Minnesota Wild’s mid-season Top 20 stocked with prospects already contributing in NHL

By Peter Prohaska

Jonas Brodin - Minnesota Wild

Photo: Jonas Brodin is one of several prospects making an impact for first-place Minnesota, having stepped directly into a top-pairing role in his rookie season (courtesy of Kathleen Hinkel/Icon SMI)

The Wild's controlled rebuilding process is entering a new phase this season, introducing its top prospects into the NHL in sheltered roles. Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Jason Zucker, Johan Larsson, and Mikael Granlund have all made their NHL debuts, with various degrees of immersion and success. The Minnesota Wild has been careful to balance experience and youth this year, but there are plenty of players in the organization who may be asked to grow quickly in the next seasons to make the most of the opportunity at hand.

The Top 20 is quite rich in quality potential, players who ought to be capable of contributing at the top level while still on entry-level deals. The interplay of patience and competitive desire on the part of management may tell the final tale of whether the strong drafts in recent years produce key components of a championship squad.

1. (1) Mikael Granlund, C, 8.0B
Drafted 1st Round, 9th Overall, 2010

Mikael Granlund has been the top rated prospect in the Wild's system since the day he was drafted. That position no longer seems so secure. His bumpy adjustment has been far from unexpected, given the easy criticisms one could make of his game. The NHL features less actual space for Granlund to play his style of using his elite puck-handling skills to create lanes. It is also the best league in the world, and several notches above the Finnish league he dominated as a teenager.

While he looked comfortably above the level of play in the AHL for the most part, Granlund has had considerable struggles with the Wild. Getting lost at times in defensive coverages is to be expected in a rookie, and Wild coach Mike Yeo has been quick to offer Granlund the press box vantage to help him with the mental side of the game. Rather than have him stagnate completely from not playing or languish on a fourth line, he was recently returned to Houston of the AHL. Whether this will be effective is anyone's guess, but Granlund will have to earn the trust of his coaches through more effective play once he is back in the NHL. The Wild will be much more effective with an elite passer like Granlund on its power play, but the rigors of the NHL demand players who can engage in all facets. Granlund is experiencing an adjustment period and there is ample reason for confidence in his work ethic as well as his considerable gifts as a player.

2. (2) Jonas Brodin, D, 7.5B
Drafted 1st Round, 10th Overall, 2011

There is an argument to be made that Jonas Brodin has taken over the top prospect spot for the Wild. After being run hard into the end boards by Oklahoma City's Taylor Hall in the first part of the AHL season, Brodin missed some time with a broken collarbone. Since returning from injury and being promoted post-haste to the Wild, Brodin's stature and reputation have quickly grown.

True, the strategy has been to pair young Brodin with an extremely steady defense partner in Ryan Suter. The veteran has eased some of the pressure off puck retrievals, cleaned up some of the inevitable errors, and provided a ready escape valve, with mostly positive results. Nonetheless, Brodin's abilities have been on display against top opposition lines and they show evidence that he is one of the top defense prospects in hockey.

His mobility and positioning have never been in question, but his offensive numbers in the Swedish Elite League inspired little confidence in his future contributions from the back end. While he does not seem to have a high velocity shot, he has been able to get some pucks to goal. His speed gives him confidence on pinches, and he has also been aggressive about zone entries. Though the Wild collectively has occasionally struggled with offense, Brodin is not a major source of woe. His ability to handle the bigger, stronger players in the NHL was another source of concern, but thus far his positioning and natural strength have kept him competitive. Brodin's no hulk but he does not seem overwhelmed by physicality thus far either.

Brodin's quick growth this season has further underscored an important aspect of signing Ryan Suter in free agency the past summer. The veteran's presence has allowed Brodin to gain confidence and necessary experience despite facing good opposition night after night. As Minnesota's offense also gains in efficiency, Brodin's future as a potentially elite top-pairing player grows more likely.

3. (3) Charlie Coyle, RW, 8.0C
Acquired in trade, June 2011

Charlie Coyle was off to a decent start with the Houston Aeros until Mikael Granlund went down with his ankle injury. Struggling some there with putting up points, Coyle nonetheless got an early call to join the big club once the lockout ended. He has played for the most part on the Wild's top line with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise. In other words, he has been given an incredible opportunity for success as a rookie. Coyle has probably exceeded most peoples' expectations for a raw rookie winger in the world's best league.

Coyle is a big body with good instincts for the game, and while he does not have elite speed, puck skills, or shooting, he is at least average at all of these aspects. The importance of these skills seems to have diminished in the NHL somewhat anyhow in favor of something Coyle does very well, namely, the ability to get in on the forecheck, win the puck, and use his big frame to shield defenders off and make passes. As the young Coyle gains in strength and experience, he has the makings of a very effective NHL player.

