Russell Lansford/Icon SMI)
Over the last several seasons the Minnesota Wild have filled their pipeline to the brim with highly regarded prospects; a strategy which is starting to pay early dividends at the NHL level. Below is the inaugural edition of the Wild's prospect awards.
Most Improved Prospect: Johan Gustafsson, G, Luleå HF (SEL)
It's never easy to assess a goaltending prospect's progress. We have the numbers to go on and a few viewings in which a player looks great one minute and a victim the next. It's a tough position to prognosticate, but Johan Gustafsson stepped up his game this season in a couple of different ways. He moved up one level of competition, taking over the starter's role for Luleå of the Swedish Elite League. He put up a solid .932 save percentage, good for fifth in the league. He also shut out Team Russia in Sweden's gold medal game, perhaps not convincingly, but effectively. Gustafsson was nominated for SEL Rookie of the Year as well.
The Wild can afford to wait on Gustafsson to further refine his game, but the Swedish youngster is looking like a prospect of interest.
Best Defensive Prospect: Jonas Brodin, D, Färjestad BK (SEL)
The 2011 first rounder is already a three-year Elitserien pro as a teenager and has been a fixture on Sweden's national squad since his days as a U16. As he prepares for an NHL career, questions remain about his offensive ability and whether he has the grit and size to engage NHL opposition effectively. With that in mind, Brodin already demonstrates elite awareness, positioning, and skating ability, as well a quick and accurate shot that could be utilized more. He has all the tools in short to play a top two role in the NHL, and is already ahead of the curve with regard to the mental game. It remains to be seen if Brodin can be a difference maker in the North American pro game, but he is clearly the class of the Wild's defensive prospect group.
Best Offensive Prospect: Mikael Granlund, C, HIFK (SM-liiga)
In an era where top players too often step straight from the draft podium to the NHL, Granlund seems to be taking forever to come and make a difference in St. Paul. The ninth pick of 2010 has yet to play an NHL game, but he already has an impressive track record as a player. His list of accolades is becoming well known. Despite a year in which he struggled at times with injury and illness, Granlund finished at the top of his team in scoring by a wide margin, and tied for first in the SM-Liiga in points per game. He is the best Finnish prospect since Teemu Selänne, and as such has the weight of expectations on him. He will be asked next season to revive a franchise that has struggled for an excitement factor even when Marian Gaborik was its face. While it can be hoped that Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, and Jason Zucker can take some of the pressure off of Granlund to revive the offense, the young Finn is one of the best prospects in the world and should prove worthy of the hype.
Prospect of the Year: Johan Larsson, C, Brynäs IF Gavle (SEL)
No Wild prospect had a better season in terms of medals than Johan Larsson. The bonus for those who hope the best for this group of prospects is that Larsson also played a significant role in his teams' successes.
Larsson first served as team captain at Sweden's U18 entry in 2010. He rewarded that faith with a remarkable 14 points in five games, but his leadership has been in evidence for a long time and he was an easy choice to captain the next iteration of the national squad, inheriting the letter from Anton Lander (EDM). Bringing home the first World Junior gold for Sweden since 1981 was a collective accomplishment, but Larsson's tenacity was apparent all over the ice, leading by example in the physical game and supporting with timely helpers as well. His pro club, Brynäs, was decidedly middle of the road in the standings last season and Larsson registered a mere eight points in 43 games. He took a major step forward this year (as far as the Elitserien is concerned) with 36 points in 49 games. Larsson played on the first line, matching up with other teams' best players and finished third on the team in scoring. The Swedish center also helped Brynäs take home the Swedish Elite League championship this season and finished with SEL rookie of the year honors.
Fastest Skater: Jason Zucker, LW, Denver Pioneers (WCHA)
Zucker has been a prospect of major interest since his college debut. He put up 45 points that season in 40 games and won the WCHA Rookie of the Year award. Zucker held steady this year, despite the added attention from opposition coaches, and did manage to meet one major milestone: his NHL debut. During a quick six game viewing after Denver's elimination, Zucker had an opportunity to gauge his skating against NHL regulars. He already possesses an extremely quick burst of straight ahead speed that will serve him well. He is not equipped with a huge frame, but Zucker's puck skills and release are already skills he can couple with his skating ability to establish himself as an NHL player in the near future.
The Wild had one of the least productive blue lines in the league. After sending Brent Burns away, the team just doesn't have an offensive weapon on defense. Jared Spurgeon and Tom Gilbert can do some good, but Marco Scandella has a chance to contribute even more as he matures as a pro, having now graduated from prospect status. One of the hardest and most valuable skills in today's game is getting the puck through the waves of players laying out to block lanes. Scandella has shown some ability in this area, and while his shot isn't a weapon yet on the order of NHLers Kurtis Foster or Jason Garrison, he can shoot. The Wild will need more goal scoring from their rearguards next season, Scandella may be able to provide it.
