Any person who awaits a big day; perhaps a holiday or a wedding, or a vacation can understand how anticipation can make it tough for a person to fall asleep. You toss and turn, your mind still operating in an aware state that makes it impossible to nod off. You try to suppress those thoughts; to relax the mind and finally achieve rest but its often futile. Even as you attempt to put it to the back of your mind, you find yourself almost becoming more awake as you attempt to think of ways to 'exhaust' your mind. Eventually persistence pays off but your sleep is often of poor quality. This would pretty much describe last night for me. I just couldn't stop thinking about the fact I was going to be able to see some Wild hockey and get a nice glimpse at some of the franchises' growing stable of promising young players who will be this team's future.
I woke up this morning at 5AM, because I didn't want to miss a single minute of the Wild's final prospect scrimmage which pitted Team White against Team Green. I got ready and was out the door by 6AM; but why leave for an 11:00AM scrimmage? When you have to drive 220 miles, you may wish to leave around that time estimating it may take me around 3 1/2 hours to make it there giving me plenty of time to deal with unforeseen traffic issues like accidents, road construction (in Wisconsin not in Minnesota obviously). Well, there were no traffic issues at all and I made it to the parking ramp a block from the Xcel Energy Center about 5 minutes to 9AM. Yikes, way too early but I had nothing else to do so I decided to make the walk down to main entrance by the Hockey Lodge. No sooner did I open the door of my well conditioned car I was inundated by an oppressive wave of heat. The glass area near the elevators was fogged up with condensation and the humidity had to be near or over 80% and even at this morning hour it felt as though it was 92 degrees. I had heard the next few days after this Saturday that the heat was really supposed to get bad but this would give your average sauna a run for its money. I grabbed my camera (I will try to post photos later) and headed on down. I walked past a few Wild fans along the way and made it inside to main entrance where beautifully cold air conditioning was working to full effect. There were a small handful of Wild fans ahead of me (mind you its only about 9:05AM right now, almost an hour and a half before fans would be allowed to take their seats. Without anything better to do I waited in line as a few more Wild fans (probably hoping to escape the heat as much as anything else at this point) trickled in. There was no hesitation, as fans immediately began chatting about Wild hockey. I heard fans talking about how they were as excited as they had been a few years ago when the team acquired Brian Rolston and the next year traded for Pavol Demitra, and signed Kim Johnsson and Mark Parrish. Former Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough's name was also brought up; almost in the context of being a swear word. I heard 'Damn Risebrough' and 'stupid contracts' from a few people. Funny, all of those anti-Risebrough sentiments made me think about the past and my criticisms of the team; good to know I wasn't the only one. Anyways, back to the scrimmage...
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There was plenty of talk about the prospects as well; especially as a few of these Wild hopefuls made their way from the hotel and through the main entrance where they headed down to the locker room to get ready for the days scrimmage. I saw just about all of the Wild prospects and tryouts walk by. Sam Lofquist, J.T. Brown, Mikael Granlund, Zack Phillips, Jason Zucker, Johan Larsson, Carson McMillan, Cody Almond, Charlie Coyle, and Jonas Brodin were all players I readily recognized. As the players made their way through the gate they were looking back at the growing crowd of anxious fans; and I am sure they were probably a bit surprised to see this many people to watch a scrimmage in mid-July.
The 1st half was pretty mundane, with both teams struggling to find a lot of open ice and neither Matthew Hackett or Darcy Kuemper were being tested all that much. When the shots did get on goal, both goaltenders were quick to cover up the biscuit and get a whistle. I wouldn't say the pace of play was slow or boring, but it was a reflection that both teams were backchecking aggressively and closing down passing lanes effectively. You could sense the crowd was watching the game with incredible focus as even small little openings in the defense; or close puck plays were it appeared an offensive chance may be created were shadowed by little gasps and 'aww' when they failed to emerge. Before I go too much into player by player analysis I'd say in the 1st half Team Green's Jack Connolly and Mikael Granlund really impressed me with their creativity with the puck and their knack to set up chances and defensively I liked the way Kyle Medvec was getting involved. For Team White, it was Norwich's (Division III-ECAC) Kyle Thomas, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker who were really pressing the attack and causing Team Green some trouble. The best scoring chance of the period was a penalty shot attempt earned by the great hustle of Kyle Thomas who was flying all over the ice. Towards the end of the 1st half of the scrimmage the players were being way too unselfish and were not taking their chance to shoot. No one was being annoying and yelling 'shoot!' but I did hear one fan exclaim sarcastically (and loud enough to be heard by most of the people within his vicinity) "I think someone can try to shoot it once in a while." A few seconds after saying this unknown fan said what most of us were thinking, the half was over with both clubs scoreless.
