Minnesota Wild’s prospect pool boasts top-end talent and character

By Peter Prohaska
Johan Larsson - Houston Aeros

Photo: Johan Larsson is one of the many top prospects spending the 2012-13 season with the AHL's Houston Aeros. (courtesy of Juan DeLeon/Icon SMI)

 
The Wild is still in the midst of a controlled rebuilding process. While the team has added immediate help at the NHL level for some areas of deficiency, most notably an elite top-pairing defenseman in Ryan Suter, an underrated top-four defenseman in Tom Gilbert, and an all-star scoring winger in Zach Parise, a few barren years at the draft kept the team from contention recently. Very strong drafts in 2010 and 2011, punctuated by the trade for Charlie Coyle, have put the team in excellent shape to be contenders soon. The core might be able to take advantage of the NHL lockout to grow together at the AHL level. Part of the Minnesota mentality is knowing there is a long winter ahead to test for weaknesses. With luck, this group of prospects will emerge strong and battle-tested.

Left Wing

The Wild has good depth along the left wing, led by Mario Lucia. He had a scary injury with a broken leg in training camp, but he seems well along the road to recovery and could conceivably be part of the United States squad at the World Junior Championships. The Notre Dame freshman is obviously behind where he would like to be after putting up sparkling numbers in the BCHL, but he is an offensively gifted player with good character and should be counted on for a strong second half of the season.

Erik Haula is a Finnish player who quickly grew accustomed to North American hockey with successful stints at Shattuck-St. Mary's, the USHL, and now with the University of Minnesota. He led the Gophers in scoring as a sophomore and while he does not have the size of Nick Bjugstad (FLA) or the high level skill of Kyle Rau (FLA), Haula is a good playmaker who will likely have a pro career in the minors, if not at the NHL level.

Jason Zucker transitioned pretty well to pro hockey after two excellent years at Denver University. He has aggressive instincts, but his top asset is his north-south speed. His lack of size and awareness seem to get him into physical danger at times, but he has looked solid as a pro in limited games.

Kristopher Foucault is offensively gifted with the puck, but probably will not find the next level as a player. He is getting his chances to play in the Aeros' top-six, but does not seem to process things quickly enough to be truly effective.

Raphael Bussieres is an intriguing player who plays a dangerous psychological game. His agitating style seems to make him a target for retaliation. He has become known for playing the role of the pest, but he has been reasonably effective as a scorer too. If his defensive game evolves some, he could become a very valuable part of the Wild's organization and worthy of the second-round pick.

Louis Nanne was a legacy pick, a hometown pick, and a nepotistic pick, but he is also a decent prospect coming out of a strong family tradition and a good prep program in Edina. Following in Mario Lucia's footsteps, he is playing with Penticton of the BCHL this season and scoring at a point-per-game pace. It should be a good season for him to put on some size and round out his game. He will attend the University of Minnesota in 2013-14, in what should be an interesting transitional year for that team and all of college hockey. There might be several vacancies in the top six as the Gophers' top players turn pro. If Nanne continues with his positive development this season, he will be a good candidate to emerge onto the national stage.

Center

Good depth also exists down the middle of the ice for the Wild at the prospect level. Although each young man slotted in as a capable center has possible deficiencies, each also has a unique strength.

Mikael Granlund is smallish by NHL standards, with average north-south skating ability. His effectiveness in playing his puck distribution game will be made by his ability to use his lateral skating to evade checkers. As his body gains strength he will learn to shed checks throughout his career, but his resiliency will already be challenged as he works back from an ankle injury.

Charlie Coyle does not have the same ability to distribute as Granlund does (few do) but his size and instinct for making plays around the net have him looking like a good offensive option as a pro. Coyle's intensity on the ice is an area for him to focus on throughout the year. He is already looking effective in the AHL at making space for himself.

