This offseason the Minnesota Wild faced the problems of a contending team. Veteran players are key to winning in the NHL but their salaries can make for tough salary-cap decisions elsewhere in the roster. Veterans also tend to decline in performance at some point. To offset any drop in performance, the team relies on young and relatively inexpensive talent whose growing pains can sometimes be costly. Could this be the season that the young guys and the older guys hit the perfect balance and propel the team to the Finals? It presents a tough situation for the player who has yet to establish himself.
While there exists decent depth overall, there are not many players in the system who will be able to step in this season and help push the Wild to the next level. This has been the problem with the Wild’s farm squad since it moved from Houston. Whether through poor drafting, lack of resources, or some other combination of factors, the Iowa Wild has not been a good talent incubator. After removing Jim Mill as General Manager, Wild Assistant GM Brent Flahr now takes primary responsibility for the AHL team. With several prospects of note joining the club he may be able to take credit as well.
Even though there are no superstars in the organization, it seems likely that the team recovers some of its reputation for sound development over the course of this season. Here we take a look at just a few of these storylines to monitor.
Top Pro Prospect
Mike Reilly, D, Iowa Wild (AHL)
Trying to push their way back to the Stanley Cup Finals, the New York Rangers gave up an excellent prospect in Anthony Duclair, plus defenseman John Moore and first- and second-round picks for the rights to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Keith Yandle. It was a similar gamble to Chuck Fletcher’s move to acquire Jason Pominville from the Buffalo Sabres back in 2013 – a pricey move for an established player that comes at a significant cost to organizational depth. By contrast, Mike Reilly’s decision to pursue free agency and sign a contract with Minnesota adds a high upside asset at little cost.
Mike Reilly is no Keith Yandle at this stage of his career, but he is a similar player in some regard: a defenseman who can maneuver out of danger in his own end and who can distribute the puck through all three zones. If Reilly can prove his offensive abilities, his physical game, and decision-making are up to the challenge of the AHL, he can step into the NHL at times this season when some of that power play skill and offense are needed. The Wild’s dynamic defense corps was already its primary position of strength – adding Reilly improved it further.
Gustav Olofsson, D, Iowa Wild (AHL)
Mike Reilly stepped ahead of Gustav Olofsson on the depth chart, but Olofsson needs AHL time this season after missing the last campaign after shoulder surgery. The team verbal on Olofsson continues to be extremely positive, and he does look like a player who will provide value in a middle-pairing role in his career. He will continue filling out his frame, but already possesses the kind of puck possession skill and mobility that project him as a good NHL defender. Olofsson will have to earn his spot, of course, and that is not a given, thanks to some veteran offseason acquisitions for the Iowa blueline. The good news is that the pressure is off to some extent.
Christoph Bertschy, RW, Iowa Wild (AHL)
With over 150 games in Switzerland’s top league, the NLA, Christoph Bertschy should be able to transition to the AHL. He has been a solid pro there, able to use his speed and skill to produce points for SC Bern. In his last season, he wore a letter for his veteran-laden squad, and set a career-high in points. He will have to learn to win one-on-one battles to earn the trust of the Wild coaches, of course, but it is not much of a stretch to imagine that he could fill in the role that Jordan Schroeder, Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula have occupied over the past two seasons. Bertschy has the skill, but will certainly have to demonstrate the physical ability as well. As was the case with fellow 2012 draftee Raphael Bussieres last season, the ECHL can also help a player find his offense if it stalls in the AHL.
Even with just five total prospects playing in the CHL, there is no clear-cut favorite for top prospect. Bouramman’s rookie season in the OHL makes him a good candidate, though an emerging Chase Lang could change that. Bouramman’s production despite the presence of a lot of NHL talents on the roster keeps him in the conversation. If he can grab a spot on Team Sweden’s World Junior squad, it would be a great opportunity. He is a slick puck-mover, but also has enough aggression in his game that it bodes well for him. Bouramman should benefit from the test of a somewhat depleted squad this season, and prove that other teams erred in passing on him at the draft.
Reid Duke had a good season for Brandon – once he figured out his role on a new team – but he undoubtedly knows it could have gone better. He adjusted well to his second-line minutes, and eventually put up 51 points in 52 regular-season games. Reid suffered the effects of injuries the latter portion of the season however, returning for the playoff semi-finals but ultimately appearing in just six playoff games and registering a single assist. Though the team will look somewhat different this season, it returns top scorer Tim McGauley and blueline force Ivan Provorov among others – including Duke, who should be more motivated than most to prove he is a top player in the league.
Pavel Jenyš, C, Sudbury Wolves (OHL)
The Wild suggested that Jenyš might just stick with the Iowa Wild for this season. There are several good reasons why it would not have been a good idea, but both Jenyš and the Wolves should benefit from his spending another season in the junior ranks. The arrival of two talented players to help the team is one aspect, with exceptional status player David Levin (2017) and Dmitri Sokolov (2016), the first overall pick in the 2015 CHL Import draft, arriving to add some high-end offense to a team that struggled to possess the puck.
