Wild Top 20 prospects

By Jason Menard

1. (2) Josh Harding, G, 22
Acquired: 2nd round, 38th overall, 2002

The old adage states that slow and steady wins the race; it’s an approach that the Minnesota Wild has taken with their netminder of the future – and one that hopefully has the Regina, SK native ready to hit the ground running.

Harding has had the luxury of being able to develop at his own pace. For years, the Wild was known for its goaltending tandem of Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson. But while Fernandez has laid claim, at least nominally, to the starter’s job since last year’s trade of Roloson; and while Niklas Backstrom has been a scene-stealer this season in a backup role, the fact of the matter is that both are just keeping the crease warm for Harding’s imminent arrival.

Harding has seen limited action at the NHL level, due to the aforementioned glut of goaltending depth within the organization. Backstrom’s stellar rookie season has afforded Harding the luxury of yet another year of seasoning, but signs point to Harding being the main man as early as next season.

Of course, it’s not just hype that’s carried him this far. He’s built up an impressive resume in the AHL. In three professional seasons, Harding has never posted greater than a 2.68 GAA or less than a .920 save percentage. And while his win/loss record is a fairly pedestrian 17-16-4, in this, his third season, Harding has been similarly spectacular. In 38 games with the Houston Aeros, Harding’s posted a 2.48 GAA and .920 save percentage.

To date, he’s only had about half a cup of coffee with the Wild, making only four saves in his 18 minutes of play. But if Fernandez’ injury lingers at all, Harding may get more of an immediate opportunity between the pipes.

2. (3) Benoit Pouliot, LW, 20
Acquired: 1st round, 4th overall, 2005

For years, the Wild has been known for its strict adherence to a regimented defensive game. However, that began to change this season with management’s attempt to import a more dynamic supporting cast around all-world talent Marian Gaborik. And if all goes according to plan, the dynamic Pouliot will find his way onto the roster to lend a pair of soft hands to the cause.

The 6’3 Alfred, ON native enjoyed a brief, three-game sojourn with the Wild earlier this year, which saw the winger held completely off the scoresheets. However, as a rookie in the AHL, he’s been able to put up respectable numbers that are reminiscent of his game at the junior level.

In 46 games with the Aeros, Pouliot has netted 17 goals and added 12 assists. And, as seasons of 102 and 141 PIM in junior will attest, Pouliot has no problems throwing his still-developing frame around. He’s racked up 77 minutes in penalties so far and has continued to display that combination of robust play and offensive flair that seem to indicate that any future call-ups to the NHL level will be for a longer period of time.

With under 180 pounds stretching itself over his 6’3 frame, Pouliot has plenty of room to fill out and get stronger, perhaps developing into a solid power forward type player that can compliment some of the offensive talent on the NHL roster.

3. (1) Roman Voloshenko, LW, 20
Acquired: 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2004

The 20-year-old Belarus native appears to have taken a step backwards in his development this season. Last year he tore up the AHL with 60 points in 69 games, including 33 goals. But this year Voloshenko appears to have succumbed to the sophomore slump. Voloshenko is averaging only a point every other game in his first 54 contests. And that nose for the net his showed last season appears to be blocked, as he’s only accounted for 10 goals this season.

His current predicament is a far cry from earlier this season when some pundits were of the opinion that Voloshenko could crack the NHL roster and even find a spot alongside Gaborik on the top line. As of now, the young Belarusian must use the rest of the AHL season to right the ship and try to find his way back on the fast track that he enjoyed last season.

The talent is there, so one hopes that this is merely a sophomore jinx rearing its ugly head and Voloshenko will be able to start living up to his impressive promise.

4. (4) James Sheppard, C, 18
Acquired: 1st round, 9th overall, 2006

No resting on his laurels for this product of Canada’s east coast. Sheppard, a native of Halifax NS, took his early first-round selection in stride and has worked to take his game to the next level. In only 48 games with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles he’s already bettered by one his impressive 84-point-in-66-game performance of last season.

With 29 goals and 56 assists, Sheppard has been a key cog for the Screaming Eagles. He’s performed well in all situations into which he’s been thrust. Ten of his goals have come with the man advantage and the 6’1 center has also displayed an impressive dedication to the defensive side of his game, posting a plus/minus rating of +35 that’s good for second overall in the league.

Sheppard has been integral in Cape Breton’s march towards a Memorial Cup berth. His club is in a three-way dogfight for first overall in the QMJHL and Sheppard’s rugged, two-way play and outstanding leadership will be a huge factor in any team success.

