ST. PAUL, Minn. – Before Zach Parise and Ryan Suter arrived to transform the Minnesota Wild, the organization’s hopes were pinned on a group of heralded prospects considered among the best in the entire league.
The prospect core that included a potential shutdown defenseman, a playmaking center and a goal-scoring power forward was ranked No. 3 in The Hockey News’ annual Future Watch list in February.
Many of Minnesota’s crop of rookies got a chance to contribute in 2013, from defenseman Jonas Brodin, to forwards Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund, to goaltender Darcy Kuemper. And the influx of young talent could very well increase next year.
“Yeah, that’s where I guess the upside is,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said at his season-ending press conference. “There’s risk because we don’t know. Maybe nobody does, but certainly (2012 first-rounder Mathew) Dumba and Granlund are knocking on the door. Darcy Kuemper is knocking on the door. But beyond that, you look at a guy like Erik Haula, you look at Justin Fontaine had a very good year, guys like Zack Phillips and Brett Bulmer, Carson McMillan if you need a different type of player.
“There’s a lot of them there that could emerge and let’s be honest, you hope every year one or two kids emerge. From that group I think there’s certainly a chance and there’s some longer-term kids after that that won’t be ready for next year.”
The future of the Wild will be determined as much by the development of its prospects as the continued success of Parise, Suter and other NHL players. Minnesota will be looking for continued growth from Brodin and Coyle, who each received votes for the Calder Trophy, given to the league’s top rookie.
Brodin, the youngest defensemen in the league at 19 years old, was fourth in the voting after a season in which he led all rookies with 23 minutes, 12 seconds of average ice time, had two goals, nine assists and was a plus-3. Coyle, 21, had eight goals and six assists while carving out a spot on Minnesota’s top line with Parise and Mikko Koivu. Zucker, 21, had four goals and an assist in 20 regular-season games and added a goal and assist in five playoff games.
Granlund, 21, struggled at times through his first season in North America coming over from Finland, but was considered one of the top 10 prospects in all of hockey. He had two goals and six assists in 27 NHL games and showed his playmaking ability with 10 goals and 18 assists in 29 games for the Houston Aeros in the American Hockey League.
Entering the season, Granlund (No. 7), Brodin (No. 22) and Coyle (No. 27) were among the top-27 prospects in hockey, according to The Hockey News’ Future Watch.
“What’s important is that they come in not satisfied on that,” coach Mike Yeo said of the rookie seasons for the four players. “And that sophomore season can be difficult for some players, so it’s going to be a challenge for them to make sure they come in and not just be ready to play at that level, but we need them to be ready to take another step next year. These guys are great players and they’re very big components of our team. So we need these guys to be ready to come back and take another step.”
Minnesota had a fourth player listed in the Future Watch’s Top 50 prospects with Dumba coming in at No. 47. But that was before Dumba, drafted No. 7 overall last season, had another big season for Red Deer in the Western Hockey League with 16 goals, 26 assists and 80 penalty minutes in 62 games before making his first professional appearance with Houston at the end of the season.
Dumba, 18, played in three regular-season and five playoff games for Houston, possibly leading to making his impact at the NHL level next season. He stuck with the team for several games in March before being sent back to his junior team, but never made an appearance with the Wild. His first taste of the NHL could come next year. Brodin showed Minnesota isn’t scared to test a young defenseman, but Brodin’s success is more the exception than the rule when it comes to 19-year-old defenseman playing in the NHL.
“It’s a hard league for 19-year-old defenseman,” Fletcher said of Dumba, who turns 19 on July 25, calling him a “dynamic talent.”
Fletcher added: “Brodin is kind of an anomaly. He’s maybe the only young defenseman I’ve seen that comes in being defensively really good. Normally young ‘D’ come in and they’re good offensively. You got to teach them how to play defense over a couple of years and you live with their mistakes. Brodin’s the opposite, but Dumba’s the typical defenseman. His challenge will be playing defense in the NHL … But his strengths are what we need. Whether he’s ready at 19 at training camp, I’m sure you guys will all have your opinions. We’ll all watch and we’ll see if that will be on the ice.”
Minnesota witnessed the impact of several young players last season. The hope is the infusion of youth continues next season.
“Our scouts have done a great job, so our pipeline is still full,” Fletcher said. “That’s always what you look for in camp. You come in and know what you’re going to get from Zach or Mikko, and either Kyle Brodziak, but what are you going to get from a Dumba or a Granlund? Or can Fontaine play? Or Zucker and Coyle, are they going to plateau or are they going to go up? But you know, we’ve seen it both ways. That’s the excitement for me, I think there’s guys that could take a step.”