Group of NHL rookies spotlighted in Minnesota Wild prospect awards

By Peter Prohaska

Jason Zucker - Minnesota Wild

Photo: The speed of the NHL game has not been an issue for Minnesota winger Jason Zucker, one of several prospects that has spent time with the Wild this season (courtesy of Vincent Muzik/Icon SMI)

Most of the professional leagues around the world of hockey are done or wrapping up their playoffs. The prospect awards are really an opportunity to assess what some players were able to accomplish in their seasons, good, bad, or mixed, and to look forward to next season.

Hardest Worker: Charlie Coyle, RW/C, Minnesota Wild (NHL)

Hockey is not a kind sport at any level to players who do not give a good effort on the ice. Sometimes a player does a little more to make sure he or she makes the most of an opportunity. This year's award for hardest worker goes to Charlie Coyle. Fans and scouts alike knew Coyle had some tools working in his advantage, and a half-season dominating the QMJHL helped establish him as a prospect of major interest for the Wild. He was good this season as a rookie pro in the AHL, not too out of place thanks to his good size and speed, and helped in the scoring columns by some talented linemates. His total of 25 points in 47 games with the Houston Aeros is a reasonable, if not overly impressive, marker of Coyle's skill and dedication to learning the pro game.

He showed something even more exceptional in his time with the Wild. Called up in February to pro ranks, Coyle persevered even through a brief demotion to show that he belonged with the NHL team. Head coach Mike Yeo put Coyle on the top line with two of the hardest-working players in the NHL: Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise. With the Wild's game plan emphasizing dumping pucks and winning corner battles for possession, a shift or two off per game can spell failure in a hurry. Coyle managed to win his share of battles, using his frame effectively against NHL defensemen to set up his linemates. Though he generated just 14 points in his 37 games, he was not often used on the power play. Coyle and the rest of his Wild teammates will have to redouble their effort level for the playoffs, but Coyle's strong season learning the requirements of being a pro was a major bright spot for the Wild and its supporters.

Fastest Skater: Jason Zucker, LW, Minnesota Wild (NHL)

By eye and by reputation this award goes to Jason Zucker, a player whose earliest exposure to skating was on rollerblades. He had two excellent seasons with Denver of the WCHA before turning pro, and showed right away  in the AHL that he has a superior ability to get into scoring position, if not always the ability to bury his chances. Nonetheless he finished fifth in the AHL in rookie scoring and second on the Aeros with 50 points in 55 games, and he put over 200 pucks on the net. Not even taking into account blocked and missed shots, Zucker is an impressive offensive prospect. He may not quite have the sniper's touch to score 40 goals, but his overall dexterity and speed should see him have a very productive season as a full-time NHL player.
 
Best Defensive Prospect: Jonas Brodin, D, Minnesota Wild (NHL)

Jonas Brodin is quite a bit ahead of his peers in this category and is surely one of the most polished defense prospects in a generation. Mathew Dumba might one day put up more impressive numbers, and John Draeger looks like a player who can provide help in another year or two, but Brodin has been phenomenal as a rookie.

After two full years of professional hockey with Farjestad in Sweden's Elite League, It was quickly apparent that he would be comfortable at the AHL level. That sense of comfort was disrupted when a hard hit from Taylor Hall, then with Oklahoma City, broke Brodin's collarbone. The rookie came back without much difficulty and joined the Wild. Paired with veteran Ryan Suter almost from the very beginning, the two found good chemistry. Brodin was given some leeway to push the play, and Suter was usually present to help the young Swede out of trouble. Brodin's offensive numbers do not really impress but his on-ice intelligence is truly exceptional. He found ways to get shots on net and on the whole demonstrated a complete skill set, with positional awareness, smooth and conservative skating, good stickwork, and an ability to outlet pass. Calder voters may be swayed by the argument that Ryan Suter's presence on the back end would help any player look confident. Observers of Jonas Brodin may have also noticed that the teenaged Brodin's play contributed to Suter's peace of mind as well.

Best Offensive Prospect: Mario Lucia, LW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (CCHA)

This is the main area where the Wild has struggled as a franchise. Its reputation for de-emphasizing scoring has brought it some deserved mockery over the years. With some mild success has come the existential question of what hockey is and ought to be: a technically sound suicide pact or a high-flying entertainment. The style of play that brings mild triumph in the standings has had the perverse effect of limiting the dynamic players available in the draft, and the Wild famously missed on "solid" looking first round picks like Benoit Pouliot, Colton Gillies, A.J. Thelen, Tyler Cuma, and James Sheppard. Chuck Fletcher rightly recognized that the only way to remedy this dearth of talent was to pursue good offensive players in free agency or trade and added Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatley, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, and Jason Pominville. So is there a prospect in the system that can also contribute offensively?

As noted above, the Wild will have to rely on lunch-pail offense for the foreseeable future. One player the scouts liked enough to trade up for in 2011 was Mario Lucia. Choosing to go the BCHL route rather than stick in high school, Lucia certainly amassed some impressive stats, with 93 points in 56 games during the 2011-12 season. He had a small setback with a broken leg in the fall of 2012, but rebounded in time to make Team USA's entry for the world juniors. Lucia finished in the top five for scoring on Notre Dame and third in goals as a freshman. The team should be strong again next season, but Lucia needs to play a bigger role. With few options within the system for the kind of offense-first game Lucia is capable of playing, he may be asked to play a big role within the Wild organization as well.

