"Things are going great, and they're only getting better, I'm doing all right, getting good grades, The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades," by Timbuk 3 really does describe the Minnesota Wild's prospect situation rather well. ESPN Insider as well as Hockey's Future rated the Wild's prospect pool as the 2nd best in the National Hockey League only trailing the Florida Panthers. In the recently released NHL Yearbook released by the Hockey News rates Minnesota's prospect pool 7th (a B+), and according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune's Wild beat writer Michael Russo the team's top prospects are:
1. Mikael Granlund
2. Jonas Brodin
3. Matt Dumba
4. Charlie Coyle
5. Matt Hackett
6. Johan Larsson
7. Brett Bulmer
8. Zack Phillips
9. Jason Zucker
10. Darcy Kuemper
I am not going to say that Mr. Russo is wrong, but you will soon see my list differs from his. In all honestly, it doesn't really matter where these players are on the list as long as they develop into NHL'ers right? I have to admit I began to compose this article to keep my mind off the negotiations between the league and the NHLPA. However, even the Wild's prospects aren't immune from the effects of these negotiations even though all of them are not full-time NHL'ers yet.
Last week Tuesday, the Detroit Red Wings who are the hosts of the annual Traverse City Tournament canceled it due to the uncertainty over the negotiations between the league the players' union and the fact the CBA expires the same day the tournament was set to begin. This will deprive some of these Wild prospects and opportunity to further develop their game let alone create some chemistry with their teammates. Its an unfortunate side effect of the bitter negotiations that some believe will lead to another lockout or a delayed start to the 2012-13 season. Yet on a brighter note, how would the State of Hockey News rank the Wild's top talent?
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1. Center ~ Mikael Granlund (HIFK Helsinki, Sm-Liiga)
Height: 5'10" Weight: 180lbs Shoots: Left
2011-12 Stats: 45GP 20G 31A = 51pts 18 PIM's +20
Talent Analysis: I feel somewhat confident that this is the last time I will be calling Mikael Granlund a Wild prospect. While the definition of a prospect varies a bit depending on who you ask; for myself its when a player is now playing full time with an NHL club. The Wild organization has already stated publicly that Granlund has a spot on the big club's roster and I really believe that if he performs at least 60-75% of the team's expectations he should stay the entire season. Without question, Mikael Granlund is the team's most highly anticipated prospect since Mikko Koivu made Wild fans wait 3 years before emerging from Finland or perhaps the team's first ever 1st round pick Marian Gaborik back in 2000. Some Wild fans have extremely high hopes for Granlund and while being under scrutiny is nothing new to the Finnish league superstar it has to be a little different when that pressure is coming from lots of people who don't even speak your 1st language. Granlund got a huge reprieve from some of this expected pressure to deliver right away when the Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in early July. Had the team not been able to make those splashes you could've expected just about every Wild story this summer to have focused on what Granlund's impact would be. The team has been desperate for some skill, which has exacerbated the pressure coming from Minnesota and in Finland and at the World Championships he has delivered points and highlights that have only increased the hype surrounding him. The Wild organization does not hesitate to show clips of his infamous lacrosse style goal he scored against Russia at the 2011 World Championships and no drafted player since Gaborik had the team mass produce jerseys with his name and number (#64) on it as they have with Granlund so its obvious there is pressure from within too. With all of this being said, Granlund does possess remarkable skill and hockey intelligence in the offensive zone. His outstanding hands make him adept both as a playmaker and as a finisher. The Oulu-native is not all that fast for a player of his size, which causes some fans to be concerned (myself included) on whether this will limit his effectiveness at the NHL level. He will hope to counter this deficiency with good elusiveness and the ability to change direction quickly. He's added more strength, but will need to continue to bulk up so he can be as strong on the puck as is possible. He works best near the boards and does a nice job of finding open spaces where he can pounce on pucks. Granlund is currently penciled in as the #2 center on a line with Devin Setoguchi and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. It will be interesting to see how Granlund does on his draws and if he does struggle in this category whether that prompts the team to make some changes to his line. Hopefully being on the 2nd line will allow him a little more time and space, because when Granlund has even half of those two things he is a very dangerous player on the ice. I am not a huge believer in point predictions but I'd advise Wild fans to be a bit guarded in their expectations of the youngster; and say he's probably good for about 30-40 points this season. If he puts up points beyond that its a huge bonus for the Wild. I think he's probably a good pre-season Calder Trophy candidate, but we'll see if he can live up to the hype because there is plenty of it to go around.
