Wild Top 20 prospects

By Scott Dillon

Top 20 at a Glance

1.Patrick O’Sullivan, C
2.Josh Harding, G
3.Roman Voloshenko, LW
4.Mikko Koivu, C
5.Benoit Pouliot, LW
6.A.J. Thelen, D
7.Danny Irmen, RW
8.Clayton Stoner, D
9.Kurtis Foster, D
10.Matt Foy, RW
11.Anton Khudobin, G
12.Kyle Bailey, C
13.Patrick Bordeleau, LW
14.Kristofer Westblom, G
15.Julien Sprunger, LW
16.Morten Madsen, C
17.Anthony Aiello, D
18.Peter Olvecky, LW
19.Kyle Wilson, C
20.Erik Reitz, D

Key: Rank (former rank) Name, Position, Age
How Acquired, Grade

1. (1) Patrick O’Sullivan, C Age: 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 56th overall (2003)

When Patrick O’Sullivan slipped to the second round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft amidst a maelstrom of familial problems after originally being projected by some as one of the top North American prospects, critics’ opinions, at the time, were split on whether Minnesota had a steal or a potential bust. Three years later, O’Sullivan’s continued growth in both talent and maturity have helped distance him from his past and, in the process, led to a general consensus that the Wild came away with the former.

In his first year in the AHL, he is currently tied for third in the league with 34 goals and is tied for sixth with 66 points, leading all league rookies in both categories. O’Sullivan also garnered AHL Rookie of the Month honors for the month of February after recording nine goals and seven assists in 10 games — an award he won in the month of January as well. This achievement was, in a word, phenomenal because O’Sullivan became the only player since the award was introduced in 1996 to win it in back-to-back months. He was the first since Brendan Morrison in 1997-98 to earn the honor twice in one season.

A player who has always relied on a quick release shot that is extremely accurate, O’Sullivan has worked this year on taking a little speed off of his shots and perfecting his wrister. The result is a deceptive shot that can surprise opposing goaltenders from anywhere in the offensive zone since it arrives on net with as much speed and aggressiveness as other players’ slap shots. If the Wild continue to struggle with putting up offensive numbers, and, concurrently, slip even further out of the Western Conference playoff picture, look for O’Sullivan to make a late-season appearance with the club to help the youngster grow acclimated to the speed of the NHL, where he is sure to be a staple.

2. (3) Josh Harding, G Age: 21
Acquired: 2nd round, 38th overall (2002)

In his second season with the Houston Aeros, Josh Harding’s development has continued to be encouragingly steady. After posting a consistent .930 save percentage on his way to 21 wins with the Aeros last year, the young goaltender has continued his progression this season with a record of 26-7-0, ranking second in the AHL with wins, seventh with a 2.53 GAA, and posting two shutouts along the way. In a total of five years in the WHL and AHL, Harding’s save percentage has consistently increased, rising from .906, his first season with the Regina Pats, to a current AHL-leading .927. The Aeros currently rank first in their division and second in the AHL with fewest goals against, and a major reason is due to Harding’s proficiency in net.

With Harding’s promising growth in confidence and Manny Fernandez’s emergence from the platoon as the No. 1 goaltender, along with the fact Dwayne Roloson is five years older than Fernandez, don’t be surprised if the Wild trade Roloson by the Mar. 9 deadline to make room for Harding at the NHL level, who at this point looks to be the true No. 1 goalie Wild fans have craved since the inception of the franchise.

3. (6) Roman Voloshenko, LW Age: 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 42nd overall (2004)

If there has been one concern that has followed Roman Voloshenko throughout his fledgling hockey career, it has centered on his foot speed. Always considered as a player with immense offensive talent hindered by his skating, Voloshenko put forth a lot of effort toward correcting his fluidity this season and has taken immense strides toward improving that glaring weakness of his game, most noticeably on the forecheck. Playing on the same line as AHL-scoring leaders Erik Westrum and Kirby Law has definitely helped his progression, but Voloshenko has also held his own in the goals department, contributing to the team’s success with 27 goals and 17 assists in 48 games with the Aeros.

Like O’Sullivan, who offers some glimmer of hope in the future to the Wild’s offensive woes, Voloshenko’s biggest strength is his ability to shoot the puck. Some critics believe he has the tools to become one of the next dominant snipers in the game, and his numbers reflect that theory – Voloshenko leads the Aeros in power play goals with 16. Even though Voloshenko has played impressively, GM Doug Risebrough has been quoted as recently as last month as stating he would be more inclined to promote veterans like Westrum or Law before rookies like Voloshenko since he feels he owes them a chance. With the Wild’s extreme patience and preference to let its young talent develop, Voloshenko will more than likely spend at least a year or two in Houston before he makes the leap to the NHL.

