Wild Top 20 Prospects, Fall 2008

By Dan Aronen

Since spring, the Wild’s Top 20 list has seen significant shuffling. Trades, a graduation, and a few unsigned draft picks have resulted in a few names moving on. Additionally, with only nine picks in the last two drafts, and some recent draft misses, the Wild have less depth in their prospect pipeline than in recent years. Regardless, they do have some quality players at the top, and a few potential sleepers further down. With the franchise now getting its footing on more solid ground and fewer roster spots up for grabs in recent seasons, the lack of prospect depth, at least in the short run, shouldn’t be too much of a concern.

Top 20 at a Glance

1. Colton Gillies, C
2. Benoit Pouliot, LW
3. Tyler Cuma, D
4. Cal Clutterbuck, RW
5. Petr Kalus, RW
6. Marco Scandella, D
7. Clayton Stoner, D
8. Morten Madsen, C
9. Justin Falk, D
10. Anton Khudobin, G
11. Harri Ilvonen, D
12. Ryan Hamilton, LW
13. Danny Irmen, RW
14. Peter Olvecky, LW
15. Chris Hickey, C
16. Maxim Noreau, D
17. Cody Almond, C
18. Paul Albers, D
19. Sean Lorenz, D
20. Kyle Medvec, D

1. Colton Gillies, C, 19

1st round, 16th overall, 2007

At 19, it’s either the NHL or back to juniors for Gillies, and the way the chips have fallen with veteran Mark Parrish being waived and bought out, an NHL roster spot is there for the taking. The word out of the Saskatoon Blades’ (WHL) training camp is that they don’t expect the 6’4 center back.

The NHL is about the only place Gillies hasn’t played in the past year. He played in both the Canada-Russia Super Series and the World Junior Championships. He was team captain and leading goal scorer for Saskatoon with 24 in 58 games, and was voted MVP by his teammates. He was signed to a contract in the spring after his WHL season ended and got his first taste of pro hockey, joining the Houston Aeros (AHL). In 11 regular season games there, he turned a few heads with a goal and seven assists. This summer he’s back with Team Canada for their World Junior team development camp. Up next, he will participate for the first time with the Wild’s team at the upcoming Traverse City prospects tournament and after that, try to make his NHL dream a reality.

2. Benoit Pouliot, LW, 21

1st round, 4th overall, 2005

Pouliot is something of an enigma. He was a highly-regarded junior player and the fourth overall pick in 2005, just a few spots behind Sidney Crosby. In terms of talent, it’s all there. He’s got good size at 6’3 and 195 pounds, a long reach, a smooth and explosive skating stride, a nice handle on the puck and an excellent shot. However, he just hasn’t been able to put it together with any kind of consistency at the pro level yet. In three straight years, he’s been one of the last cuts from Wild camp, and hasn’t exactly set the AHL on fire the past two seasons. Nineteen goals in 67 games in 2006-07 and 10 goals in 46 games in 2007-08 with the Aeros did not force the Wild’s hand to make room on the roster for him. He did come on in the second half of last season though, getting an extended stint with the Wild at the end of the season. He demonstrated some of his impressive skills in a two-goal game in Calgary and earned some playoff ice time. This summer, Wild GM Doug Risebrough has gone on record saying that Pouliot has a roster spot with the Wild this season. It will be the last year of Pouliot’s entry-level contract, so it’s a pretty significant crossroads he finds himself at early on in his pro career. While he may never fulfill the lofty expectations of a fourth overall pick, he should be a servicable top-six forward.

3. Tyler Cuma, D, 18

1st round, 23rd overall, 2008

The Wild will be looking for big things from their newest first-round pick, but he won’t be in the team’s NHL plans until at least next year. Cuma is a good candidate for one of the team captain slots this season with his Ottawa 67’s and is expected to see plenty of ice time. The 2006-07 OHL Rookie of the Year was a stalwart on the 67’s blue line last season with four goals and 28 assists from last season. He’ll also be trying to make his case for a roster spot of the Canadian team for the WJCs in 2009. The Wild certainly would love to see the smooth-skating Cuma get the experience against top competition before he gets his NHL shot. In the meantime, he will be another player the Wild will line up in Traverse City.

