times. Still, BU will return Greenway next season, as well as players like Jacob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Charlie McAvoy, and should once again be a contender.
Greenway got more confident with the puck, more nimble as a skater, and stronger as the season went on. That should frighten anyone on the ice. There are few players in the country able to match him physically, and as his game grows, his ability to protect the puck and make passes might come second to his ability to possess the puck and drive the net.
Mario Lucia, LW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)
Drafted 2nd round, 60th overall, 2011
The senior Lucia sometimes appeared bored or disinterested over the past season, willing to let the younger players do the work of generating offense while he used his size and skill to make safe plays. It is a factor in the decline of his numbers over four seasons. Still, the Wild having traded up for the Wayzata star could hardly pass on signing him. Lucia might well benefit from a change of scenery. He has plenty of ability, but Iowa head coach David Cunniff will have to engage Lucia’s effort level. The AHL is a tougher league by far than college hockey is. The skill is there for the transition to work.
Adam Gilmour, C, Boston College Eagles (Hockey East)
Drafted 4th round, 98th overall, 2012
Gilmour has proven to be a useful college player in all three seasons of his career. A trusted freshman with a lanky frame has grown into a responsible center with a mature physical game. His skills with the puck may not be his calling card, but Gilmour has good awareness on the ice that leads to production. He needs work on his faceoffs to arrive as a center at the pro level. If BC can advance to the NCAA Championship, it will be in large part due to the efforts of Gilmour controlling play against an experienced Quinnipiac squad.
Louis Nanne, LW/RW, RPI Engineers (ECAC)
Drafted 7th round, 188th overall, 2012
Nanne had an excellent sophomore season with Rensselaer, finishing second on the team in scoring. Having battled some injuries in years past, Nanne played in all 40 games for the Engineers, scoring six goals and 23 points, after tallying only ten points last season. It would be a surprise for him not to return next season. The Engineers do lose a top collegiate goaltender in the Sabres’ Jason Kasdorf, but Nanne could provide some offense to compensate while rounding out the details in his game.
Louie Belpedio, D, Miami Redhawks (NCHC)
Drafted 3rd round, 80th overall, 2014
Belpedio had a bit of a sophomore slump, but it had to do with Miami losing some important players, subpar performance from the goaltending corps, and having gotten a bit lucky at times last season. His junior campaign will be one to follow, as the RedHawks retain a lot of their top talents.
Belpedio’s points did not drop off as much as his overall game suffered at times. His struggle to engage bigger forwards was apparent even during his excellent World Junior tournament, but he is a confident player with the puck. With another summer of growth and development, Belpedio remains on track for an excellent college career.
Nick Boka, D, Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Drafted 6th round, 171st overall, 2015
Boka was one of the youngest players in college hockey over the 2015-16 season, yet ended it playing top-pairing alongside first-round pick Zach Werenski. It speaks volumes about his physical abilities but also his mental capacity to process the game. Boka is not an offensive defenseman by nature, but is able to carry and rush the puck. The Wolverines this season did not have to rely on buildups, since they had forwards who could possess the puck in most situations. Nonetheless, Boka found ways to distribute, get some shots on net, and generally help the cause most nights. He showed a fearless game and one which projects well for the next level.
Nolan De Jong, D, Michigan Wolverines (Big Ten)
Drafted 7th round, 197th overall, 2013
The 20-year-old De Jong has steadily grown into a dependable middle-pairing defender at the college level, though he has yet to register a goal in three seasons. He is a mobile player with speed in all directions, and has an average physical game. What holds him back a bit is his decision-making with the puck, if not his positioning without it. In all, De Jong has the ability to cover for mistakes at this level, but it is an open question whether he can do so going forward.
Jack Sadek, D, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)
Drafted 7th round, 204th overall, 2015
Sadek was in and out of the lineup for Don Lucia’s Gophers. The freshman showed some inexperience at times, and even some lack of engagement. However, Sadek is another smooth skater who shows ability to hold the offensive blueline as well as win battles in his own end. He is also a creative puck-mover who registered five assists in the 15 games he dressed. With a lot of departures on the blueline, Sadek is penciled in to the middle-pairing for next season. For him and the Gophers to have success, he will need to continue to grow in confidence while avoiding costly mistakes.
Nick Seeler, D, Minnesota Golden Gophers (Big Ten)
Drafted 5th round, 131st overall, 2011
Seeler’s transfer back home to Minnesota worked out well for him and the Gophers. The team was in need of a steady physical presence and Seeler provided that. Always a good skater, Seeler showed a ready aggressive side, but also a simple and safe approach. The strength he added over his mandatory season off the ice served him well, but the Gophers staff molded him into a more confident presence. Although they certainly would have enjoyed another season benefiting from that, the Wild did well to get Seeler signed. His ultimate pro upside might fall short of the NHL level, but he has some positive attributes that make it possible.
John Draeger, D, Michigan State Spartans (Big Ten)
Drafted 3rd round, 68th overall, 2012
Draeger seems to be the odd man out when it comes to the Wild signing players to entry-level deals. His career started off in promising fashion, as the freshman was trusted with big minutes in all situations. The ten points he accrued that season would be his career-high though. Knee injuries impacted his ability some, as did teams that lacked high-end talent. Despite the adversity, Draeger was a good college defender who played a calm game that was physically effective. A low penalty-minute total for his career was a tribute to his positioning and discipline. The Wild, or Draeger himself, may not see his future playing hockey, but he carried himself well on and off the ice.
