It was a tough postseason for the majority of the Wild's prospects. Another year out of the playoffs for the rebuilding Wild is testing the patience of the fans, though a promising youth movement is on the horizon.
The young players procured since Chuck Fletcher took over as GM have radically altered the direction of the franchise's fortunes and next season will certainly have a lot of fresh faces ready to end the playoff drought. Those with long summers should have time needed to heal and prepare to take the next step in development, while those who enjoyed playoff runs and tournament play bear with them the experience needed to challenge for a league title.
The Wild's regression in the second half of the season led to another year without a playoff berth. That disappointment, coupled with a first round sweep for last year's Calder Cup runners-up Aeros, means that the pro prospects have a nice long summer to work on individual readiness for camp in the fall. It is a crucial time for players like Matt Hackett, Tyler Cuma, and Chay Genoway to demonstrate they can take the next step to contributing at the NHL level.
Tyler Graovac of the Ottawa 67s is the only prospect the Wild have in the Ontario Hockey League, but as it turns out, Graovac was able to play a good role in his team's success this playoff campaign. Taking on checking assignments mainly, Graovac was quite effective for his team. The lanky center put up 10 points (four goals) in the 18 game postseason, played special teams and generally picked up slack when the 67s's top line was neutralized at times. Graovac's game overall is still a work in progress, but the 2011 seventh rounder is gaining confidence. As Ottawa's top talent may not be around next season, Graovac has a good opportunity to put up points while continuing to work on his defensive play.
It was somewhat of a foregone conclusion that the Saint John Sea Dogs would make a deep run in the QMJHL playoffs. Led by Wild prospects Zack Phillips and Charlie Coyle, among other high profile draft picks, the Sea Dogs annihilated the opposition, losing just one game en route to a second straight QMJHL title. Coyle tied with Stanislav Galiev (WAS) for the team lead in playoff scoring with 34 points (16 goals) in the 17 game romp. Phillips was just two points behind them (nine goals). Coyle took home the league playoff MVP trophy, while Phillips won his team's MVP trophy.
Certainly both players would have liked to win a Memorial Cup trophy too, but the team came up short in the semi-final against the host and eventual champion Shawinigan Cataractes. Phillips was named Most Sportsmanlike Player for the tournament, which is a nice acknowledgement of his efforts, if a rather bitter consolation prize. Phillips will most likely start next season with the Houston Aeros, while Coyle has been penciled into the Wild's lineup by some observers. For all their individual skills, both players could certainly use some seasoning at the AHL level before stepping into the NHL.
Two of the Wild's top European prospects ended up facing off in the semifinals of the Swedish Elitserien. Defenseman Jonas Brodin played a big role in Färjestad's playoff success, just as he did all season for the defending league champions, but the club came up short against Johan Larsson's Brynäs squad. Brynäs would go on to take the championship, and Larsson's gritty two-way play was nearly as important as the scoring touch of Jakob Silfverberg (OTT). Larsson chipped in nine points (two goals) in 16 games, missing one due to injury.
Both Brodin and Larsson also received the call to play for Team Sweden at the IIHF World Championship. Though Larsson was mostly confined to fourth line play and limited ice time as the tournament went into elimination play, Brodin saw increased responsibility. In the quarterfinal game, Brodin was given a lot of ice time, even over some established NHL players. Team Sweden came up short, but both players will have roles with the national squad as their careers progress, just as they did as juniors.
The Wild signed 2010 first round pick Mikael Granlund to an entry-level deal at the conclusion of the IIHF World Championship. The young Finn is already a three-year veteran of the SM-Liiga and the most high profile prospect the Wild have ever had. Although it was a tough season for him by his established high standard, Granlund should be able to start fresh when he arrives in North America. His combination of passing ability and elite vision should help with the Wild's lack of offense.
Contract negotiations went close to the wire, but another 2010 pick, sixth rounder Johan Gustafsson, also signed an entry-level deal. The young keeper was the principal backstop for Luleå of the Swedish Elite League, and had a shutout in the gold medal game at the World Juniors for Team Sweden. He is still at an early stage of his career, but he has begun to establish himself as a legitimate player in the SEL. A sub .900 save percentage is still cause for concern, but the Wild can afford to let him work on his consistency with his Swedish club.