Once Zach Parise went down to a knee injury, the Minnesota Wild faced many questions. Who would fill his spot in the lineup? Which forwards would get an increase in ice time? Do the Wild have enough firepower up front to keep winning?
One question that they're still trying to figure out is "Who will come up from Iowa to replace Parise?"
On Saturday, that answer was Christoph Bertschy, a 21-year-old Swiss Center. The former 6th-rounder held his own, but got bumped from the third to fourth lines and has already been sent back to the Baby Wild. Yesterday, the Wild called-up Kurtis Gabriel, more of an energy guy/enforcer.
Neither of these players, nor any other forward the Wild may have been looking to call up from Iowa, are considered to be safe bets to become Top-9 contributors for the Wild. This means that after Jordan Schroeder, the Wild started the year without reliable depth at forward in the AHL. This is a major issue, given that the Wild have several forwards (Parise, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker) who are a good bet to miss at least a few games each season. With such little depth, the Wild are going to be susceptible to the injury bug.
Contrast this with division rival St. Louis. The Blues have been hit by injuries harder than perhaps any other team in the league. Paul Stastny, Jaden Schwartz, and Kevin Shattenkirk have all missed significant time so far this season. Heck, even Vladimir Tarasenko missed a game. But if those injuries have slowed down St. Louis at all, it hasn't showed- they're 4th in the NHL with 21 points.
Why? They've been able to replace fill in the gaps created by injuries with quality young depth. Colton Parayko is making an impact on defense, and high-impact prospects like Robby Fabbri and Ty Rattie are starting to get their feet wet, contributing in lesser roles. Being able to plug those guys in has been hugely valuable.
This isn't the case with the Wild. But why is that? Why don't the Wild have quality depth at the ready?
It's not like the Wild don't have prospects with the potential to be impact forwards. They do, the biggest names belonging to Mario Lucia, Alex Tuch, and Joel Eriksson Ek. The problem is that they're in either in college or playing in Europe. This is particularly impactful in Lucia's case. Were the 22-year-old Lucia to have forgone his last year of college eligibility (or had gone the Junior route instead of college), he would be in Iowa now, where the Wild could call him up and down as they pleased. Instead, Lucia can't be called up- even in an emergency- without sacrificing his ability to return to Notre Dame.
As for the players that the Wild drafted out of Juniors? There are some intriguing players who could be good some day. Reid Duke, Chase Lang, and Pavel Jenys are interesting players selected in the later rounds in 2014, but they're all 19. What is killing the Wild right now is that they've absolutely failed at drafting CHL forwards from 2010-13. In that time span, they selected 4 of those players with picks in the Top-3 rounds, and each of these choices are looking terrible now.
Brett Bulmer was selected with the 39th pick in the 2010 draft. The physical winger's production has been trending down, and he's mustered no goals and just one assist in 11 AHL games this year. It's hard to project any sort of productive NHL future for him, and to twist the knife, NHL-ers Devante Smith-Pelly, Ryan Spooner, and Tyler Toffoli were selected in the next 10 picks.
The Wild squandered the 2011 first-rounder they received in the Brent Burns trade on Zack Phillips. It wasn't bad enough to just see him flame out with the Wild due to poor skating and (allegedly) a poor attitude, but picking Phillips ensured the Wild would miss out on the many forward prospects selected after Phillips. The next 20 picks included Rattie, Tomas Jurco, Boone Jenner, Dmitrij Jaskin, Victor Rask, ***Brandon Saad***, Markus Granlund, and Matt Nieto. All of them have had significant NHL time, while Phillips is looking for his NHL debut with his second organization.
Raphael Bussieres (2nd-round, 2012) and Kurtis Gabriel (3rd-round, 2013) fit into the same thinking as the Bulmer pick- draft a big, physical guy and see if their skills can develop. Unfortunately, this doesn't appear to have been the case for either. Bussieres made the jump to the AHL at Age-19, but struggled upon arrival, and is still in Iowa... Quad City, Iowa, to be specific, playing in the ECHL. Fortunately for the Wild, they don't appear to have missed out on a Toffoli or Saad with that pick.
The same can't be said for Gabriel. Gabriel will be making his NHL debut tonight against the Jets, but he's 22 and has zero points in 7 AHL games this season, with just 20 in his 82 games with the Baby Wild. Selecting a pure energy guy like Gabriel makes passing on Oliver Bjorkstrand- a top prospect whose skill from the wing is sorely needed in the Wild's system- embarrassing in hindsight.
Sure, saying "You have to nail your draft picks" is a little like saying "Only buy stocks that go up." But when you deal first and second-round picks each year at the trade deadline, this is the situation that you create for yourself. This problem is exacerbated by the Wild's focus on long-term collegiate prospects (Lucia, for example) and raw players that would, at best, require a lot of development (Bulmer, Bussieres). Even if selecting a player like Tuch over a player with a shorter-term payoff (like Fabbri or David Pastrnak) is ultimately the right choice, the Wild consistently missing out on getting immediate impact in the draft is the biggest reason for their current depth woes at forward.