2. Defenseman ~ Jonas Brodin (Farjestad, Eliteserien)
Height: 6'1" Weight: 172lbs Shoots: Left
2011-12 Stats: 49GP 0G 8A = 8pts 14 PIM's +6
Talent Analysis: As some hockey fans like to say, you actually have to be there to fully appreciate it. That is a good way to describe Jonas Brodin's subtle, but solid game. When the Wild drafted him in 2011 with their first (of two) 1st round picks last season I was not impressed. Another non-physical defenseman with limited offensive abilities? Yuck. However, after watching him at last year's prospect scrimmage and this year's plus at this year's WJC's I understand why scouts were so high on this kid. He plays a very intelligent game which has Brodin thinking the play 2-3 steps ahead of his opponent and like fellow Swede Nicklas Lidstrom he almost never gets caught of position and on the rare occasion that he does he has the skating ability to recover in a non-frantic way. Brodin is steady and decisive in his decision making with the puck and works well at the point in the offensive zone. He uses his stick very effectively to knife away pucks from attacking forwards and then takes little time making that first pass to initiate the rush the other way. It were these qualities which Brodin used so effectively to shut down the opposition in Sweden's gold medal victory at the World Junior Championships. I am still not sold on whether he has much in the way of offensive potential as some scouts are, but his hockey sense does make him an effective puck distributor. His shot is slightly above average, but what makes it better is the fact he has the knack to put his shots on goal which in turn often creates secondary scoring opportunities for his teammates however his whole offensive game is still very much a work in progress. Brodin still must find a way to add more strength to his skinny frame. It will be very interesting to see how he handles his first North American season. I think he has at least a chance to make the team out of training camp, but I think most likely he'll be spending most of this season with the Aeros. I think he'll be in the Wild's Top 4 by next season.
3. Center / Right Wing ~ Charlie Coyle (Saint John, QMJHL)
Height: 6'2" Weight: 207lbs Shoots: Right
2011-12 Stats: 23GP 15G 23A = 38pts 8 PIM's +23
Talent Analysis: When Coyle left Boston University in December I really wondered if the Wild had gotten itself into another A.J. Thelen fiasco. Coyle claimed he left the NCAA ranks to advance his development as a player by joining up with an already loaded St. John Sea Dogs team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He wasted little time in adjusting to the different style of play, let alone having the advantage of being an overager who was a physical mismatch for the many teenagers that make up most clubs. Coyle put up points at an almost 2 points per game clip, and was even more dominant in the post season where he was QMJHL Playoff MVP. His game was more muted in the Memorial Cup than I expected, but he is a strong power forward who has good hands and instincts around the net and he loves being on the forecheck. He uses his frame effectively to protect the puck as well as dishing out some punishment with solid checks along the boards. I am not sure I'd say he's a really fast player, but he moves very well as he has strong skating stride that gets himself up to full speed pretty quickly. For a time, Wild beat writer Michael Russo even questioned at one point whether Coyle was in fact the Wild's top prospect instead of Mikael Granlund. I think Coyle is another year away from playing in the NHL, and I think he'd be better served by playing top line minutes on the Aeros then receiving 4th line minutes on the Aeros. I think he'll get a call up or two if he's playing well in Houston, but he has tremendous Top 6 potential. This is why the Brent Burns' trade was worth it!
4. Goaltender ~ Matt Hackett (Houston, AHL)
Height: 6'2" Weight: 170lbs Catches: Left
2011-12 Stats: 44GP (20-17-6) 2.38GAA .917%SP
Talent Analysis: Sometimes you can do all of the right things and still get the short end of the things. I am sure Matt Hackett felt he had paid his dues after two solid seasons with the Houston Aeros including a few promising stints with the Wild but he better not clear out his place in Houston just yet. His plans no doubt changed when the Wild signed Josh Harding to a 3-year deal which effectively let Hackett know he's going to be Houston bound for another season. However that's the life of a pro goaltender. Either way, Hackett has been steady and giving the Wild every reason to believe he'll be ready to step in when needed. He is efficient in his crease and is rarely caught out of position. Even though he had a terrible first scrimmage at the Wild's prospect camp he bounced back with a much better performance in the 2nd game I still think he's likely going to be immediately inserted as the backup goaltender when the Wild likely will let Niklas Backstrom go via free agency. I think Hackett's biggest test this season will be maintaining focus despite his disappointment over being relegated back to Houston.
