Welcome to the 2015 edition of Top Shelf Prospects. As the summer progresses, I will be featuring each NHL team’s top prospects, following the order of the first round of the 2015 NHL draft (as if there were no traded draft picks) —you can find all the articles here.
Because we already published an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted in 2015, as my reports on them will not have changed — I will, however, link you to those articles. Instead I will focus on prospects that were acquired in past drafts, examining their progress and their chances of making the 2015-16 roster of their respective NHL team. I will also choose one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the fourth round or later, or was an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a darkhorse to make the NHL.
For those wondering, the determining factors for defining who is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old. These are not set in stone, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
It looked like a lost season in Minnesota, as the Wild struggled out of the gate early. While the team as a whole wasn’t playing all that badly, injuries and disappointing play from their goaltenders meant that the Wild could not keep the puck out of their own net. The trade for Devan Dubnyk changed all that. A guy who was run out of both Edmonton and Nashville in 2013-14, and finished the year as the third string goalie on the Montreal Canadiens AHL franchise, was suddenly handed the starting job for Minnesota’s NHL team. Proving that goaltending is a funny position, Dubnyk played lights out, earning a Vezina nomination, and helping the Wild into the playoffs. They would even win their first round series with the St. Louis Blues, before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round.
The Wild’s offseason saw a lot of losses as Keith Ballard, Kyle Brodziak, Chris Stewart, and Jordan Leopold have all moved on as free agents. In a bit of a sad note, Josh Harding retired due to his battle with MS. The Wild’s biggest move was re-signing Devan Dubnyk before he could hit unrestricted free agency, while the team’s big addition was the signing of Mike Reilly. A former 4th round pick of the Blue Jackets, Reilly became a free agent after not signing with Columbus and moves to the top of Wild’s prospect chart.
2015 Players Drafted: Joel Eriksson-Ek, Jordan Greenway, Ales Stezka, Kirill Kaprizov, Nicholas Boka, Gustav Bouramman, Jack Sadek
Graduates: Mat Dumba, Darcy Kuemper, Christian Folin (age 24 + 41 games played = graduated)
Minnesota Wild Prospects
Top Prospect: Mike Reilly, Defence
Born Jul 13 1993 — Chanhassen, MN, USA
Height – 6.02 – Weight – 196 – Shoots left
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 4th round, 98th overall of the 2011 NHL Draft.
Signed as a Free Agent by the Minnesota Wild, June 2015
Mike Reilly scored 42 points in 39 games in his junior season for the Gophers. He also played in the men’s IIHF World Championships, where he may have had just one assist, but did not look out of place in 10 games. He was also member of Team USA’s 2013 gold medal winning World Junior Team, scoring 4 points in that tournament.
When Reilly was drafted, he was only 5’10″ tall, and this made many teams pass on a player who was clearly a talented offensive defenceman due to concerns about his size. A growth spurt though has led to him coming in at 6’2″ and 196 lbs (according to Elite Prospects), which certainly gives him the height needed to be an NHL defenceman.
Reilly is an outstanding skater, one of the best that we will feature in our top shelf series. He has great speed in both directions, coupled with strong pivots and edgework, and great agility and he really is an extremely mobile defenceman at both ends of the ice.
A good stickhandler, Reilly is not afraid to use his skating skill and lead the rush, or to join as a trailer. He has very good vision and can make crisp pin point passes both off the rush and in quarterbacking the powerplay. He also has a very hard slapshot and a good wrister with an excellent release. He walks the line extremely well opening up passing and shooting lanes on the Gophers powerplay.
Defensively, Reilly improved a lot since his draft year, but still has some ways to go. His skating makes him very effective one-on-one, and he is tough to get past, but his work in the defensive zone could use some refining. The flaws aren’t huge, and by no means am I saying he’s a liability out there, as he plays big minutes in all situations for the Gophers and usually does pretty well. That said, as with any youngster, there are some areas he could improve. Some added muscle would really help Reilly in battles in front of the net and in the corners. Overall, his positioning, awareness, and anticipation in the defensive zone have really improved since his freshman year, but he’s not perfect and can continue to make improvements in these areas. His biggest asset though is the way he moves the puck. He can either skate it out of danger or fire a great first pass out of the zone. In this way he can hide a lot of defensive flaws by helping his team to stay in possession of the puck.
Reilly will be given every opportunity to make the Wild out of training camp, and based on how he looked at the Worlds, I believe there is a good chance he will do exactly that.
#2 Prospect, Alex Tuch, Centre/Right Wing
Born May 10 1996 — Baldwinsville, NY
Height 6.04 — Weight 225 [193 cm/102 kg] — Shoots Right
Drafted in the 2014 NHL Draft, round 1 #18 overall by Minnesota Wild
Tuch had a good first season with the Boston College Eagles putting up 14 goals and 28 points in 37 games as a freshman. He also played for Team USA at the World Juniors, where he had a goal and an assist in five games. Tuch attended Team USA’s summer camp this year, but a knee injury ended his camp early.
Alex Tuch is built like a truck at 6’4″ and 225 pounds,and he plays the game with the skill to become the type of power forward prospect who many teams covet. His skating stride seems unconventional and awkward, but it doesn’t hold him back as he generates decent speed and has a good first step and adequate acceleration. He’s not a speedster but he can keep up and he has good balance and is strong on the puck. Tuch wins a tone of puck battles using that good balance, and leverage, along with his size. He also uses his balance to fight through checks and get to the dirty areas of the ice in order to put up points. Tuch has good agility for a man his size, and can slip through openings when he sees them.