Overachiever: Mario Lucia, RW, Penticton Vees (BCHL)
The Wild scouts liked what they saw out of the Wayzata high school junior enough to trade up for him in the second round. By the numbers and raw potential, he has more than delivered. The high school route seemingly not enough of a challenge for him, Lucia took the mature step of moving out the comforts of the Twin Cities suburbs to scenic Penticton, British Columbia, to continue his development at a more intense pace in the BCHL. Playing a 56 game regular season, Lucia put up 93 points on a team that barely knew the sting of a close game. Through the close combat of the playoffs, he has 17 points in 15 games. While there's nothing wrong with getting used to winning, the Vees ran roughshod over most of the competition. The numbers for Lucia are gaudy, but he will face the toughest competition of his nascent career next season with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. It should be a mark by which one can better assess his toolkit.
Foucault's first full pro season wasn't a total disaster, and he was rewarded for some solid play with a one game call-up to the Wild. He receives this "award" because he does have a rare skill-set within the Wild system (high level puck skills), has the good size and some edge, but just seems to disappear for stretches. Even with a guy like Casey Wellman being sent away, Foucault hasn't stepped up to be an offensive leader. Although he was one of the very few playoff goal scorers, it sure would be great for the team if Foucault could put it all together soon. Next season, the chances for guys with a more offensive focus get even slimmer. With some good experience under his belt, Foucault has a chance to lead by example and take everything to the next level.
Highest Risk/Reward Prospect: Mikael Granlund, C, HIFK Helsinki (SM-liiga)
Granlund "takes home" another award here, although it is inherently a double-edged sword. As a consensus top five prospect outside the NHL, Granlund has proven his superlative skills in professional hockey and in international play. He is clearly a rare talent, but the specter of injury is always present. Granlund has already taken some heavy blows to the head and physical abuse playing on the larger ice of Europe. He is powerfully built, but won't overwhelm the average NHL defenseman. Granlund will have an adjustment period next season, and certainly a degree of frustration. He stepped right into pro hockey and created from the outset. The NHL is a different plane, and while he has looked good in international competition, there will be a steep curve. Granlund has shown his skill, creativity and vision; next season he will have to show what kind of character he possesses.
A lot of guys were asked to log miles this year, to come in and play tough minutes on little rest, and a lot of guys deserve credit for trying to make the most of an occasionally tough situation on the ice. Brett Bulmer was one who started the season with the Wild. The big second rounder showed his physical readiness and very good skating ability right out of camp. If the Wild had made a decision on Colton Gillies sooner, Bulmer might have stuck all year in fact. He looked solid, if obviously a little green, in his nine game tryout, and accepted his return back to junior with grace. With Kelowna, he improved the parts of his game he needed to, putting up 34 goals and 62 points in 53 games. While a player of his size and speed should drive the net more, credit Bulmer for executing. The Rockets, and then the Aeros, both failed to gain ground in the second season, but Bulmer chipped in during both series. He'll have a good long offseason (as will most of the system) to hit the weight room and continue the hard work necessary to be a key component of the Wild's future.
Unsung Hero: Erik Haula, LW/C, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Erik Haula was a seventh round pick back in 2009 and despite a great sophomore season in one of the most high profile college programs in the NCAA just doesn't seem to garner much respect. The reasons for this neglect remain obscure. He is a rare Finnish prospect who takes the route through a U.S. High School, in his case hockey factory Shattuck-St.Mary's. From Shattuck to the USHL to the WCHA, Haula has put up exceptional point totals while playing a pivotal role on his teams. Still the talk about the Gophers seems to focus on high draftees Nick Bjugstad, Kyle Rau, and Zach Budish, all talented players in their own rights. Haula, however, finished first on his team in points in his sophomore season. His 49 points (20 goals) were also good enough for ninth in scoring nationwide. A playmaking wing who played a good of deal of center this season, Haula improved his defensive play, faceoffs and even strength play. With a lot of youngsters fighting for spots next year, Haula might have to wait for his chance. The Gophers should be a strong candidate to contend for a national title though, and Haula has a nice opportunity to play a major role in that.
Hackett's real breakout season might well have been the end 2010-11, as he backstopped the Aeros up to the Calder Cup Finals. He continued to develop this season though, and with the immense honor of being asked to join Team Canada at the IIHF World Championship, Hackett has proven to have earned his spot on the leaguewide radar. He put up a fine .922 save percentage in the twelve games he played with the Wild, and really came out strong in his debut. Hackett also improved his save percentage (just barely) with the Aeros this season, when some might have worried about a regression. Though he struggled against a potent Oil Barons squad in the playoffs, he was playing with a bit of an injury. He will presumably be recovered enough to get some international starts in the early going of the tournament, and if nothing else, gets a nice vote of confidence.
It is uncertain where Charlie Coyle will be next season, but his performance in the CHL after transferring from Boston University makes it unlikely to be the QMJHL. He has so far scored seventy points in under 40 games, including playoffs. His size and speed, as well as the finishing ability of his linemates, have made it all but impossible for opposing teams to stop him. Coyle is bigger and stronger than many of the players he is facing now, but is also showing a nice range of skills. Next year will require a bit of quantum leap from Charlie Coyle to meet the expectations created by his playoff performance, but he has established himself as a player of major interest.