4. Cal Clutterbuck, RW, 20

3rd round, 72nd overall, 2006

Clutterbuck isn’t likely to drop anybody’s jaw with a pretty goal. He is a pest, albeit a very good one. One would be very hard-pressed to find a player who works harder than Clutterbuck. He’s a tenacious forechecker, battles fearlessly, and never takes a night off. He’s also a fast skater with excellent acceleration. It was these traits that earned him a call-up to the Wild last season, and will likely earn him a full-time job in the NHL eventually, and probably sooner than later. While he’s most likely on the outside looking in to start this upcoming season, he should be near the top of the short list of guys the Wild will call when in need. Really, the key for him to cracking the Wild roster will be getting the opportunity for a guy with his skill set. Should the Wild decide they need relentless energy in a checking role, he is their man.

5. Petr Kalus, RW, 21

2nd round, 39th overall, 2005

The 2007-08 season has to be one that Kalus would like to get behind him. In preseason, Kalus was getting several good scoring chances, but wasn’t finishing. He got sent down to Houston, a club that was trying to establish some discipline and erase some bad habits with new coach Kevin Constantine. Kalus had a few bad habits of his own that needed to be deprogrammed and he struggled to adjust to the discipline his new coach was trying instill into his team. He found himself benched on occasion. He put up only eight goals and 10 assists in 58 games after putting up 13 goals and 17 assists in 43 games the previous season with Providence (AHL). To top it off, he left the Aeros to play for the Czech team at the World Championships, only to not make the team. 

Kalus has the scoring talent to be a top-six forward, and the Wild certainly have some questions about where their goals are going to come from this season, but making the team out of camp for him will be a tall order. There aren’t many jobs up for grabs and he won’t have the inside track. The challenge will be to work hard and maintain a good attitude to demonstrate that he is ready if any opportunity comes. If he can do that and the Wild need offense, he should be a good candidate for a call-up.

6. Marco Scandella, D, 18

2nd round, 55th overall, 2008

Scandella is a late-blooming player with huge upside potential in terms of athletic ability and physical gifts. In three years, he’s gone from 5’9 and 140 pounds to 6’2 and 190 pounds, and he might not be done growing yet. His wingspan is that of someone a good four or five inches taller. He’s another strong skater for the Wild’s system, and plays a smart, physical, stay-at-home game. His numbers were not terribly impressive in his first season of major juniors with Val-d’Or (QMJHL) this past season, with just four goals, 10 assists and a rather glaring -22 in 65 games though his team was not that strong this past season. Scandella himself got better as the season went on, and was named the QMJHL‘s Prospect of the Month in December 2007. In the U18 World Championship, playing for Canada, he was +7 with a goal and assist in seven games. After Traverse City and main camp this year, he’ll be on his way back to Val-d’Or for the season. The likely scenario for him would be another two seasons of juniors.

7. Clayton Stoner, D, 23

3rd round, 79th overall, 2004

Stoner is beginning to run out of time, and probably the main reason for him kind of stagnating in the AHL is he hasn’t been able to stay healthy for a full season. At 23, his chances of cracking the big league get a little bit slimmer going forward. In addition to his injuries, he is another one of the players who the Wild felt got off the development track during the two seasons Rob Daum was coaching the Aeros. The Wild now think he’s back on track after a season under Constantine, and the numbers back it up. In 2006-07, he had one goal, six assists and was a -9 with 104 penalty minutes. He improved in each of those categories in 2007-08 with three goals, 12 assists, a +7 on his plus/minus and 78 penalty minutes. The number that reflects the injury concern is 56 games played in 2007-08 after 65 in 2006-07 and 73 in 2005-06. Despite all of this, the Wild still look at him as a player with NHL potential. Stoner’s a great on-ice leader with hustle and a gritty, fearless style of defense that mixes about equal parts sweat and abrasion. Clearly, staying healthy will be a key for Stoner, but perhaps persistence and patience may be required of him as well if he is going to land a full-time job with the Wild, or any other NHL team for that matter. He is not a candidate for a regular Wild roster spot coming out of camp this season unless there’s an injury, but he is probably their top candidate on the blue line in Houston should duty call from St. Paul.

