Minnesota Wild’s minor league system the envy of the NHL

By Peter Prohaska
Jonas Brodin - Houston Aeros

Photo: Defenseman Jonas Brodin, who has missed most of the first half of the season with a broken collarbone, is one of the high-profile prospects making their debut in Houston this season. (courtesy of Juan DeLeon/Icon SMI)

 
Although many people in and around the world of hockey were negatively affected by the 2012 NHL lockout, the Minnesota Wild was no doubt one team that saw a silver lining. With a cluster of players around the same age needing a developmental year or three in the AHL, the lockout saved the team from hard personnel decisions while also giving these young players a great opportunity to learn to play the pro game together at a high level of competition.

While Mikael Granlund is a lead-pipe cinch to stick with the Wild now that the season is underway, there was some good learning and team-building going on down in Houston. The Aeros play in a very tough division and have been outmatched at times by the quality of competition in the AHL during the first half of this season. Unlike Oklahoma City, for one, the Aeros will be retaining most of their young core in the AHL and looking to have these young players take what has been learned against NHL-ready players and make a major push to excel in this developmental year.

AHL

Mikael Granlund, C, 20

Granlund has been playing professional hockey for three seasons already, and the Finnish phenom made a smooth transition to the North American pro game before a minor ankle injury slowed him down and took him out of November's action. He still sits at a point per game pace, even as he probably ends his AHL career.

It seems like Wild fans have waited forever for Granlund to make his pro debut stateside. The early returns were quite encouraging. Despite the injury, Granlund's skills are clearly elite and he should be sharp as the NHL season commences. Expectations are of course feverish for this young man. The gentle introduction he experienced in Houston is of course about to be amplified by a large factor as the puck drops for NHL play. Granlund came through with a goal in Minnesota's opening night win over Colorado.

Charlie Coyle, C, 20

Coyle has also had an encouraging rookie season with the Aeros. Though he has slumped at times, particularly without Granlund, he has shown flashes of what he brings as a pro. Coyle has a good shot, good playmaking ability, and while he is not an elite stick-handler, he has the size and speed to make a lot happen in the offensive zone. His all-around game is coming along, and will be helped by more time with the Aeros.

Despite the acceptable offensive numbers overall, including 12 goals and 21 points through 40 games, Coyle needs to be successful at even-strength in the AHL to show he is ready for NHL duty. This has not yet been the case and will be a major point of focus.

Joel Broda, C, 23

One has to think a little more was expected of Joel Broda. Brought on as depth scoring, the former Capitals prospect has a few things in his toolkit that make him intriguing. A hard shot and decent hands, coupled with what was expected to be a  willingness to make hits, added up to a prospect of interest just a season ago. Thus far, he has just four points for the Aeros in 28 games. Even with the downward pressure created by having top prospects in the lineup, Broda has not come along as expected. He is not quite at the end of the road as a prospect, but has not shown enough thus far to make one think his ceiling is more than a top-six AHL player at this stage.

Brett Bulmer, RW, 20

Bulmer has had a disappointing season with the Aeros. Having played well with the Wild in the early part of last season, and then going back to finish his junior career with Kelowna in fine style, he surely wanted more from himself this season. He got off to a slow start, did not notch a point until mid-November, and missed all of December with injury. The big and rugged winger is back in action however, and can salvage his season by getting back to his game.

Bulmer has some ability, but one would think the coaches want him to play a simple style. He has that strong north-south skating ability and is a player who seems to really relish contact. His timetable did get bumped back just a little with the injury, but like many others, he will benefit greatly from finishing out the year with the Aeros.

Justin Fontaine, RW, 25

Fontaine was a college superstar who signed as a fairly high-profile free agent and has made his bosses look smart. He finished second on the team in scoring as a rookie and he had a blistering start to the 2012-13 season before getting hurt. He really caught fire in November, scoring 16 points in 13 games that month and picking up the slack for an absent Granlund. Fontaine is a very smart playmaker but is limited by his size.

