When you're a winning team (or as much of a winning team as you can be without being in the playoff picture), the coverage of your team differs greatly from when it's scuffling in draft lottery territory. Go look at the archives in the Todd Richards era. Or how about the later half of 2011-12? The Wild were terrible, and boring, so we all turned to what excited us most: The prospects. How the Finnish Baby Jesus and friends were going to deliver us from the depths of mediocrity. How speedy college guys and grumpy Swedes would eventually replace the mediocre skill players the Wild were icing.
Those players would eventually materialize, whether into Wild players, or assets to bring in a player like Jason Pominville. But with a team that appears to be on the rise, we've turned our back on prospects somewhat. No need to rely on them for excitement when we can bring in a shiny new Thomas Vanek, and guys like Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin and co. are getting locked up for years to come.
But, prospects still exist, and it's as good a time as any to give you an update on the people in our Top 25 Under 25 list from this summer. Let's look at who has improved or tanked their stocks since the season started.
Nino Niederreiter wouldn't be a bad name to put on this list, but we put him at #2, so there's only so high up he can go. But Jason Zucker? After a lost season, he got lost in the pack a bit, but he's back with a vengeance now. His questions about attitude and defensive zone play are now gone, and Zucker is back to doing what he does best- skating fast, shooting a bunch, and scoring goals.
Zucker has definitely moved up a tier to join the likes of Charlie Coyle, Alex Tuch, and Erik Haula. Can he headline that group? Climb even higher? We'll see.
Since being drafted in the 7th round of the 2011 NHL draft, all this guy has done is rise. He steadily improved his numbers in the OHL, culminating in his final season, where the 6'3" center broke out, scoring 38 goals and 35 assists. And in the AHL? After getting 25 points in 64 games last season, he's already about to eclipse that with 20 points in only 27 games.
It's not just the production, it was noted this summer that he improved his skating. When this is corroborated by an increase in production, you can guess that this is a legitimate claim. Combine that with his size, and it'll be no surprise if Graovac is the first call-up when the Wild need a skill player this year.
Reid Duke / Chase Lang
We got a taste of both of these 2014 6th-rounders in training camp this season, with both of them flashing offensive ability and chippiness. The WHLers missed the cut last season, but both of them are on track to not be omitted this year.
Chase Lang was drafted, and the consensus was that he was a reliable penalty killer and two-way guy. It looks like Lang is taking a more significant role with the Calgary Hitmen, and taking advantage of it. After scoring 25 goals in 68 games last year, he's on pace to obliterate that this season, already racking up 31 points in 28 games, which is just slightly lower than the points per game pace of 2014 first-rounder Jake Virtanen.
Reid Duke got traded from the dreadful Lethbridge Hurricanes to the first-place Brandon Wheat Kings, and the change of scenery is benefitting him. He's got 10 goals and 31 points in 31 games since going to Brandon. He already showed offense on a fledgling team. Now he's showing he can do that as part of a winning effort.
Granlund entered the season as a controversial #1 on our Top 25 Under 25. These first two months have done little to support this theory. It's not just that Granlund is 7th among Minnesota Wild forwards. It's not even that he's just 13th of 14 in scoring rate among Wild forwards. It's that he's doing this all while getting what's absolutely the juciest assignment on the team- centering Parise and another scoring winger.
Even with the low shooting percentages of Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek, this is an assignment that should make an offensive center look really good. And the fact is, it just hasn't. The possession numbers are up, but it's impossible to say how much of that is him, and how much of that is being with good players in Parise and Pominville. If he wants to avoid a precipitous drop next year, he's going to have to assert himself as a player who is a catalyst for offense, not just the beneficiary of an ideal situation.
It's somewhat hard to believe at this juncture, Brett Bulmer was the second of 4 forwards selected high by the Wild in the 2010 draft class. That means he was selected ahead of Johan Larsson (since traded in the Pominville deal) and Zucker. Since being drafted, he had done well while playing for the WHL's Kelowna Rockets, and even in a couple cups of coffee for the Wild. So, where's the problem?
The Power Forward's development appears to be stagnating in Iowa. His scoring wasn't anything to brag about last year, but 19 points in 43 games for a guy you expect to play a third-line role isn't terrible for someone on a bad team. They've dropped down further this year- he has only 4 points in 23 games. Injuries are the main knock on Bulmer, and if he wants to keep his head above water, he's gotta get healthy and productive. It'll be a shame if he can't ever be the player we've seen him be in the NHL.
This is increasingly looking like Brent Flahr's biggest draft mistake. Zack Phillips is on a terrible team, yes, but 70 points in 173 AHL games is awful for a first-round pick. This was pretty much going to be Phillips' make-or-break season, and there was noise that he had improved his skating, which was always his biggest weakness. 12 points in 27 games is brutal. Graovac, Michael Keränen, and Jordan Schroeder are all out-producing him. Hell, Mathew Dumba has half his point total already, and he's played only 7 AHL games.
Adding insult to injury, the next 20 picks were full of good players. Niklas Jensen, Tomas Jurco, Boone Jenner, John Gibson, Alexander Khokhlachev, Brandon Saad, Markus Granlund, and Matt Nieto went in that range. All those names would have made the Top-15 on the list this season, some in the Top-10. Saad and Gibson in particular would look nice. As for Graovac? He was at 21 last season, but a strong 2015 draft class could have him bumped off the list.