For myself, football season has begun and we're about two weeks into it. Two-a-day practices, the distribution of equipment, the endless series of drills where players get taught the skills they will need in addition to a rigorous amount of conditioning is all apart of the daily grind that is generically known as 'Hell Week'. But as you close out 'Hell Week', teams usually conclude their first week with some sort of intersquad scrimmage. This scrimmage usually is not much of a test for your 'varsity' players as those behind them on the depth chart make up the scout offenses and defenses and are usually overmatched physically. Its an ok test to check out your own execution but you don't really find out what you have until you start going against other teams. That is what usually concludes the 2nd week of football, a multi-team scrimmage against other schools. It is here where you can perhaps get an idea of how your team stacks up. Much is the same is for the Minnesota Wild's prospects when they participate in the annual Center Ice Prospect tournament in Traverse City, Michigan from September 5th-9th.
If you remember, last season the Center Ice Prospect Tournament was canceled as a casualty of the then impending NHL Lockout. Players and teams were put in an awkward place when it seemed as though they were destined to go to a lockout as talks were stalling and achieving next to nothing. The tournament features 8 NHL teams with 3 from the Western Conference (Minnesota, St. Louis and Dallas) and 5 from the Eastern Conference (Buffalo, Carolina, New York Rangers and Columbus). The teams will be placed in two divisions, which carry names of legendary Detroit Red Wings as the team continues to be the host; the Gordie Howe Division and the Ted Lindsay Division. The Wild are in the Gordie Howe Division along with Detroit, St. Louis and Dallas; while Buffalo, Carolina, New York and Columbus will be in the Ted Lindsay division. So how will the Wild prospects stack up?
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Will Zack Phillips have a big tournament for the Wild?
The Wild are certainly hoping their group of youngsters does pretty well but that's hardly a major revelation. The truth is, the Wild would've brought their most talented group ever to the tournament last year had it not been for the impending NHL Lockout and even after the 'graduations' of Wild prospects like Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and to a lesser extent Mikael Granlund, Minnesota still feels as though it is bringing in a rather talented group. In fact, in Granlund's case I'm a little surprised they did not invite him to the tournament if anything to give him a little confidence. So which players should Wild fans expect to see excel at the tournament?
#61 Zack Phillips – The smooth operating center claims he's going into this year with far greater confidence with a year of pro-seasoning under his belt and hopes that will translate into more points. Phillips will be expected to be a major offensive contributor with the Iowa Wild this season. One would expect him, a former 1st rounder (28th overall) to be a stand out for this group of prospects.
#55 Mathew Dumba – The Wild's top prospect according to the experts at NHL.com is also determined and motivated to earn a spot on the big club's roster. He will have his first opportunity to deliver his bone-jarring open ice hits on players not wearing Wild practice jerseys in this tournament. Dumba is a dynamic talent, who is one of those rare defenseman whose play can bring fans out of their seat. He should make his presence felt with his hits and his offensive skills.
#53 Tyler Graovac – Graovac really came into his own last season by being one of the OHL's top scorers leading the Belleville Bulls to the Eastern Conference Finals. The tall (6'5") lanky center has great hands and dangles well in traffic. While I do not think he has big hopes of making the big club this year, he will certainly want to show he can be an offensive force.
#54 Brett Bulmer – It was a very forgettable year for the rugged winger. Injuries almost kept Bulmer watching more games than he actually played for the Aeros last season. Bulmer needs a rebound year and his physical game should help stir things up pretty well out there. Expect him or teammates Josh Caron and Kurtis Gabriel to drop the gloves at least once during the tourney.
Will Erik Haula continue to stand out amongst the Wild prospects with a strong tourney?
#56 Erik Haula - Haula was by far the shining star of the Wild's prospect development camp, demonstrating skill, poise and tremendous hands that made him the Golden Gophers' leading scorer the past two seasons. The Pori, Finland-native is a darkhorse to make the big club out of training camp and I would expect him to be dominant in this tournament. I think Haula realizes his time to make a big impression is right now, especially with Mikael Granlund appearing to be a work in progress.
#70 Johan Gustafsson – The Wild prospect that I think gets the least press but with the highest potential is this young uber talented Swedish goaltender. Gustafsson's strong play (along with Darcy Kuemper) made Matt Hackett expendible last year. Gustafsson has been very dominant while playing in the Swedish Eliteserien the last two seasons in Lulea. I expect him to be the Wild's workhorse between the pipes in the tournament. I think this kid is a future 1st goaltender for the Wild and his attitude, poise and size are very reminiscent of fellow Swede Henrik Lundqvist.
Other players I'm intrigued with are invitees Zane Jones, Olivier Archambault and Rhyse Dieno. All of these kids are guys who know how to bury the biscuit and if any of them can showcase that scoring touch then I think its possible they might earn a pro contract. Click here for the rest of the Wild's tournament roster. You can see a complete tournament schedule here as it was posted by RedWings.com. As the Traverse City Tournament rosters of the other 7 teams become available I will post them here as well.
At this point I am unsure if they are going to stream the games as they have in the past and if I find those links I will post them as well! Just a little over a month away the puck will be dropping for these prospects and a few weeks after that the NHL will be in full swing, I can't wait!