In spite of the graduation of their star player from the junior ranks at this time last season in Benoit Pouliot, the Minnesota Wild still have an impressive stockpile of talent in both the CHL, the USHL and US high school hockey. Currently, eight players are suiting up in the CHL (5 in the West, 2 in Quebec, and 1 in Ontario), one is playing in the USHL, and one scheduled to play in high school.
One of the primary problems facing the Wild prospects playing in junior has been injury in the first third of the season. No fewer than four Wild prospects have missed considerable time already this season with fairly substantial injuries. Though all but one have returned to the line-up at this point in the season, a couple are still not at 100 percent efficiency.
Kyle Bailey, F (Portland, WHL)
Acquired: 4th round, 110th overall, 2005
Bailey came back to Portland for his fifth and final season with the club, as one of only six returning forwards on the retooling Winter Hawks. The emotional leader and team captain for the young Portland squad will not shoot out the lights offensively, but does bring excellent defensive game and face-off efficiency, as well as a gritty, hard-nosed, forechecking ability to the table. A clutch performer who leads by example, Bailey currently sits fifth on the team with four goals and 12 assists in 26 games, coupled with 50 penalty minutes. Bailey’s tenacious work ethic will likely ensure that he has a professional career as an energy player or checking line specialist once his junior career is complete at the end of this season.
Cal Clutterbuck, F (Oshawa, OHL)
Acquired: 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2006
Much in the same vein of Bailey is Clutterbuck, a high-energy, hard-skating forward for the OHL’s Oshawa Generals. Also displaying great leadership and a willingness to get his nose dirty physically to both generate opportunities and to come to the aid of his teammates, Clutterbuck brings one more thing to the table that Bailey lacks: excellent offensive ability. Clutterbuck showed more than flashes of offensive ability last season, where he picked up just over a point per game, and showed that he could play solid offensively at a higher level, picking up four points in as many games at Traverse City.
This season, Clutterbuck has trumped his already strong offensive pace, picking up 35 points – 12 of which are goals – in only 25 games, good enough for third on the Generals. Clutterbuck is also one of only three regulars to have a plus-minus rating on the good side of zero, despite seeing plenty of ice time against the top lines of the opposition, and also sits third on the team in penalty minutes with 56. Another in a string of great leaders with a lunch-pail attitude to pass through the Wild system, Clutterbuck and his intangibles will be valuable components in the future of the Wild.
Ondrej Fiala, F (Everett, WHL)
Acquired: 2nd round, 40th overall, 2006
Fiala’s debut this season was greatly delayed, as he spent much of the summer, as well as the first two months of the WHL regular season recovering from offseason knee surgery. The injury also prevented him from participating in both the Traverse City prospect tournament, as well as the main Minnesota training camp.
Fiala made his debut this season with Everett against Moose Jaw on Nov. 7, and understandably, has been a little slow out of the gate as he is getting back into game shape. He currently sits with two goals and one assist through nine games for the Silvertips. Fiala’s absence did not seem to harm the Silvertips torrid start, but his return to the line-up should go a long way in ensuring continued offensive production and defensive responsibility from the forward unit. Playing alongside the likes of Peter Mueller and slick rookie Kyle Beach, chances are strong that Fiala’s offensive numbers will rise once he returns to 100 percent.
Chris Hickey, F (Cretin-Derham Hall, USHS / Tri City, USHL)
Acquired: 7th round, 192nd overall, 2006
The 2006 seventh rounder was scheduled to return to his Cretin-Derham squad for his senior year of U.S. high school hockey. However, in training for the season, which was scheduled to begin last Thursday, the team’s leading scorer for the past three seasons suffered an injury to the posterior cruciate ligament that will keep him out of the line-up for the first couple months of the season. It appears as if the injury will not require surgery, hence the shorter recovery time. He will look to return to the line-up early in the new year.
In preparation for the season, Hickey had appeared in one game for Tri-City of the USHL, playing sparingly. Hickey has also verbally committed to play for the University of Wisconsin Badgers starting in 2008, so he will take time to make a full recovery, so as not to jeopardize his college (and professional) ambitions.
Matt Kassian, F (Kamloops, WHL)
Acquired: 2nd round, 57th overall, 2005
Kassian was sent back to Kamloops for his overage season after having been an early cut from the Wild training camp. He returned to the Blazers line-up, and immediately picked up on what had made him a feared player in the WHL – using his massive size to his advantage, hitting regularly, and upping the intimidation factor.
Kassian will never be mistaken for a finisher or a speed demon, but has spent a lot of time working on his skating in the early part of the season, and has scored at a rate that should smash his previous career high in points. Albeit, that career high was only 11 points. He currently sits with nine points through 28 games, as well as a team-high 90 penalty minutes and a very respectable plus-9 rating. He has relied largely on being an enforcer and a physical presence, but will have to continue to work on his other aspects of his game if he is to be a regular contributor at the next level.
