The Wild may be in lockout mode, but the Houston Aeros, Minnesota's chief minor league affiliate, may be one of the most exciting teams in a super-stacked American Hockey League.
The Wild's top prospects, including Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin, should provide bored, frustrated, hockey-craving Wild fans with plenty of reason to pay attention to the Aeros.
All this makes Aeros veteran coach John Torchetti arguably the most important person in Wild organization right now.
"For once," joked Torchetti, a former Stanley Cup-winning assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks and head coach with the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings. "Seriously, I just want to teach them what I've got and have them ready for Yeozie [Wild coach Mike Yeo]."
Training camp begins Friday with three days at Xcel Energy Center.
No one knows when is the next time the ice will be down at the X, so if you want to see Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, Brett Bulmer, Zack Phillips, Matt Hackett and others, Torchetti said, "this is a great weekend to get your hockey fix. This is the future Wild."
Torchetti can't wait to get going. The Aeros are getting such an infusion of skill, Torchetti said, "our top line last year [David McIntyre, Joel Broda and Justin Fontaine] could be our fourth line this year."
"We have skill upon skill now. We weren't blessed with that last year."
Torchetti has no set line combinations yet, other than Granlund, Larsson and Phillips will be the top three centers.
"I just want to see them mesh," Torchetti said. "We'll see the skill [players] with the skill, but they may mix and match. We might see Granlund with Zucker and Coyle, but we may see Larsson with one of those guys."
The Wild possesses one of the highly touted prospect pools in the NHL, so many critics are predicting the Aeros to cruise. However, it won't be that easy.
First, there will surely be growing pains for the first-time pros. It doesn't matter how good you are, experiencing a 76-game season or three games in three nights is an adjustment.
"If you've come out of college playing 35 games a year, three-in-threes are tough games to play," Torchetti said. "You feel good, but your legs aren't moving."
Second, because of the NHL lockout, most AHL teams are bustling with prospects, with several teams even sending down young NHL stars.
The AHL will feature Carolina's Jeff Skinner, Edmonton's Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, New Jersey's Adam Larsson and Adam Henrique, Anaheim's Cam Fowler, Philadelphia's Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn and the Wild's Marco Scandella.
In the 2004-05 lockout, such future top NHLers as Jason Spezza, Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Michael Cammelleri, Dustin Brown, Patrice Bergeron and Nathan Horton were in the AHL and the Philadelphia Phantoms, including Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, won the Calder Cup against the Chicago Wolves, including Stephen Weiss and Jay Bouwmeester.
"There will be 30 great teams," said Minnesotan Alex Stalock, the San Jose Sharks goalie who plays for Worcester. "Normally, you may play a great team, but they could be short two or three players because they're up in the NHL.
"This year, because of the lockout, there will be no nights off. It's going to be an incredible league, an incredible challenge."
Perhaps one silver lining of the NHL lockout is the Wild's prospects will get to grow together in the minors. If the lockout ends, there likely wouldn't be exhibition games before the start of the season, so Torchetti is looking to accelerate the learning curve.
"We've got to have guys ready to make a smooth transition from the American League to National League so they're effective for the Wild. I want to make sure they're prepped," Torchetti said. "I can't wait to see the learning curve. Some you see in a week or two, they get it. Others, it takes a month, it might be two. But trust me, they'll be learning."Lockout update
With the absence of a collective bargaining agreement, the NHL canceled the rest of the preseason Thursday -- now putting the start of the regular season on Oct. 11 in jeopardy.
The good news is the NHL and NHLPA have scheduled three days of meetings beginning Friday -- the first negotiation since Sept. 12. Wild forward Zach Parise said if talks go nowhere, he may choose to take a job in Switzerland for the rest of the lockout.