4. (2) Mikko Koivu, C Age: 22
Acquired: 1st round, 6th overall (2001)

To say that expectations for Mikko Koivu were high entering his first full year in the NHL would be more than an understatement. After waiting four years to see Koivu at the pro level, and considering his high selection in the draft, the Wild hoped for a high-impact player who would finally add another offensive threat to their notoriously low-scoring club. Throughout 44 games this season, his presence on the ice has been a bit of a disappointment, however, since Koivu has only acquired five goals and 12 helpers. The encouraging sign is head coach Jacques Lemaire has enough confidence in Koivu to continue playing him on the power play, where he has scored seven of his 17 points.

Throughout the course of the season, Koivu has shown flashes of maturity beyond his years by, at times, skating hard to the net with the puck, a technique most young skaters shy away from because of the punishment they receive near the crease. This aspect of his game offers hope that Lemaire’s continued tutelage will help refine Koivu’s tendency to pass instead of shoot. With allowed time and opportunity to grow in the NHL, Koivu still has time, despite his lackluster point totals this season and minimal drop in stock, to blossom into the scoring threat the Wild have always desired.

5. (4) Benoit Pouliot, LW Age: 19
Acquired: 1st round, 4th overall (2005)

Following the NHL lockout, the Wild were handed the fourth overall spot in the pre-draft lottery and used it to select the 2004-05 OHL rookie leading scorer Benoit Pouliot. Pouliot showcased his playmaking abilities prior to the start of the season and had an outside shot at making the team, but the Wild opted to have him sharpen his game and spend another season in the OHL with the Sudbury Wolves. After having accumulated 65 points in 67 games in 2004-05, Pouliot is already well on his way this season to surpassing that total. He has scored 33 goals and 27 assists in only 43 games with Sudbury, helping him lead the team in goals and plus/minus rating (+25), and ranking second in scoring. The left winger has also shown his versatility on special teams by racking up 11 power-play goals to go along with four shorthanded goals.

Although Pouliot was not an integral part of Canada’s gold medal victory in the World Junior Championships, he gained some valuable international experience and was a contributing factor by collecting five assists throughout the tournament. With an appearance at World Juniors under his belt to go along with another season in Sudbury, Pouliot is well on his way to becoming another key offensive piece for Minnesota. Risebrough is notorious for not rushing his prospects, however, as was evident with Mikko Koivu, and as the case is with Voloshenko, it may be a couple years before he dons a Wild uniform.

6. (5) A.J. Thelen, D Age: 19
Acquired: 1st round, 12th overall (2004)

Some would suggest the Wild’s selection of Savage, Minn., native A.J. Thelen was a bit of a hometown pick, but when a defenseman is already turning heads with his skills as a 17-year-old college freshman already nearing 6’3, 212 lbs., it’s difficult to argue much with the selection. Although Thelen lacks speed, the blueliner has the strength and stamina to log a ton of minutes in all situations. What really attracted the Wild to Thelen, though, was his excellent offensive instincts, willingness to move up into the zone, and his heavy shot from the point that helps him put up some serious power play numbers.

Thelen has slowed a bit this year in the WHL with the Prince Albert Raiders, but he has managed to score 11 goals and put up 21 assists in 65 games. These stats have him ranked fourth on the Raiders in scoring, but, more importantly, of the 11 goals, seven have come on the power play, which have him tied for second on the team. If there is one thing the Wild have lacked in recent years, it is a true tandem of offensive defensemen on the point who have been a threat on the power play. With the emergence of Kurtis Foster and his willingness to put the puck on net, and if Thelen regains his top offensive form that was evident at Michigan State, the Wild could have a couple of solid offensive blueliners on their hands.

7. (8) Danny Irmen, RW Age: 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall (2003)

Before even playing a game for the Wild, Danny Irmen is destined to be a hometown favorite. Although his season with the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers has been smattered with injuries, causing Irmen to miss 11 games, he has still managed to produce 15 goals and 16 assists in 24 games. This puts him second on the team in goals and fourth in scoring. More importantly, Irmen has shown a tendency to produce the most in clutch situations, playing at his best against collegiate hockey powerhouses North Dakota and Wisconsin. These performances have led to national acknowledgment as he has been awarded WCHA Offensive Player of the Week honors twice.

