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Continued: So far, Wild's prospects look golden

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 15, 2011 - 11:07 PM

You know things are going well for the Wild's prospects when goalie Johan Gustafsson wins his first game in the under-20 tournament in Europe, doesn't start the next two games, and Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher starts wondering, "What the heck is going on?"

Turns out the 19-year-old Gustafsson, a sixth-round draft pick by the Wild in 2010 who leads the Swedish Elite League with four shutouts, was called up to the senior team and backstopped Sweden to a victory over Wild 2010 top pick Mikael Granlund and Finland in the Karjala Cup.

That's been par for the course this season for the Wild's deepening prospect pool.

Longtime NHL scout Grant Sonier ranked the Wild second behind Florida on ESPN.com's organizational rankings last week. Remember, this is the same organization that was ranked 29th in the Hockey News' Future Watch in 2009 and 2010.

But a lot has changed, thanks to a couple of strong drafts and a trade with San Jose that resulted in two blue-chip prospects.

"This year's going to be a really fun world junior championships for us," Fletcher said. "We could have several good prospects playing."

The trade of defenseman Brent Burns to San Jose for winger Devin Setoguchi also gave the Wild the Sharks' top pick (28th overall) in the 2010 draft in Boston University winger Charlie Coyle (10 points in nine games); and San Jose's No. 1 pick in 2011, which the Wild used to take Saint John star Zack Phillips, who has 35 points and is on a 13-game point streak.

On the way?

Other blossoming Wild draft choices include:

• Jonas Brodin, Farjestads (10th overall, 2011): The team's 2011 first-round pick is a top defenseman for his team and played in the Karjala Cup.

• Brett Bulmer, Kelowna (39th, 2010): The pesky winger played the first nine games for the Wild before heading back to the Western Hockey League.

• Granlund, IFK-Helsinki (ninth overall, 2010): Second in the Finnish Elite League with 21 points.

• Erik Haula, Gophers (182nd, 2009): Sophomore center from Finland is second in college hockey with 18 points.

• Darcy Kuemper, Ontario (161st, 2009): Second in the East Coast Hockey League with a 1.47 goals-against average and .941 save percentage after being the WHL's player of the year last season.

• Johan Larsson, Brynas (56th, 2010): Fifth in the Swedish Elite League with 17 points, playing in the under-20 tournament.

• Mario Lucia, Penticton (60th, 2011): Notre Dame recruit is tied for fifth in the Junior A British Columbia Hockey League with 30 points.

• Jason Zucker, University of Denver (59th, 2010): Sophomore winger leads the team with five goals after being WCHA freshman of the year last season.

And at Houston, center Casey Wellman (signed as a college free agent) is second in the American Hockey League with 10 goals, and goalie Matt Hackett (77th, 2009) is 7-1-2 with a 2.39 GAA and .920 save percentage.

"We're deep in prospects at every position," Fletcher said.

A key signing

The Wild has made significant inroads since Fletcher took over a barren foundation in 2009.

"The stable of young prospects we have now, even if we didn't add any more for the next few years, I really feel the ones we have in the system now will make this franchise a contending team," Fletcher said.

One player who could make the team next year is Granlund, who helped lead IFK to a league championship and Finland to a world championship last season.

The Wild must sign him by June 1 or he can re-enter the draft. He wants to wait to sign until after his season in Finland, which is putting fear in a lot of Wild fans. Last offseason, the Calgary Flames had to trade defenseman Tim Erixon to the Rangers because he refused to sign.

"Our conversations with [agent] Todd Diamond and with Mikael, they've both indicated they're happy and looking forward to signing at the end of the season and coming over and playing here next year," Fletcher said. "There's no reason not to believe it. Who knows what's going to happen, but we recognize we're going to have to give him a very competitive contract.

"We have a lot of opportunity, he seems to have liked his time over here the last two summers and he knows [captain] Mikko [Koivu]. You never know. I never take anything for granted, but I think we have a very competitive opportunity for him."

Bright future

Fletcher says he has been delighted with the growth of several prospects.

For instance, he says of the puck-moving Brodin: "The points don't show it, but he plays all the important minutes. We hope the offensive part will develop. It's kind of funny. The knock on kids coming out of Canadian junior is that they're really good offensively but they have to learn how to play in their own zone. In Sweden, they take these kids and they teach them how to play defense so well that they don't play offense.

"The defensive side of his game is so good. He moves the puck, he's very smart. Now it's just getting him to take a few more chances, to get him to join the rush occasionally, to get him on the power play."

Candidates for playing in the world junior tournament in Calgary next month include Larsson, Gustafsson and Brodin for Sweden; Granlund for Finland; and Zucker and Coyle for the United States. The Wild hopes Bulmer and Phillips will be invited to Canada's selection camp.

Both Zucker and Haula, who played for Finland in last year's junior tournament but is now too old at 20, are listed at 5-11. Zucker is considered more a goal-scorer and Haula a playmaker.

Fletcher calls Zucker "a dynamic player" and says Haula has "opened a lot of eyes here. We always knew he was talented player. At his size, let's be honest, there's a lot of smaller skilled college players that have success, and you never know how that will translate to the pro level.

"But when we saw him at the world juniors last year, I think he showed us there was another level of competitiveness to his game and some drive there that might be able to separate him from just being a good college player."

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