After a brief intermission the 2nd half would begin and right away you could see the game had opened up a bit. Both teams were pinching with their defense with greater frequency and it was Bakersfield's (ECHL) Joel Broda that got the scoring started by skating into the high slot and unleashing a wicked wrister that beat Stephen Michalek top shelf sending the water bottle flying. The former Calgary Hitmen's sniper demonstrated a lethal release and Michalek cannot be blamed for being bested by a shot that was definitely NHL-calibre. One player who was a constant presence all game long; was Kyle Thomas and he would draw his 2nd penalty shot of the game a few moments after Broda's goal giving team white a chance to add to their lead. Thomas would race in and rifle a quick wrist shot by Michalek giving team white a 2-0 edge. Team Green would answer right back when Mikael Granlund found a little space in the slot and was fed a puck by Zack Phillips and he wasted no time in firing a shot by Johan Gustafsson to cut the lead to one. Granlund's goal earned him a standing ovation; as he clearly was the star of the exhibition. Team Green was trying to pinch to set up another goal but got caught and Charlie Coyle was hauled down as he tried to go on an odd man rush giving Team White another penalty shot. The smooth skating Boston Terrier would move in and rip a shot off the pipe that went in lifting them to a 3-1 lead. Team Green was getting desperate and their defense, sort of led by youngster Nick Seeler who showed good poise and skill was dancing around defenders and unloading his cannon of a slapper. Granlund again would be the catalyst for Team Green when he moved with the puck down low, and threading a pretty pass to a waiting Phillips camped out near the crease and he'd bury the opportunity to cut the Team White lead to one, 3-2. It was a pretty bang-bang play that was very reminiscent of Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette and I heard more than a few Wild fans around me make that comparison. Team Green would try one last ditch effort only to have it broken up on a nice play by Kyle Thomas who was hauled down before he could get a shot off on the empty goal. Instead of being awarded a goal as the rules would've dictated, Thomas got his 3rd penalty shot of the game. Thomas moved in and tried a small deke, spin around but Michalek wasn't fooled and made the big stop. With Michalek delivering the clutch penalty shot save Team Green tried one last time to get the equalizer but Mikael Granlund's shot was directed wide by Gustafsson and Team White was victorious in regulation.
The scrimmage would go to a shootout; which had its great moments and its yawners as well. Without question the goal made by defenseman and former Golden Gopher Sam Lofquist was the best one of them all which you can see here. I think its even more impressive than Mikael Granlund's goal from Saturday's shootout which you can see here. What do you think? In Sunday's shootout, Team Green would prevail 4-2 on goals from Granlund, Kris Foucault, Johan Larsson and Mike Kramer. It was a great way to end a fun and entertaining scrimmage and without sounding too biased I think the Wild's future looks awfully bright. I will now give you my sort of player by player evaluations from the scrimmage.
My Top 3:
1. Mikael Granlund - This really sounds like a given but he was clearly the most talented and gifted player on the ice. Sublimely skilled he just made everything appear effortless. In the first half, Granlund made a nifty little move to get around a defender and all scrimmage long he was controlling the pace of play and finding teammates with his passes. One of his best passes was a blueline to blueline pass he threaded through about 2-3 defenders' sticks that nearly set up a breakaway. Simply put, he thinks the game one or two steps ahead of everyone else on the ice, an incredible talent. Granlund's goal demonstrates he already has an NHL-level release with great accuracy and I hope he uses that shot more this year with HIFK Helsinki than he did last year.
Is Maximus' spirit in Kyle Thomas?
2. Kyle Thomas - This kid probably impressed me the most since I wasn't expecting anything of him in the first place. Thomas was a water bug all over the ice, and made something positive happen for his team on each and every shift. He has outstanding wheels and was perhaps the fastest skater there. The only thing that was kind of strange about his game is how he'd take huge loops around the ice before returning to the play. It was as if he was a car without brakes. I loved his tenacity on the forecheck and his hustle drew 3 penalties. While he only managed to convert 1-out of-4 chances on the penalty shots (if you count the shootout attempt) I would love for the Wild to give this guy a contract and see what happens. His hard work started to win the fans over and while any Division III player's chances of making it to the NHL are extremely remote you have to give the guy a ton of credit for not being intimidated and putting it all out there for us to see. Thomas sort of reminds me of Maximus from the movie Gladiator; and the advice he was given, "win the crowd" and he certainly did that!
3. Jonas Brodin - I didn't think I'd be eating crow this early but I am starting to see why so many people are high on this kid. I watched him walk into the arena and he is a stick figure. Very, very thin; frail even. Yet he makes up for it with superb mobility and positioning. He also uses his stick like a scalpel, knifing away pucks from on-rushing forwards and then quickly passing it out of the defensive zone to get the attack going the other way. Most of the time his decision making was very solid and he was very calm and composed. Only once did he make a foolish diagonal pass from deep in the defensive zone that nearly turned into a goal but he did not make that mistake again. We even got to see his shot; which wasn't too bad as it stayed low to the ice and made it on goal but I wouldn't say he possesses a cannon either. He certainly has to bulk up but there is lots in his game for any coach to like.
