Talented prospects breaking into NHL lead the way in Minnesota Wild Top 20

By Peter Prohaska

Jonas Brodin - Minnesota Wild

Photo: Jonas Brodin led all NHL rookies with over 23 minutes of ice time per game during the abbreviated 2012-13 season (courtesy of Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)

Given a full NHL season in 2012-13, the Wild's Top 20 would not look quite as deep. Jonas Brodin and Nino Niederreiter would have graduated barring injury, and Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, and Mikael Granlund would have been close as well.

What this says is that the top of the Wild's Top 20 is strong in potential this season – in part due to the savvy move to acquire Niederreiter – but the rest of the depth chart fails to inspire. The system is full of strong character and some decent skill sets that could one day find a place in the bottom six forward group of an NHL contender, but are not likely to do much more. The defense also lacks prospects who could be comfortably characterized as top-pairing NHL potential, aside from Mathew Dumba. As for the other goaltending prospects, Stephen Michalek gets a second chance this season to recover his career, but both he and newly-drafted Alexandre Belanger are at a very early stage of their development.

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

At this point, Jonas Brodin is a prospect only in the technical sense, but since sports are chiefly constructed through rules, he heads up this list for the first and last time. Brodin made his North American debut in 2012-13 in the AHL because of the NHL lockout, and while he suffered a broken collarbone, he was not out of action long. Once the NHL season started, Brodin was most often paired with veteran Ryan Suter and showed why he was so highly regarded in the hockey world. He played a lot of minutes as Minnesota Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo relied heavily on that top pairing. Brodin finished in the top ten in shifts per game in the entire league, and was among the league leaders in ice time as a truly raw rookie. He did make the NHL All-Rookie team, but was passed over for a Calder nomination.

A player of superb poise and ability to process play, Brodin's ability to skate also seems above average, even at his young age. While he still needs additional strength to win battles with NHL forwards, Brodin can also use his anticipation to limit such engagements. He also does not appear at this stage of his career to be a player who drives an offense, though his ability to make passes out of the zone is there. Brodin did only put up two goals and 11 points over the shortened NHL season, but he also saw only second team power play minutes. He should take over some minutes for the departed Tom Gilbert and be more productive in that area. The future is bright with this one.

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

A player who seemed like a pretty sure bet to be at least effective at the NHL had a fairly disastrous North American debut in 2012-13. The AHL seemed to pose not much of a problem for Granlund, who had been a top player in Finland's SM-Liiga for two full seasons as a teenager. Granlund was on excellent pace before an ankle injury held him out of action for a month, and he finished the regular season with 28 points in 29 AHL games. At the NHL level he seemed unsure, behind the game flow at times, and defensively inept as many rookies seem to be. He managed just eight points in 27 games and never got it going for any sustained period. Mike Yeo got some criticism for Granlund's relative lack of power play time, which was 10th best on the Wild. Granlund ended up playing just over 13 minutes a game with the Wild, which is certainly far less than he has been used to in his young career. It is hard to argue that he deserved much more, given his struggles.

After the season, Granlund joined Team Finland for the World Championships as he has in the past. Though it is obviously a short tournament that features less quality and physical intensity than the NHL does, it was remarkable to see Granlund's increased confidence and ability on the bigger ice. He does possess a sublime set of hands and the elite creativity to make offense where others cannot. He is surely far too skilled a player to write off at this young age. Perhaps his biggest problem last season was being blocked by veterans Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. This season, Granlund must prove that he is capable of replacing them. The team needs this player to play at the height of his abilities to move forward.

3. (3) Charlie Coyle, C/RW, 8.0C
Acquired in trade with San Jose Sharks, June 2011

Coyle has now looked dominant to good at every developmental level. From the NCAA to the CHL to the AHL, Coyle has been able to put up points and adjust to different teammates and styles of play. Coyle put up 25 points in 47 points  as a rookie with the Aeros in a league strengthened by the NHL lockout. From the end of February forward, Coyle was a full-time NHL player and he acquitted himself well for the most part. Some of his NHL success in 2012-13 is attributable to having been played for the most part with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, but he took the challenge on and had some success with it, scoring 14 points and eight goals over 37 games, mostly at even strength.

Coyle has the size and skill level that make him look like a possible all-star power forward. He showed throughout the season the type of physical courage the team will collectively need to compete in a tough central division next season. Whether he will stay on the top line remains to be seen, but he should have another solid season ahead of him even if he ends up moving to the second-line, possibly as a center.

4. (NR) Nino Niederreiter, RW, 8.0C
Acquired in trade with New York Islanders, June 2013

Nino Niederreiter was acquired in exchange for fan favorite Cal Clutterbuck. If Niederreiter can recover his game and his confidence, he should more than replace Clutterbuck and make up for the system's loss of Johan Larsson (BUF) as well.