5. (6) Danny Irmen, RW, 22
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall, 2003

In his first full season in the professional ranks, Irmen has made quite an impression on the Wild brass. Turning pro after his junior year with the University of Minnesota, Irmen showed a glimpse of his long-term promise by earning two assists in four regular season games with the AHL’s Houston Aeros. Although he saw limited action in the seven playoff games for the club, he came back this season and has quickly insinuated himself into the line-up, playing a key energy role and chipping in with much-needed offensive contributions.

In 58 games this season, the 6′ native of Fargo, ND has registered 28 points evenly split between goals and assists. And what’s appealing about Irmen’s game is that he’s the type of player who willingly searches out the tougher areas of the ice – to the point that it’s safe to say that a majority of those 14 goals were scored within a few feet of the crease.

Irmen has acclimatized well to the professional ranks, enjoying success even though transitioning from the less-competitive ranks. With a couple more years of seasoning under his belt, he should be ready to compete for a role with the big club – and getting under the skin of opponents throughout the NHL.

6. (7) Matt Foy, RW, 23
Acquired: 6th round, 175th overall, 2003

The offensive gifts are there, simmering to the surface and spilling over against the AHL competition. And while he hasn’t been able to find that same recipe at the NHL level, Foy’s continued development shows that he could soon enjoy the sweet taste of success with the Wild.

Coming out of the NCAA, Foy enjoyed a dominant season with the Ottawa 67s in his draft year. Ending the season with 132 points and almost scoring at a goal-a-game pace with 61 in 68 games, the future looked extremely bright for the Oakville, ON native. After one season in the OHL, Foy made the jump to the professional ranks and acquitted himself nicely in a rookie season that saw him earn a modest 24 points in 51 games.

However, the past two seasons have seen him rediscover some of that prodigious offensive talent that he displayed in Canada’s capital city. Last season, he totaled 40 points in 51 games and earned a 19-game call-up with the Wild, scoring two goals and adding three assists. This season he’s spent more time with the Wild, joining the club for a nine-game stint, but was held pointless.

But back at the AHL level, he’s shown improvement in his overall game and has continued to refine his scoring touch at the professional level. In 49 games, Foy has tallied 23 goals and added 19 assists. At 6’2 and 220 pounds, he’s shown a willingness to use his size to advantage and that, combined with his soft hands, bodes well for the prospects of a future, longer-term stint with the Wild.

7. (5) A.J. Thelen, D, 20
Acquired: 1st round, 12th overall, 2004

While Thelen may have envisioned playing in Vancouver this season, chances are he was hoping to do so as a member of the Wild against the NHL’s Canucks. However, Thelen has made the most of his situation and currently finds himself a member of the Vancouver Giants, with his professional dreams on hold for another season.

It’s been a bit of a rocky ride for the former first rounder. After a rookie season full of promise and accolades, he was dismissed from his Michigan State University team, allegedly due to repeated conduct issues, in his sophomore season. From there he found his way to the Western Hockey League and the Prince Albert Raiders. After a solid performance scoring 13 goals and 23 assists in 73 games, Thelen started this season even better – accounting for 12 points in 23 games.

However his pace has cooled a bit since a mid-season trade to Vancouver. In 20 games with the Giants he’s only netted six points, split evenly between goals and assists. However, he is expected to play a key role in any playoff aspirations the Giants have. Blessed by being on a team with a deep blueline, Thelen’s combination of size (6’3) and ability to move the puck is a valuable commodity. And you have to add the fact that he’s willing to get his nose a little dirty and play with an edge.

Following the Raiders’ ouster from the WHL playoffs last season, Thelen earned a one-game cameo with the AHL’s Aeros. Next year Thelen looks to turn that cameo into a more regular role.

8. (9) Shawn Belle, D, 22
Acquired: Trade with Dallas 2006

Belle was a key component of the trade that saw the Wild part with Willie Mitchell in return for Martin Skoula and the Edmonton, AB native. Originally drafted by the St. Louis Blues in the first round, 30th overall, in 2003, the robust blueliner continues to develop and display the promise that has already seen him join the NHL ranks.

The 6’2, 238-pounder appeared in nine games earlier this season in Minnesota and acquitted himself nicely, contributing only one assist but showing solid defensive play en route to earning a +4 rating. He may not have the grace, finesse, and speed that some blueliners have, but he’s a solid enough skater that when he throws that big body around, opponents feel it.

He’s also displayed a little more deft touch in the offensive zone this season. In 45 games with the Aeros, Belle has scored four goals and added 11 assists, showing flashes of his offensive talents that were first displayed in his final season with the WHL‘s Tri-City Americans when he earned 42 points in 76 games.