Johan Larsson is less offensively gifted than Coyle, Granlund, and Zack Phillips, but he plays a smart and tenacious style along the boards. He can agitate, win faceoffs, and contribute on special teams. His professional experience is already evident as the AHL season gets into gear. While Larsson will not shock people with moves, his passing is perhaps underrated. The AHL is the perfect league for him to be in at this stage of his career.

Phillips has excellent puck skills, and while he may not reach the high levels consistently, he should be effective in a special teams and second line role going forward as a pro. His occasional lack of finishing ability is somewhat worrisome, but it may just be a temporary period of adjustment from the QMJHL to a league with far superior goaltending and much less time to pick shots.

In the OHL, Tyler Graovac is off to a great start in his third junior season, having found his shot and made the most of good opportunities with the Ottawa 67's. He will get a chance for some international exposure with the upcoming Subway Super Series.

Further down the depth chart, David McIntyre plays an honest dependable game at the AHL level. Cody Almond has rediscovered his offensive abilities as well by heading over to the Swiss League A. He does not have a real arsenal of offensive tricks, but certainly possesses a serviceable defensive zone game. Jarod Palmer is also a solid AHL player, but it is hard to picture him with the organization as a prospect.

Joel Broda is a skilled shooter who can get the puck to the net, but slow feet will limit him to an AHL role. Adam Gilmour is fresh out of high school and looking to develop some basic skills at the USHL level, but he has a lot of potential and is heading to a great collegiate program at Boston College for 2013-14.

Right Wing

The Wild has such good depth at center that one or more of its top prospects may eventually find himself playing wing at the NHL level. Charlie Coyle for one has been playing the wing some already as a Houston Aero and did so with Saint John too. The next player on the depth chart at right wing is heavy hitter Brett Bulmer. Wild fans had a decent look at what Bulmer might bring as a pro when he made his nine-game debut in 2011-12 with the Wild. He returned to the Kelowna Rockets on a mission and put up his best offensive year as a junior. Bulmer does not project as much of a scoring threat as a pro, but he has a highly desirable mixture of speed and size to go with some aggressive instincts.

Justin Fontaine had an all-star collegiate career with the University of Minnesota-Duluth and has looked like an above average AHL player so far as well. He will be limited by size concerns, but he plays a cerebral and effective game.

Carson McMillan is a good skating pro who has a solid defensive game, but he lacks puck skill. He was one of the more effective call-ups for the Wild last season however, keeping it simple and chipping in as chances came.

Defense

Defense is an area of concern for the Wild, as it is for most teams. There are high-end prospects to be sure, but each comes with obvious concerns and the depth is thin. Jonas Brodin looks like he can become the type of steady, all-minutes defenseman that teams rely on to control the tempo, play basically error-free, and chip in 40-50 points with smart reads. He will never be a punishing type, and his offensive just was not much of a factor either as a professional in Sweden or internationally. That said, there was enough to register, and he was a teenager playing with men. The league, and perhaps Sweden as a whole developmental entity, tends to focus on positional play and intelligence in one's own zone. Brodin has not looked out of place in the AHL, but a broken collarbone will keep him out of the lineup for the foreseeable future. Despite the setback, he is still a very safe bet to be a useful player for years to come.

Mathew Dumba brings offense to the table. He has extremely impressive rushing and puck skills, a powerful shot, and savors that scoring role. Dumba can also play a reckless style, but he is capable of some very effective and devastating hitting. As he matures, he will both be able to pick those spots more effectively and withstand the toll of throwing his body around better. Dumba will also get his opportunities for international play this year, and can look to elevate his game further with a full complement of talent around him.

Tyler Cuma was a high draft pick in an exceptional draft class for defensemen, but injuries have limited him in recent years. His offense has not come along as expected, and it appears he might have only a limited role in the organization going forward.

Steve Kampfer has proven to be a decent offensively oriented defenseman whose size will make him mostly a power-play specialist. Kampfer is an okay option to play in a team's top-four, but probably not on a regular basis.

