Last week Hockey's Future, one of the most well-known prospect sites, named the Minnesota Wild's prospect pool the second-best in the NHL during their spring 2011 rankings. It's an honor that has been at least a year in the making and one that Wild fans who have been following the rise and development of their prospects since 2009 have been waiting for. At the same time, it's a massive jump going from 17th in the fall to only trailing the Florida Panthers over a span of six months.
So what changed? Lets go back to the beginning.
The first real post that I ever wrote for First Round Bust when we started it in October 2010 was the Hockey's Future organization ranking at the time, which saw the Wild ranked 26th out of 30 teams. Here's what they wrote:
26. Minnesota Wild
Strengths: As a result of picking defensemen and two-way forwards with their top picks in recent years, skilled Finnish forward Mikael Granlund is the first top offensive prospect to join the organization since the early 2000s. Outside of Granlund, newly-signed Casey Wellman and two-way forwards Colton Gillies and Cody Almond have shown NHL potential. Marco Scandella and Tyler Cuma are both talented blueliners that should be joining the Wild sooner rather than later.
Weaknesses: Outside of Granlund, the forward prospect pool is lacking in offensive ability. The blue line group is lackluster, devoid of depth and top-end talent. The team is in dire need of prospects on the right wing. There is no bona fide goaltending starter in the system, nor much depth. Top 5 Prospects: 1. Mikael Granlund, C, 2. Marco Scandella, D, 3. Tyler Cuma, D, 4. Colton Gillies, LW, 5. Matt Hackett, G.
Sadly at that point in time being 26th was an improvement because the last 18 months had seen Minnesota ranked 29th and 30th. It's part of the reason why we named the blog First Round Bust because between a "depleted" prospect pool, what looked to be five or six years (A.J. Thelen, Benoit Pouliot, James Sheppard, Colton Gillies, Tyler Cuma and Nick Leddy) of first round draft picks not making their supposed impact with the Wild and a lot of self-deprecation it seemed right. No one, including ourselves, fully took us seriously and it's hard to blame them. We were new, no one knew much about us and there really wasn't much to get excited about.
The same can be said for Minnesota.
But as more and more people started to read this small rag that began to change. One of the dirty little secrets about the internet is that while it takes 3 seconds to create a blog or become an "expert," it takes a lot of work to get more than 10 people to read something you wrote. There are quite a few quality posts (and some not-so-quality ones) over the first six months that Dan or myself wrote which have barely been read but as time has moved on that number continued to increase. It goes hand in hand with more recognition and better quality; something that is true for the Wild prospect pool.
2010 was a good draft for Minnesota that saw the team deliver on 4 of the top 59 picks. Despite that, the original article only had one (Mikael Granlund) in the top 5 in Fall 2010. It helps that even then he was an obvious #1 due to the lack of high-end guys, however, seeing guys like Jason Zucker (who was leading the WCHA at the time) or a Brett Bulmer being tossed away as a nobody is sad. Not as sad as Colton Gillies being the 4th-best prospect on his draft position alone but still disrespectful.
Fortunately fans noticed, sites went off on it and most importantly the prospects began to produce. Minnesota was still full of depth players but the Bulmers, Zuckers and goalies like Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper ("non bona-fide" starters) were leading their teams and leagues. Although not every player was putting up historical numbers as an 18 year-old in a men's league like Mikael Granlund, there weren't players who were getting kicked off their teams (Thelen) or regressing.
At the very least, it was a start.
The 2011 Draft saw Minnesota take one problem and solve it by adding three high-end players to the prospect pool in Jonas Brodin, Zack Phillips and Charlie Coyle. It was also a good time for us at First Round Bust as June 2011 came close to tripling our previous best month. People were curious and taking us semi-seriously in a large number for the first time, which is a good feeling when sites and writers you read on a regular basis start to link and discuss hockey with you.
That draft and the subsequent off-season almost felt like First Round Bust made it with a few days that had more readership than our first month. We were going in the right direction, the Wild were going in the right direction and people were getting on their prospect train.
Except for Hockey's Future, which still needed to be shown something. Somehow despite adding three first rounders - one of which isn't a top-five prospect in their rankings - the Wild were only 17th and saw their "talent level drop off beyond the top players at each position." They were even beyond a team like Buffalo whose top prospect was drafted behind Minnesota's third and had a similar weakness.
Again, fans noticed and put up an outcry and the shunted prospects continued to grow and prosper. The Wild had three players whose rights they held captain teams in the World Juniors. Zucker repeated his freshman season at Denver and ended up finishing the year in the NHL. One of his fellow second round picks, Brett Bulmer, began the year there after earning his spot in training camp and the other, Johan Larsson, ended up winning a title in Sweden and being named the Swedish Rookie of the Year.
And that doesn't include Phillips, Coyle, Brodin or 7th round pick in 2009 Erik Haula (that's Erik with a 'k") finishing the year strong. Same goes for 2011 second round pick Mario Lucia who that same fall ranking saw as not being a top twenty player in Minnesota's prospect pool yet dominated the BCHL. Because of all of that, the Wild's system suddenly became hot even though many of the same guys were doing similar things the year before.
Much like this blog.
Going through the Hockey's Future organization archives, I can't find an example that parallels Minnesota's where a team jumps from 17 to 2. That on its own is a remarkable achievement and one which is helped by finally being taken seriously. Although not graduating anyone out of the pool (sorry Casey Wellman) and everyone stepping up helps, lets be honest it's not enough to jump 15 spots. No prospect pool goes from being shallow after the top players to this...
Strengths: The Wild prospect pool is stacked with top-end talent, most notably at forward. Mikael Granlund is one of the top prospects in the world and is set to make his pro debut next season. Charlie Coyle and Zack Phillips are also potential top-six forwards, while Jason Zucker, Johan Larsson, and Brett Bulmer should all be top-nine contributors. Left-wingers Eric Haula and Mario Lucia also have long-term upside. 2011 First round draft pick Jonas Brodin is a blue-chip defense prospect while Matt Hackett headlines a talented quartet of goaltenders....in a span of six months. Word of mouth is great - it's one of the reasons why First Round Bust continues to hit new records each month (thank you readers/social media) without much help from Google and other search engines - and something that can shift perception. That's the change over the last 20 months with the Hockey's Future organization rankings, going from a close-to deserved 26th to a hyped 2nd, and something which (to a point) has happened here.
Weaknesses: There isn't much to not like about the Wild system, though there is steep drop off in talent after Brodin amongst Wild defense prospects. Former first round pick Tyler Cuma can't stay healthy and aside from Chay Genoway, the other defenseman in the organization project mostly as third-pairing or depth type defenseman.
However, if there's one thing to learn from this it is that even today the development is not done. There's always something to prove as perception slowly becomes reality. Lets hope it is a lesson Minnesota's prospects take to heart as they reach the National Hockey League.