9. (11) Morten Madsen, C, 21
Acquired: 4th round, 122nd overall, 2005

Madsen’s decision to come overseas has paid big dividends for the Denmark native, as he’s found success in learning the North American game. In 52 games with the Victoriaville Tigres of the QMJHL, the 21-year-old center has netted 88 points buoyed by 59 assists.

His offensive prowess doesn’t come as a surprise, however, as he’s previously enjoyed success playing for Frolunda in Sweden. In 25 games, Madsen performed at over a point-per-game pace, earning 26 points in total. What’s been encouraging is that the longer season has not had an impact on Madsen’s production.

To help him continue to succeed with the rigors of the North American game and schedule, the lanky Madsen still must fill out that 6’2 frame of his, as at only 187 pounds he can be pushed off the puck at times.

10. (8) Clayton Stoner, D, 22
Acquired: 3rd round, 79th overall, 2004

If there’s one thing that the Wild have in abundance it’s big, physical defensemen. Stoner is yet another of these beefy blueliners who have a penchant for mixing punishing play with solid puck-moving performance.

However, this season has seen a bit of a come-down in the Port McNeill, BC native’s performance. While he’s always been able to generate offense from the back end, Stoner’s struggled with that aspect of his game in his second full season at the AHL level. After posting impressive rookie numbers with 24 points in 73 games – and only two seasons removed from a 12-goal, 46-point effort in 60 games with the WHL’s Tri-City Americans – Stoner has only found his name on the scoresheet seven times all season. And in those 52 games, he’s only scored once.

An early-season injury accounts for some of the blame, as Stoner appears to be slowly rounding back into form. But while his offensive numbers have dipped, he continues to display the robust play and commitment to defense that’s been a hallmark of his game for years. Never flashy, Stoner will always be that rock upon which a team can base its defensive game.

11. Ondrej Fiala, C, 19
Acquired: 2nd round, 40th overall, 2006

Having displayed his speed last season in earning the fastest-skater designation at the CHL’s top prospects game, one could have forgiven the Wild for having palpitations when he blew a wheel, leading to off-season knee surgery. And although he didn’t find himself back on the ice until November, Fiala has wasted no time becoming an integral part of an Everett Silvertips squad that’s dominated the CHL’s rankings all season long.

In just 39 games this season, Fiala has slowly worked himself back into the shape that he displayed last season. But while he hasn’t been at 100 percent, he’s still been a key contributor for the club, scoring 12 goals and adding 21 points for 33 points. Despite missing a number of games and coming back from injury, he’s only two points away from last season’s total.

The Silvertips are hoping that he will regain his post-season form of last season when he accounted for eight points in eight games. And as he continues to rehab that knee and become more comfortable with it, we should see that blazing speed back in full flight by next season.

12. (12) Anton Khudobin, G, 20
Acquired: 7th round, 206th overall, 2004

When Khudobin left North American shores for the more familiar confines of Russia, Wild fans may start to wonder when he’ll find his way back overseas – after all, he made quite an impression on the locals with his outstanding play.

After a solid season with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, when he appeared in 44 games and posted a 23-13-3 record behind a 2.90 GAA and .917 save percentage, Khudobin retuned this season to play for his previous Russian club, Magnitogorsk Metallurg.

With solid organizational depth, Khudobin has the luxury of developing overseas, but the Wild would certainly love for him to come back to North America so that they can keep a closer eye on his development long term.

13. (13) Ryan Jones, RW, 22
Acquired: 4th round, 111th overall, 2004

He plays a similar style of game, and if Ryan Jones can have even half of the effectiveness that his uncle, John Tonelli, displayed during his NHL career, the Wild will be very pleased with their investment in this Chatham, ON native.

Jones is currently second in scoring on Miami of Ohio, accounting for 26 goals and 17 assists in 37 games. But while the offense is a nice gift, Jones’ true value is his hard-nosed edge and grit. He leads the team in both plus/minus with a +16 rating and penalty minutes, with 37.

The 22-year-old forward plays larger than his 6′ frame and his on and off-ice leadership was recognized as the junior forward was named his squad’s captain for the current campaign. Fortunately, time is on Jones’ side as he has another year of collegiate eligibility before him, and will likely exhaust that before making the jump to the pro ranks.

14. (14) Peter Olvecky, LW, 21
Acquired: 3rd round, 78th overall, 2004

The gifted winger from Slovakia enjoyed considerable success last season acclimatizing to a new league, a new country, and a new language, which is why this season’s AHL campaign has been disappointing.

After a rookie season where he scored 38 points in 67 games after making the jump from the Slovakian Elite League, Olvecky hasn’t been able to carry that momentum forward. In fact, he’s appeared to regress a bit in terms of offensive performance. In 48 games, he’s only scored six goals, adding 12 assists – far off last season’s pace.

