Wild Top 20 prospects

By Glen Jackson

The Minnesota Wild prospect pipeline has become one of the better ones in the NHL in the team’s short history through excellent drafting and some good fortune. Even with a little more turnover than usual this season, the Wild continue to build towards a system to be envied.

Key: Rank (former rank), name, position – age – current team (league)
Grade, Projection

1. (1) Patrick O’Sullivan, C – 20 – Houston (AHL)
Grade: 8.0B, Projection: First line forward

O’Sullivan completed his junior career as the Mississauga IceDog’s all-time leading scorer with 345 points in 234 games. In a true leadership role with the ‘Dogs in 2004-05, O’Sullivan had 90 points (31 goals and 59 assists), or 40 more points than the team’s second leading scorer. Thanks in part to O’Sullivan’s efforts, the team tied the Peterborough Petes for first overall in the Eastern Conference in the regular season, but they were upset in the first round in five games by the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors, a series in which O’Sullivan was held goalless.

The former CHL Rookie of the Year earned OHL Player of the Week honors three times over the course of the season and was the OHL Player of the Month for February.

On July 28, 2005 the Wild signed their second round pick from 2003 to a rookie contract, and although he could see some NHL time this season, it’s more likely that he will anchor a line for the Wild’s AHL affiliate Houston Aeros.

2. (2) Mikko Koivu, C – 22 – Houston (AHL)
Grade: 8.0B, Projection: First line forward

Following his first season in North America, it can be said that Koivu transitioned to the NHL style very easily, ending up third in team scoring. Koivu missed approximately a month near the start of the season due to an appendectomy, but he rebounded well scoring 20 goals and adding 28 assists for Houston, and his points per game mark of 0.72 was second only to Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

The talented two-way center should be joining older brother Saku in the NHL in the near future as his progress in Finland and in the AHL appears to have him on the cusp of breaking into the Wild roster.

3. (4) Josh Harding, G – 21 – Houston (AHL)
Grade: 8.0B, Projection: Starting goaltender

As a rookie with the Houston Aeros, Harding had the fifth best goals against average in the AHL (2.01), winning 21 games with four shutouts along the way. Aside from a concussion caused by a cheap shot elbow from an opposing forward, Harding’s first pro campaign was a very positive one.

With Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson still with the club, it would appear that short of a trade opening up a spot for him, he’ll spend another season developing with the Aeros.

4. (3) Brent Burns, D – 20 – Houston (AHL)
Grade: 7.5B, Projection: First pairing defenseman

Burns managed well in his second year as a pro, appearing in 73 games for the Aeros and scoring 11 goals and 13 assists from the blue line. He continued to show promise as Wild Coach Jacques Lemaire’s future power play anchor by scoring six goals with the man advantage, just one fewer than the team lead. Displaying a knack of scoring timely goals, he also had two short-handed markers and three of his 11 goals were game winners.

It’s expected that Burns will start the season with the Wild but there are new faces at Wild training camp such as Kurtis Foster who might manage to steal his spot if he doesn’t continue to impress.

5. (NR) Benoit Pouliot, LW – 18 – Sudbury (OHL)
Grade: 7.5B Projection: First line forward

With the post-lockout NHL draft lottery, the Wild were somewhat fortunate in winning the right to select in the fourth spot. They used it to take Pouliot, who many scouts felt was the best forward available after Sidney Crosby. In his OHL rookie season, Pouliot tied for scoring lead on the defensive-minded Wolves with 67 points in 67 games.

Pouliot will most likely need another year in junior hockey before he is ready for the pro ranks, but the Wild have shown in the past they like to keep a close eye on valued prospects if they feel that having them in the system would be more beneficial for their development than their junior arrangement. Pouliot is currently at the Wild training camp but expect him to return to Sudbury.

6. (5) A.J. Thelen, D – 19 – Prince Albert (WHL)
Grade: 8.0C, Projection: Top pairing blueliner, power play quarterback

At the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, Thelen looked like virtual steal for the Wild at 12th overall after a strong first season in the CCHA with Michigan State where he scored 11 goals, good enough for third most for all defensemen nationally. He was also named to the All-CCHA Rookie and CCHA First Teams.

Thelen had hopes of immediately joining the Wild but in the end he returned to Michigan State and began a slump in play before being excused from the team. He finished with no goals and 11 assists in 33 games, and a speed bump in his development path.

The Savage, Minnesota native signed with the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders in July and should be able to get back on track with more games in a league that excels in developing NHL-caliber defensemen.

