The Minnesota Wild is a franchise in contention for the Stanley Cup this season and for the foreseeable future, even though it lacks the star power of some other contenders. Its success over seasons past has meant few lottery picks, but the team has also been notably light in drafting from the CHL in the course of its history. After being burned by CHL players from Benoit Pouliot to Colton Gillies to James Sheppard to Tyler Cuma to Zack Phillips to Alexandre Belanger – drafted in 2013 and already out of the system – maybe that aversion is justifiable.
The Wild’s prospect pool currently suffers from an imbalance between NCAA, European and CHL players. The Wild has decided to draw heavily from players headed to U.S. college programs in recent years, meaning in most cases a longer timetable between draft day and the player’s pro debut. That helps the Wild stay under the 50-contract limit, but hurts in terms of minor league competition. Arguably, college produces fewer elite talents as well, despite its other merits.
Each of the OHL, WHL, and QMJHL has talented players and the league as a whole remains the number one source for NHL players and especially for its elite talent. But on the other hand the league is so heavily-scouted that by the second round a good scouting group is already looking elsewhere for value. The Wild scouts seem to look at the late rounds as an opportunity for some depth players or project picks. Some of these junior Wild prospects might be able to help plug the disastrous talent gap that has condemned the Des Moines franchise to embarrassing futility since its inception. If history is any guide, the expectations should remain modest for much beyond that.
Gustav Bouramman, D, Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds
Drafted 7th round, 205th overall, 2015
Last season’s Greyhounds clinched the Western Conference title during the regular season, but eventually fell to the Erie Otters in the OHL Playoffs. This season’s team looks a lot different without Sergey Tolchinsky, Anthony DeAngelo, Darnell Nurse and Jared McCann. The Wild’s Bouramman plays top-pairing minutes alongside Colton White, and his offensive output has faltered some from last season, thanks to his new role. Bouramman remains a power play asset, and playing around ten minutes more a night is a key component of his development.
The Greyhounds still have plenty of talent to compete in a playoff run, but individual improvement from Bouramman has to be seen as a key to that. He may have to use an appearance with Team Sweden at the 2016 World Juniors to regain some of the form and confidence that make him a successful player.
Pavel Jenys, RW, Niagara IceDogs
Drafted 7th round, 205th overall, 2014
Jenys has had a rocky time of things lately. After leading a league-worst Sudbury Wolves team in scoring last season, he got to play for the AHL-worst Iowa Wild for a few games to get a sense of pro play. Jenys was productive in those games, and though eligible to continue with that struggling franchise this season, Minnesota brass chose to send him back to the OHL. Although Sudbury was supposed to be somewhat better this season, thanks to some high-profile adds, that turned out not to be the case. There were good reasons for not sending a 19-year-old Jenys to Des Moines, but he never got going with the Wolves either, putting up a modest 12 points in 27 games and moving primarily to the right wing.
He was traded to the Niagara IceDogs on November 24th and has yet to establish his role there. The IceDogs are one team that has benefited from not having its stars go pro this season. High profile stars like Josh Ho-Sang, Brendan Perlini, Vince Dunn, and Graham Knott form a potent offensive group, and Jenys will have to figure out how to play effectively in a less prominent role. Though somewhat diminished, the big Czech can be a contributor in all three zones and should enjoy some long-awaited playoff success this spring before turning pro full-time.
Chase Lang, C/RW, Vancouver Giants
Drafted 6th round, 167th overall, 2014
Chase Lang is another of several Wild prospects who was traded this season. In his case, from the Calgary Hitmen to the Vancouver Giants. The move gets him a little closer to home, but it remains to be seen if it can help him find his offensive game again. Last season, his third in the WHL, Lang took a positive step forward, amassing a career-best 56 points. He struggled out of the gate for Calgary, putting up just seven points in 14 games, well behind Radel Fazleev, somewhat ironically drafted in between Lang and Reid Duke at 168th overall.
The 19-year-old Lang scored nine points in 12 November games with Vancouver, showing a level of comfort with his team that took a while to achieve. Lang is far from a one-dimensional player and his range of skills fit in well on a good team led by 2016 Draft-eligible Ty Ronning (son of longtime NHLer and one-time Wild player Cliff Ronning). Like others in the Wild’s CHL prospect group, Lang projects as a depth option at the pro level if he receives a contract from the Wild at all.
