Welcome to the 2017 edition of “Top Shelf Prospects”. During the summer, I will feature a team-by-team look at the top prospects in the NHL. I will follow the order of the first round of the NHL draft (as if there were no trades). You can find all the articles here. Since we had an extensive NHL Draft preview, I will not be reviewing the players who were drafted this year. There have been no games since then, and my reports on them will not have changed.
I will link you to those articles; as well as taking a look at prospects that were acquired before this year’s draft; their progress, and their chances of making the 2017-18 roster. I will also bring you one sleeper pick – a player who was either drafted in the 4th-round or later; or an undrafted free agent signing who I pick as a dark horse to make the NHL. 50 NHL games played or being 25 years old is the cut-off for prospects. These are not hard or fast rules though, and I may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
TSP: Minnesota Wild Prospects
The Minnesota Wild had an outstanding season. They finished with the second most points in the Western Conference, challenging the Chicago Blackhawks for first right down the wire. They also had a 12 game winning streak in December, a franchise record. However, the hot goaltending of Jake Allen, and strong play of the St. Louis Blues put a stop to their dreams of playoff success in the first round. The Wild would fall in five close, hard-fought games.
The off-season saw the Wild give up prospect Alex Tuch in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights in order to keep most of their team together. They also lost Erik Haula in the expansion draft. The Wild also sent Jason Pominville and Marco Scandella to the Buffalo Sabres for Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno. Free agency was relatively quiet, with the Wild re-signing most of their their own players, and picking up depth pieces like Kyle Quincey, Landon Ferraro, and Ryan Murphy. Just this week they added Matt Cullen. The biggest loss was back-up goalie Darcy Kuemper. Swedish free agent Niklas Svedberg and former Sharks backup Alex Stalock will battle for the job in training camp.
Top Prospect: Joel Eriksson Ek
Center — shoots Left
Born January 29th, 1997 — Karlstad, Sweden
Height 6’2″ — Weight 197 lbs [188 cm / 89 kg]
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the 1st round, #20 overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Eriksson Ek started last season in North America, playing one AHL game before moving to the big club. He was very impressive with five points in nine games for the Wild. However the Wild sent him to the World Juniors, as well as back to play for Farjestad in the SHL. He returned in time to play six more regular season games and three playoff games for the Wild at the end of the year.
One won’t confuse Eriksson Ek for a speedster. However, his skating has really improved from what we saw in his draft year. His stride is a lot longer now, and his speed and acceleration are now good. He has even shown the ability to go wide on defenders and cut to the net off the rush. He also has a lot of lower body strength, which allows him to fight through checks, win board battles and establish position in front of the net. Eriksson Ek also has good edge work, and agility.
Eriksson Ek always had the other tools in his game, but skating was a big question mark. Now with those concerns greatly eased, we have seen the improvements in his game over the last couple of years. Given the quickness of his improvement, there’s also a good chance there is even more room to improve his skating over the next several years.
Eriksson Ek is a pure sniper with a tremendous wrist shot, and impressive snap shot. He has a lightning quick release. His shot is already NHL ready. He protects the puck extremely well using his body to shield defenders, and his stick handling to keep control while also being fully capable of driving to the front of the net, and having the soft hands to finish in close.
Eriksson Ek is strong in the cycle game and extremely hard to knock off the puck. He is not afraid to battle in the corners and often comes out with loose pucks. Also blessed with very good vision and passing skills, he can play the role of play maker down low as well, though he should work to be a bit more creative. He has very good hockey sense, making smart plays with the puck and finding ways to get open without it.
Eriksson Ek’s two way game is extremely well developped. He is very good at the little things, such as winning faceoffs, using his long stick to break up passing lanes, and supporting his defence down low. Eriksson Ek shows the ability to work along the boards and win battles in all three zones and doesn’t take shifts off. He also is able to contain opponents on the cycle game and Eriksson Ek is willing to block shots. His compete level is very high, and he is always at the middle of post-whistle scrums.