Wild brass are hoping this is nothing more than a sophomore slump, but it could be indicative of the fact that Olvecky is one of those players who need quality, creative linemates. He could, in fact, be one of those players who make a better NHLer than they do an AHLer, but continued performances like this may mean we never get to find out.

15. (16) Julien Sprunger, LW, 21
Acquired: 4th round, 117th overall, 2004

At 6’4, 200 pounds, Sprunger has the size to be an effective winger, but lacks the elite skating that would make him a truly valuable potential power forward. In his fifth season with Friborg-Gotteron of the Swiss A league, Sprunger has scored 10 goals and added 10 assists in 34 games this season – numbers that reflect a regression in his play.

Sprunger needs to come overseas and play against improved competition to facilitate his development. As well, although he has a good shot and willingness to play a physical game, he must refine his skating technique to take the next step.

16. (19) Cal Clutterbuck, RW, 19
Acquired: 3rd round, 72nd overall, 2006

Obviously, Clutterbuck has benefited from playing alongside all-world talent John Tavares in Oshawa. But while his offensive stats may be buoyed by that association, it’s also fair to say that Tavares has benefited equally from Clutterbuck’s presence on the squad.

With 29 goals and 72 points in 56 games, Clutterbuck has already posted career-high numbers. But what’s often lost in the equation is that the 5’11 forward commands respect from his teammates and is one of the club’s hardest workers at both ends of the ice.

While not blessed with elite-level offensive talents, Clutterbuck’s commitment to developing a solid overall game bodes well for his future prospects and he will benefit from a couple more years of seasoning – either as an OHL overager or in the professional ranks.

17. (15) Anthony Aiello, D, 20
Acquired: 5th round, 129th overall, 2005

Aiello is another one of those low-risk, long-term prospects that may pan out for the Wild. Currently in his sophomore season with Boston College, the Braintree, MA native has earned nine points in just 22 games. The numbers are a bit of a let down as they mirror those he earned as a freshman.

A player with tremendous offensive upside, Aiello will be given plenty of time within the organization to develop, starting with two more years of eligibility at the NCAA level. At 6’1, 200 pounds, Aiello has average size and must focus on developing his puck-moving abilities and skating to an elite level.

18. (17) Kyle Medvec, D, 18
Acquired: 4th round, 102nd overall, 2006

The Wild’s selection of Medvec is all about potential and upside. Paired with first-round selection David Fischer (MTL) at Apple Valley, Medvec displayed a solid defensive game.

But what’s key to Medvec’s development is the one thing that can’t be taught – size. At 6’5 he has the physical frame to be an impressive presence on the Wild’s blueline. Unfortunately, at only 191 pounds he’s more impish than impressive. At only 18 years old, he has plenty of time to fill out and, within a couple of years, should have acquired the bulk and muscle mass to be a potentially dominating, crease-clearing monster.

In the meantime, he’s already shown that he’s got a mean streak to go with that size. In 41 games with the Sioux City Musketeers, he’s accumulated 63 PIMs to go along with his four goals and nine assists. And as the USHL is one of the more rugged leagues, he’s getting plenty of on-the-job training in physical play.

19. (18) Kristofer Westblom, G, 19
Acquired: 3rd round, 65th overall, 2005

In his first full season as starter for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, Westblom has had the misfortune of being on a rebuilding squad. In the 42 games in which he’s appeared, he’s put up passable numbers with a 3.05 GAA and .900 save percentage. But his 14-26-2 record reflects the challenges the club is facing as a whole.

Westblom’s another Wild prospect who has the size potential to be impressive, but at 6’2, and only 160 pounds, he’s not exactly filling the net. Again, with adequate team depth in the net, he’s got the luxury of time to develop not just his game, but also his frame.

20. (20) Kyle Bailey, C, 20
Acquired: 4th round, 110th overall, 2005

Bailey was a mainstay in the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks line-up for the better part of four years. But, as is the case with many overagers in the CHL, he was traded away for youth and picks to the Lethbridge Hurricanes.

Well, the change of scenery must have agreed with Bailey because the gritty center, more known for his defensive prowess, has enjoyed an offensive renaissance with the Hurricanes. In the 17 games since the trade, Bailey has scored seven goals and added 12 assists. Prior to the trade he had only 18 points, including four goals, in 30 previous games.

While his Portland numbers were more reflective of his traditional output, this offensive burst has been a welcome surprise to the Wild. Bailey is one of those grit players who won’t necessarily put the dagger into your heart, but he’ll certainly be the thorn in your side. And if he can continue to develop this aspect of his game, he’ll be a welcome addition to the Aeros line-up next season.

Missing the Cut

Paul Albers, D
Miroslav Kopriva, G

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