After four consecutive years of missing the playoffs and accumulating draft picks quickly, the Minnesota Wild may be about to start reaping benefits.
There is considerable talent in abundance for all positions on the ice that can grow together, with prime-aged stars like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter signed long term as pillars on which the prospects can lean. Now all the team has to do is watch its young hopefuls earn their way into the lineup as roles slowly start to open up.
"It's hard to know exactly how much these kids will do,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said at the end of a disappointing 2011-12 season. "I'm not expecting, I'm hoping for one or two surprises. We're not going to put anyone on the team -- they'll have to earn it."
One of second-year coach Mike Yeo's tenets since taking over has been to change the culture of the team, where players see themselves and their team as winners and expect to win, as Yeo witnessed during his days in Pittsburgh as an assistant coach. Fortunately for the Wild, most of their top youngsters will arrive having already experienced the process of winning championships and gold medals at their levels. If the club can eventually guide them into helping to do the same at the premium NHL level, there potentially may be a new powerhouse in the West in the near future.
With nearly their full draft class from 2010 signed and showing promise, tough decisions loom for Minnesota's coaches and management until there is more room on the roster or injuries create opportunities.
Here's a look at Minnesota's top 10 prospects:
1. Mikael Granlund, C: Besides free agent prize Zach Parise, the Finnish sensation is probably going to be the most watched forward on the ice during training camp and beyond. All eight selections before him in the 2010 NHL Draft are already in the League, but Granlund has a chance to be special.
Mikael Grunland tallied a career-high 20 goals and 51 points in the Finnish Elite League last season. (Getty Images)
Gifted with tremendous vision and effortless offensive creativity, Granlund has already conquered bigger, older, stronger competition in his native Finland, where he has attained hero status for his key lacrosse-style goal against the Russians that helped his country win the 2011 IIHF World Championship.
His pro accomplishments began with Rookie of the Year honors off a 40-point season in 43 games for HIFK Helsinki of the Finnish Elite League at age 17. He then tied for a scoring title a year later, which is unthinkable for that league at his age, and capped off the season off by winning a championship with HIFK. After career highs of 20 goals and 51 points in 2011-12, he was signed by the Wild in time to avoid rules forcing him to re-entering the Draft.
"Yes, he's as advertised," assistant GM Brent Flahr told NHL.com. "Mikael's smaller in stature, but he's a dynamic player. Obviously he's highly skilled and his hockey sense is high-end. He just thinks the game at another level. He's a pretty competitive guy."
Yeo wants to install Granlund at center in training camp, but he also could also be tried at wing with Wild captain Mikko Koivu, his teammate and close friend on two Finnish national teams. Both will be huge parts of the team's future, and Granlund's friendship with Koivu will undoubtedly help in adjusting to life and hockey in North America.
"The way [Granlund] distributes the puck and makes plays, we obviously want to put him in as many offensive situations with good offensive players as we can," Flahr said. "And we'll see how he does, but realistically, he's going to get a look there."
Added Granlund to the Wild's official web site: "I've improved a lot of things. Everything as a player; I'm stronger and I think I'm ready to play in the NHL next season."
2. Charlie Coyle, RW: The former San Jose Sharks' first-round draft pick has everything going for him to make the jump to Minnesota in short order.
"He is a true power forward, and believe me, we could use a true power forward just like any team in the League," Fletcher told Wild TV.
Leaving Boston University during Christmas break last season, Coyle caught on with the high-powered Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior League, and joined forces with fellow Wild prospect Zack Phillips to become a formidable duo. Coyle piled up 15 goals and 38 points in just 23 regular season games, and then dominated in the playoffs with a team-record 34 points (15 goals and 19 assists) that led all scorers. He was awarded Guy Lafleur Trophy as most valuable player of the QMJHL playoffs, becoming the first American to win the honor since Hall of Fame member Pat LaFontaine did it for Verdun in 1983.
"Charlie Coyle to me is the most complete hockey player I saw at this level," said Saint John coach Gerard Gallant on a Minnesota Wild PONDcast. "He is the total package."
Willing to propel his 6-foot-2, 207 pound frame through or around opponents, the East Weymouth, Mass., product was the key component for Fletcher in the Wild's dealing of Brent Burns to San Jose at the 2011 Draft. Coincidentally, the deal also included a first rounder that was used to select Phillips, along with Devin Setoguchi.
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"His skill set with his size and strength, they're just so hard to come by," Flahr said. "Moving to Saint John, he was able to play with some great players and at the same time take his offensive game to another level."
With at least half of their potential 12 regular forwards standing less than six feet tall, the Wild will benefit having a big man with soft hands around the net in their lineup like Coyle.
"With the way he works off the ice, his physical strength and physical maturity has advanced to the point where he can come in and legitimately challenge for a spot," Flahr said. "We're not putting pressure on him, but at the same time, we know he's not far off."
3. Jonas Brodin, D: There are no stats produced by Brodin that are going to wow anyone. What makes the Wild excited about the Sweden native is that he possesses an uncanny brand of hockey acumen marked by superior composure, intelligence and footwork.
The first round (No. 10) of the 2011 Draft "is a very special player," according to Flahr, who even offered that Brodin was arguably one of the best skaters in the world already at age 19. "He's got great poise with the puck and very smart defensively. He's continuing to get stronger. He's pretty close to stepping in, and I think when you put him with good or better players, he's going to excel. We have high, high expectations for him coming here in the near future."
He will need to add strength to his 6-foot-1, 168-pound frame, but as Granlund did in the Finnish Elite League, Brodin was able to thrive starting as a 17-year-old playing against men and NHL-quality players in the Swedish Elite League the past two seasons, as well as on the men's national team. Brodin notched eight assists in 49 regular-season games for Farjestads BK Karlstad this past season, and was a mainstay on the blue line for gold-medal winner Sweden at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship with four assists in the tournament.
"[Brodin has] great savvy, doesn't get rattled, has the ability to go back for pucks under forecheck pressure and make the right decision," Fletcher said after Brodin impressed in the Wild's development camp this summer. "Great mobility and first pass -- and he's a really good defender. He's not a flashy player, but very effective."
4. Mathew Dumba, D: "He's not shy," Flahr chuckled when describing the first-round draft pick (No. 7) in this past June's Draft.
That goes for both Dumba's personality and his way of introducing himself to enemy forwards on the ice, where he deftly uses his still-growing 6-foot frame to throw rattling hits whenever he gets a chance.
Compared by some observers to Dion Phaneuf and Mike Green, Dumba provides offense to his crash-and-bang game, evidenced by a 20-goal, 37-assist season in 69 games for Red Deer of the Western Hockey League in 2011-12. He was the captain of Canada's bronze medal team at Under-18 World Championships, where he earned Best Defenseman honors and recorded 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in seven games.
"Matt's a dynamic player," Flahr said. "He's a terrific skater with very good hands and offensive instincts. He shoots the puck a ton, loves to hit and he plays just a high-energy game."
The Wild have a strong forward unit, but are in need of more impact players on the back end to support Ryan Suter. Dumba's unique blend of skill, physicality and emotional exuberance will be a welcome fit whenever he makes it.
"He's one of those players that is real exciting and should have a big impact," Flahr said. "He loves the game and plays with a lot of passion. Just the way he carries himself off the ice is very similar to the way he plays on it."
Dumba also impressed Fletcher with his leadership qualities and high fitness level at development camp. His electricity on the ice earned him an invite to Canada's 2012 World Junior Championship camp, where he was the youngest player.
5. Zack Phillips, C: If and when Phillips makes it to Minnesota, it is a strong possibility he will see a familiar face in Saint John teammate Coyle, with whom he won a QMJHL championship last year. But he will also likely see time playing on a top-six unit or power play unit, which is where his outstanding vision for the game puts him.
For three seasons, Phillips has flexed his playmaking abilities playing on a Saint John squad loaded with already-drafted talents like Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau, Montreal's Nathan Beaulieu and Detroit's Tomas Jurco. After winning a Memorial Cup in 2011, Phillips outscored them all this past season with 30 goals and 80 points in 60 games, and was named the team's MVP. He then tallied the most assists in the QMJHL postseason with 23 and added nine goals across 17 playoff games.
"Very few people in our organization can see the ice the way Zack can," Fletcher told Wild TV.
Phillips' established chemistry with Coyle is certainly an advantage for the Wild to envision when the time comes for both to be in the lineup creating offense together, be it in the AHL with Houston or up with the big club.
"Zach is a high-skill forward with very good hands and offensive sense. He is a terrific power play player and produces points. He's a very intelligent, competitive player, so we're excited about him," Flahr said.
The Wild's second first-round pick in 2011 (No. 28) -- obtained in the Burns trade on draft day -- will need to refine his all-around game to move to the next level, according to Flahr and Gallant.
"He's got great vision, he puts up numbers, I just think he's got to get stronger and work harder at his game a little bit, but his offensive instincts are just outstanding," Gallant told the Wild's PONDcast this past spring.
6. Brett Bulmer, LW: Another power forward in the making for Minnesota, Bulmer made the Wild out of training camp last season and enjoyed a nine-game cameo, where he assisted on three goals and played the body most willingly.
One of three second-round draft picks the Wild had in 2010 (No. 39), Bulmer came to this year's development camp in tremendous shape again, bulking up to 204 pounds from 185 when he was drafted, according to Fletcher.
"Bulmer is a 6-foot-3 winger with very good speed, and a good all-around game as far as skill," Flahr said. "He knows how to play on the defensive side, but he also brings an edge, which is a big part of his game in getting under the opposition's skin, finishing checks and playing a really aggressive game."
Bulmer has increased his goal and point totals in each of the last three seasons with Kelowna of the WHL. Once the Wild returned him to the Rockets, Bulmer ripped home 34 goals and 28 assists in 53 games, tacking on 93 penalty minutes. The Wild then moved him to their farm team in Houston afterward for their playoff run, where he contributed two goals and two assists in 10 combined regular season and playoff games.
After getting a taste of NHL life last season, Bulmer represents the good problem that the Wild deal with in having so many effective prospects to find spots for. His size and intensity are certainly intriguing.
"We're going to see where he fits, but he's certainly made his presence felt here with our team and our coaches," Flahr said. "He's coming here with the intention of making our team."
7. Jason Zucker, LW: Smallish, but elusive on the ice, Zucker is another 2010 second-round pick of the Wild (No. 59) that has already seen NHL action, recording two assists in a six-game look-see at season's end after giving up his final two years of college eligibility to sign.
With another look at Zucker in this summer's development camp, Fletcher noted, "the one thing that separates Jason from a lot of kids in our camp is his ability to use his speed to separate himself from players and score goals. Hopefully he can continue those trends in the NHL. Jason's certainly going to push hard for a spot."
Raised in Las Vegas, Zucker earned Western Collegiate Hockey Association Freshman of the Year honors with a 45-point effort at the University of Denver. He followed up with 22 goals and 46 points in 38 games as a sophomore before joining the Wild.
"Jason brings us speed and the ability to score goals," Flahr said. "He's a little different than some of our other [prospects]. With the way he skates, the way he pressures the puck, and the way he shoots the puck, he gives us a presence that should help us generate offense going forward. He knows how to play the defensive game and is a good all-around player.
"He's a pretty confident kid and has played in a lot of big games throughout his career, so we're excited to get him going here."
Zucker has been fortunate enough to be part of three gold medal-winning United States teams at the 2009 and 2010 World Under-18 Championships, and at the 2010 World Junior Championship. He also served as the captain of the U.S. squad at the 2012 WJC.
8. Johan Larsson, LW: The past year could not have gone any better for Larsson. Captaining Sweden's first gold medal-winning team at the WJC since 1981 may have been just the tip of the iceberg for the 5-foot-10, 200-pounder.
Johan Larsson captained Sweden to its first gold medal at the WJC in more than two decades in 2012. (Getty Images)
The second of the Wild's three second-round picks in 2010 (No. 56) won Rookie of the Year honors in the Swedish Elite League while skating for Brynas with 12 goals and 24 assists in 49 games. Topping that off, Larsson assisted on both Brynas goals in a 2-0 win against Skelleftea to capture the SEL Championship.
Larsson was signed to an entry-level contract by the Wild in May 2011, and the team is eager to see how he does at training camp.
"He's an underrated guy because most people [in North America] don't know him yet," Flahr said. "Johan's a very good all-around player. He plays both ways, he's a fire hydrant in terms of how he's built, and a very competitive, aggressive, passionate guy. He has very good hands and makes plays, he can play on the defensive side of the puck, whatever you need him to do, he can do. We're very confident he can become a good player here for us in the future."
9. Matt Hackett, G: An all-star season in the AHL helped Hackett make things interesting when he was first called up to the Wild for spot duty last season.
The nephew of former NHL goaltender Jeff Hackett was a revelation in going 2-0 with a 0.85 goals-against average and .977 save percentage in his first three games, which started 1:11 into a contest against San Jose in which starter Josh Harding was injured.
Hackett even earned the NHL's Second Star of the Week in December, and in the process, he set an NHL record shutout streak to start a career at 102:48 minutes played. Overall, Hackett rang up a 3-6-0 record overall (20-17-6 in the AHL), with a respectable 2.38 GAA (identical in AHL) and .922 save percentage (.917 in the AHL).
According to Flahr, Hackett "has starter potential" at the NHL level. With other impressive goaltenders like 6-foot-5 Darcy Kuemper and Swedish WJC hero Johan Gustafsson also in the pipeline, Hackett's impressive showing last season gives him an advantage in becoming a long-term answer in net. He will likely get another opportunity to suit up for the big club should injuries occur.
10. Mario Lucia, LW: A raw 6-foot-3 talent, the son of Minnesota Golden Gophers coach Don Lucia will be given plenty of time to develop his power forward game by playing for Notre Dame next season.
The younger Lucia helped Penticton of the British Columbia Hockey League dominate with a 54-4-0-2 regular-season mark, which included a record 42-game unbeaten streak en route to lifting the Fred Page Cup in the league championship. Lucia finished third in the regular-season scoring race with 94 points in 56 games, and tied for first in goals with 42. He was also named to the BCHL Second All-Star Team and All-Rookie Team, and has designs on making this year's U.S. World Junior squad as he attends the evaluation camp in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The Plymouth, Minn., native was the 60th selection at the 2011 NHL Draft.
"He's a tall, lanky kid that's going to have to put on strength, but he is a highly-skilled kid with good hands and offensive instincts," Flahr said. "He's going to a good program where he'll continue to get stronger and work on his game. We know he's a couple of years away, but he's a talented kid we have hopes for."
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