The Minnesota Wild‘s struggles this season cost head coach Mike Yeo his job, but a bigger problem than his decision-making threatens the Wild’s future success. The prospect pool lacks star quality. Though there has been plenty of trade babble, young stars and old come at premium prices. Rather than having a budding home-grown star waiting in the wings, the Wild’s recent run of below-average drafting has meant little flexibility for Chuck Fletcher, as well as an AHL team mired at the bottom of the standings.
With a lot of money tied up in its veterans, the Wild (like most teams) has to rely on its younger players to out-produce their salaries. This season, the team tried inserting Tyler Graovac into the lineup as its fourth-line center but his injury eventually meant taking on veteran Jarret Stoll instead. Christian Folin (who finally graduates from prospect status) spent time in the AHL this season in favor of Nate Prosser. While the rest of the under-25 core has had some success, none has developed into an all-star caliber player.
A strong 2015 Draft class has improved this prospect group, but it is still defense-heavy and – as it ever were – there does not seem to be a game-breaking talent. The Wild’s identity revolves around players with a strong work ethic, but in an NHL increasingly ruled by superb talents, the Wild gap starts to look insurmountable.
20. (NR) Jack Sadek, 7.0D
Drafted 7th Round, 204th Overall, 2015
Sadek makes his debut on the Wild’s Top 20. The Wild scouts were not the only ones to hold him in high regard after his standout high school career, but it may have been their natural geographic advantage that prompted them to take a chance on him. Either way, he has shown glimpses of high-level potential in a season when he has not been a regular for Don Lucia’s Golden Gophers squad. An 18-year-old freshman, Sadek is a natural skating talent (a bit like his cousin, former Gopher and Rangers prospect Brady Skjei) with good puck distribution ability and aggressive instincts. His decision-making and his physical game are still works in progress, but a player starting with his talent level has the opportunity for some hockey success.
19. (16) Mario Lucia, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th Overall, 2011
Lucia turns 23 this August and will look back at a four-year career at Notre Dame in which he put up solid numbers, and no doubt reaped many rewards from a top-notch education. There is a fair amount of pride at stake, but at this point it is a fair question as to whether the Wild will offer Lucia a contract. He has been a good hockey player all four years, a power play presence who can use his big body and puck skill to generate chances. What has been missing is the kind of intensity that separates good players from great. A more or less flat-line production curve suggests a player who has peaked.
18. (20) Gustav Bouramman, D, 7.0D
Drafted 7th Round, 201st Overall, 2015
Bouramman’s step back in terms of his scoring was predictable given the amount of top talent the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds lost. But as the season has gone on, his pace has quickened and Bouramman has grown into a role as the team’s top defenseman. He is still offensive-minded, a good passer with vision and patience. It would be nice to see Bouramman add some more goal-scoring, but in all the Wild scouts should be pleased with the young Swede’s progress this season.
17. (18) Reid Duke, RW, 7.0D
Drafted 6th Round, 169th Overall, 2014
Duke has only shown slight improvements in this his second post-draft season. He brings steady offensive skill, but even on a balanced Brandon squad, one would expect him to stand out more. Duke plays a decent physical style and goes to the net and corners. He lacks high-level playmaking and finishing skills but could earn an entry-level contract since scoring threats are are hardly to be found in the system. The Wild has struggled to identify WHL players who can transition to the pro game, but Duke has enough of an edge to present some hope.
16. (15) Dylan Labbé, D, 7.0D
Drafted 4th Round, 107th Overall, 2013
It has been a struggle at times for Labbé in his rookie pro season, but there are a few encouraging signs for the 21-year-old. He has played most of Iowa’s games for one thing, sticking in the lineup despite a lack of offense. While players like Guillaume Gélinas – who was a scoring dynamo in the QMJHL – and Alex Gudbranson have spent most of their seasons in the ECHL, Labbé has been an AHL regular. His skating ability has long been his strongest asset, but as he continues to learn to deal with the pace of pro hockey, Labbé’s all-around game should round into form. Even in junior he was not a big scorer, and a lack of offense on this Iowa squad should be no surprise. That said, he can contribute more and no doubt will next season as his development continues to progress positively.
15. (12) Pavel Jenys, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 7th Round, 199th Overal, 2014
Part of the reason Jenys retains his spot in the Top 20 is his entry-level contract already in hand. His season has not been that encouraging. He showed well with Iowa late last season, and while returning him to the junior ranks made sense for his personal and professional development, Jenys has had to make some adjustments this season. After being a main driver for a poor Sudbury team last season, the Wolves decided to shake up the team and gain some younger assets with a trade. Jenys now finds himself a complementary player for the Niagara IceDogs, a likely playoff team. He has the skill and the size to accomplish more than he has shown for his new squad thus far.
14. (17) Chase Lang, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 6th Round, 167th Overall, 2014
Chase Lang was traded to the Vancouver Giants in a move that has been to his benefit. Now a WHL veteran who debuted in the league as a 15-year-old, Lang has moved to the top of the team’s scoring chart since arrival, with better than a point-per-game pace. He is an all-situations forward, and a good penalty-killer who took a leap in that discipline last season. While he does not project as a top-six scorer in the pros, Lang does many things well, and that kind of leadership probably earns him a contract once his season is done.
13. (NR) Nick Boka, D, 6.5C
Drafted 6th Round, 171st Overall, 2015
The Michigan Wolverines have scored a lot of points this season, and one has to look far down the list to find Nick Boka’s name. Modest point totals notwithstanding, the freshman who is playing this season as one of the youngest players in the NCAA has demonstrated a high level of maturity. Boka is a highly intelligent defender who makes calm and effective plays with the puck. Despite an average frame for the college level, Boka is still able to separate players off the puck, displaying a solid understanding of leverage and positioning. He also shows an ability to join the rush and to distribute the puck as well. Scoring probably won’t be his calling card, but Boka has impressed early at the college level.
12. (NR) Christoph Bertschy, 6.0B
Drafted 6th Round, 158th Overall, 2012
Bertschy has made the Wild Top 20 in the past, but after years of uncertainty as to whether Bertschy would ever try his luck in North American hockey, he has finally arrived as a possible solution for the Wild. He had the advantage of several years of pro experience, something that shows in most players coming from European leagues to the AHL. Bertschy can skate and pass, and even registered a hat trick for the offensively-challenged squad. His physical game may not be enough for the NHL, but his skill and speed suggest an opportunity.
11. (NR) Grayson Downing, C, 6.0B
Signed as free agent, March 2015
Downing was not that impressive a college player for New Hampshire until posting a 21-goal season in his senior year. It may have been the timely nature of some of those goals that prompted the Wild to offer a contract. Yet Downing has the ability to create shots quickly, and his near point-per-game transition to the pro level makes him a possible contributor on the NHL squad next season. Especially given the lack of centers in the system, Downing is certainly a possibility to earn a bottom-six role.