4. (4) Mathew Dumba, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 7th overall, 2012

Matt Dumba had a slow and discouraging start to his season. A surprising lack of confidence with the puck coupled with some shoddy defensive zone coverage contributed to being cut from a Team Canada squad he had spearheaded in other iterations. To its credit, the Wild's staff may have recognized a young player in need of a confidence boost and kept Dumba with the team for a short period as the NHL season commenced, as if to say that the staff still believes in his skill set, which is considerable.

Back with his Red Deer squad, Dumba has not exactly exploded offensively, but he has looked better. His size remains a question mark, but he will continue to fill out. If the Wild's strategy with Jonas Brodin is any indication, Dumba has a decent chance again to make the Wild, yet it is hard to imagine his career being successful without a true stay-at-home type alongside him. However, Dumba's naturally aggressive instincts offer such a dynamic dimension to a team that the Wild will be tempted to press him into service soon.

5. (6) Jason Zucker, LW, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd Round, 59th Overall, 2010

After Brodin, maybe no Wild prospect has impressed more this season than Jason Zucker. Making his debut with the Aeros, Zucker demonstrated emphatically that he can play at the pro level. His work ethic, natural speed, ability to generate shots, and scoring from different areas all contributed to a very solid team scoring lead on the Aeros. He was named to the AHL All-Star team and shortly into the Wild's season was called up to join the NHL club. Playing mainly on a line with veterans Devin Setoguchi and Matt Cullen, Zucker showed very well despite a lack of power play time. Then he was victimized by a late high hit from Anaheim's Corey Perry. The incident unfortunately recalled that Zucker has taken a few too many such hits already in his young career, from Martin Marincin (EDM) and others. While it seems he will recover quickly from this setback, and indeed missed only two games, to stay in the NHL his awareness will have to catch up with the rest of his skills.

6. (5) Johan Larsson, C, 7.0B
Drafted 2nd Round, 56th Overall, 2010

Johan Larsson could not quite force his way onto the Wild lineup in the first half of the NHL season, but he took pretty quickly to the AHL where he became an integral part of the Houston squad. The young Swede has a very well-developed game already. He is a good face-off man, kills penalties, and gets power play points as well. Larsson is among the rookie leaders in AHL scoring and is third on the Aeros.

Larsson has been praised throughout his young career for intangible aspects of his game, having been captain of his national squad several times from U-18 onward. This can be adumbrated into things like his ability to win one-on-one battles, make smart plays, and sacrifice for the right result. As a young professional, his Brynas coaches had extreme confidence in the intelligence of a young player. There is every reason to think that he will join the Wild next fall, and provide much needed upside from a third or fourth line role.

7. (7) Matt Hackett, G, 7.5C
Drafted 3rd Round, 77th Overall, 2009

Matt Hackett is a player on the hot seat to some extent. He was passed over for the opportunity to back up Nicklas Backstrom after showing very well in that role last season. His numbers, unexceptional so far in his pro career, dipped slightly despite his experience. Hackett has been a good pro, and he has also been the paragon of a workhorse, playing in almost every start for his squad. Nonetheless, his pedigree will only take him so far. Hackett is a solid prospect who is basically only AHL average at this stage. There is no question that he knows he needs to be better. A tremendous opportunity presents itself for the Wild's young goaltenders next season, but the brass will not be feeling confident until Hackett strings together more consistent play. Winning is great, but a team's success is greater when it comes because of a goaltender, rather than despite him.

8. (12) Darcy Kuemper, G, 7.0C
Drafted 6th Round, 161st Overall, 2009

Darcy Kuemper seemed to take this year as a challenge and got his first taste of NHL action as a reward. After consistently beating Matt Hackett's numbers with the Aeros over the last two seasons, Kuemper leapfrogged Hackett to be the call-up when Josh Harding's illness forced him out of the lineup.

Kuemper got into four games against tough opponents and came away with his first NHL win. It is a small sample size, but it did not come out of nowhere. Kuemper had a fantastic junior career, being CHL goaltender of the year in 2010-11. He is a big goalie with good athletic ability. Learning to play at the top level is a long process, but the early returns on Kuemper have been positive. He has been above league-average throughout his AHL career, although he was never a huge workhorse due to Matt Hackett's steady presence. Kuemper was dominant at the ECHL level in his conditioning stints and at least competent at the NHL level, with a .924 save percentage in his brief showcase. The only real knock on him has been a lack of durability, as both his junior career and his NHL stint ended in trips to the injured reserve list.

The Wild will have a series of very difficult decisions to make regarding its future between the pipes. Backstrom's contract is expiring, Josh Harding's health is a huge concern, and the Hackett and Kuemper platoon presents a dilemma. Hackett has been consistently average but durable, and Kuemper has been excellent but somewhat fragile. It is an ongoing competition that bears watching closely.

