The first-place Minnesota Wild, made up of a nice mix of veterans and younger players that are entering the primes of their careers, is having one of its best seasons in franchise history so far. While winning in the present is a beautiful thing, there’s always a need for every organization to keep an eye on its future, which looked bleak for Minnesota as recently as last year. Fortunately, there now seems to be a huge infusion of talent on the way, as the Wild has found some top-quality prospects that are either close to turning pro or are playing in international pro leagues already.
The Wild’s four prospects that participated in this year’s World Junior Championship all had phenomenal tournaments, making the world notice and recognize that the future is brighter than ever in the State of Hockey. With Minnesota having three players captaining their respective teams at the WJC, Kirill Kaprizov, Joel Eriksson Ek, and Luke Kunin, as well as owning perhaps the best power forward of the tournament in Jordan Greenway, the prospect cupboard suddenly looked pretty well stocked with forward skill when the 2017 tournament drew to a close. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because the Wild also has Alex Tuch maturing in Iowa (he has eight goals and ten assists on the year), Dmitri Sokolov tearing up the OHL with 49 points in 41 games for the Sudbury Wolves so far this season, Mario Lucia, Christoph Bertschy, and many others who could factor in down the road.
Focusing on those four WJC participants, Minnesota as an organization had the best group of prospects in the entire tournament. Many noted that the Philadelphia Flyers had nine players—more than any other franchise—competing, but none of those players individually had the impact on their respective teams that the four Wild prospects each had on theirs. Other teams whose prospects could have competed with Minnesota’s included Arizona, which boasted USA star Clayton Keller and Team Canada captain Dylan Strome, the Tampa Bay Lightning, which had five regulars in Team Canada’s powerful line-up, and the Ottawa Senators, which proudly watched Colin White lead Team USA in goals and defenseman Thomas Chabot lead Team Canada in scoring. But man, looking at the whole body of work from Minnesota’s prospects, there simply was no other NHL team whose prospects came close to outperforming the Wild’s future stars. Let’s take a look at the four players that competed in the WJC and examine why Minnesota fans should be excited about the future of the organization.
Watching Kirill Kaprizov play in the tournament was an absolute treat. The Russian captain’s skill level is off the charts, and it shows clearly on his tournament stat sheet, as he finished ranked first in both goals (nine) and points (twelve). Kaprizov’s season in the KHL has been widely publicized as being one of the best Under-20 seasons in the history of the league, having posted 38 points in 41 games for Salavat Yulaev Ufa. In that league, Kaprizov is playing against grown men and some elite competition, yet he has been very impactful as a nineteen-year-old. A quick and agile skater, Kaprizov uses a powerful quick-release snapshot as his preferred mode of delivering the puck to the net, yet he is versatile in his ability to find goals through a variety of means, including in a net-front role, where he spent the majority of Team Russia’s power plays in the WJC. In addition to his quick snapshot, Kaprizov’s ability to fire a deceptive wristshot in stride makes him a threat to score every time he breaks in on net. Skip ahead to the three-minute mark in the below video of Russia’s tournament-opening loss to Canada to see Kaprizov score in one of these situations.
Is it a highlight reel goal? Probably not, but look closely at the replay. Does the angle of Kaprizov’s stick make you think for a brief moment that he’s shooting to the goaltender’s stickside, even though he actually shoots gloveside? If you answered yes to this question (I certainly did), then think about how the opposing goalie is reading that. Even the smallest flinch in the wrong direction is enough for a goalie to get beaten by a shot. The ability to shoot with power, without breaking stride, while perhaps making the netminder misread where the shot is actually headed is something that you only find in all-world goal scorers. Assuming Minnesota is able to sign him to his entry level deal at the end of next season, when Kaprizov’s KHL deal ends, he could end up being one of the best fifth-round draft picks of all time. If I’m General Manager Chuck Fletcher, I’m calling Kaprizov daily to make sure he knows how much the Wild values him, and I’m reminding him on every call that each team in the NHL passed on him four times before the Wild showed some belief in him.
JOEL ERIKSSON EK
Wild fans got a good look at Joel Eriksson Ek at the beginning of the season, and he showed some great NHL-level promise, scoring five points in nine games with the big club, before Fletcher and company opted to return him to Färjestad, his club in the Swedish Elite League. While he hasn’t excelled at the pro level in Sweden to the same degree that Kaprizov has in Russia so far this year, Eriksson Ek had a stellar WJC. Captaining Team Sweden, he led the Tre kronor to the semifinals and finished the tournament ranked third in goals with six, while also placing seventh in points with nine.
