Who’s left? Observations on the 32 remaining players in camp

The Wild made some roster-trimming moves today.  Nothing that was amazingly earth-shattering, but there are some nuggets involved that are mildly enlightening, both in terms of the players that are gone as well as those who are still around.

First, the hard facts: The Wild sent Brett Bulmer, Tyler Graovac and Guillaume Gelinas to Iowa, waived Justin Falk, Jonathan Blum and Joel Rechlicz, and sent goaltender Brandon Whitney back to juniors in Victoriaville in the QMJHL.

No surprises among the three players outrighted to Iowa. Gelinas fits the mold of a pure AHL defender. He’s mobile and scored a ton in the QMJHL (albeit in an overage year), but he’s smallish to tiny for a defenseman, and probably doesn’t have everything you need to compete at the top level. In terms of a comparable in Wild history, think Maxime Noreau, which is…not good.

Graovac is simply young and needs more time. Despite scoring late against Winnipeg last week, much more work is needed before he is an NHL player, and probably some size too. Bulmer has the size, but needs to put together a full season in the AHL, away from the injuries that have plagued him in recent seasons, to get back into the fold. Oddly, should he get his game going, he seems to be the type of banging fourth line player the Wild truly need, but that’s for another day.

Now on to the three players who were waived. That term has such a connotation, but I don’t think anyone suspects that any of these players are going anywhere other than Des Moines. I won’t spend a lot of time on Rechlicz, an old-school enforcer who was a curious signing to begin with, but while the demotions of Falk and Blum aren’t overly surprising, they do tell us something about the defensemen that remain with the team. More on that in a bit.

First, lets look at the 32 players who are left. The easiest way to do so is to break them down by category; in this case their likelihood of being on the roster Oct. 8.

THE LOCKS

Forwards (10): Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise,  Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Cooke, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund

Defensemen (5): Keith Ballard, Marco Scandella, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon

Goaltenders (1): Niklas Backstrom (Josh Harding would apply here, but will be left off for now for obvious reasons)

THE FAVORITES

Forwards (3): Justin Fontaine, Stephane Veilleux, Jason Zucker

Defensemen (2): Stu Bickel, Matt Dumba/Christian Folin

THE REST

Forwards: Jordan Schroeder, Cody Almond, Brett Sutter, Michael Keranen, Curt Gogol, Zack Phillips

Defensemen: Dumba/Folin, Gustav Olafsson

Goaltenders: Ilya Bryzgalov, Darcy Kuemper

The locks are self-explanatory, and if you have a counter-argument, I’d love to hear it.

The favorites are my likely candidates for the final three forward spots (give or take) and final two defensive spots. Fontaine is probably the most likely of those three forwards, based on history, but the “Free Zucker” camp is getting louder and more organized as well. Certainly Zucker, on his best day, brings an offensive dynamism that the other two don’t. Stephane Veilleux  is merely a placeholder until something better comes along, and honestly, if you could tell me that either Almond, Sutter or Keranen was going to get that spot, I’d shake your hand for being the bearer of good news. But until that day comes, old-something-resembling-reliable Veilleux is the pick.

The two defensemen are a little more interesting, which brings me back to my Blum/Falk point. Taking into account the five defensive spots already claimed above, the Wild have two more to fill, but rather than looking at the situation as six defensemen battling for two spots (really five, because as impressive as he has been and as much ice time as he has seen, I don’t think there is a chance in hell Olofsson starts the year in the NHL. What you are seeing now is all about experience for a player the organization really likes), it was always one sub-set of three players competing for one of the free spots and two players fighting it out for the other. The sub-sets are as follows: Dumba, Folin & Blum in the former group and Stu Bickel and Falk in the latter. The fact that the team brass shipped Blum and Falk away (at least for now) provides telling if not definitive answers as to how the defense corps will shape up.

For one thing,  Stu Bickel seems like a lock for a roster spot at this point. Of the five defensemen whom we already know are guaranteed a place, none, save maybe Marco Scandella on a particularly ornery day, would qualify as a thumper. Bickel and Falk were clearly brought in to fill the truculent hole left by Clayton Stoner, a physical, veteran defenseman who can be brought in to stand up for teammates some nights, and scratched without damaging the club on others. With Falk gone, that spot is Bickels.

Conversely, with Blum out of the picture, it provides some insight as to how the management team sees the progress of young Folin and even younger Dumba. Clearly they have impressed enough to prove that at least one of them does not need any more seasoning. If both needed time, it would have been easy to give a third line spot to Blum, who plays the two-way type game Mike Yeo needs, and didn’t hurt the team much during his 15-game cameo last season. It should be stated that, especially assuming Ballard and Bickel could easily Gopher-swap the veteran role on the third line pair, one of Dumba or Folin will likely be sent to Iowa rather than spend time in the press box. Anyone’s guess as to which man has the leg up at this point (my guess is Dumba) but we should know more Tuesday morning after both play against Pittsburgh.

That last sentence could also apply to the goaltenders. Darcy Kuemper is playing against the Penguins, but it is still impossible to tell if he is the best option for a team that is clearly in “win-now” mode. Kuemper is in a truly weird position. He doesn’t seem to have a lot to gain by heading to Iowa, and he doesn’t have the luxury of faltering should he be put in charge of a team with such high hopes for the season. That being said, the organization needs to play him at least every other game at some level. In the end, I think Kuemper will stay with the Wild, and will likely rotate with Backstrom until someone gets on a roll, but a little piece of me can’t help but see Fletcher stashing him in Iowa again (though be prepared for drama if that happens) and signing Bryzgalov out of his tryout contract to be an expendable backup to Backstrom. Certainly something to watch over the next nine days, as it always is.

And as I said, if someone, anyone, can claim that other fourth line/scratch spot away from Stephane Veilleux, I’ll personally throw you a hundred grand.*


 

*and of course I mean the candy bar.

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