Today marks the first official day of December, meaning we’re another month closer to the 2014 Winter Olympic games in Sochi, Russia. However, another hockey tournament occurs before then–indeed, it’s less than a month away–the 2014 Under-20 World Junior Hockey Championships.
The Minnesota Wild won’t have as many big prospects participating this year as they did in the 2012 tournament. That would be a banner year for the club as Mikael Granlund (Finland), Jason Zucker (USA) and Johan Larsson (Sweden) all served as captains for their respective countries. Zucker was joined by big Charlie Coyle, but it was Larsson, 2011 10th overall pick Jonas Brodin and goaltender Johan Gustafsson that would claim the gold in a thrilling 1-0 overtime shutout win over Russia.
Since then, all six players mentioned above have spent time with the big club, though Larsson is no longer part of the organization, having been traded to the Buffalo Sabres along with goaltender Matt Hackett, a 2013 first round pick and 2014 second round pick in exchange for star right winger Jason Pominville. Most of the others, however, have gone on to play big roles for Minnesota. Granlund is currently Minnesota’s No. 2 center, Coyle has played a key role as top line right wing, Zucker scored the biggest goal of the Chuck Fletcher Era and Jonas Brodin was named to the NHL’s 2013 All-Rookie Team and plays against the best the league has to offer as right side defenseman on the Wild’s top defensive pairing.
This year, Minnesota really only has three that are near-locks to make the team. Those would be 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba (Canada), 2012 sixth rounder Christoph Bertschy (Switzerland) and 2013 second rounder Gustav Olofsson (Sweden).
Minnesota has always had issues with prospects making Team Canada, but that only speaks to the country’s overall prospect depth at nearly every position. It is, after all, Canada’s game. Fortunately, it looks like the third time is indeed the charm for the Wild’s Mathew Dumba, as he would very likely be a lock for Canada’s top defensive pairing after being the final man cut the past two years. Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher would have no problem loaning Dumba to Team Canada, especially if he considers getting top minutes on the international stage to be very important for the youngster’s development. I’ve got a hint for you–he does.
While the former Red Deer Rebel has been scratched the past four games for Minnesota, he has played in 13 games, notching a goal and an assist for two points and a negative-5 rating while skating an average ice time of 12:26 per game.
But Dumba isn’t the only top young defenseman in Minnesota’s system worthy of representing his country. Originally from Sweden, Gustav Olofsson moved to San Jose, California in second grade, then back to Sweden in fifth grade where he lived for the next four years before his family settled in Colorado. According to the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo, the big 6’3″ 190-pound blue liner has no trace of a Swedish accent. His favorite player, however, is Wild defenseman and countryman Jonas Brodin, who stands a good chance of representing his country as well this winter, albeit on the Olympic stage.
Prior to the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, the Minnesota Wild has never not had a first round pick. So when they made a USHL player their top pick for the first time in franchise history, you just new there had to be something special about this kid. In 63 games as a rookie with the Green Bay Gamblers last season, Olofsson would notch two goals and 21 assists for 23 points and a plus-11 rating. Like his fellow countryman Brodin, Olofsson would be named to a 2013 All-Rookie team, though the USHL is somewhat less prestigious than the NHL.
“I think it would be great for his development,” said Wild Assistant GM Brent Flahr, when asked about the prospect of Olofsson playing in the World Junior Championships. “He looks like an elite skater to me with very good puck poise and good natural instincts for the game. He’s come a long way in just a year, basically going from midget hockey to a strong second half in the USHL last year [with Green Bay] to pretty good success already as a college player.
“That’s put him right in line to make the world junior team.”
Olofsson is somewhat lanky at 190-pounds, but with his father standing at 6’8″ 275-pounds, there is the potential for a tremendous physical upside. Turning just 19-years old today, he has the potential to grow another inch or two and put on 15-25 pounds of muscle before he ever dons a Minnesota or Iowa Wild sweater. Add a very talented skillset to that frame and you have the “franchise” top-4 pairing defenseman Minnesota has been lacking past No. 3 blue liner Jared Spurgeon.
Right now, Olofsson is focused on helping his struggling Colorado College squad succeed in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. But you can bet he’d also love nothing more than help Sweden win their second gold medal in two years. He’ll have to go through Matt Dumba and Team Canada first. May the best defenseman win.