5. Forward ~ Johan Larsson (Brynas, Eliteserien)
Height: 5'11" Weight: 198lbs Shoots: Left
2011-12 Stats: 49GP 12G 24A = 36pts 34 PIM's -10
Talent Analysis: It has been an eventful year for Johan Larsson. He captained Team Sweden to a World Junior Championships gold, and for an encore he named the Eliteserien's Rookie of the Year after tallying 36 points in 49 games. Larsson is a player that scouts rave about for his strong two-way play and terrific hockey IQ. The Lau, Sweden-native is solidly built, with a stocky frame that is reminiscent of Cal Clutterbuck. However its Larsson's competitive drive that set himself apart from his peers. He simply outworks the opposition at either end of the ice and is willing to do whatever it takes to help his team win whether its delivering a hit, scoring a goal, blocking a shot or shutting down the opposition's top forward. Larsson was very impressive at the Wild's prospect scrimmage, digging the puck out of the corners and working himself into the scoring areas where lit the lamp twice. Larsson is probably a year away before being a regular in the Wild's lineup and by what I could see at the scrimmage I think he'll adapt to the North American game rather quickly. This is the kind of versatile, character player that coaches love because you can use players like this in almost any capacity and have success.
6. Defenseman ~ Matt Dumba (Red Deer, WHL)
Height: 6'0" Weight: 166lbs Shoots: Right
2011-12 Stats: 69GP 20G 37A = 57pts 67 PIM's -6
Talent Analysis: The Wild's 1st round pick for 2012 is the personification of energy and explosiveness. Dumba is not the typical finesse puck moving defenseman that fans have become used to seeing the team draft. The Calgary-native is a tremendous skater and does not hesitate to join the rush and use his speed to spearhead the attack. Dumba's other great trait is his penchant for delivering devastating open-ice hits, and he gave Wild fans a taste of this with two huge open ice hits in the 2nd scrimmage and if he miscalculates his speed again helps him recover. The blueliner also has great puck skills in addition to possessing a cannon of a slap shot which makes him lethal on the power play. The player he modeled himself after is current Maple Leafs' defenseman Dion Phaneuf. Towards the 2nd half of the season, due to a rash of injuries suffered by the Rebels he was forced to play a more conservative game so his production tailed off a bit after a torrid start but it also demonstrates the versatility to his game. He is not as big as Phaneuf, but he makes up for it with an outstanding work ethic and fitness level. Another intangible is Dumba's leadership qualities where he served as Team Canada's captain at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka Tournament this spring where he led the team in scoring. Dumba wants to try to earn a spot on the big club, but he'd probably be best served playing another year in Red Deer.
7. Left Wing ~ Jason Zucker (Denver, WCHA)
Height: 5'11" Weight: 180lbs Shoots: Left
2011-12 Stats: 38GP 22G 24A = 46pts 38 PIM's
Talent Analysis: Zucker followed up a WCHA rookie of the year campaign with a strong sophomore season after a slow start. The Las Vegas-native used his speed to great effect at the prospect scrimmages earlier this summer where he sped around defenders to create scoring chances. Originally tabbed as a checker he's shown reasonable finishing skills although he did not manage to find the back of the net in his 6-game stint with the Wild. Zucker still needs to add strength to his frame but his energy, quickness and speed make him an ideal 3rd line player who could also fill a top 6 role if needed. His skill set also makes him a candidate for both the power play and the penalty kill. He served as Team USA's captain at this year's World Junior Championships and helped lead the Americans to a bronze medal. I do not see him making the team out of training camp, but I think he'll play a prominent role with the Aeros next year probably somewhere on the Aeros' Top 6.
8. Left Wing ~ Brett Bulmer (Kelowna, WHL)
Height: 6'3" Weight: 193lbs Shoots: Right
2011-12 Stats: 53GP 34G 28A = 62pts 93 PIM's +10
Talent Analysis: Brett Bulmer surprised everyone by making the team out of training camp. The big bodied winger plays with reckless abandon which is what set him apart at camp and got him his first cup of coffee at the NHL level. He took every opportunity to dish out hits and played well on the forecheck in the offensive zone and played much the same way at the team's prospect camp this summer. The Wild decided he wasn't quite ready for prime time and so he was sent back to Kelowna where he put the club on his shoulders and showed that he isn't just a big bruiser but that he has skills and scoring potential too. He's added some more muscle to his frame and appears to have Top 9 potential and will likely see lots of ice time in Houston this season. If there is any downside to his game is sometimes his temper can get the best of him, as exhibited by his suspension in the WHL playoffs that doomed any chance Kelowna had. Opposing teams will try to take advantage of that temper at the next level.
