We are a couple days into Minnesota Wild training camp and are approaching the first game of the preseason. It’s that time of year where anything can be feasible, no matter how wild it might sound. A former draft lottery team making a run in the playoffs? Sure! Some no-name player suddenly leading their team in scoring? Hell yes, why not?
So when it comes to the Wild roster — an already fairly stable collection of 23 players — we can more or less assume who is going to avoid all cuts throughout the weeks of camp. It’s pretty certain, but we’ve said that before and been wrong. There was one open spot just last year and we all assumed it would be hotshot Marco Rossi or someone else that is skilled like Adam Beckman making the jump into the NHL after impressing at camp. But instead, because of the fourth-line role and general impressions through preseason, it was Brandon Duhaime that earned that spot. A general surprise from us all.
So this year, with a little more wiggle room in the lineup due to some injured players and other departures, who could we see surprising the coaching staff and fans, and potentially making the roster? Let’s look at some names.
Mitchell Chaffee, LW
Chaffee jumped with two feet first into his full-time role in the AHL last year. After appearing in 28 games during his rookie professional season for the shortened pandemic year, the 24-year-old took advantage last season and simply produced. He scored 23 goals in just 49 games and finished with 39 points, ranking fourth on the team in scoring despite playing more than 10 less games than the players ahead of him.
And we know that the coaches at least have somewhat of a read on him. Chaffee earned his NHL debut last season, appearing in two games that ended up with zero points but he still has enough recognition to get rewarded with that milestone. His name is buzzing in the ears of the Wild coaching staff, so that might at least play a part in him sticking around for longer than expected.
The only thing that might hinder Chaffee’s chances is the opportunity in St. Paul. With Duhaime, he didn’t play in a scoring role in Iowa anyways, so the transition onto the Wild’s fourth line was an easy one — it’s not like he was missing out on being a top-line player in the AHL for offensive development. For Chaffee, he can be that scoring player, so is it justifiable to have him in a depth role up here? It will be a balancing act that the coaches might have to reason with.
Simon Johansson, D
Simon Johansson has made the trip overseas and will be an actual contender to make his way up the depth chart during the next few weeks. The 23-year-old blueliner impressed last season for the Liiga’s Ilves, turning up his offensive production compared to previous years in Sweden, and that was enough to earn him a contract with the Wild.
While he isn’t the most jaw-dropping performer or even the most physical player, Johansson is just a steady-as-she-goes defender that can chip-in offensively when you need it, even as a powerplay contributor. He seems destined for the AHL, especially with Calen Addison’s role available since he will be taking Jon Merrill’s spot in Minnesota while he is injured, but Johansson can make sure that he is noticed. Noticed enough to potentially be that next call-up in case of another injury disaster on the blue line.
Mikey Milne, LW
I’m not saying that the third-round pick from the Wild’s draft just a few months ago will just make the NHL immediately, but there are some factors to consider. For one, Milne was drafted as an overager and just turned 20 years old last Wednesday. He’s old enough to sign a contract and play in the AHL right after getting drafted, so it’s not like we’re talking about a player that is barely an adult. Secondly, he just plays a Minnesota style of hockey.
The winger can score goals, but also isn’t afraid of absolutely bowling over some innocent bystanders to do so. He won’t be able to do exactly that in the professional world, as of right now, but he can eventually get there.
Milne might be able to impress the Wild enough for them to beg and plead with him to sign a contract and start immediately developing in Iowa. My gut instinct tells me that he will be going back to the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice, along with some ultra-top-end prospects like Matthew Savoie, our Carson Lambos, and Conor Geekie, to try to win a Memorial Cup before turning pro, but anything is possible.
In the next few weeks he can at least get a jump start on next year by letting everyone know that they got a steal in the third round this year.
Sam Hentges, C
Local lad Sam Hentges can be the dark horse candidate here. He hasn’t been discussed as anyone that could make the team, or even be relatively close to the NHL; but the 23-year-old center from Fridley, Minn. might just ruffle enough feathers to inch his way there. He did it enough for St. Cloud State University to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team earlier this year, and to eventually get a deal with Minnesota after his senior year.
The destined progression is to get a scoring role in Iowa, but just like other players before him, he can leap a few rungs of the ladder by providing that scoring touch during training camp and in the preseason. He’s young enough to think about a future, but experienced enough that he can probably earn a shot after being invisible to some.
Anything can happen in the next few weeks, but there are just some players that might be ready to take that leap, or at least be the first name the Wild think of when they need to call someone up.