Minnesota Wild Prospect Awards highlight need for more forward depth

By Peter Prohaska
Zack Mitchell - Minnesota Wild

Photo: With a shortage of NHL forwards signed for next season, the Wild may have to rely on a player like leading Iowa scorer Zack Mitchell to step up into a depth role (courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

Once again it has been a tough year to be a prospect in the Minnesota Wild organization. Chris Porter, Jarret Stoll, David Jones, and Nate Prosser took some of the minutes in the NHL often reserved for younger players but the team lacked for better options. Although Christian Folin (eventually) graduated, Mike Reilly looked like a possible fit during his stint, and Kurtis Gabriel got a great opportunity to play a role in the playoffs, the team’s lack of NHL-ready depth was a major factor in a disappointing season.

Elsewhere in the organization, the Iowa Wild was never in contention for anything other than the worst record in the AHL (which they secured). While the Wild did make good use of its ECHL affiliate, Quad City Mallards, this has also been as much by necessity, with players in the system not good enough for the AHL. System-wide, the Wild does not have NHL-ready young players in the forward ranks, though there are a few possibilities for the distant future.

The steps they take are no easy road, so Hockey’s Future makes an annual tradition of handing out some hardware to the prospects who distinguished themselves during the season on the ladder toward NHL success.

Hardest Worker: Zack Mitchell, RW, Iowa Wild (AHL)

For a second consecutive season, Zack Mitchell has been a quiet leader for Iowa under trying circumstances.

After a respectable rookie campaign in which he was fourth on the team in points, Mitchell led Iowa in scoring this season. The ironman who did not miss a game last season had that streak broken but he was still second in games played for Iowa, with 70. Mitchell’s 42 points were good for 89th in American league scoring.

Overall, Mitchell may not have NHL-quality scoring ability but he has been an undeniably good acquisition for the Wild, bringing a professional attitude night in and night out for an undermanned group. He was a powerful motivating force as a leader for the Guelph Storm in its run to an OHL Championship and, even as a pro, Mitchell shows that effort is the first part of getting results.

Hardest Shot: Joel Eriksson Ek, LW, Färjestad BK (SHL)

There may be other Wild prospects who challenge for pure velocity, but Eriksson Ek was drafted 20th overall in the 2015 in part because he has shown his shot – release and accuracy – is good enough to beat goalies in his age group.

As a pro, he was not as successful this season as hoped. The slight uptick in his scoring for Farjestad this season – 15 points (nine goals) in 41 games – is not much improvement over his draft season’s six points in 34 games. 2016 Draft-eligible teammate Rasmus Asplund, for one, had 12 points in 46 games. Eriksson Ek only managed one power play goal, and though he averaged just under two shots on goal per game, his shooting percentage was relatively low at 8.5%.

Whether he stays for another year of apprenticeship in Sweden’s top league or makes the jump to Des Moines, the Wild will be hoping for a significant increase in his scoring in his second post-draft season.

Best Defensive Prospect: Mike Reilly, D, Iowa Wild/Minnesota Wild (AHL/NHL)

Although Gustav Olofsson plays an all-around more effective game, two seasons of major injury have had an impact on his career, leaving Mike Reilly a more likely part of the Minnesota Wild for next season.

There is, however, a glut of blueliners. Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Christian Folin and Nate Prosser are all signed for next season. It is a solid and versatile – and expensive – group that is likely to change if Chuck Fletcher can find a trading partner. Matt Dumba needs a new contract, and Mike Reilly is knocking on the door with the promise of more blueline scoring for the Wild.

With 29 games in the NHL, Reilly gave up a little more than he produced but showed in a few games this season that his skating, passing and puck-handling are NHL-caliber. His decision-making and physical game are works in progress.

Fastest Skater: Louie Belpedio, D, Miami RedHawks (NCAA)

The Wild is constructed to be a good-skating team, but there are always exceptions. While Erik Haula, Jason Zucker, Jordan Schroeder and Matt Dumba display great top-end speed, there are also players like Thomas Vanek, Mikko Koivu and Jarret Stoll on the roster.

Among the prospects, there is a shortage of speed but if Belpedio makes the NHL some day, it will be on the strength of his skating and his offensive instincts. Speed from the defensive zone can create opportunities for the big forwards the Wild has drafted in recent years. While Belpedio did not have a great season – despite a well-deserved bronze medal with Team USA at the World Juniors – Miami should be improved next season. It will be an important season for Belpedio to establish himself as a top prospect in this system loaded with promising defensemen.

Prospect of the Year: Kirill Kaprizov, RW, Metallurg Novokuznetsk (KHL)

At last year’s draft, the surprise was not even so much the player as the country. The Wild has looked to Russia rarely in its draft history, and not for several years. Kaprizov, the first overall pick of the 2014 KHL draft, was ranked 29th among international skaters by NHL’s Central Scouting Service and 115th by ISS, but the Wild seem to have done well with the 135th overall pick.

Kaprizov is still a day away from his 19th birthday but led his KHL team in scoring this season. Although he got more minutes than other players his age, with just over 17 a night on average, he was effective in that time, scoring 27 points in 53 games. Very few junior-aged players have been able to thrive in the KHL, and while Kaprizov could have shown a bit more finish at the World Juniors, he had a breakout campaign that bodes well for his future.