9. Right Wing ~ Mario Lucia (Penticton, BCHL)
Height: 6'3" Weight: 195lbs Shoots: Left
2011-12 Stats: 56GP 42G 52A = 94pts 42 PIM's
Talent Analysis: The former Wayzata star has kind of been the 'lost prospect' since he chose to bypass his senior year and play in the BCHL instead with Penticton on a team with a bunch of other talented Minnesotans. All he did was be a major offensive contributor on Canada's best Jr. A team putting up impressive numbers both in the regular season in playoffs as Penticton rolled to an RBC Cup title. Lucia now readies himself for his next challenge, with Notre Dame this season. He is smooth skating winger with a quick and accurate release and top 6 skills in a 6'3" frame. Lucia also reminded Wild fans he's more of a long-term project by the fact he did not attend the team's prospect camp to get a jump on his studies at Notre Dame. This choices suits the Wild just fine since they already have a bit of a log jam amongst its forward prospects at this time. He is probably at least another 3 years away and it will be interesting to see if he can be as explosive offensively with the Fighting Irish as he was with the Vees.
10. Goaltender ~ Johan Gustafsson (Lulea, Eliteserien)
Height: 6'2" Weight: 170lbs Catches: Left
2011-12 Stats: 29GP 1.84GAA .929%SP 5 shutouts
Talent Analysis: It was an outstanding season for the Wild's 6th round pick in 2010. Backstopping a gold medal at this year's World Junior Championships as well as putting up rock solid numbers in his first full season in Sweden's top league. Gustafsson is your prototypical big bodied goaltender who is athletic and technically sound. The Koping, Sweden-native has a sneaky quick glove and performs well under pressure. He shined again at the Wild prospect scrimmage but he will be returning to Sweden to continue to hone his game. The team signed him to a 3-year entry level deal earlier this summer so they would not lose his rights as he'd re-enter the draft. The team has a nice stable of quality goaltender prospects but Gustafsson should provide a solid push to current front runner Matt Hackett.
We're not done just yet...
The best part of it all is that the Wild have quality prospects outside of their top 10. Whether they have a future with the Wild or not, they should give the team great depth plus assets it can parlay for other pieces it may need. So here is the 'next 10' prospects with a brief description of their 2011-12 exploits. Just a few years ago the Wild would never have been close to having a 'next 10' which is a testament to the ability of General Manager Chuck Fletcher and perhaps more importantly Assistant GM Brent Flahr and his scouting staff to stockpile lots of quality talent.
'The Next 10'
11. C ~ Zack Phillips (Saint John, QMJHL) 2011-12 Stats: 60GP 30G 50A = 80pts 32 PIM's +47
Some may be surprised I am rating Zack Phillips so low, but the most glaring deficiency in his game (his skating) continues to be an problem area for the Fredericton, New Brunswick-native. He has terrific hands, can handle the puck as well as just about any other Wild prospect and has a knack for finding the open areas of the ice. Yet the skating issue will severely limit his versatility at the next level and until he gets it resolved its tough for me to call him a sure-fire NHL prospect. Especially in today's game where you so rarely see players able to stick very long if they're not that great of a skater. He has nothing to prove playing in junior having scored 175 points the last two seasons, but it will be interesting to see if the faster play of professional hockey will expose those skating deficiencies I just mentioned.
12. RW ~ Raphael Bussieres (Baie-Comeau, QMJHL) 2011-12 Stats: 56GP 21G 23A = 44pts 60 PIM's -2
Some felt the Wild reached a bit when it took the solidly built power forward in the 2nd round this year. However, at the Wild's prospect camp he demonstrated just how effective he could be on a line with skilled forwards around him. He uses his strong 6'1" frame to protect the puck well and does not mind paying the physical price necessary to battle for the puck in the corners and along the wall. While his offensive stats may not be as striking as other Wild prospects he does have some offensive skills and it will be interesting if he can take his game to another level this season.
13. D ~ Daniel Gunnarsson (Lulea, Eliteserien) 2011-12 Stats: 46GP 3G 4A = 7pts 8 PIM's +6
A 2012 draft pick that was originally passed over in the 2010 draft, Gunnarsson surprised many with an excellent prospect camp performance. Gunnarsson demonstrated some good offensive instincts that allowed him to score a goal and add a helper during the Team White vs. Team Green scrimmages. Gunnarsson possesses decent size (6'4") and moves very well with a smooth skating stride that appears to be sort of similar to current Wild defenseman Marco Scandella. Gunnarsson will continue to hone his game in Sweden but he looks like he could be a diamond in the rough for the Wild.