The Wild has frequently looked to Switzerland for prospects over the years, and coveted the power winger for its group back in 2010. Niederreiter was a top world junior player and excelled with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL as well, including a memorable 2011 playoff run in which he scored 27 points in 21 games. After turning pro, he ran into developmental issues with the Islanders organization, having a lot of trouble in 2011-12 as a raw rookie asked to do too much as an NHL player. Though he showed he was a capable professional by way of a 50 points in 74 AHL games in 2012-13, the Islanders seemed unwilling to give him another chance at the NHL. He will perhaps feel more at home with the Wild's young cluster, and will have plenty of opportunity to play top-six minutes. Niederreiter brings needed offensive upside to whichever wing he sticks at. He can score and distribute and plays a physical game. There are plenty of reasons to expect the young Swiss talent to rebound for the Wild in 2013-14.

5. (4) Matt Dumba, D, 8.0C
Drafted 1st Round, 7th Overall, 2012

It is a rare defenseman who can make the leap to NHL play as a teenager, and even rarer is the player who can look good doing it. As much as the Wild need a player with Matt Dumba's skills, patience is always a virtue with blue line prospects. That said, Dumba will press hard in 2013-14 to make the Wild and could be a contributor if the organization chooses to gamble.

Dumba took a small step back in terms of scoring numbers with Red Deer last year, but 42 points and 16 goals in 62 games still speaks to his offensive abilities. He also tightened up defensively quite a bit. Coach Brent Sutter is a good mentor in this capacity, and while forward prospects can sometimes stagnate a bit in junior when scoring gets easy, defensemen benefit more from focusing on playing smart and tough hockey.

After playing a major role with Team Canada at the Under-18s in 2012, Dumba was cut from the World Junior squad last season. He is among the strong candidates to make the squad this year, which could have some impact on his fortunes with the Wild. The team is obviously committed to making sure he is comfortable and confident, as the lengthy time spent with the team last season shows. Dumba may not yet be quite ready for his role with the squad, but there are many reasons to think it will be soon.

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

Despite two years of high offensive productivity as an underclassman at Denver, some people were not ready to believe in Zucker as a professional player. His rookie season in the AHL put those doubts to rest, but he may have also demonstrated that he will stick as an NHL regular too. Zucker finished his 2012-13 season by sticking with the Wild, but still was fifth overall in AHL rookie points and fourth in goals.

He seems like a smaller player than he is, but it was known that he could skate at an elite level. If he can continue to convert some of the high number of shots on goal he generates, he will be a productive top-six forward and possibly more. His ridiculous degree of difficulty goal in overtime of Game Three in 2013 gave Wild fans their first playoff win since 2008 and stands as a possibly defining moment for this player. Luck and elite ability often look the same and balance out quickly in hockey. Zucker has a great opportunity to seize the minutes Devin Setoguchi got last year, and his high-energy game could make up for the slight skill discrepancy. 

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

Kuemper had a quality season as the primary starter for the AHL's Houston Aeros. He put together enough of a resume in fact to force the highly-touted Matt Hackett (BUF) out the door in a trade for some proven NHL talent in Jason Pominville. Hackett had not really done enough to show he was improving, whereas Kuemper's numbers looked very solid, going from a .923 save percentage in the prior season to a .934 in 2012-13. The caveat with Kuemper is that patience is needed. Although he got a chance to make some NHL starts, including some emergency action during the playoffs, Kuemper is not yet ready for the back-up role. He is a big body and a solid, athletic keeper, but his anticipation at times lacked and he will certainly require more seasoning before assuming the full-time role. With Josh Harding's health still somewhat of a question mark, and Nicklas Backstrom looking shaky most of the season performance-wise and being somewhat of an injury risk himself, Kuemper should start this season knowing that his name will be called at some point.

The 2013-14 season also poses a challenge for Kuemper, as this time the starter's role for Iowa is his job to lose. Johan Gustafsson has excellent pro experience, but Kuemper has thus far demonstrated that he will be an above-average professional goaltender and must keep his focus strong.

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

People clearly underestimated Erik Haula at the draft table in 2009, as he went on to have a superlative NCAA career and now challenges for a spot with the Wild. A bit of a late-blooming player, he has added some more dimensions to his game. Still just 22, Haula should get some good opportunity to put up points with Iowa and the organization seems optimistic that he will get a chance to skate in the NHL.

He only has 11 professional games on his resume, five of which took place in the hotly-contested playoff series with the eventual Calder Cup champions Grand Rapids Griffins, but Haula shows above-average hockey sense whenever he has the puck. He has only average size but does have a strong frame. Playing in the NCAA means that he should have experience with the larger, older players of the AHL. The Iowa team should be in good shape this season, and Haula is poised to make another step in his progression.