Chay Genoway is a similar story to Kampfer; he has good offensive instincts but is limited by his size and strength. Kyle Medvec is a big body but does not have the mobility to make him a great option. However, he has been scoring at a pretty high rate thus far in the ECHL, something which will likely get him some more looks from the coaching staff throughout the season.

Daniel Gunnarsson was a bit of surprise selection in his second year of draft eligibility, but he is a pro player in the Swedish Elite League, who again brings some modest measure offense while taking care of business in his own end. Gunnarsson is the kind of bet on the draft board that can certainly end up providing needed depth at very little cost for an organization.

A pair of college freshmen are the other possibilities for top-four defensemen in the system. John Draeger and Nick Seeler are both Minnesota high school standouts with decent frames and some ability. Draeger is at Michigan State and Seeler is at Nebraska-Omaha, both good programs that offer the young men the opportunity for development over a longer time frame. Draeger is probably already tracking slightly ahead of the older Seeler, but there is reason to think both young men have something to offer down the road.

Free agent signing Colton Jobke is an undersized, gritty player with the Regina Pats of the WHL. He can score a little and is willing to engage physically. He was a last minute cut for the Aeros, and could likely stick with the team at some point.

Josh Caron had 441 penalty minutes in 171 games with the Kamloops Blazers, so it is apparent what he brings to the ice. With the AHL now full of good players and franchise assets, the enforcer's role may take on a particular importance this season for the Aeros.

Dual American-German citizen Bjorn Krupp plays with Kolner Haie of the German DEL, and it is quite unlikely that he returns to North American pro hockey. He does have good size and has improved his defensive game some as a pro.

Goaltending

The Wild organization has had a reputation for strong goaltending since its inception. However, outside of Josh Harding (second round in 2002), it has not drafted an NHL caliber netminder. With both Nicklas Backstrom and Harding with one year remaining on their contracts, the running assumption has been that 2009 third-round pick Matt Hackett will be the Wild's back-up goaltender, if not the presumptive starter, in the very near future. In the Aeros' 2011 run to the Calder Cup final, Hackett took over the starter's job and kept it to the bitter end. The Aeros squeaked out some tight games, and Hackett was strictly league average. Despite a modest .903 save percentage in the 24 game playoffs, he battled and won the games he had to; an apology that is all part of the psychological alchemy of goalie analysis. While numbers are not everything, the problem with Hackett is that he put up almost the exact same regular season figures the next season. While there are not good statistics for goalies such as easily-stopped shots, or bad rebounds, or no-chance-to-make-a-save goals, one can expect some improvement in a developing player in these basic stats. Now, with a better team in front of him, Hackett is struggling. He can be quite effective when confident, as his NHL numbers show, but for now his position as the heir apparent for the Wild is uncertain.

Fellow 2009 draftee (sixth round) Darcy Kuemper has made a strong case for himself. A brilliant final year of junior in which he was the CHL Goaltender of the Year ended with his injury in the playoffs. He has rebounded since making his pro debut however, putting up superior numbers to Hackett. Kuemper played fewer games too, but he also possesses the asset of a bigger frame. In the early going of this AHL season, he has the momentum. It is an interesting battle to watch unfold between these two competitive young men,  and it is one that can help the team in the long run.

A sixth-round pick in 2010, Johan Gustafsson is young, and proved enough to Team Sweden's brain trust to win the starter's role for the 2011 WJC. He has been good at times as a starter for his pro club, Lulea, but has also taken a back seat to veteran David Rautio. The differences between them are not huge, and the split has been fairly equal to date. In all, learning the position takes time, and the Wild organization seems content to give Gustafsson all he needs to iron out his inconsistencies with his home club.

Stephen Michalek, a sixth-round pick in 2011, was a highly regarded prep player, and had a nice year as a true freshman with the Harvard Crimson. He managed to be named to the ECAC All-Rookie team with a .894 save percentage. Michalek seemed to falter some down the stretch, although he was praised for his endurance as a prep star. He has also played quite impressively for the United States at the international level. He will have to unseat Raphael Girard for the starter's role at some point, but again there is no rush for the Wild.