Minnesota Wild putting a lot of trust in prospect system depth

By Peter Prohaska

Erik Haula - Minnesota Wild

Photo: First-year pro Erik Haula, who has four points in five AHL games this season, represents the depth of talent that the Wild have at the pro level (courtesy of Jason Mowry/Icon SMI)

The Minnesota Wild has taken an aggressive approach in free agency and trade at the NHL level, adding a franchise defenseman in Ryan Suter, and bolstering its forward corps with legitimate NHL stars in Zach Parise and Jason Pominville and a solid defensive presence in Matt Cooke. The confidence to make these moves was in part due to a group of prospects who seemed ready to come in and provide support during their cheaper entry-level contract years.

The time is now for Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, and Jason Zucker. These players have shown themselves capable to varying degrees of being impact players in the NHL. After them is a less distinguished group that ranges from immediate depth fill-ins such as Darcy Kuemper and Justin Fontaine, to players several years away from contributing. The Wild's amateur procurement group has taken steps forward to improve the franchise's reputation for draft busts and wasted picks. It remains to be seen whether the balance between the NHL talent and the young potential is enough to propel the Wild into the ranks of true Stanley Cup contenders during the important window defined by Ryan Suter's best years.

Left Wing

Jason Zucker is off to a tough start in 2013-14. A disappointing training camp had him down in Iowa to start, and a reckless hit has him serving a suspension. Despite that, patience will serve both him and the team in the long run. Zucker's great strengths are his skating and his ability to generate shots. While he will not likely be an all-star winger, he has looked good playing second and third line minutes and bringing a high energy level. Despite the setback early this season, Zucker is poised for a step forward.

Erik Haula is already looking good as a pro, after a college career that ended with the young Finn registering over a point per game. A slick distributor and puck possessor who is unfortunately a little average-sized for the modern NHL, Haula could step into the role Justin Fontaine has now, or potentially fill in with the top-six as he develops his game.

The Wild drafted Raphael Bussieres in 2012's second round with the gritty side of his game in mind. He is a talented winger whose junior career turnaround from -31 in his first full season to +27 in his last season was in part due to his own improvements. As an agitating force though, Bussieres can look to Matt Cooke's contemporary game as a model. He has a ways to go to hone his defensive game, but Bussieres does have some good skills offensively and should benefit from a full tutorial year with the Iowa squad.

While a lot of Iowa's players look good by the numbers early in the season, Kristopher Foucault sits low on the depth chart. His production has been consistent, though he missed considerable time with injury last season, but his scoring is largely opportunistic. A skater who just does not have the dynamics for the NHL game, Foucault is more of a depth option at this point.

Louis Nanne was a legacy pick by the Wild, showing that no NHL team is ever fully free from nepotism. Young Nanne left the familiar world of Minnesota High School hockey for the BCHL though, and later decommitted from the University of Minnesota in part due to reasons of seeking to make his own name as a hockey player. He is still rehabbing a shoulder injury but should eventually make his USHL debut this season. Nanne has been productive at every level in his young career and if he can get going on the ice soon, he should be able to make an impact as a freshman once he makes his debut.

Center

The Wild is reasonably appointed down the center of the ice but there is a lot of uncertainty even now. Charlie Coyle has looked the best of all the forward prospects. With his good size and physicality, he fit right in with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu as the right side winger and played with the that top line for a good portion of the 2012-13 shortened season. His scoring was decent given his lack of power play time and he seemed primed to take another step ahead this year before sustaining a knee injury that has him out of the lineup for a month. Coyle is a good blend of skills, with even a bit of a mean streak.

Mikael Granlund has struggled in all facets since coming to the NHL but seems to be gaining in confidence as the 2013-14 season gets rolling. The skilled playmaker needs equally skilled linemates to maximize his creative passing techniques as well as make some room for the smaller-bodied Finn on the ice. With Coyle on the shelf, Granlund has gotten ample time to put up some points.

A first round pick who has been somewhat of a disappointment so far, Zack Phillips has slipped on the depth chart. His most notable competition is probably Erik Haula, who played center in college and seems to be ahead of Phillips in the eyes of the decision-makers. This is really a pivotal season for Phillips, who has the kind of puck skill to be a difference-maker, but needs to take a step forward in his mobility and two-way play.

Rookie pro Tyler Graovac is a lanky sniper who took a while to get going in his junior career but finished wonderfully, gaining recognition across the CHL for his finishing ability and his character. Graovac is not the most complete player on the roster, but he has the good size and the shooting ability that is lacking somewhat in the organization. While an NHL call-up is unlikely to occur this season, Graovac has himself into the conversation.