If Irmen returns for his senior season with the Gophers, as is expected, he could gain some valuable experience playing on one of the top offensive collegiate teams in the nation. Playing on the top line with Ryan Stoa (COL) and Ryan Potulny (PHI), Irmen shows a tenacity and willingness to take punishment in front of the net that belies his 6’0, 186 lb. frame. If his skill set continues to develop, he could break into the NHL, but that opportunity is more than likely still a few years away.

8. (7) Clayton Stoner, D Age: 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall (2004)

Another rookie who has continued to impress with the Aeros, Clayton Stoner appears to mature with every game in the AHL. The Wild selected this defenseman in 2004 for his defensive abilities, and Stoner has continued to impress. He is tied for first on the team with a +19 rating, a true indication of his refusal to give up on any play, and despite this being his first year in the league, Stoner has showed a tenacity and unwillingness to back down to any player who attempts to muscle him off the puck. The young defenseman has chipped in with five goals and 13 assists this season, offensive numbers that don’t exactly sparkle, but the Wild definitely have a dependable defenseman on the rise.

9. (11) Kurtis Foster, D Age: 24
Acquired: Free Agent (2005)

Released outright when the Anaheim Mighty Ducks came under new management this summer, Kurtis Foster signed on with the Wild in August and subsequently started the season in Houston. After a scorching start at their AHL affiliate, in which Foster produced 15 points in only 19 games, he was called up temporarily to fill in for some defensive injuries – and hasn’t left the club since. Scoring on his first shot in his first game against Nashville, Foster has played in 42 games and has been a mainstay on special teams, collecting 14 of his 24 points on the power play. With a cannon of a shot at the point, coinciding with a proven willingness to put the puck on net and a tireless work ethic, the former Calgary draft pick on his fourth NHL team has the potential to remain on the top two defensive lines of the Wild for some time.

10. (16) Matt Foy, RW Age: 22
Acquired: 6th round, 175th overall (2002)

After threatening to become one of many prospects who never panned out, Matt Foy has found a way this season with the Aeros to revitalize his game. Joining Houston a bit late in the season, on Nov. 26, Foy has contributed to the team’s success with 20 assists and 28 points, three more than his career high. The remarkable element of these statistics is his ability to have put up these offensive numbers in only 30 games. Along with a career-best four-assist performance against Peoria in December, Foy has rediscovered the scoring touch that had the Wild high on him before the 2003 season, after he had totaled 61 goals and 132 points with OHL Ottawa.

Although Foy does have a propensity to take retaliatory penalties, averaging a little over two penalty minutes per game, his aggressiveness also helps him play an excellent power game, ranging from defensive skating to offensive pressure. Foy’s proclivity for putting up steady stats along with his willingness to hustle out of the offensive zone and backcheck make him the prototypical player for Lemaire’s system, even with the new rules in place. This defensive mentality should lead to a solid future in the NHL as a third- or fourth-liner.

11. (9) Anton Khudobin, G Age: 19
Acquired: 7th round, 206th overall (2004)

Playing in the WHL with the Saskatoon Blades, Anton Khudobin has managed to post a 20-13-0 record with a 2.95 goals against average and a .917 save percentage with three shutouts. Seemingly solid numbers, at a glance, but Khudobin’s propensity to string together a number of solid wins only to be lit up for a number of goals in any given period has lent credibility to reports of his erratic play. A butterfly goaltender who has difficulty at times moving laterally once on the ice, Khudobin must experience some significant growing pains before he could be considered NHL-ready.

Khudobin was in net for second-place Russia at the World Juniors, where he posted a 4-1-0 record with a 2.20 goals against average and a .932 save percentage, but the performance most will remember was his inconsistent play against Canada where he showed poor technique and seemed to fold under the pressure in the gold medal game. At this point, Khudobin needs to iron out his inconsistencies and gain considerable maturity in net to become a factor in the future plans of the Wild.

12. (NR) Kyle Bailey, C Age: 19
Acquired: 4th round, 110th overall (2005)

Kyle Bailey has played with an edge his entire hockey career. After going through the entire 2001 WHL bantam draft without being selected, Bailey’s game as a defensive center has always had a sharpness, a ferociousness with Portland, that has not only helped him score 16 goals and 28 assists in 58 games with the team, ranking him fifth on the club in scoring, but it has also led to him acquiring the third-most penalty minutes with 129. If Bailey continues to play with unending passion for the game, along with his trending yearly increase in points, the Winter Hawks’ Rookie of the Year for 2003-04 could continue to see his stock rise on the checking line or in a penalty-killing role.