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

Zack Phillips put up garish numbers as a junior star with the Saint John Sea Dogs, but found the AHL much tougher sledding. While he does possess tremendous gifts as a playmaker, the time and space to make slick plays are limited in the professional ranks, and the goaltenders make far fewer errors. The biggest concern for Phillips is his skating however. While it may be average, that may not be enough for him to take a regular top-six shift at the NHL level.

His professional numbers thus far seem decidedly mediocre, with 27 points in 71 games. Though some of the past season was made more difficult by the presence of NHL level talent in the AHL due to the lockout, he failed to improve much even as he rose in the depth chart. It is far from the end of the road for Phillips, but one should hope he worked out this past summer with a focus on his skating. He could easily rebound this season points-wise, but for now he is trending in the wrong direction. As the AHL team begins to stock up, Phillips has to show more than he has so far.

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

Mario Lucia had an unfortunate injury last summer as he prepared for his freshman season at the University of Notre Dame. A broken leg may have cost him enough playing time to limit his productivity with Team USA at the World Juniors, but overall he rebounded pretty well. He scored 23 points in 32 games for a pretty loaded Notre Dame squad. Lucia will be asked to do much more for his team this year, and it looms as a very pivotal season for this player.

A big winger with good sense, speed, and a shot, Lucia's biggest weakness may just be that he lacks a good physical game. He certainly can fight through opposing checkers with his frame, even at the NCAA level, but has not yet proven that he has a good defensive side to his game. Coming into his sophomore year, Lucia needs to establish himself as a three-zone player. A solid year in that regard, even without much improvement in his scoring, will go a long way to determining his role in the Wild's future.

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

Gustafsson is a solidly-built goaltender who now makes the difficult transition to North American professional hockey. That said, he has generated an impressive resume since his draft day as the starter for Lulea of the Swedish Hockey League. Over two seasons, he had save percentages of .932 and .933. In the 2013 playoffs he posted a .925 average in 15 games. While Sweden's top league does tend toward low-scoring defensive hockey that regular season total was top-five for the league. Lulea lost in the league championship, but had a good playoff run behind Gustafsson.

Matt Hackett's departure means Gustafsson is in line for the top job behind Kuemper. One would assume this will be an on-going battle throughout the season, with both players somewhat accustomed to sharing duties. Gustafsson has international and professional experience on his side and though growing pains are inevitable, he looks like a good starter. The Wild's skill at drafting goaltenders leads to a nice problem to have.

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

Graovac finished out his junior career in impressive fashion, posting 38 goals in 60 games split between Ottawa and Belleville of the Ontario Hockey League, then tacking on another six goals and 22 points in Belleville's playoff run. He has the mixture of size, instincts, and soft hands that make him a very intriguing addition to the Iowa roster for next season. Obviously scoring at the AHL level is a very different task than it is at the junior level, but Graovac has demonstrated some above-average ability since recovering from some tough injuries early in his career. In an OHL where draft pedigree can occasionally outshine a late-round pick and late-bloomer like Graovac, he managed to garner some nice recognition over the course of the season from coaches around the league. It bodes well for his ability to continue to improve next season. He may need a little more weight and muscle to be effective, and could certainly be more responsible in his own end. Graovac though could be one pleasant surprise this upcoming season.

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

Bulmer trended the wrong way all season in 2012-13 after doing the opposite the year before, when he made a solid NHL debut and then posted 62 points in 53 games with Kelowna of the Western Hockey League.

Injuries have been an unfortunate part of Bulmer's record thus far and he did not get the fully healthy season he needed. Bulmer's physically aggressive game is an essential component of his success, but he simply has to figure out how to avoid injury. There is another factor working against him, which is the presence of Matt Cooke on the Wild, and Raphael Bussieres on the Iowa squad. Both players could block his path, but for now Bulmer needs to focus on getting healthy and being a responsible contributor for the AHL squad in the upcoming months.

Bulmer has NHL size and showed that he could use it effectively. The question will be whether any of the offense he showed in the WHL in 2011-12 can translate to the professional level, as it has not thus far. Neither has he really showed enough defensive ability to make that a part of his appeal. He is far from done developing as a player of course, but the injuries and lack of scoring are poor signs, even early in his career.

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

The Wild selected Bussieres partially based off the evidence of a strong playoff performance in which Bussieres challenged and agitated opposing teams' top players, including Jonathan Huberdeau of the Saint John Sea Dogs. This season Bussieres repeated the feat, leading his team on a strong playoff run of 19 games with a 16 point performance. More importantly, Bussieres got the tough assignments, and though Halifax's Jonathan Drouin (TBL) / Nathan MacKinnon (COL) tandem proved too much, he showed the kind of tenacity that will be his calling card. He had a solid regular season as well with the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, posting 68 points and 29 goals over 60 games, and wearing a letter for his team.

