The Wild commenced a 'soft' rebuild on the day Chuck Fletcher took over for Doug Risebrough. The majority of Risebrough's prospects have been flushed, and a steady eye for the future has been in evidence. It hasn't been a 'scorched earth' rebuild, whether out of honor or overconfidence, and the team should rebound soon from a season where injuries exposed a lack of elite talent. Free agents and reclamation projects can only bring a franchise so far, and Fletcher's regime has brought a concerted effort toward finding talent to the draft board. The Wild has been preparing for several of the young men playing in the U.S. college ranks and in Europe to form the team's core going forward.
Mikael Granlund, C, HIFK (SM-Liiga)
Drafted 1st round, 9th overall, 2010
The pressures on Mikael Granlund have been extraordinary this season. A teenager who has been arguably the best player in the SM-Liiga two years in a row, Granlund has had the additional burdens of school and military duty to go with his growing hockey legacy. Already a national hero for helping lead Team Finland to a World Championship in 2011, he captained a somewhat undermanned World Junior squad this season. Having upset Team USA and played Team Sweden to a draw in the semifinals, Granlund lost the puck off his stick in his shootout attempt. Despite that visible mistake, and with early season injury and late season illness, Granlund led the SM-Liiga in points per game, and also had better than a point-per-game in the Juniors tournament where he played in every situation. For now his focus is on a second League championship with HIFK, but next season should see him make his NHL debut.
Jonas Brodin, D, Färjestads BK (SEL)
Drafted 1st round, 10th overall, 2011
Brodin also played a large role in his team's winning a championship in the Swedish Elite League last season. In the World Juniors Brodin played a ton of key minutes, helping Team Sweden win its first gold in a generation. Though still a teenager, Brodin is already an excellent pro defenseman who gets the tough matches in Elite League play. Though his single-digit offensive totals are troubling to the North American mind, Sweden's top league is defensive-oriented, and to that degree, Brodin's natural focus is preventing goals. However, he has a tendency to score goals once the playoffs start, and this is true again this season. A natural student of the game, Brodin's transition to the North American game is coming soon, though he needs more weight and bulk to win battles in the NHL.
Johan Larsson, LW/C, Brynäs (SEL)
Drafted 2nd round, 56th overall, 2010
Captain of Team Sweden in several of its iterations over the years, Larsson is a natural leader whose tenacity is more of an asset than his scoring ability. That said, he has picked up his scoring in his second pro season with Brynäs, and taken a role as the first line center. This has allowed the other young men, Calle Järnkrok (DET) and Jakob Silfverberg (OTT), easier assignments. Brynäs is clicking now as it makes a playoff run. Larsson's transition to the North American game should be fairly seamless, with the caveat that he has needed a significant adjustment period each time he has advanced a league in the past.
Johan Gustafsson, G, Luleå (SEL)
Drafted 6th round, 159th overall, 2010
Johan Gustafsson put up very solid numbers as a first-year starter in the Swedish Elite League, with a .932 save percentage. Just as goal scoring numbers in Sweden seem very low compared to North American numbers, goaltending statistics should be taken with a grain of salt as well. That number was, however, fifth best in the league, and is obviously encouraging from that perspective. Also encouraging is Gustafsson's gold medal winning shutout at the World Juniors, but that must be tempered by mentioning his overall .888 save percentage for the tournament. In all, goaltenders take various amounts of time to develop consistency, and Gustafsson is coming along just fine. Earlier this season, it seemed that the Wild had almost too many good goalie prospects in the pipeline, but that depth was severely tested: so much so that they had to make an emergency signing at one point. While Gustafsson is most likely inked in to start another season with Luleå, he is certainly on the team's radar.
The Wild might wish for a do-over on the trade that sent reliable goalie backup Anton Khudobin to the Bruins for the flighty Mikko Lehtonen. A skilled sniper who was a plus scorer for the Providence Bruins (AHL) and in the Swedish Elite League, Lehtonen has appeared disinterested in pushing for the next level. He seems to have hit a wall in the KHL, putting up 21 points in 48 games with Severstal Cherepovets, and he has now disappeared for a second year in the playoffs. At just 25, and still possessed of a desirable skill-set, Lehtonen probably doesn't figure much in the Wild's plans at this juncture.
Bjorn Krupp, D, Kölner Haie (DEL)
Signed as free agent, September 18, 2009
Krupp is another size and bloodlines acquisition, one tradition that carried over from the Risebrough regime. The son of Stanley Cup hero Uwe Krupp, Bjorn played three seasons on a very weak Belleville Bulls (OHL) squad, and ultimately decided to develop his game further in his native Germany. He put up a few points this season (eight assists in 48 games), but is sidelined now with a knee injury. Krupp does play a slightly more physically engaging game than many of the other prospects, which is something that seems lacking in the system as a whole.
Jason Zucker, LW, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Drafted 2nd Round, 59th overall, 2010
It went a little under-reported when Jason Zucker made the 2011-12 WCHA All-Academic team, but it is just another indicator that Zucker is a player who understands doing things the right way. Despite a disappointing 2012 World Juniors, Jason Zucker has built on his impressive freshman season with equally good numbers over fewer games. He has the unscientifically-based skill of scoring clutch goals, with an elite overtime winner against Michigan Tech and a brilliant breakaway goal against UMD in the WCHA playoffs. His Denver Pioneers will still have a chance for more playoff hockey in the NCAA tournament.
Chuck Fletcher has stated that he would like to turn Zucker pro after the season ends, and all signs point to this being a likely outcome. He does have a slight propensity to absorbing hits, which he will need to get out of his system in order to thrive as a pro.
Erik Haula, LW -Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 7th round, 182nd overall, 2009
Sophomore Erik Haula also repeated his scoring totals from last season, but showed a more diverse game this year. Despite finishing in the top 15 scorers nationwide, Haula seems to fly under the radar. He certainly doesn't have the size or draft pedigree of occasional linemates Nick Bjugstad (FLA), Zach Budish (NAS), or Kyle Rau (FLA), but Haula led the Golden Gophers in scoring. Part of the Wild's philosophy has always seemed to be counting on the innate tenacity of the Finnish player, and while Haula has that, he also possesses some great scoring instincts.
As with a lot of players in the system, Haula will be at a bit of crossroads next season. Adding even more bulk and speed could have him well positioned to contribute as a pro in 2013-2014.
Sean Lorenz, D, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA)
Drafted 4th round, 115th overall, 2008
Lorenz is finishing up a fine four-year college career at Notre Dame. An understated defenseman who wore the captain's C for the Irish this season, Lorenz has a reputation as a young man of high character on and off the ice. A brutal February killed tournament hopes for his talented Notre Dame squad, but Lorenz had a very sound outing nonetheless. His offensive totals were somewhat unimpressive but his solid play was acknowledged with several accolades, most notably the CCHA's Best Defenseman award in 2011. He has yet to sign a pro contract, but it wouldn't be too surprising to see in him in Houston next season. Lorenz isn't huge but has a decent frame for pro hockey, at about 6'1 and 195 pounds.
Stephen Michalek, G, Harvard Crimson (ECAC)
Drafted 6th round, 161st overall, 2011
The true freshman stepped right in as the starter for the Crimson, and predictably struggled, although Harvard as a team was much better this year than last. After posting a .894 save percentage in 24 games Michalek was unseated late in the season by Raphael Girard, the second-year player. While it's no doubt discouraging for Michalek, collegiate life takes all kinds of adjustments, and Michalek has plenty of time to rebound and correct.