The AHL has not been kind to the Iowa Wild. In the three years since their transformation from the Houston Aeros, the team has been at or near the bottom of the standings, twice having the fewest points in the league and finishing last in the Western Conference in the other. At the root of the problem is scoring, in which Iowa has also finished in the bottom 2 in each of the three seasons since its inception. Changes in coaching at the top level of the organization have cascaded to mark the start of a new era to begin the season as Derek Lalonde has been named the fourth coach in Iowa history. The previous coaches had been asked to manage Iowa to prepare players to play NHL games in the Mike Yeo system, and having Bruce Boudreau at the top will likely lead to a shift for the entire organization in playing style and player development. Lalonde is facing the tough task of breaking the AHL club out of the basement, and we’ll be taking a look at the upcoming season today over the next four days to preview the season for Iowa and the rest of the Wild prospect pool.
Prospect depth in Iowa has been worn thin with names like Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula jumping into NHL action without spending time bolstering the Iowa lineup. While there is some promising offensive talent returning to Iowa this year, the best news is that the cavalry is finally arriving as several highly touted forward prospects have turned pro and will make their way to the AHL from their college or junior teams. This is good news to a scoring-deprived team that is in desperate need of an infusion of fresh blood to revitalize a stagnant lineup. Pair that with the top returning players and the building blocks for busting out of the basement seem to be in place. Let’s take a deeper look at the cast of characters that will play a role up front for the Iowa squad in the upcoming 2016-17 season.
The Usual Suspects
Iowa will return several key players who were important cogs last year. This list includes Centers Zac Dalpe (who may see time in MN), Grayson Downing, and Brady Brassart. Returning Right Wings Jordan Schroeder (who will likely see time in MN), Zack Mitchell, Christoph Bertschy (who is breaking camp in the NHL, but may see time in Iowa) and Kurtis Gabriel. Left Wings are thin but Raphael Bussieres is the featured name. Bertschy, Mitchell and Downing represent last season’s top 3 scorers and should figure heavily into Iowa’s plans as they now are experienced AHL players and will be used to add a veteran presence to the top 9.
Infusion of Youth
The crop of youth suddenly available to play in Iowa give a reason for hope of a quick departure from the shadow of history with the AHL Wild. Several members of the incoming class have been featured in our Top 25 Under 25 series and include former first round picks RW Alex Tuch (who should see time in MN) and C Joel Eriksson Ek (who may return to Färjestad depeding on his performance in his first 9 NHL games). It also features highly regarded college free agent and offensive dynamo RW/C Sam Anas. The ranks will be further bolstered with the addition of Minnesota darling LW Mario Lucia, Tuch’s Boston University linemate C Adam Gilmour and closing out with accomplished AHLer Pat Cannone.
Putting it Together
One of the biggest challenges for Lalonde will be taking a very young group of players who are used to playing big roles for their team and meshing them into a team of players who are willing to accept their role on the ice. Lalonde has expressed his desire to be an extension of the NHL coaching staff, which seems to promise opening up the offense compared to what has been the case under previous regimes. This will be critical for the development of the younger players as the entire organization still finds itself searching for a natural goal scorer after many years spent without one. Lalonde will have plenty of shiny new toys to insert into different places throughout the lineup and we are likely to see an innumerable amount of line combinations formed.
Players to Watch
Scouts have made several predictions about who on the team will have the biggest impact. The names most often mentioned are Grayson Downing, Sam Anas and Alex Tuch. Downing led the team in Points/60 last year and both Anas and Tuch are thought to have a game that will naturally translate to results in the AHL. Zack Mitchell and Eriksson Ek (if he is in Iowa) are the second tier, while players like Lucia, Gilmour and Bussieres have strong upside but are expected to take some time to develop their game at the next level.
Though the Iowa club is poised to break out of last place and put more goals and points on the board this season, it would be a very lofty expectation to think they would compete for a Calder Cup. Fans should not expect this and should be extremely excited should the team even qualify for the playoffs. There are a couple of other systems that are ripe with talent, and the AHL will have a lot of parity in the coming season. The good news is that the Iowa Wild finally might not be on the lowest end of that scale thanks to the influx of new and promising young talent.
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