As the Minnesota Wild hit the road for a two game road trip to Phoenix and Anaheim, it’s time to take a look at how the young guns are doing down on the farm. As of right now, the Houston Aeros are in fifth place in the American Hockey League’s Western Conference with 63 points and a 28-20-4-3 record.
Since February 8th, the Aeros have strung together an impressive string of games, going 6-2-0-0 in that span. Matt Hackett has been rock solid in goal during that time span, securely cemented as the Houston’s No. 1 netminder with Darcy Kuemper currently backing up Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota. Hackett is 18-18, with three shootout losses, a 2.58 goals against average and .910 save percentage. Kuemper, was impressive in his limited playing time as Hackett’s backup, posting a 10-6 record, a 1.79 goals against average, a .938 save percentage and four shutouts.
With the call-ups of Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle, Houston’s next leading scorer is UMD alum Justin Fontaine, who has potted 13 goals and 21 assists for 34 points, a plus-8 rating and eight penalty minutes in 43 games. Swedish rookie Johan Larsson, who has also been the recipient of a one game call up earlier this season, is behind him with 13 goals and 14 assists for 27 points, an even plus-minus rating and 24 penalty minutes in 51 games. Larsson has arguably been Houston’s best forward this season since the call-up of Granlund at the conclusion of the lockout; however, David McIntyre is giving him a serious run for his money. The 6’ 195-pound forward, acquired from New Jersey in the Maxim Noreau trade, has also scored 13 goals, and has added 12 assists for 25 points, 28 penalty minutes and a very impressive plus-18 rating in 54 games.
Colorado College alum Brian Connelly leads Houston’s defensive corps with two goals and 20 assists for 22 points, a plus-4 rating and eight penalty minutes in 33 games. Former UND captain Chay Genoway has also been a blue line staple for the Aeros, scoring four goals and 15 assists for 19 points, an impressive plus-12 rating and 41 penalty minutes in 52 games. Defensemen Tyler Cuma, Marco Scandella, Drew Bagnall and Steven Kampfer have also been heavily relied upon by the Aeros coaching staff.
Top young forwards Zack Phillips and Brett Bulmer have struggled this season, but Bulmer has been unbelievably sub-par in particular. For more on the struggles of Minnesota’s 2010 39th overall selection, you can read my recent write-up on him here. Phillips’ struggles, on the other hand, haven’t been unexpected–it’s hard to jump into the pro ranks straight from an offensive-minded league like the QMJHL. However, the 6’1” 198-pound Fredericton, New Brunswick native has managed to pot two goals and 13 assists for 15 points, six penalty minutes and a negative-12 rating.
This is a learning year for Phillips. As far as his puck handling and stick handling skills go, he’s second only to Granlund of all Minnesota’s rookies and prospects. Zack needs to work on his skating, though, or he’ll be the second coming of Andrew Brunette. However, if that could be his floor, I’ll gladly take it, but his ceiling is probably more of a Patrick Sharp or Joe Pavelski-type player. A few more years in Houston certainly wouldn’t hurt his development one bit. Wild fans will likely have to wait to see his NHL debut for another year or so, but it’ll certainly be worth the wait.
As anyone can see, even with five incredible young rookies already up with the big club, Minnesota still has plenty of depth down on the farm ready to be called up at a moment’s notice. That depth will only increase as guys like Tyler Graovac, Raphael Bussieres, Mathew Dumba, John Draeger, Nick Seeler, Mario Lucia and Erik Haula graduate from the junior and collegiate ranks to turn pro. It makes you wonder just how good the 2013 NHL Entry Draft could be for Minnesota, doesn’t it?