Thanks for joining us for our August 31-in-31 series! Every day this month we are looking at each team and diving into their prospect depth charts, risers and fallers, graduating prospects, and top-10 prospects in the system.
You would think that ownership, management and fans would be happy with a 45-26-11 record and 101 points (tied for eighth in the NHL). They might have been had the Wild, a team that has reached the conference final just once in its 17 years, not been bounced in the first round for the third straight time.
Offseason change was preceded by frustrated team owner Craig Leipold sacking general manager Chuck Fletcher in May, replacing him with Paul Fenton. Nashville’s assistant GM for the past 12 years previously played in 411 NHL games.
After an uninspiring debut draft with his new team, Fenton began modest personnel changes by buying out Tyler Ennis when the undersized forward flopped with 22 points after coming from Buffalo. Ennis (Toronto) and greybeard Matt Cullen (Pittsburgh) headed 13 players in the organization having to try to find employment elsewhere.
Hindered by the albatross contracts of 30-somethings Zach Parisé and Ryan Suter, Fenton had to mind every greenback. Third-pairing D-man Greg Pateryn joined depth forwards J.T. Brown, Matt Hendricks and Eric Fehr as humble FA signings. Fenton did well with Minnesota’s FAs, re-signing key veterans Jason Zucker and Matt Dumba to five-year deals and retaining promising 25-year-old blueliner Nick Seeler with a team-friendly ($725,000 AAV) three-year deal.
It was surely not the offseason fans wanted to get past 2019’s first playoff round but the declining production of Parisé, who hasn’t played a full schedule since 2011-12, and the uncertain health of Suter (recovering from a fractured ankle) limit Fenton’s options.
He’s believed to have explored shaking up a core that has consistently underperformed in the post-season. Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter were among those featured in trade rumors, although Fenton’s bargaining leverage was further weakened by 37- and 32-point performances from Coyle and Niederreiter, respectively. Jonas Brodin is a good trade chip that could help to bring the Wild a top-six, righthanded-shooting forward or a good netminding prospect. Brodin will stay put as long as Suter’s health is uncertain.
The good news is that the roster that won 45 games is essentially unchanged. It’s also the bad news.
Jordan Greenway – The 6-6, 227-pound behemoth has a good shot to start the Wild’s campaign on the third line with fellow star prospect Joel Eriksson Ek, whose 75-game debut established him as an NHL regular. After raising his NCAA point totals for Boston University from 26 to 31 to 35, then notching his first NHL goal and assist, the 21-year-old Greenway looks like a can’t-miss power forward. He might even be tried in the top six after Parisé suffers an inevitable injury.
Luke Kunin – The 15th overall pick in 2016 would be a strong bet for the opening-day NHL roster if not for a torn ACL suffered March 4. Expected to need at least seven months to recover, the 2018 AHL all-star will likely need to play himself into shape in the minors before a recall to the NHL, where he’s already played 19 games. Barring a top-six Wild injury, expect him to start on the third or fourth line, but he’s a future two-way star.
Nick Seeler – The 25-year-old is expected to add to his 22 NHL games and four assists. While he’s never going to be a big scorer, the University of Minnesota alumnus registered plus-10, which was noticed by the Wild’s braintrust. Seeler, who notched his first two big-league playoff assists, has the edge over Gustav Olofsson, 23, on a crowded Minny blueline. If Suter struggles with his ankle, some extra playing time could appear.
Kirill Kaprizov – Although he is committed to CSKA Moskva of the KHL for two more seasons, with no guarantee he’ll come to North America afterwards, the creative sniper is Minnesota’s top-ranked prospect. Only 5-9, the 185-pounder totaled 117 points in 179 games for three KHL squads in four campaigns as a youngster playing against men. He was playing in the WJC as recently as 2016-17, when he had nine goals and 12 points in just seven games. Forty points in 46 KHL outings in 2017-18 did nothing to cool Minnesota’s enthusiasm.
Louie Belpedio – After capping his four-year NCAA stint with a nine-goal, 30-point campaign for Ohio’s Miami University, the nimble righthand-shooting defenseman raised eyebrows with two assists in his NHL debut. The third-rounder added two helpers in 10 games for the AHL’s Iowa Wild, where he will probably start this fall. His vision, hockey IQ, passing skill, good shot and work ethic will soon threaten Nate Prosser’s job security.
Kyle Rau – With Kunin’s season starting slowly, the 25-year-old Rau has an opportunity to break camp on one of the bottom-six lines. However, the late bloomer (50 points in 69 AHL games a season ago) could easily be overtaken on the depth chart at some point by sturdy former OHL point-producer Dmitri Sokolov, and/or the explosive Kaprizov, if he ever decides to leave Russia.
Mason Shaw – Already disadvantaged as a 5-8 center, the 2017 fourth-rounder lost the 2017-18 campaign due to ACL and MCL tears last September. It remains to be seen how that will affect one of the fastest players in the WHL. Before the devastating injury, his vision, anticipation, outstanding skating and slick hands allowed him to rack up 94 points (including 67 helpers) in 71 games for the Medicine Hat Tigers, adding 12 assists in 11 post-season outings.
Ivan Lodnia – The 2017 third-rounder could make this look like a bad call after being traded from the sadsack Erie Otters to the powerful Niagara IceDogs in the offseason. Still, the U.S. native had just 59 points in 62 games in the 2017-18 junior schedule and zero points in six AHL games with Iowa. He went to the third line with Erie to learn defensive responsibility.
Filip Johansson – As well as compiling just 16 points in 35 outings at three levels of Swedish junior hockey, the young blueliner posted only one goal in 23 games in his first experience playing men for Leksands in the second-tier Allsvenskan. Although he plays a mature game against juniors, he must improve lower-body strength and balance.
Prospect Depth Chart
Top 10 Prospects
- Kirill Kaprizov, LW – There’s no way this gifted sniper is available to the Wild 135th overall in 2015 without considerable concern about whether he’ll leave Russia.
- Luke Kunin, RW – Assuming he recovers fully from a torn ACL late last season, the gifted, hard-working winger will be a star for many years.
- Jordan Greenway, LW – Virtually guaranteed a big-league job for 2018-19, the huge power forward will soon make life miserable for smaller defenders.
- Louie Belpedio, RD – We’ll have to see how his game translates from the NCAA to the pros, but at 22 he’s not a teenager graduating from junior. Nice skillset.
- Dmitri Sokolov, LW – Already acclimated to North America, the stocky Russian must improve his skating and defensive play to add to his power game.
- Andrei Svetlakov, C – The sturdy 22-year-old Russian has two 37-game KHL seasons on his resumé as well as one WJC. Next up; acclimating to North America.
- Mason Shaw, C – An impressive playmaker when healthy, the pint-sized middleman must make up for a whole season lost to recovery from a torn ACL and MCL.
- Ivan Lodnia, RW – When he returns for another junior schedule, we’ll soon discover the effect of a trade from one of the OHL’s worst teams to one of its best.
- Carson Soucy, LD – The 6-5, 205-pound redwood can’t be counted upon for many points. Expect a bruiser who racks up PIMs while maintaining a respectable plus/minus.
- Kaapo Kähkönen, G – Making up with width (223 pounds) what he lacks in height (6-2), he’ll try the AHL after posting .921 and .922 save percentages in the Finnish Liiga.
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Keep reading as our 31-in-31 team-by-team prospect analyses roll on every day this month.