Eriksson Ek is expected to make the Minnesota Wild this season. With the right ice-time, linemates and power play time, he could challenge for the Calder Trophy. Learning from Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu will be of great benefit in his career.
#2 Prospect: Luke Kunin
Center — shoots Right
Born December 4th, 1997 — Chesterfield, Missouri
Height 6’0″ — Weight 193 lbs [183 cm / 88 kg]
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the 1st round, #15 overall at the 2016 NHL Draft
Kunin had a great sophomore season with the University of Wisconsin. He scored 22 goals and 38 points in 35 games. He also captained Team USA at the World Juniors, leading the team to the gold medal. Kunin scored four points in seven games. Following his college season, Kunin signed his entry level contract. He went to Iowa scoring five goals and eight points in 12 AHL games.
Kunin’s skating is a work in progress. Once he gets going he has good speed, but could use some work on his first few steps and acceleration going forward. This would help him to win more footraces and pounce on loose pucks. Kunin’s agility and edge work are good, so he should be able to improve that first step. Kunin also has good balance, and a strong stride, allowing him to fight through checks and get to the front of the net. This would be another area that can get even better if he can add some more strength to his frame, especially in his core.
Luke Kunin shows high level hockey IQ. He seems to always make the right play with the puck on his stick. Without it, he is able to find openings in the defence and set up to fire a wrist shot, snap shot or one-timer. Kunin’s release is quick and shot is heavy, fooling goaltenders. He can also score goals in front of the net, with quick hands to pounce on rebounds, and the hand-eye co-ordination to tip-in shots.
Kunin also shows the good stick handling to protect the puck, extend plays and work in the cycle game. He protects the puck well with his body. Kunin also has the vision and passing skills to set up others, making tape-to-tape passes when he finds a linemate open. He plays an intense game getting involved in board battles and in front of the net. Kunin could improve his strength, and add muscle to his frame, this would make him more effective in the cycle game, in board battles, and give even more power to his shot, especially as he moves up to the pro level. He has the versatility to play both centre and on the wing.
Kunin is defensively responsible, bringing this intensity to his own zone as well. He wasused as a penalty killer for Wisconsin, and is not afraid to put his body on the line to block shots or cut down passing lanes. His high hockey IQ translates into his defensive play, as he reads the play extremely well, and his ability to anticipate what attackers will do with the puck leads to his ability to create turnovers and start the transition game. Kunin is effective in the face-off circle.
Kunin heads to camp looking for a spot on the Wild. He is still extremely young. It is probably better that he spends the year playing top line minutes in the AHL instead of playing on the bottom lines in the NHL. Expect to see him get some time if injuries hit in the wild top nine. He is most likely going to be a winger at the pro level. Kunin could be a full-time NHLer in 2018-19.
#3 Prospect: Gustav Olofsson
Defense — shoots Left
Born December 1st, 1994 — Boras, Sweden
Height 6’3″ — Weight 197 lbs [191 cm / 89 kg]
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the 2nd round, #46 overall at the 2013 NHL Draft
Olofsson got in 13 games for the Wild last season, putting up three assists in limited ice-time. He spent most of the season with the Iowa Wild in the AHL. After missing nearly all of the 2014-15 season, Olofsson has made up for the lost time in his development.
Olofsson is a strong skater with good mobility on the back end. He has good speed and acceleration in both directions, with solid edge work, 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 has not put up huge points, but 24 points in 59 games is not bad. He will never be a top scoring defender, but does have some offensive potential. Olofsson has strong passing skills and vision, and the passing skill could translate to higher point totals with some patience. He makes plays in transition game and has a strong first pass. Olofsson’s shot has improved. It will never be a howitzer, but he has added power and does a good job of getting it through to the net.
Olofsson is solid defensively with excellent positioning, and solid stick work. 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 willing to do whatever is necessary to make a play, including blocking shots, or taking a hit to make a play in the transition game.
With Scandella in Buffalo, there is a spot open on the left side of the Wild blue line. It is a spot that is there for Olofsson to take if he has a good training camp. Expect him to start out with limited minutes, but to grow into an important defender as the season goes on.
