With less than a week since the ink dried on the identical contracts to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter the forward momentum of the growth of a hockey organization continues irregardless of that improbable outcome. I am of course talking about the 2012 Wild Prospect Camp which opens tomorrow. Heck, even as there are still a little over an hour (as I write this) Parise and Suter's official press conference I have to admit I'm ready to move on from that media circus and focus on what to me is just as important as those signings were and that being the team develops a strong pipeline of talent to augment what they've already built with trades and notable free agent signings. The prospect camp is a place for Wild draftees, camp invitees to learn the ropes of what it takes to be an NHL'er and maybe make a case they are deserving a long look at the team's training camp this fall or perhaps a pro contract. The youngsters are put through their paces, where they showcase their strength, agility, explosiveness, and stamina as well as their on-ice skills. For newcomers its a crash course in pro hockey as the Wild coaching staff and player development personnel run these players through drills as well as team bonding activities. No doubt there will be a lot of wide eyes and probably some sore bodies the first few days. Last year, the cameras of Becoming Wild followed prospect camp to Hudson, Wisconsin for some paintball, and to Bloomington for boot camp with former U.S. Army Ranger J.B. Spisso, so the players are exposed to a myriad of different experiences culminating into two scrimmages; both free to the public at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday at 7PM and Sunday at 11AM respectively.
Will Johan Larsson shine at this year's prospect camp?
How important are these camps? I would say they're very important because they provide a common ground to evaluate your young talent. For some of these players I have little doubt there is lots of anxiety and pressure on the shoulders of these kids who are 18-22 years old, especially those going through their first camp as well as those who may be fighting for a contract. Yet jobs are potentially available. Current Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon and Nate Prosser are proof of that as well as farm hands Justin Fontaine and Jarod Palmer are all examples of players who were invitees at prospect camp who eventually ended up being offered professional contracts. I went to one of the scrimmages last year (I even got on Becoming Wild because of it) and I have to admit I love seeing the fire from these invitees as well as this group of prospects which the experts, scouts around the league say Minnesota has something really special going on here. Think it doesn't matter? It certainly mattered to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter who both noted how the word about just how good the Wild prospects are were a major reason they thought it would be great to play here. The future is really what the Wild is all about, and the Prospect Camp gives the team and the fans a little glimpse to what that could look like. So what should Wild fans expect?
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Will any of these invitees turn out to be the next Matt Read?
For camp invitees like A.J. Michaelson, Bobby Farnham, Drew LeBlanc, Marshall Everson, Corbin Baldwin, Cody Corbett, Ryan Van Stralen, Brett Olson, Will Merchant, Ashton Sautner and Mackenzie Skapski who are first time attendees its the opportunity to make a first impression on an NHL franchise, while for 2nd time invitees like Carter Sandlak and Kyle Thomas its a chance to show everyone just why they were re-invited by the Wild. Sometimes being invited back can mean the team is eyeing you for a contract as was the case with Justin Fontaine but other times it means nothing at all as the team balked on signing guys like UMD Hobey Baker award winner Jack Connolly. Yet stars can be found here; a multiple Wild prospect camp invitee Matt Read had a fantastic rookie season where he scored 24 goals in 79 games for the Philadelphia Flyers. The Wild were unable to sign the former Bemidji State star but it is also an opportunity to create a dialogue to possibly approach a player about a professional contract.
Some of these players could very well earn a spot on the team's Traverse City Tournament roster which the team participates in mid-September. Most likely the team would be filled out with kids who have recently signed entry level deals as well as players who are playing major junior hockey since attending the camp on the team's dime would not effect their status the same way it would if they were collegiate athletes. Here is the complete list of those attending the 2012 Wild Prospect camp with one note; 2011 2nd round selection, Mario Lucia has tweeted that he will not be there as he is attending summer school classes at Notre Dame. The prospects are divided up into two teams; Team White and Team Green where they play two scrimmages for bragging rights and nothing more. For the most part the camp is a positive experience whether the player has a huge future with the Wild or not. So which players excite me for this year's camp?
Will Kyle Thomas again impress at this year's prospect camp?
1. #64 Mikael Granlund (Team Green) ~ If any player got a little bit of pressure taken off his shoulders by these sweeping events it was this Finnish wunderkind. Last year, Wild fans were treated to their first glance of this phenom in a pseudo-Wild uniform and he didn't disappoint. His stickhandling, vision and elusiveness was very apparent. Every time he got the puck the crowd would gasp in anticipation over what he might do. Hopes and expectations are still high for Granlund, but just a little more muted since his addition the lineup is not quite the biggest story anymore. He clearly is the star of the prospect camp (no offense to established NHL defenseman Marco Scandella and the other players in attendance) and will be watched closely during the scrimmages. One area Wild fans should play close attention to is how well he does on his draws, since there has been speculation he may be the team's 2nd line center to start the season. He should again dominate at the camp.
2. #63 Charlie Coyle (Team White) ~ Having paid as close attention as I have to the progress of Wild prospects one player who really seemed to raise his game this year was Charlie Coyle. Coyle was of course a part of the Brent Burns' trade from last summer. The East Weymouth, Massachusetts-native at first scared me a bit by leaving the Boston University mid-season to join Zack Phillips and the defending Memorial Cup Champion Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. Shortly after arriving in Saint John, the big bodied power forward began to assert himself and proved to be a man amongst boys putting up almost 2 points per game and earning QMJHL Playoff MVP honors. I am curious to see if he asserts that same level of physical dominance at the camp; especially against some of the bigger defenseman on Team Green like Corbin Baldwin (6'5", 215lbs) or a more compact hitting machine like Matt Dumba and a mature NHL defenseman like Marco Scandella.
