As pre-season play is in full swing for the National Football League, it marks the first hint that another hockey season is coming soon. Even though the NHL plays from October to June, the offseason seems to go on and on but I will admit, most of the time (even when my favorite team is knocked out of the playoffs) I’m often relieved its over. That might sound like sacrilege but the NHL season should really end in May in my opinion but that’s another article for a different time.
Multi-team prospect tournaments are approaching as we get closer to September, but with NHL free agency more or less complete I think we can safely start talking about personnel and where they likely fit in the organization. The Minnesota Wild did make a few small ‘tweaks’ but for the most part it will be much the same group it was a season ago. Some of the ‘tweaks’ it made may have a greater effect on the fortunes of its American League Affiliate than the big club itself.
First and foremost, Head Coach Derek Lalonde jumped at the opportunity to be an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning even though he was awarded a contract extension by former Minnesota Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher. Lalonde did a reasonable job at getting Iowa closer to being in the playoffs but a late swoon doomed them to a 5th straight year out of the post-season. Fletcher was fired at the end of this season and new GM Paul Fenton replaced Lalonde with Tim Army whose mission will not only to be to pick up where Lalonde left off but advance the team into the playoffs.
Fenton’s previous experience with the Nashville Predators and its AHL affiliate the Milwaukee Admirals should be interesting. Fans are hoping to see as the team shift its development model from early advancement of prospects regardless of their readiness to letting the players prove their readiness by dominating in Iowa first. The saying Nashville had that Fenton repeated in his initial press conference was, “the road to Nashville went through Milwaukee.” I personally am hoping the Wild’s new mantra is, “the road to St. Paul goes through Des Moines.” Wild Assistant GM Tom Kurvers will run the show and he spent a fair amount of time watching this team in his duties as a scout with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Assistant Coaches David Cunniff, Brett McLean and goaltending coach Frederic Chabot will all be back this season (as they all got 1-year contract extensions from Chuck Fletcher).
The American Hockey League has been pivotal in the development of many of today’s NHL stars. The AHL playoffs are a great development opportunity and Army will be expected to get his club into the post season. A lack of quality NHL prospects to fill out the team has made that task difficult but the team should have experience and skill coming back for the 2018-19 AHL season. The Athletic‘s Cory Pronman rated the Wild’s farm team 18th out of 31, so there is certainly some skepticism out there. Here’s who should be available.
Leading scorer and team captain Cal O’Reilly will be back. The AHL veteran whom Fenton should know well as O’Reilly was originally drafted by Nashville in 2005 and played in Milwaukee for 5 seasons. The 31-year old was the Wild’s top set up man with 49 assists last season. He will be working with young undrafted studs Sam Anas and Justin Kloos. Anas was arguably Iowa’s most dangerous players and his 26 goals led the team which had many wondering why he didn’t at least get a cup of coffee in St. Paul. Kloos and Kyle Rau, former Golden Gophers were streaky offensively and potted 19 and 23 goals respectively and each earned a call up with the big club. Landon Ferraro will hope an injury-marred season won’t repeat himself and will be looked to provide scoring and former Philadelphia Flyer Matt Read may also spend some time in Iowa unless he surprises people and makes Minnesota’s roster out of training camp. Tough as nails Mike Liambas will provide the enforcing duties to a small-ish forward group. There will be a few more youngsters this season as Mason Shaw, Dmitry Sokolov, Luke Kunin and possibly Ivan Lodnia (who still has a year of eligibility left in major junior) should get prime roles for Iowa.
Kunin is coming off a significant knee injury and while some fans wish he was going to be in Minnesota right away, I think he’d be best served with more ice time and opportunity in Iowa first. Let Kunin prove he belongs in St. Paul. Shaw is also coming off a devastating knee injury that only allowed him to play one game last season, but he’s speedy and has good hands and will no doubt be eager to show what he can do. Sokolov is perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch. The Russian-sniper has lit up the Ontario Hockey League the last 2 seasons with Sudbury and Barrie respectively and needs to take the next step. At the Wild prospect camp, Sokolov’s terrific hands and scoring ability was on display and he is the first true sniper the team has drafted since Marian Gaborik. Can Sokolov round out his game and stay in good physical condition for the grind of the AHL? Will his scoring touch follow him to Iowa, the team certainly hopes it will.
The team let Alex Grant and his cannon of a shot (13 goals) go this off season, but it still returns a defense corps that should have decent mobility and scoring potential. Carson Soucy was a rock for Iowa last year and earned a call up to the big club during their playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets and looked better than expected. Soucy will likely be back to anchor the team’s blueline once again. Also back is Ryan Murphy, who moves the puck well and is a natural on the power play. Brennan Menell had a solid rookie season last year and he may get paired with youngster Louie Belpedio who has great offensive instincts or Swedish defenseman Andreas Martinsson. Hunter Warner will again provide the rugged toughness for Iowa’s defense corps and veteran Matt Bartkowski was also acquired and may be a fixture in the team’s top 4.
The team jettisoned Niklas Svedberg and Steve Michalek in the off season. That means there will likely be two new faces between pipes for Iowa. One of them will certainly be prospect Kaapo Kahkonen. Kahkonen has played well in Finland’s top league the last two seasons and is looking to prove himself in North America. He will likely be the secondary option as he acclimates himself to the North American game, so the big question is who will be the workhorse? It will be the person who loses the back up goaltending battle in St. Paul. South St. Paul native Alex Stalock played reasonably well last season for Minnesota and he will be challenged by Andrew Hammond whom the team acquired this summer. Hammond, aka ‘the Hamburgler’ spent most of last season in the AHL with the Binghamton Senators where he had a 3.34 goals against average but truth be told they were one of the worst teams in the league. I would be surprised if Stalock ends up in Iowa, but stranger things have happened.
Does this team have what it takes to get into the AHL playoffs? Certainly. They should have enough firepower up front, plenty of veteran experience and a reasonable defensive corps to get the job done. However, the fortunes (or misfortunes) of the Minnesota Wild may cut into those plans, but that is just part of being the ‘farm team.’ Yet the expectation to make the playoffs must be there and no doubt the Minnesota Wild’s front office will not accept any more excuses, nor should they.