Of all the proud papas at the World Junior Championship this year, I’d have to think Minnesota Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and his Florida Panthers counterpart Dale Tallon have the most to brag about.
After all, Florida is a surprising division leader as the calendar nears flip-over to 2012 and Minnesota is only one point back of Vancouver – and one look at the WJC rosters indicates the good times are only getting better for two franchises that haven’t had many highlights in their histories.
At the top of the list in Minnesota is center Mikael Granlund, who has been the best player in Finland regardless of age this season. He has already played in a World Championship (where he produced the highlight of the tourney with a lacrosse-style goal) and the Karjala Cup, a European club team showdown that precedes the regular season.
“It’s almost funny seeing him play against juniors now,” Fletcher said. “His hockey sense and talent is elite. He has an impact on nearly every game he plays.”
Over on rival Sweden, the Wild hold claim on center Johan Larsson, once a Sammy Pahlsson-type of shutdown player who has evolved to develop a nice dollop of offense to his game.
“I think he has a pretty good chance of making our team next year,” Fletcher said. “He’s a hard-nosed kid who can match up against any line. We see him as more than just a defensive forward.”
And then there’s Team USA’s Charlie Coyle. The soon-to-be Saint John Sea Dog (and Boston U. Terrier before that) was a key ingredient in the draft day trade that saw Brent Burns head out to San Jose. Coyle boasts size and scoring and will be a big part of Team USA’s attack in Alberta.
“It’s hard to find those big, strong kids with talent,” Fletcher said. “He’s a real top two-way player. You could argue that those three kids are near the top of all the prospects outside the NHL in two-way play.”
Oh, but wait – there’s more, Minnesota fans. Team USA captain Jason Zucker is also on board, bringing speed and leadership, while Team Sweden goaltender Johan Gustafsson gives the franchise an embarrassment of riches between the pipes. And the team’s first pick in the 2011 draft was Sweden defenseman Jonas Brodin, a pretty good blueliner in his own right.
Pencil Granlund and maybe Larsson into the Minnesota lineup next season. One of the reasons Fletcher hired coach Mike Yeo was the bench boss’ ability to communicate with young players in particular, so blending at least a couple kids into the fold won’t be too hard.
Over in Florida, the Cats are already reaping recent draft benefits with Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson on the blueline, while a group of prospects similar to Minnesota’s waits in the wings. From Team Canada’s WJC entry, the Panthers have top scoring threat Jonathan Huberdeau and heady two-way forward Quentin Howden. Florida’s version of Coyle is Team USA teammate Nick Bjugstad, who has laid waste to the competition this year as a member of the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Along with Bjugstad on the American team, Florida also drafted the University of Vermont’s Connor Brickley, who will put anyone through the boards that he sees fit.
(And of course the Panthers have their goalie of the future in Jacob Markstrom, currently seasoning himself in the American League, but likely ready for regular duty next season.)
The Cats didn’t build from the ground up this summer – Tallon simply bulldozed the shanty town he inherited and put together an intriguing community of savvy veterans and free agents with something to prove. So far, they’ve quieted all their doubters and with more blue-chip talent on the way, there’s going to be a lot more sunshine for Florida fans in the coming years.
Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.