13. (18) Patrick Bordeleau, LW Age: 19
Acquired: 4th round, 114th overall (2004)

A winger for Val-d’Or Foreurs in the QMJHL, Patrick Bordeleau has scored 20 goals and 53 points in 60 games. His offensive statistics have him ranked fourth on the team in scoring, but the real key for Bordeleau is his propensity for being in the right spot on the ice at the right time on the man advantage, picking up 11 goals on the power play. Another Wild prospect who continues to mature in his playing style and raise his offensive numbers from year to year, Bordeleau needs to seriously build on that success before he can be considered a potential contributor.

14. (14) Kristofer Westblom, G Age: 18
Acquired: 3rd round, 65th overall (2005)

Kristofer Westblom has some similarities to Khudobin in that he is a slightly undersized butterfly goalie who needs some time to mature and find consistency in his game. As the backup goaltender for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, Westblom has put together a 15-5-1 record with a 2.90 goals against average and a .892 save percentage. Although the young netminder has put together a solid winning percentage when he is utilized, until Westblom obtains a starting role with a club, it will be difficult to gauge how effective he could be at the next level.

15. (15) Julien Sprunger, LW Age: 20
Acquired: 4th round, 117th overall (2004)

Julien Sprunger, playing with HC Fribourg, has nearly averaged a point a game, acquiring 18 goals and 13 assists in 36 games, a definitive improvement over his 16 points in 41 games last year. His offensive capabilities currently have him ranked first on his team in goals and fifth in scoring overall. Although Switzerland struggled at the World Juniors, placing a disappointing seventh, Sprunger still gained invaluable international experience and chipped in with a respectable two goals and three assists.

16. (13) Morten Madsen, C Age: 19
Acquired: 4th round, 122nd overall (2005)

As the only Dane drafted in 2005, Madsen continues to expand on his offensive role with Frolunda of the Swedish junior league, scoring six goals and 20 assists in 25 games with the club. Currently second in assists on the team, and also fourth in scoring, Madsen has also fluctuated at times between the Swedish juniors and pros, playing five games for Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League. The key for Madsen is his versatility at the forward position, allowing him to play either wing or center without missing a beat. Madsen will more than likely continue to develop his game in Sweden for the time being.

17. (17) Anthony Aiello, D Age: 19
Acquired: 5th round, 129th overall (2005)

Highly regarded as an extremely talented offensive-minded defenseman noted for his skating proficiency, excellent instincts, and the rare ability to play equally as well at both ends of the ice, Anthony Aiello has failed to produce as much as expected by picking up eight assists in 30 games during his freshman season with Boston College. Aiello does have more than enough time to develop, however, and should benefit from being on one of the best collegiate hockey teams in the nation.

18. (10) Peter Olvecky, LW Age: 20
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall (2004)

Peter Olvecky started the year strong for the Aeros and continued a healthy offensive output until the beginning of November, when his production essentially bottomed out. Although Olvecky has put together 20 points in 46 games, most of his goals and assists came at the beginning of the year. As his frustration with putting the puck in the net continues, he has become a regular healthy scratch most nights for the Aeros and, unless he regains his scoring touch and displays some serious effort, Olvecky could completely disappear from the Wild’s future plans.

19. (NR) Kyle Wilson, C Age: 21
Acquired: 9th round, 272nd overall (2004)

Kyle Wilson, currently tied for eighth in goals scored nationally in Division I collegiate hockey, has led Colgate with 22 goals and 16 assists in 34 games. Aside from leading the team in scoring, Wilson also has the honor of being first on the team in power play goals with 10. During the month of February, Wilson was on quite a scoring streak as he put together seven goals and six assists in 10 games, establishing a career high with four assists over Harvard.

20. (NR) Erik Reitz, D Age: 23
Acquired: 6th round, 170th overall (2000)

At 23, Reitz cracked the top 20 with a solid defensive presence this year for the Houston Aeros, scoring five goals and accumulating 20 assists in 55 games, with a +3 rating. Along with Harding, Reitz has also played a factor in helping the Aeros rank second in the AHL with the fewest goals against and is an adequate, if not steady, two-way defenseman.

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