9. (8) Zack Phillips, C, 7.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 28th Overall, 2011

Zack Phillips has taken a slow adjustment to his new role with the Houston Aeros after years of playing on a superior and dominant team in the QMJHL. No longer able to finesse his way to goals or dish to a Jonathan Huberdeau (FLA) or Tomas Jurco (DET), Phillips has chipped in, but looks to need at least another year to grow his game at the professional level. The AHL can be a frustrating place for a young player suddenly confronted with the strength of older and more seasoned players. That would seem to be part of Phillips' problem, but he has pretty average speed and shooting. He can score and create more than he has shown, but figuring out what works against players of this caliber is taking a full season.

With so many good young players down the AHL early on, Phillips was somewhat buried in the depth chart. Perhaps he just lost confidence, but he has not really responded to the opportunity of not having so much competition either. Phillips is a natural and creative playmaker, but he will need to find new ways to generate scoring opportunities. The Wild should have the luxury of allowing the young first-round pick another full season with Houston to really figure things out. Phillips is a crafty prospect who will benefit from doing the hard work.

10. (9) Erik Haula, C/LW, 7.0C
Drafted 7th Round, 182nd Overall, 2009

Erik Haula has established himself now as one of the best players in college hockey, leading a very good Minnesota Golden Gophers squad in scoring two years in a row. Despite missing a few games with a minor hand injury, he finished in the top five nationwide in scoring. He was named to the second team All-WCHA. He has great skill and vision, but the question of it translating to the pro level is something else to consider.  Haula has a decent build, but can struggle with puck battles. It seems likely that the Wild will try and get Haula signed after the Gophers' season ends and that he will spend next season in the AHL. By now, it also seems likely that he will be a player at that level. If he can find the next gear with his skating, Haula has a chance to be a productive pro player. He is a great story for the franchise and one would think he will get some opportunity to thrive in it.

11. (10) Mario Lucia, LW, 7.0C
Drafted 2nd Round, 60th Overall, 2011

Mario Lucia has had a mixed year. A broken leg threw off his training schedule a bit, but he rallied from that to make the U.S.A. World Junior squad. He was buried on the gold medal winning team which relied heavily on its top-six guys, but took the momentum of that great experience back to Notre Dame with him, where he has had a very solid freshman season. Especially given that he spent a season in a league he was probably much too good for (the BCHL), it is commendable that he stepped into a very tough level of play and had success. Lucia was named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team for his efforts this season. He finished just outside his team's top five in scoring with 22 points in 29 games. Lucia is a good sized player with a quick shot and good speed. He is a total package type of player with character and creativity, and the Wild were very high on him prior to the draft. He will most likely spend two more years at Notre Dame, and it would not be at all surprising to see him among the top scorers in college hockey next season.

12. (11) Johan Gustafsson, G, 7.0C
Drafted 6th Round, 159th Overall, 2010

Johan Gustafsson firmly established himself as a top-notch starter in the Swedish Elite League this season. After starting the year in a split platoon with veteran David Rautio, Gustafsson eventually took over the reins as the starter for Lulea.

While it is important to keep in mind the lack of scoring and the defensive focus that characterize SEL play, Gustafsson's numbers sparkle. A .933 save percentage was third in the league, and he sported a 1.70 goals against average. It is unclear when the Wild would like to have the young Swede come over and start playing North American hockey but he is making a case for consideration. He has put up two excellent seasons in a row, he has a good build, but he will certainly have some adjustments to make. He is a fine prospect who is building a good resume that includes a World Junior gold medal.

13. (20) Tyler Graovac, C, 6.5C
Drafted 7th Round, 191st Overall, 2011

Perhaps no other Wild prospect has done more recently to establish himself as Tyler Graovac did over the course of this season. His development may have been slightly slowed, and his reputation diminished, by some injuries early in his career, including a broken jaw. After coming on strong last season, the fourth-year OHL player continued his scoring in a big way early in the season. He was rewarded with a selection to Team OHL for the Subway Super Series against Team Russia and also to camp for Team Canada's World Junior squad. A struggling Ottawa squad traded Graovac to Belleville, but Graovac has not missed a beat.

Tyler Graovac got some nice recognition in the annual OHL Coaches' Poll. He came in third in votes for Most Dangerous in the Goal Area, finishing behind high-profile picks Mark Scheifele (WPG) and Ryan Strome (NYI), and second in votes for Best Shot behind Scheifele.

There are weaknesses in his game, as he can be inconsistent and appears unsure defensively at times. However, he has a good frame and an excellent shot. The Wild still needs to get Graovac signed, but one would assume the team is pretty happy with what he has accomplished so far this season and he could be a big upgrade for the farm.