Jenyš has shown now in two pro leagues that he has the courage, the strength and the skills to be productive one day. There is little rush to keep a 19-year-old on a team full of much older players when he could be performing consistently in his peer group. After leading the Wolves with 45 points last season, he should be able to show even more: that he can be an inspirational leader.
Top Amateur Prospect
Alex Tuch, RW, Boston College (Hockey East)
A significant part of Wild’s prospect pool is playing college hockey this season. Fans in Minnesota will have opportunities to see players like Louie Belpedio, Carson Soucy, Nick Seeler, Avery Peterson and others. Alex Tuch stands out from that pack however. The Wild’s first-round pick in the 2014 draft, Tuch was Boston College’s leading scorer last season as a freshman. With an improved team around him, he should see his production rise even further. Although fellow Wild pick Adam Gilmour is a capable center – one who is also likely to step up his role this season – Tuch has played with more talent so far in his career.
As he grows in strength and confidence, Tuch could grow more aggressive in taking the puck through the slot. That said, he has distribution skills as well, and with more talent on his line should see his assists total increase. In all, Tuch did much to enhance the feeling that he will play a big role in the NHL someday last season, and might jump another rung soon.
Freshman to Watch
Jordan Greenway, RW, Boston University (Hockey East)
The Wild has three incoming freshmen in the prospect pool, all of whom will bear watching this season. Briefly, Nick Boka has a well-rounded physical game for his age and he could eventually occupy a middle-pairing slot for the Michigan Wolverines this season – or perhaps even as a conservative complement to Zach Werenski (CBJ). Jack Sadek will be hard pressed to secure a regular spot on the Golden Gophers’ crowded blueline, but he has an undeniably high talent level. Of the three, Jordan Greenway has the size, the skill and the opportunity to be one of the nation’s impact freshman this upcoming season.
Although Boston University loses Jack Eichel to the big time, the team that remains knows it ought to have added a championship banner last season. Greenway’s adjustment to the pace of college hockey will go a long way toward determining the success of that mission. A bit of an awkward skater still, he will have to use his time wisely. The size and the hands are great assets, but his dedication toward smoothing out his game is the most important factor at play.
Unsigned for 2016-17
John Draeger, D, Michigan State University (Big Ten)
Draeger was a standout in high school for Shattuck-St. Mary’s, but a series of injuries and undermanned Spartan teams have had a negative impact on his college career. A player with some real offensive talent, he has spent too much time in his own zone to be truly effective and has just two goals over three seasons. Now coming into his senior year, Draeger will again be tasked with running the blueline. He has had a lot of responsibility ever since his freshman days, but will have to have a perfect storm of health, efficiency, and production during this campaign. The Wild’s depth is a considerable obstacle to his contract status, but Draeger should have options nonetheless.
Top European Prospect
Joel Eriksson Ek, C, Färjestad BK (SHL)
The Wild was active scouting in the European market last season. The team’s first round pick Joel Eriksson Ek may not even end up as the best pick the team made, as they made unusual forays into Russia to select Kirill Kaprizov and the Czech juniors to select Ales Stezka. For now, the lanky Swede with a crackling release sits atop the ranks. In time, Eriksson Ek may also supplant Alex Tuch as the team’s top prospect overall. He already offers an intriguing blend of offensive ability and aggressive instincts, tracking down the puck and engaging physically even against the older players in the SHL. Off to a decent start for his club, Eriksson Ek should produce a promising statline this season before emerging on the international stage at the 2016 World Juniors for Team Sweden.
Pontus Själin, D, Asplöven HC (Allsvenskan)
Själin is a bit of a forgotten prospect in the Wild system, just as he was a bit of an unknown when the team drafted him in 2014. A splendid skater, this was to be the year that he moved up to the SHL. Although he was good at the J20 level last season, Själin still does not have the body mass to be an effective professional defender. His club, Luleå, added several new players as well, making it difficult for the rookie to stick full-time. With that in mind, a loan to the Allsvenskan should be good for the young man, allowing him to play a pro game with somewhat dampened expectations. If he makes it back this season, or gets into some Champions Hockey League games, it will be a bonus.
Kirill Kaprizov, RW, Mettalurg Novokuznetsk (KHL)
The KHL is often said to be the second-best hockey league in the world, and therefore a draft-eligible rookie’s production should be given significant weight. For comparison’s sake, Valeri Nichushkin, the tenth overall pick in the 2013 NHL draft, had six points in 18 KHL games in his draft season. Evgeny Kuznetzov, the 26th overall pick in 2010, had eight points in 35 KHL games. 2015 fifth-rounder Kaprizov lacks the size, for one thing, of these highly-touted Russians but his eight points in 31 KHL games as a rookie teenager are nonetheless very impressive.
The season is well underway and Kaprizov’s production should be drawing more attention, with nine points in 16 games. Whether he can keep up the pace is of course a question worth pondering. The aspects of his game that dampen expectations – his slender frame mostly – could become afterthoughts if his speed, skill and technical ability allow him not just to play against professional men at his age, but to thrive.