A quick reminder that all top 10 candidates must be no more than 25 years old as of October 7, 2015. The lists consider all skaters in that age group who have played in fewer than 40 NHL regular season games, with 25 games being the cut-off among netminders.
Despite a ranking in the top half of the league, the Minnesota Wild had an atrocious farm team in Iowa last season after placing on the bottom of their division the previous season as well. Thankfully, the system runs very deep outside of their AHL team, as only two of the top ten spent their seasons in the American heartland, and one of them was limited to a single game due to injury. Further handicapping the system is a dearth of prospects coming from the fertile grounds of the CHL. Where the Wild excel is in scouting and developing talent from Europe and throughout the NCAA and its attendant feeder leagues. Recognizing their own strengths, the Wild used six of their seven 2015 picks on Europeans and imminent collegians.
- Mike Reilly, D, Minnesota (Big 10) 5-11”, 156. UFA: Jul. 1, 2015. Originally: 98th overall, 2011 (Columbus)
- Alex Tuch, RW, Boston College (Hockey East) 6-4”, 213. 18th overall, 2014
- Joel Eriksson Ek, C, Farjestad (SHL) 6-2”, 183. 20th overall, 2015
- Christoph Bertschy, C, Bern (NLA) 5-10”, 170. 158th overall, 2012
- Mario Lucia, LW, Notre Dame (Hockey East) 6-2”, 187. 60th overall, 2011
- Gustav Olofsson, D, Iowa (AHL) 6-3”, 185. 46th overall, 2013
- Kaapo Kahkonen, G, TuTo (Mestis) 6-2”, 209. 109th overall, 2014
- Carson Soucy, D, Minnesota-Duluth (NCHC) 6-4”, 191. 137th overall, 2013
- Stephen Michalek, G, Harvard (ECAC) 6-3”, 209. 161st overall, 2011
- Tyler Graovac, C, Iowa (AHL) 6-3”, 179. 191st overall, 2011
Players likely to lose eligibility
- Zack Mitchell, RW, Iowa (AHL) 6-0”, 185. UFA: Mar. 4, 2014
- Pavel Jenys, C, Sudbury (OHL) 6-3”, 192. 199th overall, 2014
- Louis Belpedio, D, Miami (NCHC) 5-11”, 193. 80th overall, 2014
- Jordan Greenway, LW, USNTDP (USHL) 6-5”, 223. 50th overall, 2015
The relative strength of the Wild system is built on opportunism. Much like Justin Schultz of the Edmonton Oilers, Mike Reilly, the top prospect in the system, was not even a Minnesota draft pick, but rather was selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets four years ago. He followed that selection with a fantastic season in the BCHL and then three years with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, right in the Wild’s backyard. Not only that, but his father is a minority partner in the team. When the young defenceman announced his intention to leave school one year early and that, subsequently, he would not be signing with his draft team, he became a free agent. Despite the overtures of many NHL clubs, Reilly went home and signed with Minnesota. Much like Schultz before him, Reilly is an offensive dynamo. He has great vision for passing lanes, a heavy point shot belying his diminutive stature and is a confident stickhandler who shows no qualms about encroaching deep into the offensive zone. While there are justifiable concerns as to his ability to defend at the highest levels, he was used extensively on the PK in college. He will be given the opportunity to play in the NHL right away, but some time to acclimate to the professional game in Iowa would not be a bad thing.
If Reilly plays in Iowa, he will be joined by Swedish defensive prospect Gustav Olofsson. Last season was supposed to be a coming out party for the rangy and mobile blueliner, but a shoulder injury sustained in the opener knocked him out for the remainder of the season. Olofsson is smarter than he is skilled, although he does not lack in the latter. If he does not become gun shy as a result of his injury, we can expect big things, although not big points, from him in the AHL this year. A lot rides on his physical readiness, but his style of game was one which is well suited for a lower pairing in the NHL.
Another exciting blueline prospect in Minnesota’s sightlines is Minnesota-Duluth Bulldog Carson Soucy. After an underwhelming freshman season, the big-bodied Albertan took a few positive steps forward as a sophomore, demonstrating plus mobility – more notable for his size – as well as a strong slap shot. He is at least three years away from the NHL, but his emergence has added a lot of breadth to the Minnesota pipeline as his upside may be higher than once thought.
