Alex Tuch and role players populate the Top 20 Minnesota Wild prospects

By Peter Prohaska

Louie Belpedio - Minnesota Wild

Photo: Wild prospect Louie Belpedio’s game-winning goal against Team Canada at the World Juniors was one of the biggest of the tournament for Team USA (courtesy of Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

 

10. (6) Kaapo Kahkonen, G, 7.5D
Drafted 4th Round, 109th Overall, 2014

Like Johan Gustafsson before him, Kahkonen is the gold-medal winning goalie at the World Juniors. Unlike Gustafsson at this stage of his career, Kahkonen has not been a dominant pro goalie. The player he beat out for the starter’s role at the WJC, Veini Vehvilainen, in fact has a far superior save percentage in Liiga action. Kahkonen remains an intriguing player for the Wild nonetheless, and the resolve he showed in settling himself down in the gold medal game is a credit to his potential. It should go without saying that he will need more seasoning. The Wild should sign him to a contract this summer, but it would not be a surprise if he remains with Blues on loan.

9. (5) Jordan Greenway, LW, 7.5D
Drafted 2nd Round, 50th Overall, 2015

Greenway started a little slowly this season as a freshman at Boston University, but he seems likely to find his way back into the top five soon. He had the size coming into college to compete effectively at times, but is now adding the balance and strength on his skates to be a truly difficult player to defend at any level. More of a playmaker in junior who used his big frame and soft hands to set up plays, Greenway is developing some shooting ability as well as more confidence skating with the puck. He might be a few years off from the NHL level, but has come along nicely.

8. (9) Louis Belpedio, D, 7.0C
Drafted 3rd Round, 60th Overall, 2014

Belpedio is a gifted offensive defenseman at the college level, but seems to be finding the defensive side of things a bit more of a challenge this season. Miami lost players like Austin Czarnik (BOS) and Riley Barber (WAS) and while Belpedio offers leadership, it is a team that has struggled some in a tough conference. Outside of college play, Belpedio showed well on the international stage with Team USA. He is a calm puck-mover who possesses an accurate shot, but is still building the necessary strength to play the position at the highest level. Even with his college team’s struggles, Belpedio is on pace to beat his point total from last season and remains a prospect of importance for the Wild.

7. (14) Kirill Kaprizov, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 5th Round, 135th Overall, 2015

Kaprizov’s first post-draft season has been impressive to say the least. In his second season in the KHL he was one of the offensive leaders of his team, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, and he is one of very few junior-aged players to be a productive scorer in the league. He plays in the weaker Eastern conference, and his relatively undermanned squad was the worst in the league. That said, he made the most of his minutes, generated shots, and stood out in a favorable way among his peers at the World Juniors – though he is a notch below some of the blue-chip talents. Kaprizov is still growing in strength and confidence, and one hopes he can develop an ever more effective offensive presence next season.

6. (8) Tyler Graovac, C, 6.5B
Drafted 7th Round, 191st Overall, 2011

This has been a bit of a setback season for Graovac. A pending restricted free agent, Graovac would likely have solidified a raise and a second contract with any luck, but a groin injury cost him a big chunk of the season. He is working his way back to full speed and strength, but doesn’t have a role in Minnesota thanks to the acquisition of the veteran Jarret Stoll. Graovac has proven to be a capable AHL scorer, and the Wild will probably retain him on a two-way contract. New head coach John Torchetti also knows Graovac well, having relied heavily upon him last season in Iowa.

5. (11) Steve Michalek, G, 7.5C
Drafted 6th Round, 161st Overall, 2011

Michalek has had (so far) the best season of any Wild prospect. The organization made a concerted effort to aid his development and the plan worked about as well as possible. Acquiring two veteran goaltenders for Iowa, the team was able to start Michalek in Quad Cities of the ECHL. The first-year pro eased into full-time duty for that squad, improving his numbers week by week. Finally called up to Iowa, Michalek had the benefit of those starts behind him. He has looked spectacular in his (so far) limited role at the AHL level. While he might split starts with veteran Leland Irving the rest of the season, Michalek has worked his way to the top of the depth chart, not by default but by skill and perseverance.

4. (3) Mike Reilly, D, 7.5C
Signed as Free Agent, June 2015

Reilly is a player with a good deal of offensive potential. He has excellent puck skills, and the type of speed and agility that will allow him to pose a threat. Reilly is also a player who gives away a lot at this stage of his career. Although still just 22, and a much stronger player than he was when the Columbus Blue Jackets drafted him in 2011, Reilly will have to work with Darryl Sydor and the Wild strength coaches to solidify his ability in battle situations. His awareness is also not yet at the level where it needs to be, but he has the natural talent to cover up some mistakes. In all, he has looked comfortable at the NHL level and gives the Wild brass options.

3. (4) Gustav Olofsson, D, 7.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 46th Overall, 2013

Although Reilly jumped over Olofsson in terms of NHL opportunity, Olofsson’s greater range of skill and superior physical game make him a more important player to the organization long-term. At worst, Olofsson can fill a bottom-six role, but in the Wild’s system he projects as a solid middle-pairing option with upside. The 21-year-old had been on a fast track that was disrupted by injury, but the extra year of off-ice work should only help him achieve his potential. Olofsson has been a solid pro for Iowa and his blend of size and instincts make him a valuable piece of the Wild’s puzzle.

2. (2) Joel Eriksson Ek, C/W, 8.0D
Drafted 1st Round, 20th Overall, 2015

Eriksson Ek may overtake Alex Tuch someday soon as the number one prospect in the system. As a professional player already, he will probably find he transitions with greater ease to the NHL game. Until recently though, his scoring totals were behind his pace from last season and he has gone too many games without scoring or even generating a shot on goal. Although the SHL is a low-scoring league (especially compared to Canadian major junior), Eriksson Ek just hasn’t been as productive as expected. In the small sample of the 2016 World Juniors, he did not take advantage of William Nylander‘s injury and was outplayed by draft eligible players like Färjestad teammate Rasmus Asplund and OHL star Alex Nylander. JEE has some good tools though, including a hard, accurate shot and a sound forechecking ability. As he continues to gain strength, he still projects as a possible number one, or a good number two center, but could transition to the wing.

 

1. (1) Alex Tuch, RW, 7.5B
Drafted 1st Round, 18th Overall, 2014

Tuch has endured some criticism this season. After leading the Boston College Eagles in scoring as a freshman, he has taken on a more conservative role this season. Expected to help Team USA to a gold medal at the 2016 World Juniors, he was not invited back even after playing at the team’s summer camp. Part of this disappointment in his performance may have been due to a slow start brought on by an offseason knee procedure. Part of it also may be due to the emergence of top freshman Colin White (OTT). All that said, Tuch’s importance to the Wild has not diminished. He is a gifted player with the physical attributes to thrive in the pros. Even if he probably is not the dynamic game-breaking threat the Wild needs, Tuch brings strength, skill and character.

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