The Wild by design has its top prospects all scheduled to play professional hockey this season. Though obviously dependent on the quick resolution of labor strife at the NHL level, Mikael Granlund should be playing with the Wild while an excellent group of young players in Matt Hackett, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, and Brett Bulmer are presumably going to be playing with the AHL's Houston Aeros. The AHL as a whole will be be fun to watch this year. For Wild fans it is a glimpse of a promising future.
Here are a few of the Wild prospects to pay close attention to at the start of a new season.
Top Pro Prospect
Mikael Granlund, C, Houston Aeros (AHL)
Granlund has been discussed in prospect circles for several years now, and his North American professional debut is one of the most anticipated storylines of the NHL season. Whether or not that season is to be, Granlund is poised to come into his own as a player in the very near future. He was a dominant force in a men's professional league for two seasons as a teenager. He shone brightly on the international stage, both at the men's and the junior level. With the Wild's depth chart vastly improved to help ease him into the toughest league on earth, Granlund should show why he is considered one of the top prospects in the game. His instincts and playmaking are high level, the only real questions being whether he can channel an improved finishing ability to be a scoring threat and whether he can survive the physicality and mobility of the average NHL player sent to shut him down.
Charlie Coyle, C/RW, Houston Aeros (AHL)
Phillips or even Zucker could have fit here, but Coyle's romp through the QMJHL probably has him slightly ahead of some other candidates. While his size will no longer be the advantage for him it was in junior, Coyle is still a cut above as a prospect. His toolkit is diverse, and while it cannot be said that he has absolutely top-notch skating, shooting, puckhandling, or distribution skills, he does all of them well enough to be effective. The Wild's old guard might have forced Coyle into an unfavorable situation this season after seeing what he was capable of with the Sea Dogs. For the good of this player's development, he should be able to work on improving in all areas of his game with the rest of the core down in Houston.
Unsigned for 2013-14
Tyler Cuma, D, Houston Aeros (AHL)
The Wild have several prospects approaching free agency, including Jarod Palmer (UFA), Justin Fontaine (RFA), Carson McMillan (RFA), Kyle Medvec (RFA) and Joel Broda (RFA). It is Tyler Cuma however who can best control what his future will be with the Wild organization. With a high draft position comes a whole boatload of expectations, and the 2008 crop has produced high quality NHL defensemen already in Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Tyler Myers, Michael Del Zotto, and John Carlson, among others. Cuma suffered a series of unfortunate injuries that has him tracking behind these fellow first-rounders, and the 2012-13 season will tell the tale of his eventual success or disappointment. Drafted as much for his ability to read the game as for his offensive upside, Cuma must still demonstrate that he can contribute to the score sheet in order to slot in on an NHL roster. He could be a cheaper solution for Tom Gilbert going forward, but while one can easily see Cuma as a solid top-four option, this season needs to offer tangible signs of progress.
Dumba would have likely spent another season in Alberta no matter what was happening with the lockout. Although he is one of the most promising prospects in hockey, a year of developing his defensive zone reads in junior is an important part of the growth process for Dumba. A lot is expected from him offensively as well, and he should be able to equal or increase his point totals from last season. He is already off to quite a start with a highlight reel goal and a suspension to kick off a long season.
A player like Dumba who is so physically gifted can often be held back by dominating at the junior level, but again the lockout enhances the quality of some teams. While he has plenty of work to do to reach his full potential, Dumba's blend of toughness and high-level skill is one of the top assets in the organization currently.
Raphael Bussieres, LW, Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL)
Bussieres was not drafted specifically for his offense, but a third season in the QMJHL should see him maintain close to a point-per-game pace. After a solid season on a middling team where he put up just over half a point per game, Bussieres showed another gear during the playoffs. While that intense level of competition did lead to him taking a suspension, scouts were encouraged by the second gear.
Bussieres, who serves as an alternate captain, is a decent player offensively with good vision being a primary asset. He can be more effective if engaging physically, and he needs to work on his finishing skills. The second round pick the Wild used on Bussieres sets a high bar for this player. As the Drakkar team gets better and grows in confidence, Bussieres should be able to start putting pucks in the net.
