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.
Photo: Minnesota Wild defenseman Marco Scandella is the organization's only 2008 pick to establish a role at the NHL level. (courtesy of Russell Lansford/Icon SMI)
The 2007-08 season had its positives for a franchise finally finding its legs, including a first divisional banner, but the subsequent crash and burn against the Avalanche in the playoffs is emblematic of the end of an era. The Minnesota Wild headed to Ottawa in June with its confidence shattered and certainly no closer to a coherent vision of how to build a winner. With picks jettisoned for ineffective role players, the team recklessly punted on what was to be the final draft of the Doug Risebrough era.
Photo: Defenseman Jonas Brodin, who has missed most of the first half of the season with a broken collarbone, is one of the high-profile prospects making their debut in Houston this season. (courtesy of Juan DeLeon/Icon SMI)
Although many people in and around the world of hockey were negatively affected by the 2012 NHL lockout, the Minnesota Wild was no doubt one team that saw a silver lining. With a cluster of players around the same age needing a developmental year or three in the AHL, the lockout saved the team from hard personnel decisions while also giving these young players a great opportunity to learn to play the pro game together at a high level of competition.
Photo: Johan Larsson is one of the many top prospects spending the 2012-13 season with the AHL's Houston Aeros. (courtesy of Juan DeLeon/Icon SMI)
The Wild is still in the midst of a controlled rebuilding process. While the team has added immediate help at the NHL level for some areas of deficiency, most notably an elite top-pairing defenseman in Ryan Suter, an underrated top-four defenseman in Tom Gilbert, and an all-star scoring winger in Zach Parise, a few barren years at the draft kept the team from contention recently. Very strong drafts in 2010 and 2011, punctuated by the trade for Charlie Coyle, have put the team in excellent shape to be contenders soon. The core might be able to take advantage of the NHL lockout to grow together at the AHL level. Part of the Minnesota mentality is knowing there is a long winter ahead to test for weaknesses. With luck, this group of prospects will emerge strong and battle-tested.
Photo: A leg injury will delay Mario Lucia's debut at Notre Dame, but the big winger has the potential to make an instant impact when he rejoins the team mid-season. (courtesy of Vincent Muzik/Icon SMI)
The Wild by design has its top prospects all scheduled to play professional hockey this season. Though obviously dependent on the quick resolution of labor strife at the NHL level, Mikael Granlund should be playing with the Wild while an excellent group of young players in Matt Hackett, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, and Brett Bulmer are presumably going to be playing with the AHL's Houston Aeros. The AHL as a whole will be be fun to watch this year. For Wild fans it is a glimpse of a promising future.