Things have trended down for the Minnesota Wild‘s AHL affiliate since losing in the 2011 Calder Cup final to Binghamton. The team was moved from Houston to Iowa and while this makes for much easier ground transportation for players on recall, the on-ice results have not been good thus far.
This season’s early poor returns meant the firing of Kurt Kleinendorst and the installation of John Torchetti as head coach. The Wild relies more heavily on NCAA development than many other teams do, but it also has a cluster of young pros in the NHL. This does a little to explain the talent gap at the AHL, as does a handful of discouraging individual seasons.
Tyler Graovac, C/RW, 21
Graovac has been one player who has performed at a high level this season. He leads the Wild in goals and shots on goal. Even his 24 points AHL’s top 20 scorers, a problem that continues for the Wild. Also, December has been a little slow for Graovac, as he has been held scoreless in six of Iowa’s 10 games.
Still, Graovac has all the physical features one looks for in a hockey player and offers a very solid blend of playmaking and finishing skills. With a big frame at 6’4, one would like to see him be able to work into space a bit more, but all in all he has done a good job carrying his team in a league where that work is more often done by veterans or first-round picks.
Jordan Schroeder, C, 24
The Wild made a decent bet signing Schroeder as a free agent when the Canucks surrendered his rights, and Schroeder received a nice raise on his AHL salary. He has been effective as an AHL veteran presence and sits near the top of the Wild’s points leaders. However, what the Canucks seemed to have realized when they cut bait with their 2009 first-round pick is that Schroeder is unlikely ever to be an impact player at the NHL level. While he has good skill and intelligence on the ice, his lack of size and strength is a severe detriment. With the Minnesota team already having to play an undersized roster relative to much of the Western Conference, Schroeder’s skill set seems a bit redundant. His 22 points in 26 games is nice, but probably not enough to merit an extended recall either.
Zack Phillips, C, 22
In his third full season Phillips seems to be running in place. He was last season’s team offensive leader, but it was a miserable squad when it came to putting up points. His growth at this stage seems stagnant at the moment, with just 13 points on the season. While in theory something could still click, Phillips has yet to show that he can produce points at the AHL level of competition.
His puck skills and poise are signs that he could still prove a useful player, but lack of strength and mobility are still apparent weaknesses. Though it is a little too soon to judge the 2011 draft class, there are several players taken after Phillips already making a mark on the NHL. Every month that goes by at his current pace makes it less likely that he will cover the first-round bet the Wild made.
Michael Keranen, RW, 24
In recent years the Finnish Liiga has diminished in quality somewhat, but the Wild took an interesting chance on last season’s league-leading scorer in Keränen. The Swedish forward does not have great pro size at only 180 pounds, but he does have the kind of vision and playmaking skills that players are able to develop on the bigger ice sheets. He leads the team in scoring with five goals and 20 asists through 32 games, and has made an effective transition to the more physically demanding North American style of hockey.
Zack Mitchell, RW, 21
A free agent signing out of Guelph of the OHL, Mitchell has been a good addition as well. Though his current total of 14 points is less than he would like, he contributes in many ways. A high character player, Mitchell processes the game at a good level in all disciplines. Not gifted with the greatest mobility or size, he manages to create offense with anticipation and puck possession. His modest totals are somewhat a reflection of the entire team’s lack of experience and his pace should increase as the Wild finds the range in the months ahead.
Brady Brassart, C, 21
Brassart, like Mitchell, was a free agent signing out of the CHL. His rookie season got off to a decent start, with a goal in his first game. He has not accomplished much else on the scoresheet since, sitting at three goals and seven points in 31 games. Though he was not a huge scorer in junior hockey, Brassart was able to use his good size to play a solid two-way style. Without that size advantage, his defensive game has slumped a bit with Iowa. Nonetheless, he is a pretty capable player who should benefit from an improved team. With Brett Sutter up in St. Paul, Brassart is one logical candidate to pick up those tougher minutes.
Brett Bulmer, RW, 22
Bulmer’s pro career has unfolded in an unfortunate way to date. With a good pedigree and a promising blend of skating, size, and skill, Bulmer seemed on his way as a key component of the cluster from the 2010 draft. Instead it seems a run of injuries (knee, shoulder, and concussion) have diminished his ability somewhat. He still provides a physical presence and a defensive conscience but just one goal and five points on the season will not be enough to merit a call-up anytime soon.
Kurtis Gabriel, RW, 21
Kurtis Gabriel was drafted to provide upside in the form of energy and work ethic at the AHL level, with the very optimistic projection being a good NHL fourth-liner. It is easy to see why coaches and scouts like him as a player, he always works hard on his shifts and engages physically, even showing some modest offensive ability as a junior. In order to solidify his roster spot, Gabriel has fought some tough opponents so far this season. However much a player hits and scraps though there has to be some productivity from the work. Gabriel’s double-digit plus-minus is worst on the team by a bit, suggesting that he needs even more attention to his decision-making on the ice.