Reid Duke, C/RW, Brandon Wheat Kings
Drafted 6th round, 169th overall, 2014
Duke has looked like a potential second-line forward while at Wild prospect camp, but his numbers have faltered a bit this season. With no entry-level deal, Duke probably needs to show a little more. He was off to a fine start for the powerhouse Wheat Kings last season before injuries caused him to fall off and miss much of the last half of the season and most of the playoffs too. Considering the talent he had on the ice with him last season, his under a point-per-game pace just doesn’t seem like a great indicator. Duke is a capable checking presence though, a mix of modest talent and aggression, and his future with the Wild organization probably depends on his ability to be noticed as a penalty-killer who can chip in some points.
Tanner Faith, D, Moose Jaw Warriors
Drafted 5th round, 139th overall, 2014
Faith missed most of two consecutive seasons with injuries, so his development has been impacted negatively. The Wild and others have spoken highly of his character in persevering through those setbacks, and he brings some skills that the system needs. The 19-year-old defenseman has great size but plays a composed and patient game with the puck. He is not a true offensive talent but has above-average skating ability that allows him to make plays. This season Faith – traded from Kootenay to Moose Jaw in September – has been called upon to settle down the blueline. With one of the WHL’s most dynamic talents up front in Tampa Bay prospect Brayden Point, the transition game is less important for the Warriors. Faith logs big minutes and should help the team into the playoffs. With no entry-level contract in hand yet, Faith must make the most of his chances this season.
Hunter Warner, D, Prince Albert Raiders
Signed as free agent, September 2014
Even as a high school player, Hunter Warner was the muscle for more skilled players like current Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks Luc Snuggerud and Steven Spinner while playing for Eden Prairie. The right-shooting defenseman took a somewhat unusual route in signing with Prince Albert after some time with the Fargo Force of the USHL. The WHL looks to be a good spot for Warner, as his overall game has improved even as he learns to tussle with some of the big bodies of western Canada. Warner has a solid reputation as a fighter and plays an aggressive physical game. Prince Albert has been a success story this season – thanks in large part to the efforts of Wild rookie camp invitee Reid Gardiner – sitting in first in the division after missing the playoffs last season. Warner’s intimidating and effective play has been part of it as well.
Ales Stezka, G, Sioux Falls Stampede
Drafted 4th round, 111th overall, 2015
More and more teams are letting assets develop in junior ‘A’ programs in the United States. The USHL was once a league where high school players took a serious chance on future success in hockey, gaining a lot of game experience and additional maturation before starting college. In addition, it is rapidly becoming a developmental league nearly on par with the Quebec league at least. The Wild has just one such player at this time, 2015 draftee Ales Stezka. The product of a good Czech program in Liberec is getting used to North America itself by playing with the Sioux Falls Stampede.
Stezka has been splitting starts evenly with second-year player and University of Vermont commit Stefanos Lekkas. Their numbers have been more or less identical, with Lekkas holding a slight edge in save percentage, .910 to .906, with Stezka having one shutout as well. The numbers matter less than the experience at this level however, and Stezka has been able to put together some impressive games when his team has made mistakes in front of him.
Though he has some international experience for the Czech Republic, Stezka is not guaranteed a world junior roster spot, much less a featured role. The next big step for Stezka is determining whether he will play in North America – possibly in the NCAA ranks – next season.
Minnesota Wild Top Performing Non-Junior Prospects
With several college prospects off to underwhelming starts, and the Iowa Wild again the worst team in the AHL by a mile, the big standout here is Steve Michalek of the Quad City Mallards. Michalek was the beneficiary of some savvy maneuvers on the part of the Wild, who signed Leland Irving out of the KHL and arranged for Jeremy Smith to come on loan from the Providence Bruins to help Iowa at the goaltending position. Rather than throw the rookie into the minefield of the AHL, Michalek has done well at the ECHL level. So far, the rookie has been excellent for the Mallards and was the league’s Rookie of the Month for October. The ECHL has proven to be a good developmental league for goalies, and Michalek’s progress is a real bright spot for a professional group that has struggled for a few seasons now to meet modest expectations.
Prospect of the Month
The Wild had shied away from Russia at the NHL Draft for years before taking young star Kirill Kaprizov in the fifth round of the 2015 Draft. So far, he has amply rewarded the team’s pick. The 18-year-old has been a star for struggling Metallurg Novokuznetsk, with 20 points in 35 games. As the KHL season grinds on, Kaprizov’s production has fallen some, as is to be expected. Nonetheless, the teenager has managed to maintain a roster spot playing nearly 20 minutes a night in the world’s second-best league. The list of players having his success in a post-draft season is extremely short, but Kaprizov’s true talent level and potential should be made apparent when he takes the ice with Team Russia in December, at the 2016 World Juniors.