8. Morten Madsen, C, 21

4th round, 122nd overall, 2005

The 6’2 Danish center played in Sweden before coming to North America for the 2006-07 season with the Victoriaville Tigres (QMJHL). There he had better than 1.5 points per game. His game fits the Wild prototype at center — he’s a good skater with good size and an all-around skill set who likes to play a bit on the physical side. While not as highly-touted, he kind of fits into the Mikko Koivu/James Sheppard mold.

With his good results coming out of the Q, expectations were high as he began his pro career in Houston this past season, but Madsen suffered through some growing pains. His scoring numbers dwindled to just three goals and 17 assists in 50 games. He got sent down to the Texas Wildcatters (ECHL) for a stint. He’ll be looking to rebound this upcoming season, as the competition at the center position in Houston has stiffened a bit with the acquisition of players like Corey Locke, Bryan Lundbohm and Krys Kolanos. While the Wild would like to see him develop, ice time won’t be handed to him, as he discovered last season. How well Madsen adjusts his game to the AHL level this season should indicate a lot about which way his development is heading. He still has one year to go on his current contract, so this isn’t his make or break season, but certainly the Wild would like to see him turn the corner sooner rather than later.

9. Justin Falk, D, 19

4th round, 110th overall, 2007

Falk himself was named to the Memorial Cup tournament all-star team as a member of the winning Spokane Chiefs, and was a leader on the blue line for a team that played excellent defense. Falk has great size, at 6’5 and 215 pounds, and plays a solid stay-at-home game. His plus/minus over the past two seasons, +11 in 2006-07 and +27 in 2007-08, led his team. He’s also chipped in a bit of scoring with four goals and 22 assists this past season. His skating is perhaps not as strong as it could be, though his size can sometimes make up for that, and he will need to improve his puck-moving skills when the time comes for him to move on to the next level, which will likely be the AHL next season when he’s 20. While he is a big guy, he doesn’t play an aggressive physical style. He won’t back down from physical play, but he tends to use his size and positioning to take options away from opponents rather than going for the big hit.

10. Anton Khudobin, G, 22

7th round, 206th overall, 2004

Khudobin probably surprised a few folks last year with his stellar ECHL play with the Texas Wilcatters last season, where he was named the league’s top goaltender. He also played strong in Houston filling in for Nolan Schaefer when the latter went down with injury. Khodobin, a 2004 seventh-round pick, is bit small of stature for a 21st century goalie at 5’10 and 187 pounds, but he passed his first-year test of North American pro hockey. Currently, he’s the only goaltending prospect in the Wild system, and is many years away. The Wild will maintain Nik Backstrom and Josh Harding in net at the NHL level this year, and  Nolan Schaefer and Barry Brust in Houston are two veterans who the Wild would feel comfortable bringing up as a replacement. All of this means Khudobin will likely begin the season again in the ECHL. However, should he play like he did last season, where he compiled a 20-1-4 record, saving better than 93 percent of the shots he faced with a sub-2.00 GAA, it would seem likely that the Wild would want to get him more work at the next level. While this season begins without many open doors for Khudobin, next season could be a much different story. Backstrom is in the last year of his contract and neither Brust nor Schaefer are viewed as NHL prospects at this point.

11. Harri Ilvonen, D, 19

6th round, 170th overall, 2007

The big question with Ilvonen is will he sign next June and come over to North America to play. For the player it’s going to depend on how strong and urgent his desire to play in the NHL is. In Ilvonen’s case, the answer appears to be… possibly. He did attend the NHL draft in person last summer and did attend the Wild’s development camp as well this past summer, which suggests that he’s interested. The Wild interest is there and would like to see him patrolling the blue line in St. Paul or Houston in the near future. In the meantime, he is just wrapping up playing with Tappara for the Nordic Trophy, a tournament between select Finnish and Swedish pro teams, and is expected to be playing for Tappara in this upcoming SM Liiga season in Finland.

