Over the last few draft classes, Chuck Fletcher and company have shown Wild fans evidence of a new developmental approach. With a good cluster of young guys already in place, there has been a shift toward drafting players who will take an extra year or two to arrive as viable prospects.
This is partially a factor of geography, as the state of Minnesota has five Division One college hockey programs in its borders as well as what are likely the nation's best prep programs. It is also a statement of confidence in the scouting staff. Although the organization is currently a little thin in terms of its European and junior pipelines, it does seem to be a deliberate strategy. Using the NCAA as its major proving ground gives the team flexibility with its contracts while also maintaining spacing between players. Although college players get fewer games and face arguably fewer elite talents, they cope with the intensity of weekend series and play against opponents who are generally older and stronger. While it may be too soon to assess this strategy properly, it helps explain the slight imbalance in the placement of prospects below.
The core of the Wild's prospect group is firmly established in the professional ranks. Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, and Jason Zucker were all part of the Wild's playoff roster. Coyle played on the top line, Zucker scored the biggest Wild goal in years, and Brodin played the second most minutes on the entire team. The team also added Islander first-round pick Nino Niederreiter in the off-season, a player who ought to be ready now to compete at the NHL level. While Mikael Granlund disappointed in his rookie year, he should bounce back. After this group, Erik Haula, Justin Fontaine, Zack Phillips, Raphael Bussieres, Tyler Graovac, Brett Bulmer, Darcy Kuemper, Johan Gustafsson, Kurtis Gabriel, Kristopher Foucault, Kyle Medvec, and Tyler Cuma are all expected to be AHL regulars in 2013-14. In other words, the bulk of the Wild's prospect stable is already in professional hockey. There are a couple worth monitoring more closely than others.
Top Pro Prospect
Jonas Brodin, D, Minnesota Wild (NHL)
There would be no need to discuss Jonas Brodin on this site if last season's NHL labor dispute had settled a little sooner. For now though, he remains the best prospect in the Wild's system. The Swedish young man showed in the shortened season that early scouting reports about his cognitive gifts were well-founded. His elusive and efficient skating allows him to take some offensive chances, and he should see greater scoring numbers in the upcoming season. Having Ryan Suter as a defense partner as a rookie meant that Brodin played a lot of minutes, but the tutelage should prove invaluable as this player moves ahead in his career.
Mikael Granlund, C, Minnesota / Iowa Wild (NHL/AHL)
Like with Brodin, it seems surprising to be discussing Mikael Granlund on a prospect site yet again. Unlike Brodin, Granlund was no sure bet to play 65 NHL games last season. Granlund had a difficult time in the NHL after a solid debut in the lockout-strengthened AHL. Being weak on the draw meant that Coach Mike Yeo had to rely on veterans Mikko Koivu and Kyle Brodziak to play a lot of powerplay minutes, even though Granlund is a superior passer to either one of them. Departed veterans Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard also had a lot more trust. A player whose game really relies on puck possession, Granlund is going to have to figure out how to retrieve and retain the puck against NHL opposition in order to meet his potential.
For years now, Granlund's game has been anticipated and dissected. Coach Mike Yeo seems to recognize that an elite talent like Granlund can be pushed even further to elevate his game and contribute in all disciplines on the ice.
Zack Phillips, C, Iowa Wild (AHL)
Zack Phillips is a first-round draft pick who had a great junior career for a great junior team. It is starting to look as though the scoring totals Phillips put up as a junior may have had a lot to do with the extraordinary collection of talent he had around him in Saint John as well as the often porous defenses of the QMJHL. What Phillips accomplished in Saint John was no fluke and his skill level was always apparent. The early scouting reports that raised concerns about his ability to skate as a professional have proven to be merited. Though his minutes were somewhat limited in his rookie AHL season, there was a general lack of productivity. Now faced with competition from the likes of Erik Haula and Tyler Graovac, Phillips must show a more rounded game by competing in three zones, continuing to improve his skating agility, and putting up numbers worthy of his ability. He risks dropping further on the depth chart.
