Minnesota Wild has key depth prospects developing in NCAA and Europe

By Peter Prohaska

Mario Lucia - University of Notre Dame

Photo: Winger Mario Lucia led Notre Dame’s freshmen in goals and points despite missing the early part of the season with a broken leg (courtesy of Tim G. Zechar / Icon SMI)

Minnesota's college hockey tradition has always been a strong part of its identity as a state, so it is no wonder that the Wild organization relies on the NCAA to bring some of its prospects along. Another major source of identity is Europe, where the Wild has looked to Switzerland, Finland, and Sweden many times in the past. Developmental strategies vary by coaching staffs, but the Minnesota Wild look to get players into situations that will best enhance their individual styles, giving each young man the opportunities he needs for personal and professional development.

NCAA

Nick Seeler, D, Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks (WCHA)
Drafted 5th Round, 131st Overall, 2011

It was not a bad freshman season for Minnesotan Nick Seeler necessarily. He treaded water on a Nebraska-Omaha team that was just average for the WCHA, finishing a plus-seven player who averaged a shot on goal a game. Nine points in 34 games leaves plenty of room for offensive improvement, and Seeler is certainly not one of the WIld's fast-track prospects. He has good size for his age, and can work out some of his decision-making issues over the next couple of seasons. The departure of Andrej Sustr (TBL) and others opens up the opportunity for challenging defensive minutes Seeler sorely needs. The Wild liked the Eden Prairie high school standout more than others did on draft day, but if the team only saw in him a poor man's Nick Leddy, that could be a useful player.

John Draeger, D, Michigan State Spartans (CCHA)
Drafted 3rd Round, 68th Overall, 2012

John Draeger came in as a true freshman and had a solid season for an uncharacteristically weak Michigan State squad. He did finish a negative player, and put up only ten points in 42 games, scoring a single goal. Draeger nonetheless acquitted himself very well on the ice, playing in all situations and up to thirty minutes a game at times. He is not a huge physical force at this stage of his development and prefers the steady conservative style which will limit his scoring numbers. Draeger should improve on the score sheet next season, but it is his overall ability to impact the game in the defensive zone that is Drager's real strength. He is on an encouraging development track at this point.

Erik Haula, C, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)
Drafted 7th Round, 182nd Overall, 2009

Erik Haula wrapped up a fairly extraordinary collegiate career when the surprising Yale Bulldogs eliminated the favored Gophers from the NCAA Tournament in a short overtime period. He signed an entry-level deal just days afterward, embarking on a new career stage. Though the attention through his days in the Twin Cities often focused on high draft pick players like Nick Bjugstad (FLA) and Kyle Rau (FLA), Haula was a major factor in his team's successes. He finished his three year college stint with better than a point per game, having worked his way up the depth chart to positions of greater responsibility. Haula showed a lot of improvement in his overall game over three seasons, especially in the defensive aspects he will need to master to have a chance to stick as a pro.

Haula is still not an imposing physical presence, but his on-ice intelligence can safely be characterized as above average, and he has good enough passing to have a chance. Having now joined the Aeros, he is faced with a tough task of finding a role for himself as that team pushes for the playoffs. There is a need for someone to take on a power play role, with Johan Larsson (BUF) having been sent away and Jason Zucker needed with the Wild, and Haula has some definite upside there. After a grueling NCAA season Haula has a steep climb ahead of him still. He has beaten the odds thus far and been an excellent player at every level.

Mario Lucia, LW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA)
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th Overall, 2011

Mario Lucia had quite mix of a season. Having broken his leg in preseason training, he was out of action until November. He joined the United States World Junior squad, and though he looked effective at times, was strictly a depth player as that team won a gold medal. Rejoining Notre Dame, Lucia was an effective contributor, putting up 23 points and 12 goals in 32 games. Notre Dame went on to win the CCHA regular season title, but got trounced in the NCAA Tournament by St. Cloud State. Lucia was named to the CCHA All-Rookie team.

Lucia is a nice blend of speed and size with a good shot and some offensive creativity too. Despite the departure of Anders Lee (NYI), Notre Dame should be an excellent squad again next season. Mario Lucia will not necessarily be the centerpiece of that offense, but will have plenty of chances to contribute. Expectations are high for this player who showed good character in overcoming his injury.