7. (7) Roman Voloshenko, LW – 19 – Soviet Wings (RUS)
Grade: 7.5C, Projection: Second line winger, power play specialist

Since being drafted by the Wild in 2004, Voloshenko has continued to develop well while working hardest on his mobility. He has excellent offensive upside with good awareness and instincts.

In High League play with the Soviet Wings Voloshenko had 16 goals, 13 assists and was a +8 in 38 games played. Voloshenko also appeared at the World Juniors in 2005 where he held a somewhat limited role but still scored two goals, and he was perhaps the best Russian player in the CHL vs. Russian Selects six-game tournament. In 2006, Voloshenko should have a much bigger role with the Russian team at the World Juniors.

8. (11) Clayton Stoner, D – 20 – Tri-City (WHL)
Grade: 7.0B, Projection: Top four blueliner

Stoner ended up playing in only 60 of the Tri-City Americans’ regular season games after missing time to start the season with a knee injury, however, when he returned he established himself as one of the best two-way defensemen in the WHL.

He had 12 goals and 34 assists, which put him at ninth in the league for scoring from defensemen and he was named to the WHL’s Second All-Star Team. Stoner slimmed down some before the 2004-05 season and it definitely had a positive impact on the native of British Columbia, and his strong performance led to the Wild signing him to a rookie contract on September 9th.

9. (9) Stephane Veilleux, LW – 23 – Houston (AHL)
Grade: 6.5A, Projection: Third line winger

Veilleux has all but made the Wild for a full season, but expect that to change in 2005-06. The Wild recently signed him to a multi-year contract following another good season for the two-way winger in which he had 15 goals and 24 assists in 59 games played.

The Quebec native made his NHL debut way back in October of 2002 and has appeared in 57 games with the Wild in total. In 2003-04 he played 19 NHL games and had two goals and eight assists. His 24th birthday will come during the upcoming season in what should be the year he graduates to a full-time NHL player.

10. (10) Danny Irmen, RW – 21 – Minnesota (WCHA)
Grade: 6.5B, Projection: Second line winger

There was no slumping for this University of Minnesota sophomore. Irmen basically doubled his offensive output from his freshman year while continuing to display the competitive drive that makes life so difficult for opposing players.

Irmen led the Golden Gophers in goals with 24 and was second in points with 43, twice being named the WCHA Player of the Week. However Irmen is also a tremendous asset in his own zone and is shaping up to be a quality two-way winger in the NHL in two or three years.

11. (14) Anton Khudobin, G – 19 – Saskatoon (WHL)
Grade: 6.5B, Projection: Backup goaltender, possible starter

Khudobin had an up and down year in 2004-05 mostly comprised of international play for Russia, impressing for the most part before having the wheels fall off near the end of the World Juniors against Canada when he was pulled in the gold medal match.

Hoping Khudobin would be willing to shift his play to North America to be closer to the Wild, the Saskatoon Blades drafted him 51st overall in the 2005 CHL Import Draft and Khudobin reported and looks to be a lock for the No. 1 spot in net. The shift to the WHL should benefit his progress and he is also expected to again appear in net for Russia at the World Juniors in Vancouver at the end of the year.

12. (16) Peter Olvecky, LW – 19 – Houston (AHL)
Grade: 7.0B, Projection: second line winger

A native of Nove Zamky, Slovakia, Olvecky had a good season with Dukla Trencin of the Slovak league, scoring 10 goals with nine assists in 45 games playing with and against NHL players during the lockout. At the World Junior Championships Olvecky had three goals and an assist in six games in what was overall a disappointing tournament for Slovakia as they were in danger of being relegated to Division 1.

In August, the Wild signed Olvecky to a rookie contract and he is currently participating in the Wild training camp. He scored a goal in his first preseason game against the Pheonix Coyotes.

13. (NR) Kurtis Foster, D – 23 – Houston (AHL)
Grade: 7.0C Projection: Second pairing defenseman

The Wild signed Foster as a free agent in August and are looking forward to having an offensive defenseman who is ready to step in and fill the gap left by the Zybnek Michalek trade. Last season Foster appeared with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks of the AHL and had 17 goals and 25 assists in 78 games, tops on the team for blueliners and fourth overall in team scoring. Eight of his goals were on the power play which tied him for third on the Ducks.

