If you’ve been paying attention to Gone Puck Wild lately, and shame on you if you haven’t, then you know school has begun as Wild fans brush up on their knowledge of the new teams within Minnesota’s division. This week, we’ve saved the best for last, as that team just so happens to be your very own Minnesota Wild. Going through Sunday, we’ll break down the Wild’s major additions and subtractions, strengths and weaknesses, prospect pool, 2013 draft class and team outlook as we get you caught up on what you need to know before the puck officially drops on the regular season.
Last season, we finally saw the first fruits of exceptional drafting the past few years by the Wild brass and scouting staff. Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Darcy Kuemper all saw good playing time in St. Paul, but it was 2011 10th overall selection Jonas Brodin that outdid them all.
Jonas would play the first eight games of the AHL season, notching two goals and two assists as a North American pro rookie with the Houston Aeros. A broken clavicle suffered in a brutal charge by 2010 first overall pick Taylor Hall would sideline him for the next two months. However, after returning to the lineup, he’d play just one more game with the Aeros before stepping onto Minnesota’s top defensive pairing with Ryan Suter and never looking back. Not only did he lead all Wild rookies in average ice-time per game with 23:12, he led every rookie in the league.
In 45 games, Brodin would score two goals and add nine assists for 11 points and a plus-3 rating while playing top minutes every night against the best of the West. He would finish fourth in voting for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year, but would earn All-Rookie Team honors along with Edmonton’s Justin Schultz as the two best rookie defensemen in the league last year. Brodin’s defensive partner? Yeah, he would finish second in voting for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman to Montreal’s P.K. Subban. If last year’s rookies are still considered prospects for having only played around a half season, there’s no question Brodin has skyrocketed to No. 1 in Minnesota’s prospect pool.
However, according to NHL.com, those youngsters have graduated to the big show. So, here’s a list, once again according to NHL.com, of Minnesota’s top-10 prospects:
1. Mathew Dumba, D: At 6-foot, 180 pounds, the 19-year-old plays a physical game and can hit with the best of them. A Calgary native, Dumba completed his third season of junior hockey in 2012-13 and had 16 goals, 26 assists and 80 penalty in 62 games for the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League. He spent the end of last season with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League and skated as a “Black Ace” for the Wild during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Dumba was Minnesota’s first-round pick (No. 7) at the 2012 NHL Draft.
“In the coming years, the NHL’s where I want to be and I’ll do whatever it takes to do that,” Dumba said during development camp in July. “But at the same time, I know there’s a process and that comes with time.
“I think they know there’s that internal belief that I’m going to push myself, and so do I. I have that confidence in myself that each day that I go to the gym or step on the ice, I’m doing that to get better, working towards my goal of being in the National Hockey League this year.”
2. Gustav Olofsson, D: The Wild’s first pick in the 2013 draft (No. 46), Olofsson had two goals, 21 assists and 59 penalty minutes in 63 games last season for the Green Bay Gamblers in the United States Hockey League. Olofsson (6-3, 191 pounds) turns 19 Dec. 1 and is attempting to model his game after Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin.
Olofsson will play for Colorado College next season.
“Jonas Brodin … just his fluidness and how he skates really stood out to me. That’s how I’d like to play,” Olofsson told the Wild website. “A two-way defenseman with string skating ability and good hockey sense.”
3. Zack Phillips, C: A first-round draft choice (No. 28) in 2011, Phillips got his first taste of professional hockey last season in the AHL. In 71 games for Houston, the 6-1, 196-pound center had eight goals and 19 assists. He also had one assist in five Calder Cup Playoff games.
With a year of pro hockey under his belt, Phillips, who had 80 points (30 goals) in 60 games for the Saint John Sea Dogs in his final junior season in 2011-12, is ready to make a bigger impact, whether it be in Minnesota or for the Iowa Wild, the club’s new AHL affiliate.
“Next year, I’m going to go in with more confidence,” Phillips, 20, said. “It makes it a lot easier to stick to your game. It should be an easier year and I’m excited to get it started.”
4. Johan Gustafsson, G: The 21-year-old completed his second season with Lulea HF of the Elitserien in Sweden, posting a 1.70 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in 33 appearances in 2012-13. Ready to tackle the North American game, Gustafsson (6-2, 202), a seventh-round pick from 2010 (No. 159), is expected to play with Iowa in the AHL.
“One thing about this kid is he’s played in a lot of big games already for a young goalie,” assistant general manager Brent Flahr said.
5. Mario Lucia, LW: The son of University of Minnesota coach Don Lucia, the 19-year-old recently completed his first season at the collegiate level. In 32 games for Notre Dame, Lucia (6-2, 187) had 12 goals and 11 assists. A second-round pick (No. 60) in 2011, he will return to Notre Dame this season.
6. Raphael Bussieres, LW: Signed an entry-level contract with the Wild in May after scoring 29 goals and 39 assists with a plus-27 rating in 60 games for the Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, his third season with the club. Minnesota’s second-round pick (No. 46) in 2012, Bussieres (6-1, 198) could return to junior for one more season, but his goal is to play at the professional level.
“I’ve lived my whole life and played juniors in Quebec, now my pro team is in the United States,” Bussieres, 19, said. “It’s fun. I learned my English from hockey. I want to play for the Wild or for Iowa. That’s my goal.”
7. Erik Haula, LW: A seventh-round draft choice (No. 182) in 2009, Haula has moved up Minnesota’s prospect chart because of his hard work and production at the University of Minnesota. Over his final two seasons with the Golden Gophers, Haula (5-11, 192) had 100 points (36 goals) in 80 games.