Curt Gogol, LW, 23
Gogol was acquired from San Jose to provide physical play because the AHL, even more than the modern NHL, involves fighting and policing borderline hits. Unlike teammate Joel Rechlicz who is a true heavyweight fighter, Gogol plays at 190 pounds or so. Whereas Rechlicz is a player who has a hard time finding opponents willing to drop the gloves, Gogol has fought several times this season. Still mostly a player who serves in a sort of agitating role, Gogol’s best offensive season was as an AHL rookie back in 2011-12.
Matt Dumba, D, 20
Dumba made the Minnesota opening-night roster to some peoples’ surprise and stayed around for 20 games, scoring one goal and three assists in limited minutes. Though he showed some signs of progress it was ultimately deemed best for him to do some growing at the AHL level. This move not only provides the Iowa squad with an elite talent to help spark the offense, but also helps Dumba maintain his positive development curve.
Dumba’s physical skills are obvious and when he is playing an active offensive role he looks like a true pro. He needs more repetitions on breakout plays, more time with the puck on his stick, and more work on reading plays in all zones, like almost any young player. Dumba will no doubt be back in St. Paul at some point, and could still graduate as a prospect this season. With 11 points in 12 AHL games, including three goals, Dumba offers a dynamic force that the Iowa squad has missed since the lockout.
Gustav Olofsson, D, 20
Olofsson is a player that was supposed to provide additional stability for the defense as well as some upside. Last year at Colorado College he often looked like one of the better players on the ice as a true freshman and made an early commitment to pro hockey. This preseason also saw Olofsson showcased quite a bit, but he was taken hard into the boards and sustained a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery and has limited him to one game played. Though he should return before the end of the season, there is little point rushing him.
Christian Folin, D, 23
With injuries, illnesses and suspensions ravaging the Wild’s blueliners, Folin has seen games in both Des Moines and St. Paul. In eight AHL games he has four points, including two goals. Folin has shown that his shot is a good weapon and demonstrated his mobility. But more importantly, he has shown that he can be a responsible physical presence in both leagues. Mike Yeo will not likely stop relying heavily on his top four defensemen, but Folin has earned his NHL ice time thus far and looks like a good bet to spend the majority of the season in St. Paul.
Guillaume Gelinas, D, 21
Rookie free agent signing Gélinas is out with an injury now, but so far this season he looks like a cautionary tale about translating junior offense to professional hockey. Gélinas and his Val d’Or teammates feasted on the opposition last season, with the talented blueliner putting up 92 points and 23 goals in 67 games last season. He has two assists in 24 games so far this year. Even though he has slotted in behind some of the veterans on special teams, it is fair to say that Gélinas has disappointed this season. Of course the defensive assignments are tougher at the AHL level, but even so one would have expected much more from Gélinas.
Alex Gudbranson, D, 20
A good free agent signing out of Sault Ste. Marie, Gudbranson has played in the shadow of his older brother Erik so far in his young career. As a rookie in a tough league, Gudbranson has shown very good intelligence on the ice while providing a physical presence as well. Gudbranson’s game is not really geared for offense but he chips in a few points. He is capable of thinking the game at a high level and could be a really valuable depth player as he gains in strength and experience.
Johan Gustafsson, G, 22
Once seated behind only Darcy Kuemper in the Wild’s depth chart, Gustafsson has not rebounded this season as expected. Other players in the system are doing very well in their respective leagues and are really pushing for a spot in Iowa soon. More importantly, Josh Harding will need some starts in Iowa, and John Curry has provided better, if not exceptional, work between the pipes. This means Gustafsson is under a lot of pressure to succeed. The Wild’s AHL defense corps should be better this season than last and while Gustafsson is still young, the organization may still have to decide on his position by the end of the season. He has put up good numbers before as a young pro, but needs to play with full confidence to stabilize his future with the Wild.
Raphael Bussieres, LW, 21
Another year has not gone well for Bussières, a second round pick in 2013. He has been plagued with concussion effects this year after having a largely vanilla rookie campaign. To help him get his game back Bussières was assigned to the Alaska Aces at the beginning of December. It is a very good sign that he is off to a better than point-per-game start there after eight games. The second round pick has enough skill that he should be back in Iowa and contributing this season.
Colton Jobke, D, 22
A depth free agent signing years ago, Jobke has been a good member of the organization but is probably not a true prospect at this point. He brings a decent enough mix of toughness and responsible play, but lacks the kind of upside needed to stay in the conversation. That said, he was recently loaned to the Augsburg Panthers of the DEL.
Minnesota Wild Prospect of the Month
The Wild’s goaltending problems over the last few seasons have been many and various in nature. Luckily there is some help in the pipeline if the strong play of Stephen Michalek is any indication. The Harvard sophomore is some way off from being an NHL-ready asset, but he is off to a great season for the Crimson. He was somewhat quietly one of the better goaltenders in the NCAA last season, finishing with a fine .924 save percentage, a number that was roughly top 25 for that league.
This season sees Michalek among the top ranked goaltenders in the nation. He sports a 10-1-2 record and a .943 save percentage in 13 games and is obviously a big part of Harvard’s early-season success. A goalie with good size and athleticism, Michalek thrives with a heavy workload in net.