If you think about the Minnesota Wild in the late aughts or the dawn of the 2010s, you’re probably thinking about Finnish players. Sure, they had more Canadians, Americans, and even Slovakian players on those teams. Still, the biggest Finnish products were Nokias, Linux, and core Minnesota Wild players.
Their best player and captain was Mikko Koivu, who eventually captained Team Finland in international events. Their goalie? Helsinki-raised Niklas Backstrom played in the Finnish Liiga for years before jumping to Minnesota at age-28. Koivu’s main winger? Antti Miettinen. Their top prospect? None other than Mikael Granlund, the highest-drafted Finnish prospect since Koivu.
While Koivu, Granlund, and Erik Haula kept some Finnish flavor through the next decade, the Wild’s identity became defined by Americans. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were their alternate captains and the face of the franchise. Americans Matt Cullen, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Jordan Greenway, and Marcus Foligno all represented Team USA. Even Jason Pominville, born in Canada, was a dual citizen.
Minnesota doesn’t quite have that fun little quirk today. If we pinpointed the Wild’s seven best players as Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala, Joel Eriksson Ek, Mats Zuccarello, Jared Spurgeon, and Jonas Brodin, only two of them hail from the same country. (Eriksson Ek and Brodin are both Swedish.)
That’s not going to do! For maximum amounts of fun, Minnesota needs to have players that form the core of a National Team’s identity. Luckily, they have a chance to get in on an expanding, exciting new field: An upstart group of young Austrians.
Could Minnesota collect the next generation of Team Austria?
Going by general placings in international tournaments, and NHL player production, the prime European hockey powers are Russia, Sweden, and Finland. Teams like Czechia, Slovakia, and Switzerland are a tier below them, with Germany arguably moving up to the second tier in recent years.
Austria is firmly in the third tier. Only 10 players have ever made it to the NHL, with 2021 first-rounder Marco Rossi pushing the Austrians to double digits. And just four Austrian players cracked the 50-point career mark: Thomas Vanek (789), Andre Burakovsky (295), Michael Grabner (276), and Michael Raffl (179).
But they’re a program that’s slowly, steadily on the rise. Led by Rossi, Team Austria made the World Junior Championships in 2020. They lost all four games, but unbeknownst to anyone, Rossi was suffering from the aftereffects of COVID. If Rossi was healthy, maybe they’d have sneaked out a win.
Austria may not be deep enough to win on the international stage, but they are making progress with an upcoming generation of talent. In addition to Rossi, defensemen Thimo Nickl (104th overall), and Benjamin Baumgartner (161st) were drafted in 2020. They were the first three Austrian-born draftees since 2006.
This year, they’ll be joined by two other Austrian prospects: Marco Kasper and Vinzenz Rohrer. Getting both of them would mean Minnesota has the three most talented Austrians to come through the league in the past 15 years. Pretty fun!
Let’s start with Kasper, who may very well join Rossi and Vanek as the only top-10 Austrian draft picks ever. Kasper had a solid but unspectacular season playing against men for Rogle of the Swedish Hockey League. His seven goals and 11 points don’t seem like much, but to compare him to another center who played in the SHL in his draft year, those are better numbers than Eriksson Ek had (four goals and six points in 34 games).
Scouts tend to not praise him for, say, an exemplary shot, or blistering speed, but he doesn’t have many weaknesses, either. “He plays with pro pace,” writes Scott Wheeler, “he’s a good passer, he plays on the interior, and makes plays all over the ice.” And that’s just from someone who ranks Kasper 24th on their rankings. Believers in his skill have him closer to the Top-10.
Minnesota may be enamored with Kasper not just for his skills, but his Dean Evason-type game. Kasper goes out looking to punish players, and much like Eriksson Ek, can turn that defense into offense. “When he’s locked into the physical aspect,” Mitch Brown of EliteProspects writes, “he’s also winning footraces on pucks, turning board battles into inside-lane attacks, and stretching the ice with well-timed sprints to the opposing blue line.”
Kasper’s statistical profile isn’t quite so great, though. Byron Bader’s model only projects an 18% chance of being a star player, lower than you’d want in a potential top-10 pick. But part of this is due to low ice time, and another part of this is getting little playing time last year due to the pandemic. His six points (three goals) in 13 games for Rogle hint at more.
Now we have Rohrer, who projects as more of a third-round pick than a first. He’s literally following in Rossi’s footsteps, though, playing last season for the Ottawa 67s, Rossi’s junior team. Rohrer’s numbers don’t jump off the page, necessarily. He scored just 25 goals and 48 points in 64 games. That only ranks 15th among draft-eligible OHLers. But it was good enough to lead a struggling, rebuilding 67s squad.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that he’s one of the youngest players in his draft class. He was born on Sept. 9, meaning if he was born a week later, he’d be a 2023 draftee. If that was the case, he’d be a Draft-1 player in the OHL.
Jack Quinn, who the Buffalo Sabres drafted 8th overall in 2020, may illustrate this point. Quinn was born on Sept. 17, separating him from Rohrer by eight days, relative to their drafts. Since Quinn was on the other side of the cutoff, he had to wait an extra 357 days to be drafted. In the meantime, he potted 52 goals and 89 points in 62 games.
Had he been born on Sept. 9 like Rohrer, however, he would’ve entered the draft coming off a season where he scored 12 goals and 32 points in 61 games. That’s significantly less than Rohrer, at the same age. Three years after that 32-point season, Quinn is a top prospect coming off a dominant AHL season.
That’s not to say Rohrer will duplicate Quinn’s breakout, but those are the kinds of leaps possible to make in that age range. Rohrer is far from out of runway for his development.
Adding a layer of fun to this is that Rohrer is a childhood neighbor and friend of Rossi’s, as profiled in Scott Wheeler’s feature from May 17. But fun isn’t enough to draft someone, skill is, and Rohrer has it. His calling card is his speed, but he doesn’t fall into the trap where his feet are too fast for his hands and brain.
Wheeler quotes James Boyd, Ottawa’s general manager as saying, “He makes plays at high speed. He makes his decisions and executes at high speed. He’s got escapability. He’s constantly slivering between his check and the boards or darting between the defense.”
Combine that with other shared qualities from his countrymen Rossi and Kasper — his willingness to work hard on and off the ice — and he’s probably going to maximize his talents, wherever exactly those lie.
So how can Minnesota draft these two Austrians? Kasper is rising high in the rankings, with most mock drafts projecting him in the 8-20 range. That means the Wild would have to trade up, or trade Fiala for a high pick, to land him. And moving up to something like 12th overall may not cut it.
Acquiring Rohrer is an easier proposition. Most rankings have him in the 60s range, either a late second or early third-round pick. That could allow them to use their second-round pick from the Jack McBain trade (47th overall), or their compensatory second-rounder from not signing Filip Johansson (56th overall) to obtain him. Waiting for the third round (where Minnesota currently sits 89th overall) might not be a realistic option without some movement up or down the board.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where a player comes from. The Wild could trade up and pass on Kasper for someone else, and still make the right move. The same goes for Rohrer, should Minnesota pass on him. But there’s no doubt that it would be interesting and fun to see the Wild secure this generation of Austrian talent, and Minnesota could well take a look into it. We’ll see what their plans are next month.