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Updated: December 13th, 2012 11:46pm
Myers: Lockout drags on, but Wild grow optimism down on the farm

Myers: Lockout drags on, but Wild grow optimism down on the farm

by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In a perfect world, when you reached Minnesota Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr by phone in Calgary, Alberta, he would be there for an important Northwest Division game between his team and the Flames.

But in the modern locked-out mess that the National Hockey League has become, once again, there's no such thing as a perfect world.

Instead, on this cold Thursday night, Flahr is watching tryouts for Canada's entry in the upcoming World Junior Tournament, where the Canadians -- thanks in part to extra players available due to the lockout -- will be the prohibitive favorite.

Edmonton Oilers star and former first overall draft pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins will skate for the Canadians, who are so deep that defenseman Matthew Dumba, the Wild's top draft pick last summer, was cut from the Canadian team on Thursday.

In these dark days for the top level of pro hockey, with NHL arenas sitting empty for the second time in a decade and very real threats of another entire lost season being tossed about, minor league rinks are suddenly the places to be.

As fans in Minnesota saw a few weeks ago when the team's top farm club, the Houston Aeros, played a game at Xcel Energy Center, the American Hockey League has become the place for the best hockey available on the continent, by default.

Many of the 30 NHL teams' top young players otherwise would be flying from city to city in the Show, getting their introduction to pro hockey in places like Vancouver, Dallas and Pittsburgh. But they are having a very different season in places like Rockford, Oklahoma City and Syracuse.

"It's a great league this year," said Flahr, noting that nearly every AHL team features four or five players who would otherwise be playing in the NHL. "For a lot of them, that should really help the development. It's good for them to be getting their feet wet, being forced to ride the bus."

For the Aeros -- currently one of the top four teams in the AHL's Western Conference -- those four or five players have names that most diehard Wild fans have known and have anticipated seeing in St. Paul for some time now.

When the Aeros played at Xcel Energy Center, injuries meant no sight of either Mikael Granlund, the Finnish forward plucked by the Wild in the first round in 2010, or Jonas Brodin, the Swedish defenseman the Wild picked first in 2011.

But fans got an offensive show from a familiar name in the local college hockey world, as former Minnesota Duluth star Justin Fontaine is second on the Aeros in points, behind former Denver star Jason Zucker, who made his NHL debut with the Wild last spring.

Interestingly, while ex-collegians were looked upon with all the affection one has for wet socks by the Doug Risebrough regime, one perhaps sees the collegiate backgrounds of Flahr (who skated at Princeton for four years) and general manager Chuck Fletcher (a two-time hockey letter-winner at Harvard) on the current and future Wild rosters.

The summer's two biggest signings, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, played at North Dakota and Wisconsin, respectively. Just behind Zucker and Fontaine on the Aeros offensive stat sheet are Swedish forward Johan Larsson and two more collegians, defenseman Brian Connelly (Colorado College) and Charlie Coyle (Boston University).

All of them are learning new lessons in the minors, which will hopefully be applied in the NHL someday when the labor mess is done.

"We're getting pretty good contributions from a number of guys," Flahr said. "Our young players are getting better, and finding out quickly that it's not an easy league. It's a grind for young guys and some of them, whether from college or Europe even, find the schedule in a small amount of time takes some getting used to."

This season has been an adjustment for the Wild's hockey operations folks as well.

With no NHL games to scout for potential trade material, Flahr has done more advance work for the 2013 draft and spent additional time in Scandinavia scouting the rinks there. Flahr has also been spotted at Mariucci Arena, keeping a watchful eye on Wild draft pick Erik Haula, the Gophers' leading scorer.

And behind the "U" bench is the parent of another promising Wild prospect. Notre Dame freshman Mario Luica, Don's youngest son, missed a few of the Irish's early games with a broken leg suffered in preseason training, but has found his stride in the college game quickly and was recently named his conference's rookie of the week.

With the recent news that Wild backup goalie Josh Harding is dealing with multiple sclerosis, they're also paying close attention to Aeros goalies Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper.

Harding's doctors have told the Wild they are confident that he can play at the NHL level when the league starts up again, but goaltending depth is always important, especially on a roster where Harding and starter Niklas Backstrom have both dealt with significant missed time due to injury in recent years.

Instead of practicing in St. Paul and vying for slot behind Backstrom on the Wild roster this weekend, the NHL remains solidly locked out. So, Hackett will instead be in Charlotte on Friday night before a few thousand fans, backstopping the Aeros in their game versus the Carolina Hurricanes' top farm team.

In a season where much is being lost, Flahr maintains some optimism about the experience being gained by many of his prospects in the AHL, and what it will mean if the NHL re-starts in a week, or in a month, or even next fall.

"For a young player to get to play in the American League, it's great experience and you get to work on playing in a lot of different situations that a young player might not get in the NHL," Flahr said. "It's a learning process for all these guys, and getting to play at the American League level is a value. So, hopefully, when the NHL starts up they're ahead of the game."

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers
In this story: Niklas Backstrom, Josh Harding
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