#4 Prospect: Kirill Kaprizov
Left Wing — shoots Left
Born Apr 26 1997 — Novokuznetsk, Russia
Height 5’9 — Weight 185 lbs [175 cm/84 kg]
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild in round 5, 135th overall at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft
Kaprizov had an outstanding season for an 19-year-old playing in the KHL. He scored 20 goals and 42 points in 49 games for Salavet Yulaev. He also played for Russia in the World Juniors scoring nine goals and 12 points in just 7 games.
Recent news has dropped Kaprizov a little on this list though, as he has signed a three year contract with CSKA Moscow. One of the factors in our rankings is evaluating when a player will be NHL ready. It is not the only factor, but being at least three years away from the NHL moves Kaprizov a couple of spots down the list.
Kaprizov is only 5’9″ tall. He makes up for that dimunitive size in other areas. One of these areas is skating. Kaprizov has outstanding agility and edge work. He changes directions and makes quick cuts on a dime. This makes him extremely elusive and hard for defenders to contain. With good core strength he also has good balance, but will need to improve his upper body strength to be stronger on the puck. Kaprizov is also a fast skater, with excellent acceleration.
Kaprizov is extremely creative. He has very quick and has very soft hands. He can stick handle in a phone booth and has a wide variety of moves. When this is combined with his quick skating, he is very tough to handle one-on-one. He also has excellent vision and passing skills. He makes tape-to-tape passes, hitting teamates through tight spaces.
As good as his play making skills are, Kaprizov is a goal scorer. He has a strong wrist shot and excellent release. He also has an outstanding one-timer. Kaprizov has a knack for finding soft spots in the defence and getting that shot off. He also uses his speed to threaten defenders on the rush and when they back off so he does not get by them one-on-one, Kaprizov fires a shot, using them as a screen. He also works to get to the front of the net, and is not afraid to be in battles despite his size. Kaprizov has the soft hands to finish in close to the net, burying rebounds and getting tip-ins.
Kaprizov works hard in the defensive zone, and brings hard-work, grittiness and tenacity. He also reads plays well and has strong positioning. The lack of size is an issue though, as he can simply be outmuscled by bigger defenders. He must bulk up and get stronger.
Kaprizov moves to one of the KHL’s biggest teams in CSKA. The Wild hope that when his three year deal is up, he’s ready to come to the NHL. With the way he has developed since his draft, it is unlikely that he will need any AHL time after three more years in the KHL.
#5 Prospect Jordan Greenway
Left Wing — shoots Left
Born February 16th, 1997 — Potsdam, New York
Height 6’5″ — Weight 230 lbs [196 cm / 104 kg]
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the 2nd round, 50th overall at the 2015 NHL Draft
Greenway had a solid another good season with Boston University. He scored 10 goals and 31 points in 37 games. He made Team USA for the World Juniors, scoring three goals and eight points in seven games. Greenway also played eight games at the Men’s World Championships, but was held scoreless in limited minutes. He continues to be a long-term project, but the early returns show some promise.
Greenway is a decent skater for his size. He is especially strong on his skates and shows excellent balance making him very difficult to knock off of the puck. This gives him the ability to control the puck in the cycle game, creating time and space for his linemates to find openings. He also uses his strength and balance to win board battles and get loose pucks out of the corners. With Greenway’s powerful stride, he can fight through checks and quite literally bowl over defenders on his way to the front of the net. Greenway also has very good speed and acceleration for his size, generated by a fluid stride. His agility and edgework can be improved, however.
Greenway makes great use of his 6’5 frame by playing a physical and gritty game in the offensive zone. He creates offence for teammates by winning battles in the corners, fore checking hard, and creating havoc in front of the net. He has a very hard and accurate wrist shot. His release is decent, but needs to really be improved if he wants to score goals with it on pro goalies. One advantage is that he does have some soft hands and can make tips in the crease, or good passes to set up teammates. Its a bit concerning that despite the good tools in close he doesn’t seem to finish and score as many goals as he should. A bit of a tendency to over pass could be an issue here.
