It wasn’t too long ago when, aside from Brent Burns, Cam Barker and Marek Zidlicky, the Minnesota Wild defensive corps was made up of a combination of depth defensemen and unproven rookies. Justin Falk, Maxim Noreau, Clayton Stoner and Nate Prosser all saw a good amount of time with the big club as well as Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon who ended up, for the most part, sticking with Minnesota.
Now, Burns, Barker and Zidlicky are all gone, as well as Noreau, Nick Schultz, Mike Lundin and Greg Zanon. If the season were to start today, the Wild defensive corps would be made up of newly acquired Ryan Suter and Tom Gilbert, Scandella, Spurgeon, Prosser, Falk and Stoner. Swede Jonas Brodin, the Wild’s top pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, would likely be in the mix for a spot as well if it wasn’t for a broken clavicle incurred by Taylor Hall in a November 2nd matchup against the Oklahoma City Barons. A few young guys capable of capitalizing on this opportunity would be Minnesota’s 2008 1st round pick Tyler Cuma, undrafted AHL free agent signings Chay Genoway and Brian Connelly or even 2012 1st round pick Mathew Dumba.
Dumba is probably the most likely option Minnesota would look at, but probably isn’t ready. This year is an important year for his development. Matt just turned 18 this past summer and, at 6’ and 183 pounds, could still grow an inch or two and about 10-15 more pounds of muscle to his frame. The young man playing in Red Deer has proven he has a cannon of a slap shot and can play both sides of the puck well. However, another year playing in one of the three premier Canadian major junior hockey leagues can’t hurt him and he is nearly a lock to represent Canada in the 2013 World Junior Championship. One more season in the WHL, coupled with a season of pro hockey with the AHL’s Houston Aeros could make him a very solid option for the Wild to insert in their top two defensive pairs. Dumba would also be an ideal power play quarterback from the point for Minnesota and would have plenty of options to pass to in guys like Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker.
This is the future and we have to look at the present—or what will be the present when the lockout is over. When the season is finally underway, Minnesota’s top four defensemen will likely be Suter, Spurgeon, Scandella and Gilbert. Suter is a great top-pairing defenseman, but isn’t the offensive defenseman like Shea Weber, his defensive partner in Nashville, was. Apparently the Wild brass think he can be, because head coach Mike Yeo leaked the news Suter would likely be playing with Spurgeon, another like-minded defenseman. Spurgeon may have led the Wild defensive corps in scoring last season, but that doesn’t mean he’s a natural offensive defenseman.
If Suter and Spurgeon are the top pairing, then you can be sure Scandella and Gilbert would be the second pairing. However, if I’m Coach Yeo—which I’m not—I’d make the top two pairs differently. I would have Gilbert and Suter together, considering they played on the same pairing back in the day at the University of Wisconsin and Scandella and Spurgeon have played well together in the past, too. What is likely the case is that Yeo is looking to spread the veteran presence around so that the team’s weak link isn’t a pair of young defenders.
The bottom pairing is where your grittier blue-liners make an appearance. Stoner, Falk and Prosser are all aggressive players and aren’t afraid to stand up for their teammates. All three, especially Stoner and Prosser, are very defensively sound players. Stoner is usually among the team leaders in plus-minus rating while Prosser led the team in blocked shots last season with 124 and also chipped in 12 points from the blue line. At 6’5”, Falk brings a very physical aspect to the game and certainly makes for a valuable 7th man.
After Stoner, Prosser and Falk are a few defensemen waiting in the wings for their chance with the big club: Steven Kampfer, Cuma, Genoway, Connelly and, of course, top-end prospects Brodin and Dumba, who will most likely patrol the Wild blue line as the franchise top pairing for years to come. There’s also plenty of time for later round blue-liners drafted by Minnesota like John Draeger, Nick Seeler and Daniel Gunnarsson to develop and hone their game in the collegiate and European pro ranks.
Minnesota seems to be in the “just right” stage of their defensive corps. Lose one or two guys and it looks grim, add one or two guys and it’s too many. What does this mean for the team going forward—does Minnesota just not draft defensemen? Absolutely not; Chuck Fletcher, Brent Flahr and the Wild’s scouting team just need to keep doing what they’re doing and keep up the good work. If nothing else, Minnesota is going to have some great trade bait in the not too distant future.