ST. PAUL, Minn. — Before Zach Parise and Ryan Suter pulled on Minnesota Wild sweaters last July, before Minnesota had done everything in its power to shock the NHL by signing the two biggest free agents last offseason, there was already a bit of excitement beginning to spread.
Before the Wild became the biggest newsmakers in the league, they had been planning a more subtle emergence based on a set of prospects that rivaled any in the NHL, a group of talented players that appeared ready to burst on the stage as soon as this season.
That’s still the plan in Minnesota. But now the heralded prospects will arrive under a bit less scrutiny, the timeframe for some extended because of the Wild’s offseason additions.
“They’re knocking on the door,” Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said this week, speaking about his group of prospects that have been growing together in the American Hockey League while the NHL was locked out.
From center Mikael Granlund — generally considered one of the top two to three players in the world to not have played yet in the NHL — to defensemen Jonas Brodin and Mathew Dumba, forwards Charlie Coyle and Johan Larsson, and goaltender Matt Hackett, the Wild have a group of prospects that’s the envy of the NHL. Dumba, the No. 7 overall pick last year who has spent the lockout playing junior hockey, is part of the training camp roster for Minnesota.
Even forwards like Jason Zucker and Brett Bulmer, highly-regarded in their own right, got a taste of the NHL last season in limited stints, but will continue with the Houston Aeros of the AHL as the Wild begin their truncated season at home on Saturday.
Blessed with more depth than it has ever had in the franchise’s existence, Minnesota will open the season with a veteran-laden roster, in part because of Parise, Suter and other signings, with only Granlund and possibly young defenseman Marco Scandella on the NHL roster while the remainder of the talented group continues its season in Houston.
“These guys have had a pretty big spotlight on themselves for half a season now,” Yeo said, of the Aeros being in Minnesota this week to scrimmage as part of the NHL training camp. “We’ve been keeping a very close eye on these guys and have given us a great deal to be excited about. But I said it last night, anytime you’re a young kid and you have the chance to prove yourself, it’s something you want to take advantage of.”
For now, players such as Coyle, Zucker and Larsson have to show their worth with Houston and in the training camp scrimmages. They aren’t on the Wild’s training camp roster. They are only in Minnesota to help the Wild prepare for the season.
Most seasons, many of them might have had a training camp invitation and a shot to prove they belonged at the NHL level. Instead, they will have to make their impression in scrimmages and return to Houston to continue their development. Yeo spoke with the Aeros when they arrived Monday and said he knows the situation is not “fair” but this training camp is more about preparation than evaluation.
“If it was a normal training camp, I probably would have gotten a pretty good look along with many other guys,” said Zucker, who played six games with the Wild at the end of last season. “It’s a tough way to go about it for them because they’ve got to make sure they’re ready to go on Saturday. Saturday’s pretty quick. They’re trying to get ready and make sure they’re team can go and contend. They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do and I’ll keep doing what I need to do.”
Zucker has led Houston in scoring this season with 16 goals and 17 assists in 34 games. Larsson, the Swedish import making his pro debut, has 10 goals and 12 assists in 38 games. Coyle, another player making his pro debut this season, has 12 goals and nine assists in 38 games.
Zucker, Coyle and the others also know they still could get their chance this season with Minnesota. And Yeo feels comfortable with the increased depth thanks to the prospect that he doesn’t have worry much about adding reinforcements from the Aeros, if needed.
“We’ll need it,” Yeo said. “You always need depth and this year as much as anything. What’s great for us, whether it’s guys that are here or guys that are in Houston, we’re going to have good depth and good in the sense that we have youth and we have veteran presence. Sometimes you need one, sometimes you need the other. And we also have skill and we have role players, and again, sometimes you need one, sometimes you need the other. When we lose a player we will have the pieces we need to fill that role.”
“When they call, I’ll be ready,” Zucker said. “100 percent, absolutely.”
For now, the group has enjoyed working together in Houston and seeing the future of the Wild on the ice in the present with the Aeros.
“To know that you could be playing with them for years to come and make the jump and keep playing with those guys would be pretty cool,” Coyle said. “I think that’s what a lot of people are looking forward to with this team. They’ve done a lot of rebuilding and especially getting those two guys (Parise and Suter) is unbelievable. I know people are excited about that. We’ve got a lot of good guys down in Houston playing. So it’s a solid organization I would say. That makes it harder for competition to come up and try to make this team. I think it’s good for everyone.”
Granlund, for now, is penciled into the big-league team as the second-line center and appears ready to make an impact at the beginning of the season. Granlund is also experiencing his first pro season in North America and has eight goals and 13 assists in 21 games for Houston.
In the first few days of training camp, he’s been everything the Wild have hoped for and everything he’s advertised with good hands, good vision and a big shot.
“He is right in there,” Yeo said. “He does not look out of place one bit. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; very pleased. He’s a very talented player and it gets exciting when you watch these guys play.”