Matt Dumba, Tyler Graovac, Charlie Coyle, and Jason Zucker were other options for this award.

Underachiever: Mikael Granlund, C, Houston Aeros (AHL)

Mikael Granlund is unfortunately the recipient of this 'award' this season. Obviously the young Finn came in for his first North American pro season with sky-high expectations. He was the most highly-touted Finnish prospect in a decade, clearly above the watermark as a teenager in the Finnish pro ranks, and a burgeoning presence even on the world stage. Granlund looked quite good as he started the season with the Houston Aeros, although the smaller ice was an adjustment and a disadvantage to his skill set. A somewhat freakish ankle sprain took him out of action for a couple of months and he looked tentative at times, unable to match the pace of the North American pro game.

A larger issue with Granlund's development right now is the lack of faith shown by the Wild's coaching staff. There existed a certain insistence on keeping Koivu and Parise together at all costs, using Kyle Brodziak on the power play, and forcing Granlund to develop his defensive game from the depths of the fourth line. The merits of any of these things could be dissected at length, and it is clear that Granlund simply did not accomplish enough to force the issue. At a glance, eight points in 27 games is not nearly good enough for such a skilled player. Granlund has far more potential than what he has shown and he will rise in the depth chart eventually, perhaps even breaking out next season.

Zack Phillips was another player who fell short of expectations this season, but should rebound somewhat as he adjusts to the much tougher level of competition the AHL presents. Brett Bulmer also was trending upward last season, finishing his junior career strong and looking confident at the NHL level even. He plummeted to earth this season as he was dealing with some knee issues, and fell way off in scoring and overall play. Christoph Bertschy is a talented player who has looked excellent in tournament play with Team Switzerland, but struggled to play a major role on Swiss League Champions, SC Bern.

Highest Risk / Reward: Mathew Dumba, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

The Wild dealt away a couple very good prospects in Matt Hackett and Johan Larsson for the services of Jason Pominville, but also included a 2013 first round pick in the deal. That makes hitting on last year's first round selection all the more important. The Wild picked an interesting player at seventh overall in 2012 in Red Deer's Matt Dumba. Dumba is a very offensively-talented defenseman with physical presence to go with his above-average skating and shot.

He was able to cause chaos at the junior level in all facets of the game, but he remains a question mark for his professional ceiling because of his size. Dumba's junior career also did not end the way he would have probably liked it to, with a last-minute cut from Team Canada's world juniors entry and a farewell season with a Red Deer  team that struggled. Dumba put up 42 points in 62 games for a top-20 finish among WHL defensemen. This represented a fairly significant decline in productivity for Dumba. A defenseman does have to rely on the rest of his teammates for his points to some degree, so there is no need to panic here. Dumba remains a work in progress, a player who needs gym time to add more muscle and significant rink time to hone his defensive zone game.

Most Improved Prospect: Tyler Graovac, C, Belleville Bulls (OHL)

No Wild prospect rose further this season in Hockey's Future's rankings than Tyler Graovac. Whether this was an aberration from a player with good size playing in his 20 year old season in the OHL, a matter of unsustainable shooting percentages, or plain luck, Graovac posted very good numbers with two teams and received some recognition from around the league for it. The OHL Coaches' poll specifically noted Graovac's goal-scoring ability and his shooting ability, ranking him among the very best in the OHL. It is not quite clear whether Graovac is a total package, but he has a mix of size and offensive ability which is generally not easy to find. He got signed to an entry-level contract this season for his efforts. The seventh-round pick has overcome some severe injuries, shone on a rebuilding squad in Ottawa, and got the chance to play a key role in a deep playoff run with Belleville.

Darcy Kuemper also took it to the next level this year, taking the reins from Matt Hackett and making him eventually expendable. A lot of uncertainty surrounds the Wild's netminding next season, but Kuemper looks like a solution one way or another.

Breakout for 2013-14: Erik Haula, LW, Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA)

Erik Haula does not fly totally under the radar anymore, but the 2009 seventh-round pick has rarely received the recognition he deserves. The Finnish import finished his collegiate career at better than a point per game. He outscored his more highly-touted University of Minnesota teammates year after year, even while being asked to work the tougher minutes of the upperclassman. Haula finished second in the nation to John Gaudreau (CGY) in points per game. Now with the Aeros, can Haula find chemistry with another college standout in teammate Justin Fontaine? The Finnish kid who chose Minnesota for his hockey education has made it to the pros. Haula might show again that you cannot underestimate the combination of hard work, skill, and opportunity.

Prospect of the Year: Jonas Brodin, D, Minnesota Wild (NHL)

No prospect showed more this season at the highest level than Jonas Brodin. The calm he exudes is a pleasure to see as a spectator. As noted above, he will not do it all by himself. Mistakes are to be expected and he is not a natural offensive player. Nevertheless, his intelligence and skill look to be a rare quantity. Brodin right now looks like a cornerstone player. As the Wild improves its skill level in the top-nine forwards and the rest of the defense corps, Brodin should see his point totals naturally increase. For a rookie defenseman tossed to the wolves, it is hard to imagine a better performance.