Even further away than Soucy is collegian Louis Belpedio. A purer offensive defenseman than anyone in the system other than Reilly, Belpedio, like Reilly, is undersized and has put up respectable point totals at every stop in his burgeoning career. If he builds on his strong freshman season at Miami, he will leap up next year’s list.
Although the system lacks future first line centers, there are three in the system who could project out to fit in the other three lines as well as one other lesser-heralded player who could push for a spot. Most prominent among the Wild pivots is 2015 first rounder Joel Eriksson Ek. A hard-nosed two-way center, Eriksson Ek competes in all three zones. He has great hands and the patience to wait out a goalie if he finds himself alone in tight. His strength on the puck is also put to use as it allows him to make plays in coverage that would swallow weaker forwards. A scoring sensation in the Swedish junior ranks, he naturally struggled to score as an 18 year old playing with the men, but will be expected to increase his output this year with Farjestad.
Christoph Bertschy has increased his offensive output in each of the past three seasons in the top pro men’s league in his native Switzerland, finally surpassing his surprising rookie season last year. Bertschy has high level speed and soft hands. He can set up as well as finish, but will need to prove he can withstand the increased physicality of the North American game before he receives an NHL opportunity. As is, his slight frame may be an impediment on the smaller ice surfaces in the AHL. While he has bust potential, the potential for a middle six NHL center is good enough for a spot in the middle of the Minnesota top ten.
Before last season, Tyler Graovac was an organizational afterthought, a seventh round pick who did not project to more than an occasional temporary NHL callup. After nearly doubling his scoring output with Iowa in his second go round, he earned that first callup last year, with three games around mid-season. Graovac has incredible size and a plus shot, but his skating prowess, or lack thereof, will keep him from being more than a fourth liner. That said, a solid fourth liner is more than was previously expected out of him.
Another center of note is Pavel Jenys, the best player on an otherwise horrid Sudbury Wolves team last year. Like Graovac, the Czech import was a seventh rounder who made good after his selection. Big and strong, he is not yet a very physical player, although we may not have seen what he could really do if surrounded by a few more talented teammates.
Moving to the wings, the Wild have shown a clear proclivity for big men, with three of the four of note in the system being of well above average size. Most notable is 2014 first rounder Alex Tuch, whose name rhymes with truck. Which is good, because that is sometimes how he plays. A big man with strong puck skills, the Boston College forward is active in all three zones. His first three steps are a weakness, but once he hits top speed, he gets to at least average pace. Between his strength and confident and skilled puckhandling, he should be ready for the NHL as soon as he feels he has nothing left to accomplish in college.
Mario Lucia is another skilled winger with a large frame in the system, and like Tuch, he is learning his trade in the NCAA, in this case, Notre Dame. Lucia is a physical player who drives hard to the net and can manage the puck well in tight quarters. Son of the long-time Golden Gopher head coach, the younger Lucia will spend one more season with the Fighting Irish where he will be expected to lead the charge. If there is a concern here, it is that his offensive output has scarcely budged in three collegiate seasons.
Zack Mitchell, the smallest winger of note in the system, had a strong rookie season with Iowa last year after signing as an undrafted free agent from the OHL champion Guelph Storm. A late-blooming hard worker with good vision, a good start to his second pro season will find him knocking on the doorstep of the NHL. As is, he will be one of the first forwards called up in case of injury.
One final skater of note in the system is gigantic USNTDP winger Jordan Greenway. An absolute physical specimen, Greenway has yet to blossom offensively, although his inherent physical skills will afford him a long leash. He plays with an edge and has a decent passing touch to boot. He will move on to Boston University next season.
In addition to prospects at every position, the Wild also have a couple of goaltenders who are worthy of our attention in the system. Kaapo Kahkonen was the best regular netminder in the Finnish second division last year, his first in the professional ranks. An athletic butterfly goalie, Kahkonen will be tested more this year as he has moved on to play for Blues in Liiga. He has starter upside.
The other notable netminder in the Wild system is collegian Stephen Michalek, who starred for Harvard for three seasons before signing his ELC this summer. A strong competitor with quick reactions and good size, he could push for the backup role within one or two seasons.
As with many systems that rely heavily on collegiate talent for replenishment, the Wild system may go under the radar by many prognosticators. That said, they are loaded with talented players at every position, including a few who project as top line/defensive pairing/starting goalie talent. Expect this year’s Iowa team to be a huge improvement from the last two iterations.