Wild's formula for building: Homegrown with patience

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 24, 2011 - 10:34 AM

Hoping to rely less on free agents, the team is keeping prospects in the minors for seasoning. The results this spring have been encouraging.

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Colton Gillies, left, played 45 games for the Wild in 2008-09, but his game has matured in AHL Houston.

Photo: DARRYL DYCK, AP

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With his bloodshot eye, chipped tooth and deep cut underneath his scruffy playoff beard, Colton Gillies is beginning to look like an NHLer.

He is starting to play like one, too, helping lead the American Hockey League's Houston Aeros to the Western Conference finals, where they play Game 7 Tuesday night against the Hamilton Bulldogs after wasting a 3-0 series lead.

"I think I've earned my scars," Gillies said, laughing.

Gillies, 22, was thrust into the NHL as a raw 19-year-old rookie in 2008. Now, after spending the past two years in the minors and leading the Aeros on a deep playoff run, he appears ready to crack the Wild roster next fall.

"The primary credit has to go to Colton for having a positive attitude and working hard and being accepting of going to the American League and working on his overall game," Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. "That's the natural evolution of young players: Mature, develop and hopefully make it to the NHL and contribute."

This type of philosophy is what the Wild hopes to transition into over the next couple of seasons. Whether it's draft picks like Gillies, Cody Almond and Matt Hackett or college free agents such as Casey Wellman, Nate Prosser and Justin Fontaine, the Wild wants to properly develop its young players.

This will be Fletcher's third summer since becoming the Wild's GM in May 2009. He had to dip into the free-agent market more than he would have liked because Wild prospects weren't ready.

Fletcher wants to build a program like those of Detroit and San Jose, who are bustling with homegrown players, and Nashville and New Jersey, who routinely have their young players develop in the minors.

Of course, there could be exceptions. While it appears 2010 first-round draft pick Mikael Granlund will delay joining the Wild next season, he's the type of young talent who might be good enough to step right into the NHL. He was the SM-Liiga Rookie of the Year in 2009-10 and helped lead IFK-Helsinki to a championship last month. He also was a key player on Finland's recent world championship team.

But the way the Aeros are developing under first-year coach Mike Yeo and his staff, there are positive signs the Wild development process is moving forward.

"First of all, the players grow together," Fletcher said. "They're drafted together, they come to summer camps together, they go to rookie camps together and they play in the minors together. So since they learn your culture, they bring greater energy and passion with them to your team than a free agent typically would.

"Also, there's a financial necessity, too. If you can fill your holes through your system, it allows you to concentrate your financial resources on the big fish you need."

Last season, only six Wild draft picks -- Mikko Koivu, Brent Burns, Nick Schultz, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Cal Clutterbuck and Clayton Stoner -- played more than 22 games for the team. The rest were acquired via free agency or trade. That's why Fletcher says part of the development process is giving youngsters such as Gillies, Almond, Wellman, Marco Scandella and others the chance to make the team next season.

"The thinking now is leaving spots available for players to grab," Fletcher said. "Part of what you're selling these kids is as they earn the right to take the next step, there's an opportunity for them to do so. Then when they do, you give hope to the next generation of prospects."

Gillies has lived up to his end of the bargain. He has turned into a physical forechecker, a quality defensive player and one of Houston's best penalty killers. In 17 playoff games, he has seven goals and three assists and leads the team in plus-minus at plus-7.

"At the beginning of the year, he had no idea what kind of player he was and what he could become," Yeo said. "Was he a skilled guy, a physical guy, a defensive guy? Now he knows exactly who he is. ... He gets eight, nine hits a game, some of them really big, he goes north with pucks, gets in the offensive zone and battles. That's what he is."

Or better yet, that's what he's developed into.

"It was the right decision to send me down to get ice time and develop. I needed time down here to develop into my man body," the 6-4 Gillies said. "I feel the change in my game. Even right now, this whole experience for me, the playoffs, yeah you're sore, you're tired, but you find those new levels to push your body.

"We've got a saying around here: It's the hard that makes it great. It's definitely worth it right now. We'll see where the cards fall these playoffs, and then we'll look to having a big summer so I can try to make the Wild."

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