MAR 29, 2012; St. Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker (16) during warm-ups before the game between the Minnesota Wild and the Florida Panthers at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Cullen Injured, Time to Make a Call to Houston?

Minnesota was already playing poorly a little over midway through the third period of last night’s loss to Anaheim, when Wild forward Matt Cullen tripped and was forced into the boards by the Ducks’ Kyle Palmieri. After slowly picking himself up, Cullen, obviously not feeling right, hobbled over to the bench, down the tunnel and did not return to the game. Though Cullen hasn’t chipped in much offense this season, the same can be said for nearly everyone on lines two, three and four.

So, the question now becomes, if Cullen is out for any length of time, is it time to make a call to Houston for some offensive support from the young guns? Let’s take a look, in no particular order, at Minnesota’s options down on the farm.

Option No. 1 – Jason Zucker, the third of Minnesota’s three second round picks in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, has been a dominant player at every level of play he has faced. Drafted out of the USHL’s U.S. Nation Development Program, Zucker took the NCAA’s WCHA by storm, winning the WCHA Rookie of the Year award while potting 23 goals and adding 22 assists for 45 points in 40 games in his first year of collegiate hockey with the University of Denver Pioneers.

Zucker would spend an additional season with the Pioneers, scoring 22 goals and adding 24 assists for 46 points in 38 games. After two seasons of playing college puck, Zucker turned pro, finishing out the season with a six game stint with the big club. In those six games, he looked real solid and notched two assists playing on the Wild’s third line. This season, in 40 games with the Wild’s minor league affiliate in Houston, Zucker has scored 17 goals and 20 assists for 37 points, 37 penalty minutes and a negative-10 rating. Zucker was also an AHL All-Star and notched a goal and an assist in Team West’s 7-6 victory over Team East. He has certainly looked worthy of a call up and will most likely get one sooner rather than later.

Option No. 2 – Charlie Coyle is the big-bodied power forward with an elite skill-set that Minnesota desperately needs on the second line. Drafted 28th overall in 2010 by the San Jose Sharks, he was acquired by Minnesota in the trade that saw Brent Burns moved for Coyle, Devin Setoguchi and San Jose’s first round pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. After the draft, Coyle, a big 6’2” 210-pound power forward, played a season and a half with Boston University, scoring 10 goals and 30 assists for 40 points in 53 games and coming home with the Hockey East Rookie of the Year title.

Thanks, in part, to the persuasion of fellow top Wild prospect Zack Phillips—the prospect Minnesota drafted with the first round pick obtained from San Jose—Coyle felt the best way to continue his hockey career would be to play major junior with Phillips’ Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL. In 23 regular season games and 17 post season games with the Sea Dogs, Coyle spent the majority of his time on a line with Phillips and Florida Panthers top prospect and 2011 3rd overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau. In the regular season and post season combined, Coyle piled up a monstrous 30 goals and 42 assists for 72 points in 40 games. The Dogs won the league championship and Coyle would be named tournament MVP.

Coyle turned pro this past fall, and his notched 14 goals and 10 assists for 24 points, 22 penalty minutes and a negative-9 rating in 44 games. Coyle and Zucker came into the season with a chemistry that was already present due to playing together on the top line for Team USA as the 2012 World Junior Hockey Championships. The two of them have played quite well together and had great chemistry with No. 1 Wild prospect Mikael Granlund during the lockout, as well as fellow top prospect Johan Larsson, who has taken over top line center duties for the Aeros with Granlund centering the second line with the big club. Coyle could certainly make a case to be the first offensive call up of the year.

Option No. 3 – Johan Larsson is the forward prospect that most often gets forgotten about. Drafted the second of three Minnesota second round picks in 2010, Larsson has fared quite well in his native Sweden, including being named the Rookie of the Year in the SEL—Sweden’s top professional hockey league. Larsson was also captain of the Swedish World Junior team that took home the gold medal in the 2012 tournament. In 49 games last season as a rookie with the SEL’s Brynas, Larsson potted 12 goals and added 24 assists for 36 points, 34 penalty minutes and a negative-10 rating. Playing his first season of North American pro hockey this year, Larsson has scored 12 goals and 12 assists for 24 points, 18 penalty minutes and an even plus-minus rating in 43 games with Houston.

With a few more years of seasoning in the North American game, Larsson is likely Kyle Brodziak’s heir apparent as Minnesota Wild third line center and is most certainly captain material. Wild fans should definitely keep an eye on this young man. Don’t be surprised if he is the first call up.

Other options: Brett Bulmer and Zack Phillips. Bulmer, the first of Minnesota’s three second round picks in 2010, looked good in his nine-game cup of coffee with Minnesota last season, laying a few big hits and notching three assists. However, he seems to have taken a step back in his development and more time in Houston certainly won’t hurt him.

Phillips is more of a long term project, scoring two goals and 11 assists for 13 points, four penalty minutes and a negative-12 rating in 40 games in his first year of professional hockey after leading the Sea Dogs in regular season scoring with 30 goals and 50 assists for 80 points, 32 penalty minutes and a plus-47 rating in 60 games. While he may be one of the smartest prospects in Minnesota’s system, his skating is average at best, but he has silky smooth mitts and has a very high ceiling. Some more time developing in the minors certainly won’t hurt his chances of making an impact in the NHL.

Long story short, when Minnesota inevitably has to make a call up from Houston, Wild fans can breathe easy knowing there are elite young prospects that are ready to step up and contribute.

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Tags: Charlie Coyle Jason Zucker Johan Larsson Matt Cullen Mikael Granlund

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