Although Foster is of good size at 6’5, 235 lbs, one of the knocks against the Carp, Ontario native is that he doesn’t use it to his advantage and is susceptible to defensive lapses, however his +16 rating with the Mighty Ducks was tied for best on the team.

Foster has played five career NHL games for the Atlanta Thrashers, notching one assist. He should see time with both the Wild and Aeros in 2005-06.

14. (NR) Matt Kassian, LW – 18 – Kamloops (WHL)
Grade: 6.0B, Projection: Third line winger

A somewhat surprising pick so early in the draft, the Wild selected Kassian near the end of the second round, 57th overall in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft while International Scouting Services had him ranked 195th overall. However, the Sherwood Park, Alberta product has NHL size and pro toughness and is considered one of the most physical and meanest players in the WHL, but he will definitely have to improve on his mobility before he moves on to a higher level.

Kassian spent time with both Kamloops and Vancouver last season and had three goals and three assists in 69 games.

15. (NR) Morten Madsen, C – 18 – Frolunda Jr. (SWE JR.)
Grade: 6.5D, Projection: Third line center

Madsen, the only Dane to be drafted in 2005, played 2004-05 with Frolunda of the Swedish junior league where he displayed a gift for creating offense, scoring seven goals and adding 14 assists in 32 games. He also excelled in representing Denmark in international play in Division 1 play at the World Juniors where he had two goals and two assists in five games. Madsen also played for Denmark’s Under-18 team for the second time in April and added another four points for a total of five goals and seven assists in Under-18 play.

16. (NR) Kristofer Westblom, G – 18 – Kelowna (WHL)
Grade: 6.0B, Projection: Backup goaltender

Kristofer Westblom had to step in and fill in for Derek Yeomans, Kelowna’s starting goaltender all of last season, when Yeomans was injured in the first game of the WHL finals. Seventeen years old at the time, Westblom was under intense pressure for a rookie backup goalie in the Memorial Cup and had to deal with a lot of media attention, but he reacted fairly well, putting in good performances against Ottawa and Rimouski. Westblom never made the big save to turn the game around for the Rockets, but with the exception of a goal in a game against the Knights, didn’t allow any weak ones either.

Westblom is a slightly undersized butterfly goalie who still has room for improvement. The Wild needed to stock up in goal and are betting on this Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan native who played Midget ‘AAA’ hockey in 2003-04.

17. (17) Julien Sprunger, LW – 19 – Fribourg-Gotteron (SUI)
Grade: 6.5C, Projection: Second line winger

Sprunger had 16 points (nine goals) in 41 games with Fribourg of the Swiss A league. At the World Junior Championships he was held off the score sheet as Switzerland narrowly avoided relegation. The 2005-06 season should make it clear whether the 2004 fourth round pick has real potential to be a pro within the Wild organization.

18. (12) Matt Foy, RW – 22 – Houston (AHL)
Grade: 6.5C, Projection: Third line winger

In 2004-05 Foy added one more goal to his 2003-04 total of 11, while his plus/minus rating and assists were identical (-1, 13 respectively), but the extra goal came in 18 more games played. Although it’s pro versus junior, his offensive output pales in comparison with his best junior season when he had 132 points in 68 games for the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL (exactly 40 more points than Patrick O’Sullivan’s best season in the league). At this point it’s beginning to look like Foy might end up spending most of his career in the AHL.

19. (NR) Anthony Aiello, D – 18 – Boston College (NCAA)
Grade: 6.5C, Projection: Second pairing defenseman, power play specialist

Having not opted into the 2004 NHL draft, Aiello was taken by the Wild 129th overall in 2005. The Braintree, Massachusetts native enjoyed an excellent season at Thayer Academy in 2004-05 that culminated with his selection to the All-New England Division I East First Team. He posted 34 points (7 goals, 27 assists) in 25 appearances for the Tigers this past season.

Aiello is an immensely talented offensive-minded defenseman noted for his fluid skating, great instincts and outstanding play at both ends of the ice. Heavily recruited by Hockey East schools, Aiello will join Boston College this fall.

20. (NR) Patrick Bordeleau, LW – 19 – Val-d’Or (QMJHL)
Grade: 6.0C, Projection: Third line winger

Bordeleau doubled his goal total in 2004-05 to 14 and had 38 points overall, up from 18 points the season before. The power forward’s role changed somewhat with Val-d’Or and he fought less while increasing his offensive contributions. A 6’5 native of Montreal, Bordeleau is progressing well and might have a pro future with the Wild organization.

Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.