Alex Tuch uses his size and strength to establish position in front of the net or to win board battles. He also is an effective forechecker and will use his body to get the puck, and while very effective, he is not likely to throw too many highlight reel hits. He is also good at controlling the puck in the cycle game and at driving the net when an opening appears. If an opening doesn’t appear, has been known to drive the net by bowling right over the man defending him. He has soft hands to tip in pucks, pounce on rebounds, and score from in tight when driving the net. He also has one of the hardest wrist shots in the draft class, and a very good release. Tuch adds to that powerful wrister, with a cannon of a slapshot which he can unleash in one-timers. He is able to control the puck in the cycle game and make smart passes to teammates leading to a number of assists. His hockey sense is very good, as Tuch seems to almost always make the smart play with the puck, and he is able to find openings in the defence without it.
Tuch shows good defensive instincts. His hockey IQ is very apparent as he anticipates plays well leading to turnovers and starting the transition game. He is hard on the back check and supports the defense down low. Tuch’s ability to win battles along the boards is seen in all three zones, and his hard-nosed and gritty style certainly helps in his own end of the ice. He is a very good all-around type of player.
Expect Tuch to play at least one more year for B.C. If he shows progression, he could be offered an ELC in the spring and join Minnesota’s AHL affiliate for the stretch drive and AHL playoffs.
#3 Prospect, Gustav Olofsson, Defence
Born Dec 1 1994 — Boras, Sweden
Height 6.03 — Weight 196 [191 cm/89 kg] — Shoots Left
Drafted by Minnesota Wild in round 2. #46 overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft
Olofsson played just one game in 2014-15, getting a shoulder injury in his first AHL game of the year, and requiring surgery. It was a lost year of development. The 2013 second round pick went to Colorado College the previous year, before signing with the Wild and joining their AHL team in Iowa to end the 2013-14 season. He also played for Sweden at the World Junior Championships where his 5 points in 7 games were a big part of the team’s silver medal performance.
Olofsson is a strong skater with good mobility on the back end. He has good speed and acceleration in both directions, with solid edgework, pivots and agility. Olofsson has good lower body strength giving him good balance, and allowing him to be strong on the puck. It also helps him to gain leverage and be effective in board battles and in front of the net.
Olofsson is solid defensively with excellent positioning, and solid stickwork. He is not afraid to take the body whether it be throwing a hit along the boards, battling in the corners or clearing the crease. Olofsson is the type of player willing to do whatever is necessary to make a play, including blocking shots, or taking a hit to make a strong first pass in the transition game.
Olofsson hasn’t put up big points, either in the NCAA or in his first 8 games in the AHL, but he does have some offensive potential. He has shown very good passing skills and vision at the world junior level, and the passing skill could translate to the AHL and higher with some patience. He does already show the ability to make a play in the transition game. Olofsson does need to work on his shot though, as it lacks power at this point.
Olofsson will likely spend the 2015-16 season in the AHL with Iowa, continuing to refine his game. He could be a good two-way defender but is likely at least a couple of years away. He needs to stay healthy and play some big minutes this year, after the total lack of icetime last season.
Super Sleeper: Tyler Graovac, Centre
Born Apr 27 1993 — Brampton, ONT
Height 6.04 — Weight 203 [193 cm/92 kg] – Shoots Right
Drafted by Minnesota Wild in round 7, #191 overall in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft
The former 7th rounder had a solid season with Iowa putting up 21 goals and 46 points. He has catapulted himself into true prospect territory, and even got in a three game audition with the Wild last season.
Graovac has excellent size at 6’4″ and as he has added weight, he has become a real force in protecting the puck down low and winning battles along the boards. He has also gotten stronger in the faceoff dot. These improvements have taken his game to the next level. He always had a decent release on his shot, but the added strength has improved his power and he shows some sniping instincts. Graovac is a decent but not great passer, and is more a goal scorer than playmaker. Offensively he plays a simple, straight ahead game. Graovac isn’t a speedster, but he gets around the ice well enough for a big man and his skating is not a liability, as it was earlier in his career, either.
Defensively, Graovac has also improved. He has decent instincts in his own end, and his big frame and long stick aid him in cutting down passing lanes. He has shown real commitment on the back check. These are good signs for a player whose role likely will be as a two way guy with a little bit of offence in the bottom six going forward.
Graovac will push for a spot in Wild training camp, but is more likely in the AHL, and one of the first callups.
Just three years ago we named the Wild as the best prospect pool in the NHL. While they won’t come close to that title this year, this is not a bad thing, and the Wild are bolstered by the success of players like Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Erik Huala, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, and Nino Neiderreiter. With this many young players on the team (plus some prospects and picks traded for players in the last few seasons), you’d expect to now see the Wild amongst the league’s worst. That isn’t the case, as they are more a middle of the pack club in terms of prospect depth. That, combined with the youth at the NHL level puts the Wild in great position for years to come. They added a pair of big forwards with skill Eriksson-Ek and Greenway this year, and still have Mario Lucia and Adam Gilmour in the pipeline. The NHL defence is very young (and talented) but we see more talent in Reilly, Olofsson and Louie Belpedio. Kaapo Kahkonen is a decent goalie prospect, but a few years away.