3. #42 Daniel Gunnarsson (Team Green) ~ This selection might surprise some people, but I think he could be a potential steal. Gunnarsson was passed over in the 2010 draft, the same one that brought us Granlund and has quietly developed into a defenseman with good mobility to go with a nice-sized frame. He played for Lulea last season against men so I'm pretty sure he won't be intimidated. I am curious to see if he is this year's surprise of the scrimmages. I am also curious to see how he matches up defensively against Team White's bigger forwards like Coyle, 2012 2nd rounder Raphael Bussieres and development camp vets Joel Broda and Kris Foucault. Gunnarsson also supposedly possesses a big shot and I am curious if we'll see that unleashed at the scrimmages as well.
4. #47 Johan Larsson (Team White) ~ One of the most unsung of the Wild's prospects is a true character player in Swedish-born forward Johan Larsson. Larsson gets rave reviews from scouts who love his versatility and his ability to raise his game at the most important moments. He battles every shift and at the camp last year he was not all that noticeable during the scrimmages. Will he change that this year, now having one prospect camp behind him and a World Junior Championship (where he was Team Sweden's captain) in his pocket? I hope he makes more of an impact this year.
5. #56 Erik Haula (Team White) ~ I have already mentioned that Larsson is one of the unsung prospects in the Wild prospect pool, if that's true then Minnesota's true hidden gem in my opinion is University of Minnesota forward Erik Haula. Haula was outstanding this season, leading the Golden Gophers in scoring and was very clutch in NCAA and WCHA playoffs. The Pori, Finland-native has tremendous on-ice vision, a wicked release and I hope he can show that kind of assertiveness in the offensive zone in the scrimmages.
6. #55 Matt Dumba (Team Green) ~ I have to admit, this is one of the few players the Wild drafted in the 1st round where I felt pretty content by their selection. This kid is energy and hard work personified. He plays a high intensity game, is a tremendous skater with booming slap shot from the point but also a penchant for delivering the big open ice hits. He should get prime ice time on a pairing with Marco Scandella and it will be interesting to see just how comfortable he is. Dumba led all players in scoring at the U-18 tournament this spring (yes, as a defenseman) and it will be interesting to see how much razzle and dazzle he can bring for Team Green.
7. #58 Kyle Thomas (Team White) ~ Strangely enough, the player I'm really happy to see back at the camp. I knew little to nothing about him when I went to last year's scrimmage, but instantly this player stood out for his outstanding speed, intensity of his shifts and the way he constantly made good things happen on the ice. Thomas' hustle was rewarded with 3 penalty shot opportunities as opposing defenseman struggled to deal with his great speed and the result of his strong play meant I followed him very closely this season as he played for Norwich University (Div.III) as they nearly won a National title. It may seem odd to be so excited about a Division III player but I really think this kid's talent level is quite impressive and if baffles me as to why he's playing for Norwich and not some Division I school somewhere. I am curious to see if he can follow up a tremendous camp last year with another impactful performance this year.
8. #49 Raphael Bussieres (Team White) ~ I have followed Raphael Bussieres for a few years now, and he is a hard working power forward type with reasonable finishing ability as well as some nice energy and grit to his game. This year's 2nd round pick hasn't had a lot said about him as he was overshadowed by the drafting of Dumba. I think in many ways, his game has a similar upside to that of fellow Wild prospect Brett Bulmer. I am curious to see how his game contrasts to Bulmer who is on Team Green.
9. #54 Brett Bulmer (Team Green) ~ Bulmer missed the prospect scrimmage I saw last year (out with an injury he sustained during the camp), but he was the surprise of the team's training camp where he actually made the opening day lineup. He showed grit and good speed, but was still too raw for the NHL, but the fact he made it really spoke to his potential. He was returned to his junior team, a struggling Kelowna team and he really carried team by scoring 34 goals in 53 games. Until the signings many Wild fans felt Bulmer would have a decent chance at making the team and who knows maybe he will again but you would think he'd be a dominant player at this year's camp if he was that close to sticking in Minnesota's lineup last season.
#10. #40 Jonas Brodin (Team White) ~ Brodin is the safe and steady defenseman that many believe is within a year from being NHL ready. After having played well the last two seasons in Sweden's Eliteserien, the lanky defenseman is a superb skater but like recently retired Nicklas Lidstrom so many of the great things he does are very subtle yet impressive in a way that has scouts delighted about his potential. It is his great hockey mind that allows hiim to think the game 1-2 steps ahead of most everyone else that sets him apart from his peers and why he is almost never caught out of position. He may not put up a lot of points but he has potential to become a tremendous shutdown defenseman who has the hockey sense to help the attack up front. I really believe you have to watch Brodin play in person to really appreciate what he can do.
#11. #75 Will Merchant (Team White) ~ I hope the invitation to prospect camp sort of buoyed the spirits of this Eagan prep star. He was passed over in this year's draft, which I have little doubt was a bit disappointing to say the least. I have had the luck of watching him develop over the last 3 seasons with the Wildcats. Merchant is going to be attending the University of Maine this fall, and he is a player who combines good size, with great speed and nice hands around the net. Every time I watched the Wildcats play, Merchant always showcased his terrific wheels and good vision while moving at top speed. I am very interested to see how well he does in the college ranks, but equally interested to see how well he fares in the scrimmages after having been such a dominant player in high school.
Who are you excited to see at this year's prospect scrimmages? Please leave a comment who you're going to be watching closely below!