14. (14) Justin Fontaine, RW, 6.5C
Signed as free agent April 2011

Justin Fontaine may not figure much in the Wild’s plans going forward, but the former University of Minnesota-Duluth star has proven to be a solid pro for the Aeros. He sits just behind Jason Zucker in the lead for Aeros scoring despite missing time with injury. Most impressively, Fontaine stepped up when Granlund went out with his early season injury and had his best stretch of play.

Fontaine is a very smart player, but his size and skating will be an issue with getting to the next level.

15. (13) Brett Bulmer, RW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 39th Overall, 2010

Brett Bulmer's season has been a struggle, plain and simple. A player who can be a difference-maker physically, he has had to battle some injuries that have limited his effectiveness. What effect they have on his eventual upside remains to be seen. After impressing the Wild staff enough to stay for nine games in 2011-12 before returning to junior, there was some thought that he could crack the Wild with a strong camp. Bulmer has enough skill to provide more offense than he has shown this year.

Whichever direction the Wild decides to go in free agency this season, the organization is showing a wise amount of patience with players like Bulmer, Granlund, and Phillips.

16. (17) Raphael Bussieres, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 2nd Round, 46th Overall, 2012

Bussieres is a player drafted specifically to fulfill a depth role for the Wild. He plays the game with edge, having been suspended for injurious hits, but also offers a decent set of hands with some offensive and defensive upside. Bussieres seems able to disrupt his opponents' mental games and that level of agitation has value. After putting up solid, but unspectacular, scoring numbers throughout his junior career with Baie-Comeau, Bussieres this year was better than a point-per-game player in a leadership role. Take it for what it is worth, but two years ago he posted a minus-31; this year he was plus-27. He is a player who has grown and shown the ability to elevate his game in playoff situations. While he has work to do to put things together, and certainly needs more seasoning, Bussieres is trending in the right direction.

17. (15) Tyler Cuma, D, 7.0D
Drafted 1st Round, 23rd Overall, 2008

Injured again and the 2008 first round pick slips further down the chart. Cuma is a player who can certainly hold his own at the AHL level, but the injuries he has sustained over the years just seem to have taken away the next degree of mobility he would need to find success at the NHL level.

Merely being able to think the game, coupled with his pedigree and experience, may get Cuma another contract with the Wild. The uncertainty created by his unfortunate luck may limit the organization's desire to offer one. One thing is certain though, from the Wild down to the Aeros, the depth at defense is not great. Of particular need are players who can make a good first pass, which Cuma can. He is a guy who has beaten the odds in terms of bouncing back from some tough injuries, and that kind of strength of character is desired in all organizations.

18. (18) Daniel Gunnarsson, D, 6.5D
Drafted 5th Round, 128th Overall, 2012

Daniel Gunnarsson was a bit of a flyer by the Wild scouts, who probably noticed the big defenseman while scouting his teammate Johan Gustafsson at Lulea. It was his second draft eligible year and he did not get much ink from the other scouting services, but it is easy to see what the Wild liked in him. He has excellent size and can skate well. Moreover, he possesses offensive instincts and ability, possibly marking him as a legitimate top-four option in the near future.

His scoring numbers will not blow anyone away, but considering the suppressed scoring in his league, plus the growing emphasis on attacking blueliners, he is an intriguing player.

19. (19) Christoph Bertschy, C, 6.5D
Drafted 6th Round, 158th Overall, 2012

Bertschy put up such good numbers as a rookie in the increasingly competitive Swiss National League A that expectations may have been a little inflated. He was out of sync and buried on the depth chart as his home league was invaded by NHL talent like the Islanders' John Tavares. Even as the all-world talents headed back to North America, Bertschy has not shown much of the flash he is capable of, but he is a young player finding his game in a pro league. Put among his own peer group at the World Juniors and U-18s, Bertschy showed that he is a player of interest.

20. (NR) John Draeger, D, 6.5D
Drafted 3rd Round, 68th Overall, 2012

Draeger debuts on the Wild's Top 20 at 20th, but in terms of defensive prospects he is much higher on the depth chart. The true freshman at Michigan State certainly did not post eye-popping scoring numbers in his rookie season. However, the way his coach chose to use him speaks of a player with a natural affinity for the game. Draeger was used in all situations and seemed to grow in confidence throughout the season. It was an uncharacteristically weak season for the Spartans as they finished in the conference basement. The tough minutes Draeger played this season are as good as an instructive period as he was likely to get anywhere, so this season looks to be an excellent building block for this player's development.

A good sized player who has been well-served by the different programs of his youth, Draeger plays a well-rounded game. The mistakes he makes now are part of the process, and points should come as his team improves on the whole. While the Wild organization has not been hesitant to find defensive depth in areas other than the draft, Draeger seems like a player who can be part of the solution in the pro ranks in the next two to three years.