14. C/LW ~ Erik Haula (Minnesota, WCHA) 2011-12 Stats: 43GP 20G 29A = 49pts 30 PIM's
Few people outside of the State of Hockey probably realize that it was Erik Haula, not Florida Panthers prospect Nick Bjugstad that was the Golden Gophers' leading scorer last season. Haula did this while bouncing all over the Gophers lineup. Haula has terrific hockey sense that allows him to place himself where the puck will be before it gets there and his excellent hands are adept in the finishing or set up role. The Pori, Finland-native is versatile enough to be used both on the power play and on the penalty kill and is in good position to again be one of the offensive leaders for the Golden Gophers this upcoming season.
15. G ~ Darcy Kuemper (Ontario, ECHL) 2011-12 Stats: 8GP (7-1-0) 1.74GAA .941%SP
In 2010 he was the WHL Goaltender of the year, and in 2011 he was named the ECHL's Goaltender of the Week in late November. Darcy Kuemper is certainly a very promising goaltending prospect who combines size (6'4") and athleticism. Kuemper was sent to Ontario of the ECHL, and was absolutely stellar. He eventually was called up to Houston where he again provided solid minutes in Matt Hackett's absence only to be lost to an injury that not only kept him out of the rest of the season but also the Wild's prospect camp this summer. Kuemper should be Hackett's backup in Houston this season and there is no reason to believe he'll have another great season.
16. Center ~ Tyler Graovac (Ottawa, OHL) 2011-12 Stats: 50GP 8G 19A = 27pts 31 PIM's +6
Tyler Graovac is on the cusp to having his first big chance to shine with the Ottawa 67's. The big (6'4") center possesses good mobility and puck skills and was a standout at the team's first prospect scrimmage this summer. He dangled around defenders and demonstrated an assertiveness that few expected. He has been in the shadow of the 67's vets John McFarland, Shane Prince and Tyler Toffoli. With McFarland, Prince and Toffoli moving on, its time for Graovac to shine along with promising 2013-draft elligible Sean Monahan. Graovac battled with injuries throughout much of 2011-12, but was one of Ottawa's scoring leaders in the playoffs.
17. D ~ Tyler Cuma (Houston, AHL) 2011-12 Stats: 73GP 0G 9A = 9pts 48 PIM's -4
Tyler Cuma's career has been can be best summarized as a 'series of unfortunate events'. From knee injuries that completely submarined two seasons to most recently being hurt and unable to play at this summer's prospect camp Wild fans are still waiting for Cuma to step to the forefront and time is running out on the former 23rd Overall selection from 2008. Last year, Cuma managed to stay healthy for most of the season and while he does not play a flashy game, his style of play is similar to that of other Wild defenseman where his game is predicated on good mobility and being able to make a good first pass. He needs to start to branch out to the offensive side of the game because time (and patience) is running out.
18. LW ~ Kris Foucault (Houston, AHL) 2011-12 Stats: 70GP 14G 18A = 32pts 44 PIM's -7
Kris Foucault is a player that teases you with flashes of terrific skill but still hasn't quite found that consistency just yet. The former Hitmen playoff ace has great on-ice vision and has good instincts to set up teammates and he has a nice quick release which can surprise goaltenders as well. He got his NHL cup of coffee last season, and it will be interesting to see what line he finds himself on in Houston this year. However he has a solid attitude and has really embraced the off-ice dedication it takes to be a professional.
19. RW ~ Justin Fontaine (Houston, AHL) 2011-12 Stats: 73GP 16G 39A = 55pts 32 PIM's -3
The former UMD star had a great first professional season as one of the Aeros top scorers. While I think he was expected to light the lamp a bit more, his skill and ability to set up teammates put him on the scoresheet most nights. Fontaine should be amongst the Aeros' top scorers once again and his production should only increase with better talent around him.
20. D ~ Kyle Medvec (Houston, AHL) 2011-12 Stats: 56GP 1G 3A = 4pts 33 PIM's -2
Medvec had a reasonable first professional season after playing 4 seasons with the Vermont Catamounts. He's stay at home defenseman with a massive 6'6" frame who steadily got better as the season wore on. The Apple Valley-native moves well for a big man, but he still needs to establish a physical game if he wants to distinguish himself from the other Wild prospects.