Greenway plays a defensively responsible game. He doesn’t leave the zone early and maintains his support for the passer on breakout plays. He also gets back quickly to provide back pressure and support for his teammates on the blue line. Greenway uses his size and long stick to cut down on passing lanes, and block shots. He is willing to use his size and physical play in his own end of the rink as well.
Greenway heads back to Boston University this fall. If he shows further development and progression in his game, he could earn a contract with the Wild at the end of the year. Expect Greenway to need some AHL time as well.
#6 Prospect: Ivan Lodnia
The Wild drafted Lodnia with the 85th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Lodnia. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
#7 Prospect: Mason Shaw
The Wild drafted Shaw with the 97th overall pick in this year’s NHL draft. Prior to the draft, we did an in-depth scouting report on Shaw. As no games have been played since that report; we will not repeat it. You can check out the report here.
Sleeper Prospect: Dmitri Sokolov
Right Wing — shoots Lifth
Born April 14th, 1998 — Omsk, Russia
Height 6’0″ — Weight 208 lbs [183 cm / 94 kg]
Drafted by the Minnesota Wild in the 7th round, #196 overall at the 2016 NHL Draft
Sokolov showed big improvements in his second season in the OHL. He scored 48 goals and 72 points in 64 games for the Sudbury Wolves. It was a 20 point improvement, despite playing four fewer games. He also added six goals and nine points in six playoff games.
Sokolov needs to work on his overall skating. His stride is choppy which takes away from his overall top-end speed and acceleration. He has good agility and edge work which can make him elusive in the offensive zone. He is also strong on the puck, and has good lower body strength and balance. Sokolov improved his conditioning last year, but will need to continue to take steps on this. While most prospects his age, need to gain wait, Sokolov doesn’t need to add weight but should work on becoming a bit leaner and more muscular with the mass he does possess.
Sokolov is a big power forward type who uses his size to protect the puck well and drive the net. His wrist shot has an extremely quick release and his powerful arms and forearms put it on net quickly. He is very good in front of the net, with the quick hands and good hand-eye co-ordination to get tip-ins and rebounds. Sokolov also has good lateral agility and can make slick moves to open up passing lanes, and create space.
He is more of a goal scorer than a playmaker, but when he does see an opening, his passing skills are good, and Sokolov would likely have had more assists playing on a team with a few more finishers around him. Sokolov is willing to play a physical game, throwing hits in the corners, battling for position in front of the net, and fighting for loose pucks. He was more consistent this past season.
Sokolov’s defensive game is a work in progress. He has a tendency to get caught puck watching, rather than moving his feet and being involved in the defensive end of the ice. He also must learn not to fly the zone too early, and to continue to support his teammates on the breakout rather than looking for the home-run pass.
Sokolov heads back to the Sudbury Wolves for what will likely be his final OHL season. If he takes a similar step forward as last year, the Wild will have a legitimate prospect on their hands. He has the skill to be a very good player, but has some holes to fix in his game.
The Wild’s top goaltending prospect is Kaapo Kahkonen. The Finnish goalie has good size. He is technically strong, with a polished butterfly technique. Steve Michalek had a .919 save percentage in 30 AHL games last season.
On defence, Mike Reilly still qualifies as a prospect. Now 24-years-old, he must solidify his spot in the NHL, or risk being passed by younger players. After moving up prospect charts in 2015-16, Gustav Bouramman had a disappointing year in the OHL. He looks to rebound in the AHL. Louis Belpedio was an honourable mention on the NCHC all-star team. He heads back to the University of Miami (Ohio).
Andrei Svetlakov is another Russian forward that the Wild would like to get to North America. The 21-year-old is signed with CSKA Moscow through the end of the 2019-20 season. Mario Lucia lost time during his first AHL season due to a broken clavicle. The Wild need to see him take a step forward this year.
The top four Wild prospects are very strong. However the quality in the system really falls off after that. Not having a pick in the top two rounds of this year’s draft did not help.