Kris Foucault, LW, 22

Foucault is a player who seems to have hit his ceiling as a prospect. He is nonetheless a pretty useful force for the Aeros, on pace again for 30 points or so. Foucault has some high-end skill with the puck, but has not rounded out his game to the extent that he is an asset without it. He is more of an opportunistic scorer at this stage of his career.

The biggest knock on Foucault is that, even with injuries, he has not shown much improvement year after year, and this year he had the opportunity to do so. Perhaps he will surge some in the second half, but for now he looks like a solid depth option for the Aeros' top six.

Johan Larsson, C/LW, 20

Johan Larsson had two seasons of professional hockey on his resume before making the journey overseas to join the Aeros, so it is perhaps not surprising that he has adjusted extremely well to North America, even to the heightened competition of the AHL. His Swedish pro career was somewhat overshadowed by more famous and flashier prospects in Jakob Silfverberg (OTT) and Calle Järnkrok (DET), but Larsson also had a major role in his team's SEL championship in 2012. He also captained Sweden's gold medal winning team at the 2012 World Juniors, and for a prospect that was praised for his leadership, there is no better evidence of it. Larsson is a very well-rounded prospect, with skills on both the power play and the penalty kill. He is a strong face-off man though he has played the wing as an Aero. Larsson also brings enough offense to make one believe he will offer even more as his career matures and is currently tied for second on the team with 22 points through 39 games.

He currently sits second in scoring for the Aeros, a durable and consistent presence on that team's second and third line units. Larsson's immediate future remains to be determined. It is quite unlikely that he makes the Wild out of camp, but the reality is that the gap between Larsson, Zucker, and Coyle for next call-up has closed in the last month or so. Larsson is in an excellent position for his career development. While there is little rush, he has simply risen to the challenge of taking next steps at every level.

Carson McMillan, C/RW, 24

McMillan was not immune to the injury bug this season. He remains a prospect of interest mainly because he has shown he can play Mike Yeo's system and do very well at it. He is certainly not a prospect that has much buzz, but he has shown a capacity to play a competent pro game away from the puck. This season, the soft minutes certainly belonged to the rookies, so McMillan's low scoring totals are not a cause for concern. He has shown a quick release and the ability to score the occasional goal in the past. For him, the main thing will be keeping healthy. With his good size and safe game, he remains a good option to plug in on the Wild's third or fourth line if the need arises.

Zack Phillips, C, 20

After an excellent career in the QMJHL, Phillips has struggled to put up points in his rookie season in the AHL. This is at least partially due to the unfortunate (for him) circumstances of the NHL lockout, which has heightened competition throughout the AHL but also forced Phillips down the depth chart and limited his minutes and role. As the Wild call players up, Phillips should see his point totals increase. He is a highly skilled and creative playmaker who does need to play with a talented finisher in order to be successful. As he gets chances, Phillips has seemed to struggle some with the quality goaltending the team has faced. While he may be primarily a setup man, and a good one at that, he will need to refine his shooting abilities to move on to the next level. The criticized skating that saw him drop to the Wild at the end of the first round has not seemed to be too much of an issue. Phillips nonetheless is a work in progress who has several areas to work on before he can step into an NHL top-six role.

Jason Zucker, LW, 21

Jason Zucker has been the best story of the season so far for the Aeros. While some doubted his high-end offensive capacity, he has shown tremendous ability to get the puck on and into the net. He leads the Aeros in goals (16), points (34), and shots on goal (136) by a healthy margin. No one doubted his speed coming into the season, and his NCAA offense was obviously there, but his ability to make plays while dealing with the bigger defensemen and higher skill level of the AHL was questionable. Zucker has been showing an excellent and accurate release, as well as getting to scoring spaces regularly. While playing with an elite passer like Granlund has helped, Zucker managed just fine without the Finn. In fact, Zucker has shown a great deal of confidence regardless of his linemates.