Charlie Coyle - While his puckhandling could use some improvement I liked how he used his body to muscle his way to the scoring areas of the ice. He sort of reminded me of Milan Lucic with his rock-solid frame, reasonable speed as he lowered that shoulder and played with a power forward mentality. His penalty shot goal was simple and effective.
Nick Seeler - Since I already had a nice helping of crow from my first thoughts on Jonas Brodin I probably deserve some more for doubting the sense of drafting Nick Seeler. Seeler played with great confidence and offensive skill where he created shooting lanes for himself and has a blistering slap shot. I know he's going to play in the USHL next year, but to me he looks like he could play in the WCHA already and be pretty good too. Dean Blais must be happy to get this guy out of Minnesota!
Jason Zucker - Zucker started out the game looking somewhat dangerous. He showed good wheels and a very hard shot with an ultra quick release. The problem is, he faded and wasn't nearly as noticeable in the 2nd half. Not sure if that was Kyle Thomas' fault but I was hoping to see Zucker play a bigger role as the game got more tight, instead he was sort of invisible.
Jack Connolly - Sort of like Zucker I thought the former Duluth Hilltoppers star faded a bit in the 2nd half of the scrimmage. I liked his shiftiness and his on-ice vision make him a very effective set up man. He doesn't have blazing speed but he makes space for himself and I could understand why he was one of UMD's top scorers.
Kris Foucault - Foucault is a player I've been following quite a while. I know his biggest battle is his consistency but today I thought we saw him playing pretty well from shift to shift. He was assertive and he has reasonable 1-on-1 moves and good offensive instincts. I felt he hustled fairly well and while he never blow anyone away with his skills he did make things happen on the ice and did create some secondary scoring chances for Team Green.
Matthew Hackett - Dominated between the pipes as one would expect. Calm and collected and he made stopping Kyle Thomas on a penalty shot look routine and uneventful. You can certainly see the maturity and refinement in Hackett's game.
Sam Lofquist - Apart from the ridiculous shootout goal, Lofquist played a very solid game. He seems far more confident than the player I remember struggling with the Golden Gophers a few years ago. Lofquist can move the puck efficiently and makes a good first pass out of the zone. He's now plying his trade with the Guelph Storm of the OHL, and I think the Wild should strongly consider signing this kid for some quality depth at defense.
Johan Larsson - When I watched him walk in with Mikael Granlund, I was impressed with Larsson's physique; very muscular, especially in his upper body. While many people raved about Larsson's speed in the first scrimmage I did not see that in today's tilt. He didn't seem to have that extra gear and while no one was really throwing the body around that much, I guess I still wanted to see him win some races for the puck in the corners and that didn't happen.
Zack Phillips - It may seem harsh I've placed him here; but overall I thought he had a decent scrimmage. He certainly seemed to have some chemistry with Granlund which was great to see. He has good instincts but I still saw a player who reminds me far too much of Andrew Brunette. Phillips really labors to get around on the ice. He just doesn't have that jump that you need. Offensive awareness, passing and shooting he's pretty good but unless he improves his skating I am not sure you can say he's a sure thing at the NHL level in my opinion. To me he still projects as a Brunette-style niche player.
Mario Lucia - This is another player who by most accounts impressed on Saturday but I felt was largely a non-factor on Sunday. I thought he moved well enough for a player of his size, and his shot was decent but I guess I wanted to see him dazzle a bit more. I wanted to see him make a nice move around a defender to create a scoring chance for himself. He didn't stand out the way the Top 3 and Honorable mentions did.
Marco Scandella - This was a player who I felt should've been a far more dominant force in this game. As a seasoned AHL'er I felt he played a mature game, but I was hoping to see him raise it another gear and just dominate even if to say to Jonas Brodin, not so fast because I'm here too. That didn't happen and he seemed to be on cruise control.
Chad Rau - Like Scandella I was expecting him to be more dominant considering he's been in the pros a few years. He seemed a little lost on the ice and many of his attempts to set up plays or shoot were easily foiled. A more experienced player should know how to make that more difficult in my opinion.
Justin Fontaine - I really got the feeling that Justin Fontaine was sort of going through the motions. I watched him a lot in college and he has some great skills but he looked very ordinary today. His shootout move was a joke as though he didn't really care. If he wants to be more than just a minor leaguer he better step it up because the time table of patience for a graduated college player is shorter than it is for those coming out of junior.
Joel Broda - He's still a player who struggles because of his lack of speed but he has an awesome release. His goal reminded me of Joe Sakic, a little space, a quick fling of the stick an its top shelf in an instant. If he can continue to finish like that, he can continue to climb the team's prospect ladder.