As with all seventh round picks, Graovac misses out on some of the hype. He plays a somewhat quiet, defensive game, and his numbers have yet to blow anyone away. Nonetheless, Ottawa is an excellent organization with relatively high profile in the OHL, and Graovac has grown into his role there. If last season's playoffs are any indication, he should be getting a contract done in the near future.
As if aware of this possibility, Graovac is off to a hot start this season with seven goals and 10 poins in his first eight games. One of Ottawa's alternate captains, he has the advantage of experience but has also grown into his good-sized frame and is showing a quicker, more accurate release. As teams game plan for the hyped, 2013-eligible Sean Monahan on the top line, Graovac will have opportunities to impress with his numbers this season.
Top Amateur Prospect
Mario Lucia, LW, University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA)
After an impressive performance in the BCHL, Lucia was attracting attention as a top freshman to watch in the upcoming NCAA season. An unlucky and severe injury in training camp will put that excitement on hold for several months. Lucia's broken leg will keep him in rehab until December most likely and he will miss the early slate of games that helps a young player find his way in the enhanced competition of college hockey. The good news is he is young, committed, and talented. Team USA will quite possibly miss out on having his services at the World Juniors, but with his skill level, Lucia can still make some noise this season as he comes back from this setback.
Chuck Fletcher and his staff have done an excellent job so far in rebuilding the Wild's development and procurement apparatus. However, the one hockey move they would probably like a mulligan on is the trade of Nick Leddy for Cam Barker. Nick Seeler, a talented player in his own right, offers an opportunity to do just that, while John Draeger also looks to be a potential top four defenseman in the making.
While Seeler may not have all of Leddy's offensive tools, the similarity of their backgrounds makes the comparison enticing. Both came out of Minnesota high school powerhouse Eden Prairie and put up similar numbers. Leddy made the jump to pro hockey after one season at Minnesota, while Seeler only joins an NCAA team now. His freshman season at Nebraska-Omaha will be interesting to track by the splits. He enters a higher level of competition after putting up decent point totals in the USHL, and though he is a player whose defensive zone game needs work, he has the benefit of the tutelage of Dean Blais and his staff. The pressure will be on Seeler to lead at an early age, but his pedigree suggests it is possible.
Perhaps a better bet to step into a top four role with the next wave of prospects is John Draeger, the Shattuck product who will join the Michigan State Spartans directly from the prep ranks. Draeger is a skilled player but he has good overall tools. Though Shattuck's schedule leads to some skewed results, he led the defense in scoring and had eleven goals for his squad over 57 games. It is a big step up from the prep ranks to a tough NCAA conference, so expectations should be tempered. That said, this player has plenty of good indicators for future success.
Adam Gilmour, C, Muskegon Lumberjacks (USHL)
The Lumberjacks selected Adam Gilmour number two overall in the 2012 USHL Entry Draft with great expectations in mind. The incoming rookie has the talent to justify his high position. Boston College also liked what it saw of the prep star, and Gilmour will join that storied team after this season. The USHL has grown into an excellent preparatory league over the years, and it will be a good early developmental test for Gilmour. He possesses a good range of skill, has size, and is a good thinker on the ice as well. Muskegon's top scorer last year managed only 40 points in 52 games, but Gilmour should easily top that.
Top European Prospect
Johan Gustafsson, G, Lulea (SEL)
Gustafsson might be said to land here by default with Jonas Brodin and Johan Larsson reporting to Houston, but the Swedish keeper is off to a fine start in his second full season with his club, Lulea, which also features recent Wild draft pick defenseman Daniel Gunnarsson. Gustafsson's numbers look solid to start as he has posted a .942 save percentage in five games, but he is currently faced with a platoon situation. He will be splitting starts evenly with veteran David Rautio for the foreseeable future. The keepers have put up roughly equivalent numbers by save percentage, and it is really just a matter of Gustafsson making the most of his starts and not getting discouraged when the coaching staff goes with Rautio, who has yielded fewer goals. With Matt Hackett ahead of him on the depth chart and Darcy Kuemper already with Houston, young Gustafsson needs to be patient regardless.