There is no question that Matt Dumba is the top Wild junior prospect and even he has a puncher's chance of making the NHL roster. Perhaps the Wild takes the institutional view that there is little reason to look for late round value in such a highly-scouted developmental pipeline, choosing to find value in its local waters. It is likely that the Wild will have only two or three players developing in the CHL in 2013-14.
Dumba is a very exciting prospect, but that might not be the greatest descriptor for a player that the Wild will absolutely need to be an anchor in its top-four. Dumba has the physical tools but remains in need of refinement. It is quite a shame that his birth date will prevent him from getting the experience he needs at the right level, the AHL. Should he be returned to Red Deer, he will face the great challenge of leading his team through his disappointment. He is in a good position to put in the hard work of improving the details that will make him an excellent pro one day.
Dylan Labbe, D, Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
Labbe did not have a great season, but as a draft eligible, he steadily increased his stock throughout the year. Although plus-minus is of limited value statistically, a rating in the low double-digits like Labbe's minus-40 last year says that he was doing something wrong. Labbe will benefit from a better team next season. At the same time, he must show that the trust he earned from the coaches last season was not misguided. A player who can certainly be a point producer, Labbe should see better numbers in all areas next year as Shawinigan bounces back from a difficult season.
Top Amateur Prospect
Mario Lucia, LW, Notre Dame Fighting Irish (Hockey East)
Slowed by a severe summer training injury last year, Lucia still managed to recover in time to join Team USA at the World Juniors in December and ended up with a solid freshman season for Notre Dame in 2012-13. Clearly a player of whom big things are expected, Lucia has a significant amount of pressure on him this season. Somebody will have to step up for the departed Anders Lee, and Lucia could be that player. He put on additional weight over the summer, and has the size to be a dominant physical player in college hockey. Notre Dame came up a little short last year in its postseason ambitions and Lucia is an important part of this talented collection of players achieving more.
Freshman to Watch
Gustav Olofsson, D, Colorado College Tigers (NCAA)
The Wild has several defensive prospects in college hockey for 2013-14, including three freshmen. Swedish-born Olofsson could be the best of them. Still lanky, Olofsson has shown above-average skating ability but excellent anticipation and awareness. He plays a fairly simple style but combines enough skill in all disciplines to project as a top-four defenseman. One strength of the college hockey route is the time it allows these young men to work on strength and conditioning, and Olofsson will need to put on some weight and muscle. A freshman year similar to John Draeger's, in which Olofsson gets exposure in all situations, is expected.
Top European Prospect
Christoph Bertschy, RW/C, Bern (Swiss NLA)
With Johan Gustafsson expected to back-up Darcy Kuemper for the Iowa Wild, Christoph Bertschy remains the Wild's top European-based prospect. Very talented, but somewhat undersized, Bertschy had a down season in 2012-13. Still, 2013-14 will mark Bertschy's third season in Switzerland's top pro league and he has had some success. Indeed, he hoisted a championship trophy for his squad last year. Though his scoring totals showed a steep decline, the winger had less in the way of opportunities.
With the Swiss season already underway, Bertschy has nearly matched his goal total from last season, making him an excellent bounceback candidate as well. The Wild can afford patience, but the Swiss forward's skill set is high level enough for him to remain a prospect of great interest for the NHL club.
Unsigned for 2014-15
Daniel Gunnarsson, D, Lulea (SHL)
There was a lot to like about the Wild's use of a fifth-round pick in the 2012 draft to select Daniel Gunnarsson. Though it was his second year of draft eligibility, the big Swede has skills beyond his NHL frame to suggest he could be a player. Conventional NHL wisdom says you cannot have too many defensemen, but the Wild might soon have to make a decision on Gunnarsson. With so many young defenseman in the pipeline, Gunnarsson will have to show some improvement this season to stay in the picture.
He was able to do that last season, more than doubling his point output and showing a strong offensive game in Lulea's impressive playoff run. Another thing for Wild fans to keep in mind is the relatively low level of scoring in Swedish hockey. Gunnarsson's modest-looking 17 regular season points were good for a top-20 finish among defensemen. A similar season is a reasonable thing to expect. A good-sized, mobile, and offensively skilled defenseman with years of professional experience is a good asset to monitor as the season gets underway.