While his style is totally different from that of Kaprizov, Eriksson Ek is a smart, well-rounded player, who skates with a very smooth stride and seems to always be in the right spot on the ice, including in the defensive zone. His release is also quick and powerful, and he has a goal scorer’s knack for finding the back of the net. Though it was decided that Eriksson Ek wouldn’t stick with the Wild through the season, he did not look out of place during his time in St. Paul, a great sign that he will soon be ready to join the team full time, most likely next season. The nineteen-year-old centerman could very well be serving in the top six for Minnesota within the next couple of years.
Luke Kunin was chosen as the captain of the University of Wisconsin Badgers in just his sophomore season, an extreme rarity in Division I NCAA hockey. Also captaining Team USA in the 2017 WJC, Kunin is a born leader and a player who simply does everything well both on and off the ice, earning tremendous praise and trust from both Tony Granato and Bob Motzko, his head coaches for Wisconsin and Team USA. The 5’-11", 196-pound center is solid in every way. He defends, he scores, he skates, he makes plays, and he hits.
One of those hits actually got him in trouble in Team USA’s upset victory over Team Canada in the prelims, when it was ruled that he had made contact with the head of Canadian defenseman Philippe Myers, resulting in a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct for Kunin, and a concussion for Myers. Replay showed that the hit, while solid and punishing, was anything but malicious, as Myers’s head jerked back as a result of the impact, and that was what caused the injury on the play. Had Myers not been injured, the hockey world would have viewed the hit as a good, crushing hockey hit on a player that is actually larger in size than Kunin. In reference to the call, Badger fans at the Kohl Center in Madison would certainly have yelled, "THAT’S DEBATABLE!" It was actually a good example of the type of physicality that he brings for his size, just one of his many positive attributes.
Kunin only scored two goals and two assists in the tournament, but you could see that even when he isn’t scoring, he brings intangibles that make him a highly touted prospect. He’s continued to be great at the college level as well, registering better than a point per game through eighteen games with Wisconsin this year. The Badgers have put some great players in the NHL in the past decade, including Joe Pavelski, Derek Stepan, Ryan Suter, and Kyle Turris, to name a few. Kunin looks to add his name to that list in the near future, as he continues to battle and do everything right for Wisconsin.
Whoa. This guy was an unstoppable bear in the red, white and blue. Jordan Greenway’s flight into USA’s pre-tournament camp in Buffalo had to have been at a low altitude, because he had very much been flying under the radar as a prospect for the Minnesota Wild (get it?) going into the tournament. But he burst onto the scene with an enormous WJC showing, and suddenly it appears that the Wild may have hit the jackpot with Greenway, a second-round pick out of Boston University, who punishes his opponents at the Under-20 level. At 6’-5" tall, his strength and reach made him stick out like a sore thumb, because he made players in every game look foolish trying to separate the big winger from the puck. Multiple times in the tournament, opposing players took big runs at Greenway, hoping to knock him down and force a turnover, only to find themselves lying on the ice with Greenway skating the puck towards their goal.
He’s been great at Boston University as well, where he too has posted more than a point per game through twenty games for the Terriers. The one concern for Greenway, who the Wild should absolutely look to sign to his entry-level contract at the end of BU’s season in the spring, is that right now he is benefitting from being a huge body, while most players at the Under-20 and college level have not yet filled out. Listed at 230 pounds, Greenway seems to have grown into his frame at a younger age than most, so his upside may not be quite as high as that of a player with room to mature physically. Then again, maybe that means he’ll be able to contribute right away at the NHL level. Minnesota’s brass has to be thrilled with the early returns on this pick, as he continues to make his name known throughout the hockey universe.
At the very least, Eriksson Ek will be in the NHL next season. Kunin and Greenway may very well sign their entry-level deals at the end of their respective NCAA seasons, which will probably land them in Iowa next year, before they get to Minnesota in 2018-2019. Kaprizov is a bit of a question mark, as it is not 100% clear that Minnesota will be able to sign the electric scorer. Should they be able to bring him into the fold though, expect him to immediately join the big club in ’18-’19, as his skills could make him as good in his rookie year as Vladimir Tarasenko was just a couple seasons ago with St. Louis.
Finding spots on the roster for these exceptional young players, as well as Tuch, Sokolov, and other forwards competing for future jobs with the big club, will be a huge challenge for the Wild Front Office in the coming years, as it will have to make some tough decisions on which players currently on the team will stay and which ones will have to go to free up salary cap and roster space. However, having to make tough calls because you have too many good, young players is certainly not a bad thing. With a deep, young defensive core already a strength for Minnesota and these potential star forwards on the way, the Wild could be a contender for many years to come. For now however, let’s continue to hope for current success from the Wild and bask in the glow of having one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL.