The picturesque fall weekend in the State of Hockey was the setting for two Houston Aeros Training Camp scrimmages, presented by Andersen Windows. As the leaves on the trees were turning outside, inside Xcel Energy Center 2,500 weekend fans, plus many more watching Wild.com’s online stream, saw the Minnesota Wild’s pool of prospects before they headed south to Texas.
Team Green skated to a pair of victories over Team Red, 2-0 on Saturday and 5-2 on Sunday, but more important than the outcome of the games was seeing the players on the ice and preparing for the American Hockey League season. There were several impressive performances on the weekend, with a few plays matching the beauty of the fall colors outside the arena. Here are five takeaways from the weekend scrimmages:
Stating the Obvious Alert: Houston is going to have a ton of top-end skill at the forward position. Wild fans have been hearing a lot about Minnesota’s recent draft picks, regularly ranked high amongst NHL prognosticators, and they didn’t disappoint over the weekend.
Of all the forward prospects, Jason Zucker stood out in both scrimmages with his speed and offensive ability. Wild fans saw glimpses of this at the end of last season, and the University of Denver product seems poised to take his game to another level. In the Saturday scrimmage, Zucker scored both of Green’s goals and fired home the shootout winner in sudden death. The Las Vegas, Nev., resident’s second goal was an absolute beauty and the highlight of the weekend. He received a laser saucer pass from his weekend running mate, Charlie Coyle, split two defensemen and roofed a backhand off the crossbar and in. On Sunday the roles were reversed, as Zucker skated down the left side of the offensive zone and found Coyle on the backdoor for one of the easiest tap-in goals the East Weymouth, Mass., native will ever score.
Zucker and Coyle were centered by Mikael Granlund all weekend. The Finnish forward is the most highly touted offensive player in the Wild system and showed his innate ability to create scoring changes. Saturday, he knocked a pass out of midair, settled it down and found Zucker in the slot with a no-look pass, which the former DU Pioneer buried. The most impressive thing about watching Granlund this weekend is his dedication to improving the strongest part of his game: puck handling. After the Sunday scrimmage and practice, Granlund was one of the last three players on the ice, well after the session, working on puck possession and feathering saucer passes to Coyle and Kyle Medvec. This might be the most exciting about the Wild’s prospects: They all have heard how good the other prospects are, they all want to be the best in the talent pool and they are pushing each other to get better.
How the Rookie of the Year in the Swedish Elite League and captain of the Gold Medal winning World Junior Championship team can be underrated is beyond comprehension, but that seems to be the case with Johan Larsson. When Minnesota was featured on NHL.com’s 30-in-30 series, Larsson was ranked eighth amongst the Wild’s top 10 prospects. The Swedish center was the best forward for Team Red, often controlling the puck down low and scored in the Sunday scrimmage on a power play backhand shelf. Skill is a big part of Larsson’s game, but so is grittiness. The centerman felt that he was stymied in that department since he was playing against future teammates, but we’ll get to that takeaway later.
Even with the talented youngsters skating in their first full seasons as North American pros, the Aeros will still rely on forwards who have previously skated in Houston. Kris Foucault and Justin Fontaine, both playing in their rookie seasons last year, will likely benefit offensively, as opponents concentrate on the previously mentioned prospects. Eden Prairie native Chad Rau, who has a nose for the net, should get more looks offensively, as his speed could provide a nice fit on the wing on one of Houston’s top lines and on the power play.
Up front, the veteran leadership in Houston will have to be provided by players who have played pro hockey for three-years or less and are only in their mid-20s. Carson McMillan, 24, and David McIntyre, 25, Jarod Palmer, 26, all skated with the Wild last season, and will need to take that experience to help mentor the younger forwards on the rigors of professional hockey.
On the blue line, the Aeros look to be just as deep as the forward position. Marco Scandella will be the big name returning to Houston, playing in 63 games with Minnesota last season. The Montreal native will look to take the next step in the development of his game in Houston. On the weekend, Scandella wasn’t afraid to lead rushes and jumped into the play offensively from the back end. His playing partner was Jonas Brodin, the smooth-skating Swede who was the Wild’s first pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. At only 19, he’ll need to gain some strength, but Wild Television Analyst Wes Walz was impressed by his play, describing Brodin as ‘a heady player’ who was excellent at making the correct decisions and outlet passes out of the defensive end.
Team Green’s top pair on the weekend was Steven Kampfer and Brian Connelly. Both former college standouts, the blue liners are listed at 5-foot-11 and play a similar style. Connelly, who was signed by the Wild in the offseason, showed why he was the AHL’s top point-getting defenseman last season. Connelly was poised at the point, feeding Kampfer one-timers and quarterbacking Green’s power play unit. Kampfer likes to get into the play offensively, but also likes the physical aspect of hockey. On Saturday, the former Michigan Wolverine threw the biggest hit in a camp that was mostly void of physical play…
There are a number of possible reasons the two Aeros scrimmages were not very physical in comparison to the mid-summer Wild Development Camp. The first possible and most likely answer: The players all knew that they will be lining up on the same team next week and they didn’t want to accidentally injure anyone. With the season just around the corner, there is no reason to be more banged up on opening night than necessary. The second reason for the lack of physical play might have been attributed to the fact that many of these players have attended development camps together. Maybe they have all become good friends off the ice, and it is now hard for them to run their buddies. However, this is unlikely because hockey is a physical game and it doesn’t matter if it’s your brother lining up across from you – if they’re in your way, they’re getting hit. The final and most unlikely scenario, the Aeros brass asked the players to lay off the big hits. Due to the physical nature of the sport, coaches and scouts want to see player’s ability to dish and take a check.
One player’s game that was most impacted by the lack of physicality was Brett Bulmer. He is a player who likes to mix it up and seems to thrive when the game gets more intense. The Prince George, British Colombia native is sure to play that physical style once the regular season kicks off and has the potential to be the type of power forward that is in high demand in the NHL.
The backbone of any solid team, at any level, is goaltending. If the scrimmages are any indicator, the Aeros will be well served in net this season. Darcy Kuemper returned from a successful shoulder surgery and was a wall. On the weekend, he allowed only one goal during regulation. Matt Hackett had a tougher go, with several bad bounces going against him in the Sunday scrimmage. However, last season Wild fans witnessed what the goaltender is capable of when he is on his game and should be fine once the regular season kicks off. As Mike Greenlay, Wild television analyst, pointed out in the WildTV recap, it’s hard for a goaltender to jump right into game action after having the entire summer away from game speed.
Deciding who will start in goal is a good problem to have for Aeros Head Coach John Torchetti. Coaches want that type of positive competition between players. Houston’s bench boss will have a lot of decisions to make regarding player personnel, and judging by lineup at the Aeros Training Camp scrimmages there will be plenty of talented players to help Torchetti make those decisions.