Morten Madsen, F (Victoriaville, QMJHL)
Acquired: 4th round, 122nd overall, 2005
The Danish import made the jump to North America after having spent the last few seasons playing in the Frolunda system in Sweden. Any concerns about his adjustment to the North American game were rapidly alleviated, first with Minnesota’s Traverse City team, where he picked up three points, and secondly, with Victoriaville, who selected him in the CHL Import Draft. Madsen began his rookie campaign with Victoriaville at a torrid pace, picking up multiple-point games in each of his first seven games in the QMJHL – four goals and 12 assists when the streak came to an end. Madsen has not slowed his pace, averaging nearly two points a game thus far this season. He has only been held off the score sheet six times for the mediocre Victoriaville squad.
Very versatile, with excellent playmaking and slick skating ability, as well as a solid frame, Madsen has put himself on the map in the Minnesota system. Madsen currently leads his team with 44 points, good enough for 17th in the league.
Kyle Medvec, D (Sioux City, USHL)
Acquired: 4th round, 101st overall, 2006
Drafted out of Apple Valley High School in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, the hulking blueliner has made the jump to the USHL, playing for Sioux City, a team for which he had appeared in three games for last season. In his first full season in the league, he has continued to display the flashes of offensive play that he showed in high school, picking up two goals and four assists through 16 games, good enough for third on the team among defensemen. He has also seen regular action on the power play, using his solid shot and good puck movement to put forth a four-point special teams performance.
The physical defenseman will make the jump to Vermont next season.
James Sheppard, F (Cape Breton, QMJHL)
Acquired: 1st round, 9th overall, 2006
Sheppard was a participant in the Traverse City tournament, where he picked up three points in four games, however, his training camp was hampered with a chronic lower back ailment, and was returned to the QMJHL. He did not rejoin the Cape Breton line-up until mid-October. While his meager goal totals – five thus far this season – are still nowhere near on pace with last year’s impressive numbers, he has been honing other aspects of his game that could use some work, in particular his playmaking ability and stickhandling.
Already a hard-working power forward in the making with great skating ability, a tenacious forechecker, and boasting a great finishing touch, Sheppard has turned into more of a set-up man on the high powered Eagles offense, with his 24 through 20 games placing him fourth on the team. Showing great leadership, willingness to physically and to not shirk his defensive responsibilities, as well as bringing increased utilization of his teammates along with his excellent finishing touch, Sheppard has continued to evolve into a complete player that should flourish at the next level.
A.J. Thelen, D (Prince Albert, WHL)
Acquired: 1st round, 12th overall, 2004
Thelen played fairly well in the Traverse City prospect tournament prior to training camp, with three points in four games, but was still returned to Prince Albert for his overage season for developmental purposes. After a solid first season after having left the Michigan State the year prior, he was expected to be a valuable offensive and physical presence, as well as a leader on the young, developing Raiders team. In his first game back with Prince Albert, he notched two points. His return was short-lived, though, as he suffered a knee injury in his second game of the season. The injury kept him out of the line-up for nearly a month.
His return to the Raiders defensive unit was greatly welcomed, as the Raiders were without direction during much of his absence, and displayed little puck movement from the back end. In his first game back in the line-up, Thelen notched a three-point game, also displaying his aggressiveness with a couple of solid body checks. Showing great maturity, excellent offensive awareness, and a willingness as of late to use his size to his advantage, Thelen has come a long this season from last as he prepares for a full-time stint in the professional ranks next season. A power-play quarterback in the making, Thelen currently sits with 11 points in 16 games – four of which are goals, all scored with the man advantage.
Kristofer Westblom, G (Kelowna, WHL)
Acquired: 3rd round, 65th overall, 2005
After two years spent waiting in the wings with the strong Kelowna Rockets squad, Westblom finally got his chance to take over the starting role for the Rockets, after the trade of Derek Yeomans to Seattle in the offseason. Unfortunately for Westblom, he inherited a vastly different team than the one that played in front of him last season, as 10 of the retooling Rockets top 12 scorers from last year’s team are no longer playing in Kelowna, thus making for some very long nights for the B.C. Division squad.
No stranger to playing under pressure, having seen time playing as an emergency replacement in the 2005 Memorial Cup, much of Kelowna’s potential successes or failures this season rest on Westblom’s shoulders. He has had to face lots of rubber this season, and has kept the Rockets in games that they probably should not have been in. Seeing a rigorous workload with the Rockets, Westblom has posted a 7-14 record, with a solid goals against average of 3.24, and a modest .897 save percentage thus far this season.
Westblom also played in September’s Traverse City tournament, going 0-2 for Minnesota, stopping 31 of 34 in a 3-0 loss to Dallas, and getting lit up for six goals on 26 shots versus St. Louis.
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.