Freshman Adam Gilmour was pretty highly-regarded coming out of prep school, had a decent season in the USHL, but must now develop his game in the limited ice time he will see as a freshman at perennial powerhouse Boston College. His good size and skating, plus a sound development year in the USHL should be advantageous to him. BC looks to be a dangerous team, and Gilmour has a role to play in that.

Sixth round pick in 2012 Christoph Bertschy continues to struggle at the pro level in Switzerland. Defending Swiss League champions Bern return a strong team, but Bertschy seems to suffer from a lack of quality linemates. Perhaps that will change with the injuries suffered by its top scorers, but Bertschy's strong junior showings remains the only signs of encouragement here. He can do more than he has shown against the pros, but Bertschy will remain stranded in Switzerland until he proves it.

The almost-obligatory Minnesotan high school player picked in the draft in 2013 was Grand Rapids's Avery Peterson. Peterson is a big-bodied lad who used his frame effectively at the prep level, but he also has a decent set of unrefined skills. He will play a developmental year with Sioux City of the USHL before joining the University of Nebraska-Omaha for 2014-15.

Anthony Hamburg is a draft pick of the former regime who has bounced around quite a bit since draft day, finally settling with the Rochester Institute of Technology team the last couple of years. He has had some reasonable success but envisioning him in any kind of Wild uniform is a stretch for even the supple mind.

Right WIng

Justin Fontaine may have gotten a little lucky to crack the Wild's roster to start the 2013-14 season but it would be hard not feel glad for the young man who has gotten a great opportunity. A somewhat smallish player without great skating, Fontaine has used his high hockey intelligence to play an effective role in the bottom six for the Wild. After two excellent seasons leading the AHL affiliate in scoring, Fontaine has proven to be a good depth option and then some, proving the point that a team's full slate of forwards can also involve players like Fontaine, who can pass and possess the puck.

Mario Lucia is the top prospect in the right wing group and the Notre Dame sophomore is looking to improve his game in all facets. Early on in the season, Lucia is playing in all disciplines, using his big frame and his skating ability as an option on the power play and providing support in his own end. With additional strength, Lucia is looking like a burgeoning power winger though he will benefit from developmental years in college.

Brett Bulmer has been plagued by injuries since he made his NHL debut in 2011, missing a good portion of last season for the Aeros. He has yet to escape that reputation for fragility, but is off to a good start in 2013-14. Bulmer, when he is on his game, can intimidate on the forecheck and deliver some offense too. He has been lost in the conversation slightly but with a rebound season can certainly demonstrate his value and place in the Wild's cluster.

Kurtis Gabriel being picked in the third round of the 2012 draft befuddled some observers. He brings a lot to the prospect group that is missing or in short supply. Although he ended up back in Owen Sound this season it should be of benefit to him, allowing for a measure of offensive opportunity that would be hard to come by in Iowa. He has good size and chips in points, but the Wild spoke most highly of his leadership and his character when commenting on this pick. As an alternate captain for his junior squad, Gabriel has the chance to put up points this season and quell some of the doubts.

Defense

The upper limit of the Wild's defense is potentially elite, with Jonas Brodin and Mathew Dumba projecting as a top-pairing players already as teenagers. The former was a top rookie in the league last season and established himself as a potentially elite defenseman. Matt Dumba's game has more risk to it, but greater offensive upside. It appears he will stick with the Wild, partially because he needs professional experience to develop and partially because of some early season injuries that are already testing the Wild's depth on defense. After Brodin and Dumba, the drop-off presents some risk for the organization. The Wild may rely too much on one of the league's best in Ryan Suter, a tremendously gifted athlete who is easy to envision playing in his 40’s. The best of the Wild's prospect class may not reach top-four pairing heights.

Tyler Cuma is still sticking around thanks to a new contract, though his prime may be forever out of sight due to a series of knee injuries. Nonetheless, he is a player with good hockey sense and he has put together a quiet career of dependable AHL play when healthy. While there is no answer yet whether he will be a top-four AHL player or a bottom-pairing NHL player, Cuma is still part of the organization, albeit the stranded bastion of a somewhat misguided drafting strategy.

Gustav Olofsson, John Draeger, Nick Seeler, Carson Soucy, and Nolan De Jong form a big group of defensemen working on their games at the NCAA level. Olofsson is a highly regarded Swedish born player whose acumen and skating scouts have spoken well of, but who will probably struggle for points on a deep blue line. He is a freshman at Colorado College and also a candidate for the Swedish national junior team. Olofsson plays a physical game, and looks to be a top option for his club in all disciplines in the early part of the season.

Minnesotan John Draeger put up good scoring numbers at prep powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary's before getting tossed into roiling waters as a freshman at Michigan State and showing impressively in keeping his head above water. A knee injury has sidelined him for at least a couple of months for the beginning of his sophomore year though, which obviously sets back his timetable a bit.

Seeler enters his third season under Dean Blais at Nebraska-Omaha. While he is a good skater he has done little to distinguish himself as a prospect besides represent a make-up opportunity for the Nick Leddy blunder. Soucy and De Jong are both raw freshmen coming out of western Canada, but with Soucy at Minnesota-Duluth and De Jong at Michigan, it should be easy for interested parties to keep tabs on them. Soucy has good size and offensive instincts, and De Jong has good mobility but needs to add strength. A midseason evaluation is probably fairer for these players, but a combination of reasonable pedigrees and the interest of some excellent collegiate programs suggests cause for optimism in the months after the draft.

After that group on the depth chart is Dylan Labbé, a talented player on a very leaky Shawinigan squad. He led his team defensemen in scoring last season and is on pace to accomplish that again. Though he has work to do on his defensive game like all young blueliners, Labbe has a nice set of skills that he can improve on in the next year or two.

Daniel Gunnarsson is a big-bodied defenseman who is in his third year of pro hockey with the Swedish League's Lulea. Although he chips in with some points, and the extreme attention to defense throughout the league stifles scoring, Gunnarsson might not bring quite enough to stay in the conversation. After his contract with Lulea expires, the Wild may seek to bring him across the water, but his season thus far might not be enough.

Kyle Medvec has used his big frame to carve out a spot for himself with the Wild's farm squad over two seasons, using an ECHL assignment to show his offensive flair and improve some aspects of his game. While he may not have quite the total package to make it to the next level, Medvec is a good depth option.

The team also has Josh Caron and Colton Jobke, free agent signings who have yet to make the AHL squad. Both players have some grit, especially Caron who has transitioned to wing over the last two seasons for his limited forays. Jobke was pushed down the depth chart and down to Orlando by Jonathon Blum, Brian Connelly, and Corbin Baldwin, but has proved to be resilient throughout his junior career.

Bjorn Krupp was signed as a free agent out of Belleville but made his way to Germany shortly thereafter and seems unlikely ever to figure in any of the Wild's plans.

Goalies

With Matt Hackett (BUF) traded away the Wild has a reasonable, almost pro forma, pipeline of goaltenders. Darcy Kuemper showed in his last three leagues that he has above-average ability, having put up excellent to superlative numbers in the CHL, ECHL, and AHL. His time in the NHL was too brief to be of real statistical value but it is unrealistic to expect many goaltenders to come into the NHL at his age and be consistently above league average. Kuemper will probably get more calls this year and can most likely improve on tough outings in last year's playoffs and early in the NHL season with calmer nerves and more experience.

Johan Gustafsson was considered the best goalie of his age group by the Swedish national brain trust and led his team to a gold medal at the 2012 world juniors. That is not an endorsement to be dismissed lightly, especially when his record with his club team in the Swedish Hockey League was among the league's best last season. He is off to a fine start in the AHL, with a 27-save shutout in his first appearance. While Darcy Kuemper may be ahead of him on the depth chart, Gustafsson will be in the battle for the starter's job in Iowa and is even likely to see NHL action this season given the uncertain status of the Wild's backstop position.

Part of the reason that goaltender performances are so hard to use as predictive is that a goalie can put up cringe-worthy numbers and still have had a good night. The second of two seventh round picks by the Wild in 2013, Alexandre Belanger has put up fairly brutal numbers thus far in his junior career with Rouyn-Noranda. He is currently splitting starts with Carl Hozjan, who has put up marginally better, but still far below league average, numbers. The numbers are not a strict indictment of his ability, but some improvement would be welcome even on a game-by-game basis.

Stephen Michalek had to take a year off from his collegiate career as Harvard's putative number one goalie due to an academic scandal and really did not put up great numbers as an exile to the USHL. One hopes that the troubles are behind him. Inasmuch as drafting a player out of high school is an extreme longshot, Michalek had an impressive pedigree to be sure. With a lot going for him, this player just needs to bear down and make the most of his opportunities.

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