Tonight, a new era of Minnesota Wild/Edmonton Oilers battles begins. Nick Schultz and Tom Gilbert have switched sweaters and the offensive talent level of both teams has risen drastically over the past few seasons. While the Oilers do boast the first overall picks of the past three drafts—Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012)—Minnesota’s draft table hasn’t been idle, either. Since 2010, the Wild have added top forwards Mikael Granlund (9th overall 2010), Charlie Coyle (28th overall 2010), Brett Bulmer (39th overall 2010) Johan Larsson (56th overall 2010), Jason Zucker (59th overall 2010), Zack Phillips (28th overall 2011), Mario Lucia (60th overall 2011) and Raphael Bussieres (46th overall 2012) and top defensive prospects Jonas Brodin (10th overall 2011) and Mathew Dumba (7th overall 2012).
Seven of the above players have spent time this season playing down in Houston for Minnesota’s minor league affiliate—the Aeros—and six have made their NHL debuts. Tonight, Minnesota takes to the ice with three rookies in the lineup—Granlund, Zucker and Brodin—and one in the press box (Larsson). That’s not including 2009 161st overall pick Darcy Kuemper, a hulking 6’5” 207-pound goalie that will be backing up Niklas Backstrom in net. Every one of these young men could finish the season with Minnesota (Granlund and Brodin are both essentially locks), and there are one or two more down in Houston that could finish the season in the NHL, as well.
Edmonton has also built a good supporting cast of young men to sustain their three straight first overall selections. Drafted 22nd overall in 2008, Jordan Eberle is at least as good as Hall, RNH and Yakupov, and led the Oilers in scoring last year with 34 goals and 42 assists for 76 points in 78 games—good enough to be worthy in many keeper fantasy hockey leagues, including mine (but don’t tell an Oilers fan that a Minnesota Wild writer said that). Edmonton also has 2009 10th overall pick Magnus Paajarvi, who hasn’t necessarily lived up to the expectations of a top-10 pick. Another forward coming into his own is 23-year old Sam Gagner, a USHL and CHL product drafted 6th overall by the Oilers in 2007 that exploded last year with an 8-point game against the Chicago Blackhawks. He currently is tied for the team scoring lead with Taylor Hall at 16 points in 15 games.
On defense, not only do they have Minnesota’s second ever NHL Entry Draft pick, Nick Schultz, they also have prized free agent signing Justin Schultz on the top pairing. Drafted 43rd overall in 2008 by the Anaheim Ducks, Schultz played a season in the BCHL and three seasons with the University of Wisconsin before turning pro. Because he left college early—and chose not to sign with the Ducks—he became a free agent. Minnesota aggressively pursued him, even landing amongst his final few teams in the running, but the temptation of playing with three first overall picks was too much. Schultz played with the Oilers’ minor league affiliate, the Oklahoma City Barons, exploding with 48 points in 34 games as a defenseman. By the time the lockout was over, only one other player had eclipsed his point total—teammate Jordan Eberle, who had notched 51 points in 34 games. Fifteen games into Edmonton’s season, and nearly a month since both players left the AHL, Eberle still leads the AHL in points and Schultz is tied for second with Tyler Johnson and leads all AHL defensemen in scoring by a 13-point margin.
With, essentially, Edmonton’s top power play unit gelling together in Oklahoma, you’d think that the Baby Oilers would’ve dominated the AHL standings, especially the Western Conference’s South Division. However, the Baby Wild have done the dominating in the games between the Barons and Aeros, with Houston taking six of seven games. Though three were won in the shootout, Jason Zucker—who leads Houston in scoring with 19 and 22 assists for 41 points in 47 games—does have two game-winning goals against Edmonton’s big guns and will be a key component for Minnesota in tonight’s game.
The only game that the Aeros lost to the Barons was the game that saw injuries to both Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin. If Minnesota’s young guys can stay healthy and play smart, this should be a good game for them. If there’s anything we’ve learned from Minnesota’s talented and deep prospect pool, there’s nothing these kids can’t handle—including the Oilers. The bottom line is, I can’t stress enough just how much fun this game is going to be to watch tonight. Granlund against Yakupov, Zucker against Eberle, Brodin against Schultz, Gilbert against the other Schultz and Backstrom against starter Devan Dubnyk—Wild fans have seen some fun games this season, but they pale in comparison to this one, folks. Buckle up; it’s going to be a Wild ride!