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NHL Prospect Watch: Minnesota

2018 NHL Draft - Portraits
Sampo Ranta
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The two-game series between Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth was a marquee match-up to begin the season featuring 18 NHL Draft picks, a highly-touted first year draft eligible player, and a few potential NHL free agent targets. There were so many good players, in fact, that this started as a look at both teams until my thoughts on just Minnesota ballooned to longer than the entire article should be.

So here were my thoughts on some of Minnesota’s NHL prospects after a very successful first weekend of the season.

The biggest standout of the weekend was Minnesota freshman Sampo Ranta(Colorado). A late addition to Minnesota this summer after an admissions issue at Wisconsin, I’m not sure many people knew what to expect from Ranta this year. He was a third round NHL draft pick last summer, but it would have been optimistic to assume he’d step in as a first line left wing and immediately be one of Minnesota’s biggest scoring threats like he was last weekend.

Ranta isn’t a super-fast skater, but he’s really athletic with good footwork and quickness for being a solid 6’2”. His best asset is a blistering wrist shot, which he scored with in each game, both times beating the goalie cleanly from distance. Lack of a big top line scorer was one area of concern for Minnesota this season, but Ranta looks like he’s going to score a lot of goals for them this year.

Part of Ranta’s effectiveness was that he was getting a lot of pucks coming down the wing with time and space to work, which plays to his biggest strengths. A lot of the credit for that goes to his center Tommy Novak(Nashville), who I thought also had a really nice weekend. Novak has always been a great puckhandler and a nice distributor of the puck; he had a very respectable 26 points last year, tied for third in team scoring. But now over a year removed from a knee surgery, he looked faster and like he could make the jump to being a true top line centerman this year.

The third member of that top line was senior captain Tyler Sheehy. Sheehy was a top NHL free agent target after the 2016-17 season when he scored 53 points, but underwent off-season surgery that hampered him and saw his point total drop by over 50% to 25 last year. The surgery may have slowed him down some, but Sheehy never had elite speed to begin with. Perhaps the bigger issue for Sheehy was missing players like Justin Kloos and Jake Bischoff that could get him in the puck in positions for him to do damage. He bounced around Minnesota’s line chart last year as they looked for offense, but his numbers were much better when placed on the wing with Novak compared to other centers, or when he played center himself.

So his one goal this past weekend felt significant when he was able to get a nice cross-ice feed on the power play and finish the play, which is what he does best. If Sheehy gets some more help getting pucks in good positions, he’s going to make plays. Sheehy has always been a divisive prospect because he’s more of a finisher that is going to rely on teammates, rather than a creator. But if he starts putting up points like he did two years ago, he’s almost definitely going to get some NHL looks.

The player that made that nice cross-ice pass to Sheehy on the power play was Clayton Phillips(Pittsburgh). I already wrote about Phillips’ big breakout last weekend:

Minnesota really lacked a playmaker from the blue line last season, to the point that they brought in Clayton Phillips at mid-year hoping he could be that guy. Phillips was painfully over-matched last season, but with that experience under his belt, he already looks much more confident this year. He already has four points in two games this season after going scoreless in 11 games last year. He’s going to be given a lot of responsibility this year, especially on the power play, and so far, he has ran with it. Bob Motzko’s system is very friendly to defensemen that can move the puck on the power play—Jimmy Schuldt, Ethan Prow, and Nick Jensen were all All-Americans under him—and Phillips is in an excellent position.

Some other quick hits on Minnesota...

Ben Brinkman(Draft eligible)-Fairly quiet, which is fine for his first weekend of college hockey. It’s going to take some time for Brinkman to figure out what he can and can’t do at this level and when to pick his spots to be aggressive offensively or look for big hits. It’s kind of a check-back-in-January type of thing right now.

Sammy Walker(Tampa Bay)-Showed off his incredible burst of speed a couple times, including setting up a play that eventually finished with him tipping in his first career goal. Will still need to round out his offensive game, but that’s a great asset to build from

Scott Reedy(San Jose)-Minnesota’s third line, centered by Reedy, was a revelation. They played a strong game Friday and then being rewarded with three goals on Sunday. They were very good in all three zones and as a result, spent a lot of time with the puck in the offensive zone. If Reedy can continue playing with that type of energy, to go along with his skill distributing the puck, he may really surprise some people this year.

Tyler Nanne(New York Rangers)- I keep what I like to call the Nanne Ratio, which is the ratio of head-shaking amazing athletic plays to head-shaking disastrous plays made by Nanne. Last year, I had that number at pretty close to 1:1 last year. This past weekend was more like two or three to one.

Ryan Zuhlsdorf(Tampa Bay)/Jack Sadek(Minnesota)-I think a lot of people had written these off as prospects after last season, but it looks like they’re going to play a pretty big role for Minnesota this year, and had a pair of very nice weekends. I’m not sure either gets back into the conversation as NHL prospects, but if they continue to play a big role on a successful team, that could change some minds.