Free-agent signings give Wild prospects time

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Before the July 1 start of free agency, some of the Minnesota Wild’s most talked-about players hadn’t even participated in an NHL regular-season game.

For more than a year, the names Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Zack Phillips and Matt Hackett, among others, have offered hope for an exciting future and star power the likes of which the Xcel Energy Center had rarely seen from the home team. Minnesota’s promising group of prospects ranked among the best in the entire league.

Then all of those names were replaced by two: Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Anticipation for the future has been overshadowed by the excitement of the present, and the thrill of adding the two highest-profile free agents in team history. And that’s just what the Wild wanted.

General manager Chuck Fletcher has spoken highly of the team’s prospects, expecting as many as six to turn pro this season. But with Parise and Suter in the fold, many of the prospects have started to realize their odds of making the NHL to start next season are a little longer.

“It’s awesome for the organization bringing in those two guys,” Coyle said Tuesday as Minnesota started the on-ice portion of its development camp at the Xcel Energy Center. “But yeah, it’s definitely added pressure for everyone with two more spots gone. But it’s going to make you work harder. I think that’s better for everyone.”

Coyle is one of the players most affected by the signings. The 6-foot-2 power forward is coming off a junior season in which he scored 15 goals and had 23 assists in just 23 games, playing half the season for Saint John in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Paired with Phillips, he had an incredible playoff run with 15 goals and 19 assists in 17 games.

With Parise, Suter and also free-agent additions Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell, there are fewer NHL roster spots open. Even though Coyle adds a different dimension to the Wild because of his size and skill, he isn’t guaranteed anything. Knowing his spot isn’t secure, Coyle is concentrating on simply doing his part to win a job.

“It definitely makes you want to make the team even more and get to play with those guys one day,” Coyle said. “I think it makes everyone (work) harder just to keep improving this organization and doing that.”

Many of his future teammates are taking the same approach, even though their NHL dreams may be put on hold. If they don’t make the Minnesota roster out of training camp, most will still stay in pro hockey and join the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate in Houston.

Jason Zucker, who signed with Minnesota out of Denver University last spring to get a jump on his NHL career, played in the final six games for the Wild last season. He’s another player on the bubble and uses the fewer roster spots as motivation.

“It’s a challenge,” Zucker said. “It made me want to get to the gym the next day, made me want to get on the ice the next day to make sure that I was getting better because I am fighting for a spot. I’m not guaranteed a spot on this team, nobody is, except for Parise. It was something that put a fire in me, made me want to get to the gym and make sure I’d make this team.”

For now, perhaps the only prospect with a strong line on an NHL spot next year is Finnish phenom Mikael Granlund, ranked as the No. 2 prospect in all of hockey in March by The Hockey News in its annual “Future Watch” rankings.

Coach Mike Yeo said the young players will still be given every chance to make the team out of training camp. He has even given thought to the line combinations but won’t go beyond saying Parise will probably play with center Mikko Koivu on the first line. It’s believed Granlund will get a chance to be the second-line center.

“All I want to do is my job and do all I can for the team,” Granlund said. “I don’t feel any pressure about that. It’s just hockey. I’m allowed to play hockey and now my dreams come true and I try to be on the team.”

With the Houston coaching staff doing the on-ice work with perhaps the most talent Minnesota has ever had at its annual development camp, the Wild coaching staff, Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr have been watching intently. Minnesota has five of the top 40 prospects in the game according to The Hockey News, the first time any team had that many in the top 40 in the publication’s history. No other team had as many as three in the top 50 this year.

Because of Parise, Suter, Konopka and Mitchell, many of them will remain prospects — for now.

“What can I say?” Johan Larsson said. “It’s not good for us, the younger (players). But we have to keep battling for the other spots and work hard every day. We’re young, so it will come.

“We have to work harder and hope they believe in us.”

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