Bussieres has yet to put it all together in terms of his awareness on the ice, but he is a pretty effective player who can both check and distribute. Whether he has the size and the commitment to play his style at the professional level is the obvious question, but the Iowa squad has enough depth to soften his landing and allow some time to adjust.

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

Fontaine is a very skilled player who led the Aeros in scoring last season. Despite that success, he is pretty unlikely to crack the Wild lineup. A slightly small frame coupled with only average north-south speed limits Fontaine's upside with the NHL, but he has proven to be a creative and crafty player who generates offense without playing with elite playmakers. While his offense may never translate at all to the NHL level, he could possibly get a chance with an injury to the top-six, and his on-ice intelligence makes him a decent bet. Otherwise, the former UMD Bulldog looks to be a leader for the Iowa Wild again this season and a player who will probably have a long pro career in one league or another.

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

As a true freshman with the Michigan State Spartans, maybe not much was expected of John Draeger, despite his standout years on the blue line at prep power Shattuck-St. Mary's. As the 2012-13 season progressed, Draeger was asked to play in all situations and ended up having a fair degree of success at holding off the opposition. Though his point totals were modest, with just ten points in 42 games, the faith of his coaches in his ability to play at the NCAA level speaks volumes about his ability to process and physically engage with older, stronger, and more experienced opponents. Another year bigger and stronger, and with the experience of a tough year for the Spartans behind him, Draeger is certainly trending the right direction. As far as inspiration, Wild fans can hope the scouts have a homerun player here in the mold of Jeff Petry or Duncan Keith. His eventual upside looks like a solid top-four type, but he has a good point shot and some ability for the rush as well.

17. (NR) Gustav Olofsson, D, 7.0D
Drafted 2nd Round, 46th Overall 2013

Making his debut in the Top 20 is Gustav Olofsson, the most likely to succeed of the Wild's 2013 draft class. Much of this ranking is based on faith, but he put up decent USHL numbers with 23 points in 63 games. Olofsson has a good frame and merited an invitation from Team Sweden to its World Junior camp, despite having played the bulk of his developmental hockey in the United States.

As a freshman at Colorado College, Olofsson will have to show that he can use his size to his advantage as well as contribute some on the score sheet. Though still quite raw, he seems to have the basic tools to one day be a productive player in a system that is somewhat short on defense prospects with top pairing upside.

18. (17) Tyler Cuma, D, 6.5D
Drafted 1st Round, 23rd Overall 2008

It only seems like Tyler Cuma has been around forever. The fact that he was born in 1990 seems astounding, as this player has had more than his fair share of bad luck along the way. Facing restricted free agency this year, the Wild decided to extend Cuma for another year. This vote of confidence is probably a smart one, as Cuma still has enough to be a potential call-up if things go south in St. Paul.

Cuma is a player whose contributions are not immediately obvious, as he has never put up a lot of points at any stage of his career. He did have 12 points this past season in 42 games though, so with some luck he could impress again in that regard in 2013-14. On the downside, the signing of Jon Blum will impact Cuma's ability to produce in the AHL and get NHL time. Nonetheless Cuma is still a young top-four AHL defenseman at this stage of his career and a good asset for the organization, even as his days as a prospect are limited.

19. (NR) Adam Gilmour, C, 6.5D
Drafted 4th Round, 98th Overall 2012

Another player cracking the Top 20 for the first time is Adam Gilmour. Gilmour finished his USHL season with a respectable 47 points and 19 goals in 64 games after a bit of sluggish start with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL. He joins several other Wild prospects as a freshman this season. Gilmour sticks out a little more than some of the others because of his reasonable success in the USHL. In addition, the Wild has been aggressive in drafting defensemen while its depth at center is quite thin at all levels. Gilmour has a difficult task ahead of him to earn minutes on a Boston College team that usually has significant depth. He has a lot he can learn from a legendary coach in Jerry York and another year or two at least of development, but Gilmour has some intriguing skills and he will not be limited by his size much.

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

Christoph Bertschy did himself no favors this season. A steep decline from his rookie season has him on the outside, but this player has shown too much skill to be dismissed altogether. Also, while a poor regular season showing of six points in 41 games disappointed, Bertschy was just fine as captain of Team Switzerland's World Junior entry. He is a crafty and speedy player who can play in all situations. Although he has been criticized for his fitness levels in the past, one could charitably chalk up a lot of players' performances this past season to irregularities generated by the NHL lockout. His club team, Bern, did win the Swiss League championship as well. So while Bertschy may not have contributed much on the score sheet, he was obviously low on the depth chart throughout the season. Still young and with two years of playing against men on his resume, Bertschy is far from out of the picture as a prospect, and a strong rebound year is a far from outlandish expectation for this upcoming season.

Honorable mentions: Dylan Labbé, 6.5C; Daniel Gunnarsson, 6.5D; Nick Seeler, 6.0C.