Breakout Player for 16-17: Jordan Greenway, LW, Boston University (NCAA)

Greenway got off to a slow start in his college career, justifying some of the draft watchers who worried about his speed and agility. Greenway’s game is definitely predicated on his strength and frame, but he has also some soft hands and vision.

This season saw him grow in confidence, adding some new dimensions to a formidable set of skills. BU was a bit disappointing this season in the end, but the team boasts some real promise for next season. One major indicator is Greenway’s shooting percentage, which was only around 6%. He should have a bit more time with the puck as the game slows for him next season. Add to that a player that should have no difficulty getting to scoring areas, and you have a potentially dominant college player in 2016-17.

Most Improved: Steve Michalek, G, Iowa Wild (AHL)

Michalek did have an excellent college career and Harvard would have welcomed him back were he eligible. But faced with turning pro a little sooner than he might have liked, Michalek and the Wild made sure this season to bring the rookie along the right way.

With two experienced pro goalies in Iowa, Michalek spent much of the season in the ECHL, where he helped the Quad City Mallards to a good record and eventual playoff berth. Once circumstances meant reporting to Iowa, Michalek was far better prepared for the challenges of the pro game.

The depth chart is still a question mark – Leland Irving proved to be an excellent option in goal, and Michalek could certainly still use some shelter – but his competent play in his first pro year has to come as major relief for the Wild. Just as one situation is solved another problem often arises in the Wild’s goalie circus, but Michalek’s season is one of the major positives of 2015-16.

Overachiever: Nick Seeler, D, University of Minnesota (NCAA)

After two seasons at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, 2011 fifth-rounder Seeler decided to head back to his native Minnesota. Forced to sit out a year thanks to the NCAA transfer rule, Seeler made sure to keep himself in good physical shape. The result was a solid campaign in what was his junior year of eligibility.

Showing himself strong enough to play a shutdown role for the Gophers, Seeler was a dependable presence for his team. He won board battles, made some big hits, and showed some confidence making plays with the puck as well.

For all that, he remains a somewhat limited player whose ten points this seasons (all assists) matched a career-best point total. The track record for such players is not all that encouraging, yet the Wild signed Seeler to an entry-level contract shortly after his season ended. He should fit in well on Iowa’s blueline next season but expecting a Nate Prosser-like impact out of him seems a stretch.

Underachiever: Raphael Bussieres, LW, Quad City Mallards (ECHL)

Just one year after wasting a 2011 first-round pick on Saint John Sea Dogs standout Zack Phillips, the Wild looked again to the QMJHL for a pick in similar range and found Raphael Bussieres at 46th overall. A player with limited offense and a rough overall game, Bussieres was ranked 129th by NHL Central Scouting among North American skaters.

He had a nice post-draft season on a much-improved Baie-Comeau squad that also featured Valentin Zykov and Petr Straka, but Bussieres has never gained traction as a pro. He went pointless in the AHL last season, and has spent most of the past two campaigns in the ECHL, putting up points at a respectable rate.

Being unable to score in the AHL is one thing, but Bussieres’s overall game doesn’t inspire much confidence. With Iowa arguably the AHL’s weakest roster, he should have been able to secure a spot. He has another season to see if he can solidify an identity as a checking presence with some puck-moving ability, but things are not trending well for the second-rounder.

Highest Risk/Reward: Alex Tuch, RW, Boston College (NCAA)

Among the team’s many issues is this: the Wild has not drafted a bona fide NHL forward since 2010 (its draftees have a total of 11 regular-season games). That year’s impressive haul of Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and Johan Larsson has given way to poor returns and long shots ever since.

Alex Tuch, the 18th overall selection in 2014, represents the Wild’s current best hope at a home-grown impact NHL forward. After a freshman season in which he led a talented Boston College squad in scoring and appeared in the World Juniors for Team USA, his sophomore campaign suffered a bit from heightened expectations. Still he showed an advanced physical game and a quick release in putting up 34 points in 40 games for the Frozen Four team.

The risk is not so much whether Tuch looks like he could be a capable NHL forward – he is trending the right way. Rather one looks already at the players selected after him – Jared McCann, David Pastrnak, Robby Fabbri for examples – and sees exciting rookies putting up points in the NHL. It is far too soon to rule out the possibility of Tuch having a similar impact once he cracks an NHL lineup, but the Wild need him badly to reverse the trend of middling returns.

Prospect of the Month

Reid Duke - Minnesota WildThe playoffs are now over for most of the Wild’s prospects, although Pavel Jenys and the Niagara IceDogs are finding their scoring ability at the right time of year, pushing for a possible OHL Championship. Another player putting up points in the CHL playoffs is Prospect of the Month Reid Duke. That should not change any time soon, as his Brandon Wheat Kings are favorites now for a WHL Championship and Memorial Cup berth. Although Duke is not the primary engine for Brandon, he is an important part of the offense, having now scored 20 points in 13 playoff games. He is an effective winger who uses his size and shooting ability well. His numbers this season are certainly respectable, if not necessarily indicative of future NHL scoring success. The question is whether the Wild has a place for the young man in the system. A strong playoffs certainly helps his cause, and a distinguished effort even more so.