It's late July, and the Minnesota Wild's top young defensive prospects Mathew Dumba, Christian Folin, Gustav Olofsson and even Guillaume Gelinas find themselves in a very intriguing situation. With less than two months to go until training camp and the National Hockey League's pre-season, Minnesota is short two top-6 defensemen with very little available on the free agent market or via trade. That said, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher may and should look to his top defensive prospects to step up and fill those roles.
After years of zero depth at nearly all positions throughout the prospect pool under the Risebrough regime, the Fletcher Era has caused the cupboards to overflow with elite young talent. We've already seen the results of that within the forward ranks, but 2011 first rounder Jonas Brodin is the only pick by Fletcher to permanently stick on the back end. This year, that will very likely change as both Dumba and Olofsson will be given every chance to stick in training camp. However, 2013-14 top undrafted collegiate free agent Folin has the size and ability to beat them to the punch.
While Minnesota's top picks are both dynamic and have very high upside, Folin's 6'3" 215-pound frame and sound defensive presence makes him the ideal candidate to replace one of former Wild blue liners Clayton Stoner or Nate Prosser on the bottom pairing. A much desired right-shot defender, the former UMass-Lowell standout doesn't have as much NHL experience as Dumba (13 games, a power play goal, an assist and a negative-5 rating), however, he was very solid in his one and only game, notching an assist and a plus-3 rating while logging an impressive 19:26 of ice-time in a 4-2 win over the St. Louis Blues on April 10th. If he can get stronger over the summer and refine his physical game, he's all but guaranteed to be Keith Ballard's defensive partner this fall. Plus, if he can put a puck or two through the net like he did in college, that'd just be icing on the multi-layered cake he brings to the party.
Two more wild card defensive prospects are Canadian major junior overage free agent signing Gelinas and former Nashville Predators 2007 first round pick Jonathon Blum. When Stoner and Ballard missed time due to injuries, Blum spent some time in the Wild lineup, collecting an assist and a negative-1 rating while skating an average ice-time of 11:39 over the course of 15 games. The former Pred displayed a knack for moving the puck north with a great first pass and a 54.5% Corsi, which was 7.6% higher than the team's average Corsi rating while he was on the bench. Re-signed by the club to a new one-year deal, Blum will have a lot of eyes on him come training camp.
Gelinas, on the other hand, is an intriguing defender hailing from a league not known for it's defense, though Scandella may like to say a thing or two otherwise. A diminutive defender at 5'9" and 181 pounds, Gelinas thoroughly dominated the Quebec league as the seventh-leading point scorer with 23 goals and 69 assists for a whopping 92 points and a plus-24 rating. Not only did he lead all QMJHL defensemen in scoring, but he outscored the next closest guy--fellow Van-d'Or Foreurs defender Randy Gazzola--by 18 points.
Again, Gelinas is small, and it's yet to be proven whether or not he can sustain those numbers or even hold his own at the pro level, but there's no question he was one of the biggest highlights at prospect camp earlier this month. He'll need some seasoning in the AHL before he can stick in St. Paul, but that's exactly what people said about Erik Haula this time last year. We all saw how that turned out.
Instead of looking for options via free agency or trades, it may be time to turn things over to the young guns. It's not just cost effective--it only makes sense to reward talented kids who are ready to take that next step in their careers. More power to them.