The rookie was named to the AHL All-Star Team for his excellent first half. For a player from outside the traditional hockey development path, Zucker has had excellent signs throughout his career. He will certainly be with the Wild at some stage this season, and at this point, it would be surprising for him not to have some success.

David McIntyre, C, 25

Colgate standout David McIntyre was acquired in exchange for Maxim Noreau, and has proven to be a very important part of the Aeros' depth ever since. He holds a healthy team lead in plus-minus this year at plus-12, despite playing the tougher assignments. McIntyre is something of an AHL veteran at this point, who will not put up a ton of points. That said, all of his goals have come at even strength, and he is a player who always brings a solid effort.

McIntyre stabilizes the Aeros in an important way, bringing both responsibility on the ice, as well as professional experience for the younger players to emulate.

Jarod Palmer, RW, 26

The third year pro out of Miami-Ohio was the picture of durability in the early part of his career. He sustained what seemed to be a concussion while up with the Wild last season, and has not been altogether healthy since. Palmer has been reasonably productive this season when he has been in the lineup and is actually on pace for a career year with eight points through 17 games.

Palmer is a big body with a good shot, and while he has not ever been a huge scorer, even in the USHL, he has proven that he can score consistently. He has been a reliable checking presence thus far as a pro. He may be one who benefits from the less conservative system the Aeros are playing this year if he can find a way to stay healthy.

Jonas Brodin, D, 19

Brodin was off to a nice start with the Aeros, showing a measure of offensive pace not present in his two year Swedish pro career. He sustained a broken clavicle on a hard check along the endboards from Oklahoma City's Taylor Hall (EDM), and remains out of action. This setback likely means that he will stay with the Aeros for some more time to get back into shape, which is a good thing for fans of that squad, and a positive for his development as well.

Brodin is not a defenseman who seeks to join the rush, his shot is not terribly effective yet, and he will not intimidate by his physical play. He relies on elite positioning and excellent skating to be effective. Brodin can make transitional passes too. He has proven to be a world class player for his age, and did transition neatly into the pro game. However, what Brodin's injury showed is how much more difficult it is to play against a world class player like Hall. He has had plenty of time to digest that, and should be back into game action soon. Brodin is a huge part of the Wild's future, and though his conservative and error-free play means he will not always be noticed on the ice, the team needs his steady presence.

Steven Kampfer, D, 24

University of Michigan product Steve Kampfer looked for everything like a very solid pro prospect two seasons ago. In 2010-11 he was up with the Boston Bruins and scored 10 points in 38 NHL games. True, it was a powerhouse team and he got excellent opportunities. He has not been quite as successful since, but he is nearly graduated from prospect status. Unfortunately, his game has encountered some real difficulties this season and he looks far from a sure thing to step in, even as a depth option.

Since injuring his knee early in the season, Kampfer just has not been strong on his side of the puck. While he is mainly going to be a power play specialist in his career, as a veteran on the Aeros he simply needs to be better.

Chay Genoway, D, 26

Genoway came from a solid collegiate career at North Dakota straight into the AHL, where he put up points at a solid pace. He has struggled to match that pace this season despite ample opportunity. Even with the injuries to Kampfer, Brodin, Marco Scandella, and Brian Connelly, and with the infusion of rookie talent up front, the points just have not been coming for Genoway. He is still a smallish player, but he has the ability to make good plays on special teams. Genoway may just be adjusting to a new role with the Aeros. He has put up a positive plus-minus to his credit. The Wild has provided a sanctuary for undersized, skilled defensemen, so Genoway could certainly still see some spot duty if the need arises. At worst, he has proven to be a decent free agent signing. The team is too talented for the offense to sputter like it has of late, and Genoway should also see a return to his characteristic output.

