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Hockey’s Future: Minnesota’s Prospect Pool Best in NHL

Matt Hackett stretches out the pad to make a save against Colorado during a game on March 4th, 2012. Minnesota would fall 2-0 in a still impressive performance by the young Wild netminder.

Hockey’s Future—the #1 online prospect resource—featured an article on December 7th listing the Minnesota Wild’s prospect pool as the best in the National Hockey League. While this comes as no surprise to the State of Hockey faithful, it is sure to have taken many other fans of the sport by surprise. Let’s take a look at what makes this prospect pool so special and analyze what it still lacks.

Strengths

Minnesota has a very skilled and talented group of young forwards that are chomping at the bit to prove their worth to the Wild brass. Leading the charge is the top line of the Wild’s minor league affiliate, the AHL’s Houston Aeros, which features 2010 1st rounders Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle and 2010 2nd rounder Jason Zucker. Granlund is arguably the best player in the world to have yet to play in the NHL and his elite vision and playmaking abilities only improves the game of his already talented wingers in Coyle and Zucker. Coyle is a beast of a prospect and is just as quick to make a big hit as he is to pot a goal. Zucker completes the dangerous line with explosive speed on the left wing and a nose for the net and has certainly thrived in his first pro season. Together, this trio will very likely terrorize NHL goaltenders for years to come.

Behind them is another talented young group of players in Zack Phillips, Johan Larsson, Brett Bulmer, Kris Foucault and Justin Fontaine playing for Houston. In the college and major junior ranks, Raphael Bussieres, Tyler Graovac, Erik Haula and Mario Lucia have been tearing up their respective leagues and conferences.

On defense, Minnesota has a pair of blue chippers—2011 10th overall pick Jonas Brodin and 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba—that could very well man the Wild’s blue line as the franchise’s top pairing. Brodin, an elite young Swedish defensive defenseman, has been compared by many to Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom, a slam-dunk HOFer who could possibly be the best defenseman the NHL has ever seen. Dumba, a dynamic young offensive defenseman, wields a cannon from the point and isn’t afraid to make an explosive hit. He’s also been compared my many to talented Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, an accurate assessment of his style of play and potential. Brodin was playing quite well for Houston before suffering a broken clavicle due to a vicious hit by 2010 1st overall pick Taylor Hall in a game against Hall’s Oklahoma City Barons early last month. Dumba is currently playing for the Western Hockey League’s Red Deer Rebels and has been invited to Team Canada’s 2013 WJHC training camp.

In net, Minnesota’s future is quite stable. Manning the Aeros’ net as Houston’s #1 goaltender, Matthew Hackett could very well be the franchise goaltender of the future for the Wild if his backup—the hulking and extremely talented 6’5” Darcy Kuemper—doesn’t take it out from under him first. If neither of them pans out, Swedish netminder Johan Gustafsson could be Minnesota’s go-to guy. Gustafsson, who backstopped Sweden to a 1-0 shutout victory in the 2012 WJHC gold medal game, has been dominant for Lulea in the Swedish Elite League and will undoubtedly bring that success with him when he finally arrives in North America.

Weaknesses

Minnesota, while well stocked at left wing and center, is lacking greatly in the right wing department. Currently—though HF doesn’t reflect this—Charlie Coyle has taken over as the prospect pool’s top RW, switching from his usual center position. Granlund is technically a pure forward, but is a natural center and is already a guaranteed lock as Minnesota’s 2nd line center once the NHL’s labor dispute is resolved. After Coyle are 2010 2nd rounder Brett Bulmer, Justin Fontaine and Carson McMillan. That’s it and McMillan is a depth player at best.

Minnesota also has a very shallow defensive pool when it comes to legitimate top-four defenders after Brodin and Dumba. Minnesota’s 2008 1st round pick, Tyler Cuma, has yet to develop into the dependable NHL defenseman he was drafted to be. The Wild’s 2nd round pick in the same draft, Marco Scandella, has fared better and has already played a good many NHL games and, with a little more experience and development, could fill that role. After Scandella, it drops off drastically. Steven Kampfer and Chay Genoway provide some good defensive depth and also chip in some offense, but aren’t legitimate top-four defensemen. Minnesota does have a couple of intriguing young defensemen in the NCAA ranks in John Draeger and Nick Seeler. A full collegiate career and a year or two in the AHL could make them real serious contenders for a spot in Minnesota lineup in the future.

Where does Minnesota go from here?

It’s become clear that Chuck Fletcher, Brent Flahr and the Wild scouting staff need to address the concerns at right wing and defense. With the ingenious drafting Minnesota has done in all seven rounds of the draft, but especially in the first two, Chuck Fletcher will probably be able to address one need in the 1st and the other in the 2nd. Looking at the forward ranks, Fletcher should probably address the defensive position first.

If the NHL loses the entire season due to the lockout, Minnesota will likely be picking anywhere from 3rd to 8th overall in the draft, depending on how the lottery goes. If Fletcher goes defenseman, look for him to take a big blueliner with great defensive instincts and a heavy shot from the point. Finland’s Rasmus Ristolainen or the London Knights’ Nikita Zadorov are likely candidates. However, due to the lack of Russian players—and the wealth of Finnish players—in the Wild’s short history, Ristolainen is more likely to play in Iron Range Red than Zadorov.

If Fletcher goes right wing, Medicine Hat’s Hunter Shinkaruk is a good option as he can play both center and right wing. Developed properly in Minnesota’s system, he could be the best right wing the organization has seen since Marian Gaborik.

Another Russian Minnesota should take a look at—regardless of position—is Valeri Nichushkin. The big 6’4” 196lb left wing is a beast of a prospect that could be, and has been, compared to Evgeni Malkin and will be heavily relied upon by Russia as they host the 2013 WJHC this month in Ufa.

In summary, Minnesota should be happy with the talented young group of prospects they’ve drafted and have developed—but it’s not over. As these guys turn pro, it’s time to restock the cupboards and there’s no reason to doubt that Minnesota will continue drafting quality young talent in every round of the draft.

Topics: Brett Bulmer, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Johan Gustafsson, Mikael Granlund, Raphael Bussieres

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