Anthony Hamburg, RW, Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers (Atlantic Hockey)
Drafted 7th Round, 193rd Overall 2009

Hamburg has had some ups and downs in his young career. A product of the Dallas Stars midget program, he had a brief stint at Colgate before returning to Omaha of the USHL. In three years with the Lancers, Hamburg put up 81 points in 140 games, which is decent but unimpressive production. He is finally back on track for his college career, playing with RIT. He is an older freshman obviously and scored eleven points in 33 games this season. Hamburg does not play much part in the Wild's plans but it is good to see a player find his way as a collegian.

Europe

Daniel Gunnarsson, D, Lulea HF (SEL)
Drafted 5th Round, 128th Overall, 2012

Gunnarsson is looking like a pretty nice pick by the Wild. In his second year of eligibility, Gunnarsson may have been scouted by accident, playing with Johan Gustafsson for Lulea of the Swedish Elite League. Nonetheless, a late-bloomer with a couple of decent tools is a fine addition to the prospect group. A team can always use more defensive depth, and this is very true of the Wild. Gunnarsson chipped in six goals from the blue line this season, and while he has not really been a scorer in his career, a shot can take time to develop. Lulea was one of the best defensive teams in a league that tends that way, and Gunnarsson was its top-scoring defenseman. If this player can translate his defensive zone reads to the North American game, he could potentially be a top-four option with value on the power play. He recently turned 21, already has good size, and was part of a deep playoff run this season. The Wild scouts have excelled at extracting value from mid and late round picks. Gunnarsson for now appears to be one of those.

Christoph Bertschy, RW, SC Bern (NLA)
Drafted 6th Round, 158th Overall, 2012

Bertschy started his second pro season full of promise. Things did not go quite as expected. After registering 16 points in 31 games with Bern last season, Bertschy seemed like he was ready to be a steady contributor this year. He was pushed down the depth chart when NHL players like John Tavares signed with his club, also increasing competition league-wide. But Bertschy just never really got traction this year until joining the Swiss National junior team. When compared to his peer group on the ice, Bertschy shows his excellent speed and hands. He is not a big player, but he is creative and decent in a forechecking role too. As a smaller guy who is somewhat far from the center of the Wild's attention, Bertschy will need to have a good training session this summer and come to camp ready to impress. He has some tools certainly, but much more was expected of the young pro this year.

Johan Gustafsson, G, Lulea HF (SEL)
Drafted 6th Round, 159th Overall, 2009

Gustafsson shows the folly of depending on simple stats for predicting goaltender development. A player who was peppered in the season after his draft year has emerged as one of the best starters in the Swedish Elitserien, leading his team all the way to the league championship series, where Lulea was swept by Skelleftea. The Wild scouting staff seems to have found another solid prospect in the sixth round in Gustafsson. He is a goaltender of good size and skill. While the Swedish league does emphasize defensive play, Gustafsson's stat line is good for the league's third overall save percentage at .933. More importantly, he battled the challenge early in the season from David Rautio to maintain the starter's role. Those two goaltenders finished with nearly identical stat lines, so the fact that the coaches chose to go with Gustafsson in the playoffs is interesting and encouraging. Perhaps Gustafsson's play this season was enough to jettison Matt Hackett (BUF), but regardless the young Swede certainly has the chance next year to join the Aeros or even challenge for the Wild. A strong playoff run on his resume supports his cause.

Bjorn Krupp, D, Kolner Haie (DEL)
Signed as a free agent in September, 2009

Still under contract until 2014, Krupp is highly unlikely ever to play for Houston. He has carved out a career for himself in Germany however. Despite a brief reassignment to the third division, Krupp is mostly a solid depth defender in Cologne. He cut down on the unnecessary penalties that dogged him as a young pro, and while he just does not have a real offensive capacity to his game, Krupp is a reliable type. He uses his size and reasonable skill level well enough. Krupp remains a somewhat mysterious signing by the Wild, but the fact that he has gone and started a decent professional career justifies the gamble to a degree.

Cody Almond, C, Geneve-Servette HC (NLA)
Drafted 5th Round, 140th Overall, 2007

After three solid seasons with the Aeros, Cody Almond got in early on a Swiss League contract in the fall. He had apparently been coveted by Swiss team Geneve-Servette and presumably got a decent deal when he joined former Wild draft pick Julian Walker and one-time Wild player Dan Fritsche in Switzerland. Almond's career was a little stuck in Houston, and though he had some opportunity to join the Wild, he was stereotyped and limited by his tools. His Swiss career has not been much different in terms of his role, but he was much more productive, scoring 30 points in 39 games, good for fifth on his team.

Although the Wild still apparently consider him part of the system, it is hard to imagine that he did not burn some bridges when he chose Switzerland over Houston. Almond is a solid depth pro whose future is dim with this organization.