12. Ryan Hamilton, LW, 23

Undrafted, 2003

Hamilton is a one of the Wild’s potential sleeper hits. In his draft year, he had a grand total of 39 CHL games and three goals under his belt, and not surprisingly did not get picked on draft day. He went on to improve dramatically, playing three more seasons in the OHL for the Barrie Colts. His last season, 2005-06, as an over-ager was particularly productive with 46 goals and 26 assists in 63 games, topped off with 8 goals and 9 assists in 14 playoff games. It was enough to earn him a contract with the Wild. He’s spent the last two seasons with the Aeros and is one of the few players whose production actually increased, and in Hamilton’s case, significantly. He went from 26 points and a -8 in 62 games in 2006-07, his first full season with the Aeros, to 39 points and a +13 in 72 games last season. Hamilton is a big strong man, listed at 6’2 and 219 pounds, and plays a fearless style of hockey. He loves to drive hard to the front of the net and is pretty good working the corners as well. He has made tremendous leaps since going undrafted and possesses the size and skill to make it to the NHL, but the one area where he will need to improve still is his skating. If he can improve it enough, the Wild may have something here.

13. Danny Irmen, RW, 23

3rd round, 78th overall, 2003

Irmen, like Stoner, is running out of time on this list because of age. At 23, he’s yet to crack the Wild roster and time is starting to work against him. A top player in the college ranks for the Minnesota Golden Gophers (WCHA) a few seasons ago, he hasn’t been able to make the jump at the pro level with his muck-and-grind game. He hasn’t played poorly in Houston by any means. He works hard and hustles and has a great attitude. The problem is that he doesn’t stand out enough for the limited number of roster spots available at wing. It’s also difficult to say that he’s made much progress in Houston. Like many Aeros, his plus/minus improved, from -3 over 80 games in 2006-07 to +5 over 77 games in 2007-08, and his production declined, from 17 goals and 20 assists to 10 goals and 13 assists. Like the Aeros, his season was probably an overall improvement over the previous campaign, especially in the intangible areas, but still not a standout performance. The NHL is not out of the question, and if he can get a little bit quicker, stronger and put on a bit more muscle, he could translate his game to the next level. With a good offseason and camp, he could find himself in a part-time role with the Wild, or a potential call-up in case of injury with the big club. This could, however, be the last Wild camp in which he’ll get to make his case.

14. Peter Olvecky, LW, 22

3rd round, 78th overall, 2004

Drafted at exactly the same position as Irmen one year later, Olvecky comes in right after Irmen on this list. In many ways, Olvecky is in the same boat as Irmen. He’s a solid, reliable player who works hard with the NHL potential for playing a checking role, but he’s battling the numbers with limited opportunities and not having that something about his game that really separates him from the AHL pack. On one hand he has a bit more offensive touch than both Clutterbuck and Irmen and he came on a bit last season with a career-high 17 goals, including nine on the power play which was good for third on the offensively-challenged Houston squad. On the other, he was also a scorer on the wrong side of the plus/minus ledger at -5 on a team that stressed defense. He’s another Wild prospect whose contract is only for this season, but he is a year younger than Irmen so he might be able to buy himself a bit more time with another strong season. He’s another potential candidate for a part-time role or call-up if he impresses early on this season.

15. Chris Hickey, C, 19

7th round, 192nd overall, 2006

When the Wild picked Hickey, they knew they were getting a great athlete. He played in Minnesota state championship games his senior year of high school in football, hockey and baseball. He has a good frame to work with, listed at 6’1 and 185 pounds, and his work ethic is superb. However, as he discovered when he jumped from the high school ranks to Tri-City of the USHL, it only gets tougher from here on out. After scoring at a better than a goal a game clip in high school, Hickey tallied 15 goals and 16 assists in 55 games in his first USHL season. He will be skating this year with the perennial WCHA powerhouse Wisconsin Badgers where he will continue his development. The Wild will certainly have some eyes in the stands when the Badgers come to town to play the Gophers. If he can improve his game and develop the strength to play at the pro level, we could be hearing more from Hickey on the pro circuit in a few years.