Tyler Cuma, D, 23

Tyler Cuma just cannot seem to get any traction. The 2008 first-round pick had a series of injuries that slowed up his development, but he is finally in relatively good health this season and not showing the form needed to make a leap. Genoway and Connelly get more power play time, while Kampfer has more experience, but Cuma has not shown that he is developing such that he can force the issue. It is not merely a matter of lost mobility, but the hockey sense that made him a standout in junior has not been in evidence as a pro. Without another plus-level skill, Cuma risks being replaced. None of this is to say that his career is at its end, but he is not under contract with the Wild after this season. He has shown he can play at the AHL level, but needs to show more in the second half to be in real consideration. He should have ample opportunity for more favorable minutes.

Kyle Medvec, D, 24

A 2006 draft pick, Kyle Medvec has seen some time in a supporting role for the Aeros. He has also played about half his season with the Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL. With the lockout over, he should be more of a regular presence in Houston. A four year player at Vermont, Medvec is most obviously an intimidatingly large player at six and a half feet. He is coming along in the pro game slowly though, learning perhaps to deal with the extra bulk he has put on over the last few seasons (he is listed variously at 190 and 225 pounds). Medvec has decent skating for his frame, but certainly will not be blowing people away. Medvec also has a good shot if he gets a chance, but plays pretty sheltered minutes to allow him to round out his game. He probably rises in the depth chart a bit for the Aeros, but is not too likely to see NHL action this season, if ever.

Matt Hackett, G, 22

Hackett has been a workhorse again for the Aeros, playing 30 games thus far. He has been consistent, but his numbers are declining. Part of this can be attributed to an injury-ravaged defense along with the struggles and mistakes of a young team, but Hackett would no doubt admit that he could be better as well.

The most discouraging aspect of Hackett's game has been its lack of improvement. Year after year, one expects a developing goaltender's save percentage to go up by a couple of points. For a goalie of Hackett's pedigree not to be in the top 25 of AHL netminders for save percentage has to be a spot of profound concern for the Wild brass at this point. With Josh Harding battling injury and illness (although it did not keep him from shutting out Dallas in his first start of the 2013 season) and Nicklas Backstrom's contract about to expire, Hackett stands poised for a regular NHL gig next season. Yet a huge hanging question mark looms over the young keeper. Hackett has shown an excellent propensity for the battle of hockey, has shown well at the NHL level in limited capacity, and he wins games. These do not always add up to a true NHL starter however. Hackett's .905 save percentage is well below expectations. That number will either go up in the season's second half, or Hackett's minutes (he is at third in the league) will probably decrease. It is a situation to monitor, as what was thought to be a strength of the organization may end up being a deficiency.

Darcy Kuemper, G, 22

Kuemper continues to challenge Hackett for the starter's role. With a .919 save percentage and two shutouts in nine games, he is looking solid at least. Like last season, Kuemper has spent a little time in the ECHL, this time with the new affiliate in Orlando. He dropped by for a three game conditioning stint and posted a .929 save percentage.

Kuemper is a big body who plays a solid game positionally. He certainly has things to improve like almost all young goaltenders, but remains an excellent option for the club. He is probably going to see a few more starts for the Aeros in the second half, and has to make more of the opportunities.

ECHL

Sean Lorenz, D, 22 (AHL contract)

Lorenz was a four-year player for Notre Dame, and while he was not a standout, he was a dependable presence for the Irish. He has been good in his first pro season, getting into 22 game with Orlando and posting nine points. Lorenz is injured, but has put up some points. He is far from an offensively dynamic defenseman, but possesses a decent shot. A mature player with some pedigree, Lorenz may find himself back in Houston as the season goes on if he gets back into game shape.

Josh Caron, D/LW, 21

The enforcer has moved up from defense to forward. Caron has split time between the Aeros and the Solar Bears this season, but he did not do too much in limited action in the AHL. He is primarily around to provide some protection for the young guns, but captain Drew Bagnall has been willing to take on that role for the most part. Thus Caron is taking on a new role with the Solar Bears, chipping in a couple points as well. It is worth noting Caron was a plus player in his junior career, so while he will not be posting massive scoring totals, he all will not be hurting his own team when he is on the ice.

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