Carson Soucy, D, Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs (NCHC)
Drafted 5th round, 137th overall, 2013
Soucy has been a solid offensive-minded defenseman for the Bulldogs, although prone to some questionable penalties and defensive lapses. He has the size to compete, and joins the rush well. While his athletic ability is not in question, his decision-making seems to lag at times. Although it has been reported that the Wild would like to sign him, another year in the college game might give him a bit more confidence with the puck and slow the game down for him.
Avery Peterson, C/RW, University of Nebraska-Omaha (NCHC)
Drafted 6th round, 167th overall, 2013
Peterson got off to a slow start for Nebraska-Omaha, then left the program after the fall semester. As reported, Peterson wanted to be closer to home to help his family deal with his brother’s illness. Because the NCAA has its strange and often unfair rules to enforce, Peterson has to sit out a year of hockey, but is expected to join the UMD Bulldogs, a much closer school to his native Grand Rapids. With several of UMD’s top players graduating, Peterson should have a chance for an important role on the team. He brings a blend of size and skill that the team has missed in the forward ranks.
Kaapo Kahkonen, G, Blues Espoo (Liiga)
Drafted 4th round, 109th overall, 2014
Kahkonen ended the season – his first in Finland’s top pro league – with a .908 save percentage that trailed far behind top prospects like Ville Husso (.927) and Veini Vehvilainen (.925), but more importantly behind his teammate Christian Engstrand’s .916 mark as well. It is little cause for concern at this point, and Kahkonen had a much more important accomplishment this season in the form of a gold medal at the World Juniors. But in that tournament too, he started as a backup, performed shakily, and eventually made some spectacular saves to earn a couple of huge wins. His pro contract is soon up, and decisions have to be made as to where Kahkonen’s next season of development is spent. A sensible approach probably sees him in the Liiga again next season.
Joel Eriksson Ek, LW, Färjestad (SHL)
Drafted 1st round, 20th overall, 2015
Wild fans expecting the 2015 first-rounder to dominate the SHL were undoubtedly disappointed in how things went for Eriksson Ek this season. A veteran Färjestad squad deployed the young man carefully, and he ended up averaging just under 13 minutes a game. Still, he finished tenth on the team in scoring despite tallying just one goal on the power play. He was also scratched during a playoff series in which his team needed more scoring. He finished with one goal and a -3 rating in four games as Färjestad was eliminated.
A somewhat lackluster display at the World Juniors might also temper expectations some for this player. While he did show some good puck possession ability at times, he did not provide the kind of offensive support one might have expected, especially given that his shooting ability is considered one of his best skills. Earning a larger role and finding other ways to score must be the goal for this talented young man, who probably returns for another SHL campaign.
Kirill Kaprizov, LW/RW, Metallurg Novokuznetsk (KHL)
Drafted 5th round, 135th overall, 2015
Kaprizov doesn’t turn 19 until late April, but had an excellent second season in arguably the world’s second-best pro league. He hit a mark of half-a-point per game, far exceeding the efforts of any junior-aged player in the KHL and finishing as the leading scorer on his squad. The Kemerovo Oblast does not attract the same kinds of players as St. Petersburg, Moscow, or even Riga might do, and Novokuznetsk has struggled mightily in standings. This cannot diminish the impressive performance Kaprizov displayed this season both in the KHL and at the World Juniors. He is a strong skater with excellent all-around offensive ability. While he would benefit from better teammates, he has shown already a promising pro skill set that should be more effective as he continues his growth.
Pontus Själin, D, Luleå (SHL)
Drafted 6th round, 160th overall, 2014
Sjalin had a decent run with Luleå’s professional squad this season, starting in December. He got over the ten minute mark for four games, before being scratched. Then in late January and early February he returned, even playing a season-high 17:24 against Brynäs. It gave him a total of 25 games in the SHL technically, but he did not see any ice-time in over half of those. He spent considerable time on loan to Asplöven of the Allsvenskan, registering three assists in 21 games plus two more points in seven games of postseason play.
Although the Wild does not have to make a move on Själin for another year at least, it is a bit hard to see where he fits in given the glut of defensemen. He has never shown the offensive ability of say, John Klingberg, but one can always hold out hope that something clicks.
Prospect of the Month
The Wild scouts have done an excellent job identifying defense prospects. It has given the team a wealth of options at the pro level, but also several younger players waiting to crack a future lineup. Sault Ste. Marie Greyhound Gustav Bouramman is one of these. A player who was ranked higher by most scouts than the 201st pick the Wild used to pick him in 2015, Bouramman had to become a leader this season for his squad. A player who put up 44 points last season finished strong to put up 46 this season, to place in the top ten defense scorers in the OHL. The seventh-seeded Soo now have a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series, at least partially thanks to Bouramman’s four points in those games. They must now defend home ice against a high-powered Sarnia squad, but Bouramman’s efforts have been admirable so far.