Haula, 22, turned pro at the end of last season; he had a goal and an assist in five playoff games for Houston) and signed an entry-level contract in April. He is expected to start next season with Iowa.
“If you look at him from even two years ago, his physique, his physical maturity, he’s grown a lot,” Flahr said. “Obviously he’s produced at the college level and been very good, and that experience in Houston for him was extremely valuable for him.”
8. Kurtis Gabriel, RW: A power forward (6-4, 214), Gabriel was selected in the third round (No. 81) of the 2013 draft, but he’s already 20, which means he can battle for a roster spot in Iowa next season. Gabriel, who had 13 goals, 15 assists and 100 penalty minutes in 67 games for the Owen Sound Attack (Ontario Hockey League) last season, was a physical presence at Wild development camp this summer and impressed team brass.
“I think a lot of people will tell you that I’m a really hard-working guy,” Gabriel said after being drafted. “The way I came up really instilled that in me. I think some other guys come up the easy way, and I’ve come up the hard way. I know how to work hard and that’s what I’m going to build my career on.”
9. Darcy Kuemper, G: The 23-year-old impressed during his brief stint in Minnesota last season, when he had a 2.08 GAA and .916 save percentage in six regular-season appearances. The Wild’s sixth-round pick (No. 161) in 2009, Kuemper (6-5, 207) boasted a 1.88 GAA and .934 save percentage in 21 games at Houston. He will battle Josh Harding for the backup job in Minnesota but likely will head to Iowa and share the goaltending duties with Gustafsson.
10. Tyler Cuma, D: Projected to be a top-four NHL defenseman when the Wild selected him in the first round (No. 23) of the 2008 NHL Draft, Cuma has appeared in one NHL game since turning pro in 2010. With Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Keith Ballard, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner, Jared Spurgeon, Jonathon Blum, Nate Prosser and Dumba all in the mix on Minnesota’s blue line, Cuma (6-2, 180) is likely headed back to the AHL after signing a one-year, two-way deal with the Wild on July 30. This could be a make-or-break season for the 23-year-old.
Yeah, they’re serious.
So, now that you’ve stopped laughing, here’s where they went wrong. A 46th overall pick from the most recent draft does not simply (walk into Mordor, am I right? Am I right? Oh, forget it.) cannonball into a team’s prospect pool as No. 2 prospect. I have no doubt that Olofsson is a talented kid and has a very bright future ahead of him. My issue is that guys like Zack Phillips, Johan Gustafsson, Darcy Kuemper, Erik Haula and even Mario Lucia and Raphael Bussieres are behind him. Phillips is likely Minnesota’s first forward call-up this year (if it’s not Justin Fontaine, and he’s not even on this list), and Haula and Bussieres look to make a serious impact with the Iowa Wild in their first full professional seasons.
Also, Gabriel and Cuma shouldn’t even be on this list. The ship has sailed on the final first round pick of the Doug Risebrough era (Cuma), it’s just that no one is able to admit it. Gabriel has the makings of a quality third/fourth line NHLer, but he’s going to need to be eased into the pro ranks. That begins in Des Moines this fall if he isn’t sent back to the OHL for his overage year.
Another issue is the placement of Gustafsson over Kuemper. Both are superbly talented young goalies, and NHL.com is right to have both of them on this list, but until Gustafsson proves he can play just as well as he did in Sweden down in Des Moines, Kuemper is the No. 3 goalie for Minnesota.
Now, players that should be on this list include the aforementioned Fontaine, 2011 seventh rounder Tyler Graovac and 2010 second rounder Brett Bulmer.
If Fontaine doesn’t make Minnesota’s roster out of camp, it’s very likely he’ll be a near point-per-game player in the minors this year. At 26, he’s rather old to be considered a prospect, but that’s what happens when you sign with a team directly out of your senior year in college. In 137 games with Houston, Fontaine would score 39 goals and 72 assists for 111 points and a plus-7 rating. He also had a particularly good playoffs last year, however short it may have been, scoring three goals and five assists for eight points and a negative-1 rating in five games.
Graovac is poised for a big season this year after a dominant year between Belleville Bulls and Ottawa 67’s of the OHL. In 60 regular season games, the hulking 6’5″ 196-pound pivot scored 38 goals and 35 assists for 73 points and a plus-7 rating. He would also add six goals and 16 assists for 22 points and a plus-11 rating in 15 postseason games with the Bulls. It’s highly unlikely he’ll ever crack Minnesota’s top-6, but Wild fans and brass can’t stop drooling at the thought of a center with that size in the lineup. Could we be looking at Kyle Brodziak’s replacement? Iowa Wild fans should be keeping a close eye on this young man once the season begins.
Finally, Brett Bulmer. After notching three assists and displaying a confident attitude in nine games with Minnesota at the start of the 2011-12 season, Bulmer would be sent back to the Kelowna Rockets of the WHL for one more year of seasoning. Wild fans couldn’t wait for him to play as a roster regular the next season. But that’s yet to happen. Injuries seem to beset this kid almost as bad as they did Cuma. In fact, if he’s not careful, Bulmer could be the forward version of Cuma in Minnesota’s system.
Bulmer has still yet to take to the ice so far in training camp and is battling an undisclosed injury that appears to take him out of the lineup in Des Moines for at least the first few games of the season. With names like Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter already making inroads into the Wild’s top-6/9, Bulmer is going to have to battle hard just to find himself a regular on Minnesota’s third or fourth line. When he does take to the Wells Fargo ice this fall, he’s going to have to make every game, every shift count.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat some breakfast. All this writing works up an appetite. Here are some highlights from last night’s 4-1 victory over the Jets.
Follow Dakota Case at Twitter.com/Dakota_case