16. Maxim Noreau, D, 21

Undrafted, 2005

The second undrafted player on this list, Noreau turned out to be a revelation this past season and is another potential sleeper hit. Noreau got off to a bit of a slow start, and got sent down to the ECHL for a brief stint before things started to click for him. An offensive-minded defenseman, he also played solid defense in Kevin Constantine’s system, finishing with a +5. He also notched an impressive 8 goals from the blue line, including 5 on the power play, indicative of his excellent shot and ability to quarterback the power play. Teammates gave him high marks for his vision and puck-moving abilities as well. The Wild were equally impressed, rewarding him with three-year two-way contract over the summer. While he still is viewed as a project, his potential is intriguing. He is expected to see a heavy workload this season in Houston, getting ice time in all situations. Should he continue to improve, he’s a player that could move up this list quickly. Noreau got his first break playing on a tryout contract with the Wild’s Traverse City squad last year and will again be on the team this year.

17. Cody Almond, C, 19

5th round, 140th overall, 2007

Almond could crack the top 10 on this list in the next year, but what holds him back for now is that he is currently unproven against competition that some of the others on the list have seen. He’s been a top player for the Kelowna Rockets (WHL) these past two seasons as a 17 and 18-year-old. In 2006-07, he had 15 goals and 28 assists in 68 games, many of those points coming down the stretch when some Rockets observers thought he was their best player. In 2007-08, he upped his totals to 22 goals and 34 assists in 69 games. He’s another big kid in the Wild system at 6’1 and 199 pounds. He plays an aggressive style, and will need to learn how to play with an edge, without going over it too often as his 114 penalty minutes is too many for an offensive center.

18. Paul Albers, D, 22

Undrafted, 2004

The third undrafted player on this list, Albers is an offensive-minded defenseman. He’s worked his way up from going undrafted the ECHL in 2006-07 to Houston in 2007-08 by moving the puck well. He finished last season with a respectable five goals and 16 assists in 69 games, but his -9 on a team that emphasized defense is a bit glaring and something Albers will need to work on if he wants to continue to climb up the hockey ladder. With the Wild selecting several defensemen in this summer’s draft and Albers being in the last year of his contract, his NHL odds, at least with the Wild, have to be considered long at this point. However, he has already come a long way since going undrafted four years ago, so you can’t count him out, either.

19. Sean Lorenz, D, 18

4th round, 115th overall, 2008

The Wild’s fourth round pick this past summer, the development plan for Lorenz is similar to that of Hickey. After spending the last two seasons with the USA Hockey national development program, and playing for the national team at the U18 World Junior Championships, he is off to Notre Dame (CCHA), where the Wild hope that a few years under coach Jeff Jackson will shape him up for the NHL game. Lorenz plays a solid all-around game that doesn’t necessarily jump out at you, but doesn’t reveal many flaws either. At 6’1 and 185, he’s another Wild prospect with good size that could use a bit of filling out. Four years of college should help in that regard.

20. Kyle Medvec, D, 20

4th round, 102nd overall, 2006

Medvec is the final potential sleeper hit on the list coming in at number 20. While looking at his numbers from this past season where he was a freshman at the University of Vermont (Hockey East), there isn’t much to get excited about. He had one goal and four assists in 30 games. There is, however, a bit more to his story. First, there’s his size. At 6’6 and 205, he is clearly a tall guy with a lot of room to fill in. Reports from Vermont indicate that he’s been working hard on his strength this summer. Second, is that he got a bit of a late start in hockey, not playing until he was 12 years old, so he’s still playing catch up in some ways in regards to his skating and overall hockey skills, which have steadily improved. Expectations are raised going into his sophomore season, both from Vermont and Minnesota. If he can continue to build up his body, improve his skills and start to put the pieces of his game together into a more complete package, he could become a monster by the time he’s ready to graduate college. Perhaps that’s probably getting ahead of things at this point, but there are reasons for optimism that Medvec’s progress will be worth tracking this upcoming season.