Wild 2008 draft preview

By Dan Aronen

Top 10 prospects

1. Josh Harding, G
2. Colton Gillies, C
3. Benoit Pouliot, LW
4. Cal Clutterbuck, RW
5. Petr Kalus, RW
6. Shawn Belle, D
7. Clayton Stoner, D
8. Danny Irmen, RW
9. Julien Sprunger, RW
10. Anton Khudobin, G

The Minnesota Wild have only four picks going into the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, including the 24th pick.

The previous five No. 24 picks, in order, were Mike Richards (2003, Philadelphia), Kris Chucko (2004, Calgary), T.J. Oshie (2005, St. Louis), Dennis Persson (2006, Buffalo) and Mikael Backlund (2007, Calgary).  Mike Richards has been a big success with the Flyers, but 2003 was an unusually deep draft class. Of the rest, T.J. Oshie and Mikael Backlund look to have the most NHL potential, but so far only Richards has broken into the big league. Needless to say, drafting in this spot is no sure thing, and most players are expected to need a few years before getting to the NHL. However, most scouts do consider 2008 to be a deep draft class, so there will be some good players available at No. 24.

This year, the theme of the draft is defense, with many talented blueliners available. The other theme is caution regarding European players. The expiration of the IIHF transfer agreement has created a cloud of uncertainty. During the NHL Combine, European players were given extra scrutiny in interviews regarding their intentions to play in North America. Additionally, the new Continental Hockey League (KHL) has signed a few NHL players this summer, and is looking to be somewhat competitive in terms of luring some NHL talent, in particular European players that might rather play closer to home. Because of the lack of agreement, there is a likelihood that the NHL and NHLPA decide at negotiations this week to deem European players "defected" and teams will hold onto their rights indefinitely. Should that happen, caution regarding European players would be greatly alleviated.

Team Needs

Any player taken at No.  24 will not be expected to play immediately, so the draft will not be used to address any immediate needs unless it involves a draft-day trade of some kind, a la the Pavol Demitra deal in 2006.

The Wild are a difficult team to evaluate this offseason because there are many high-priority loose ends that need to be taken care of before the roster will really start to take shape. They’ve begun to get the ball rolling with defensive depth moves that include trading this year’s third round pick for Marc-Andre Bergeron and signing long-time Houston Aero Eric Reitz to a one-way contract.

However, bigger questions remain. At the top of this list is the need to get Marian Gaborik signed to an extension. If he is traded, then any analysis of team needs would be thrown out the window. Next on the list is UFA Brian Rolston. UFA Pavol Demitra appears to be on his way out, as do veteran defensemen Keith Carney and Sean Hill. Petteri Nummelin has signed in Switzerland and Branko Radivojevic and Chris Simon have both signed with Russian teams for the upcoming season, so they also won’t be back. At the top of the RFA list are Pierre-Marc Bouchard and checker Stephane Veilleux. Additionally, Kurtis Foster, Todd Fedoruk, Aaron Voros and Matt Foy are all also not under contract yet for next season. So who is going to be back from next season is very much to be determined as we head into the draft.

Regardless, assuming the big pieces stay in place, going into the draft, the Wild have two glaring needs. A top-four defenseman and a top-line center to compliment Gaborik. They could use a bit more top-end offense in general, but the Wild have yet to put a top playmaking center alongside Gaborik. The most effective combination recently was with Wes Walz centering him and fellow Slovak Demitra in 2006-07, but it was short-lived. Walz retired in the middle of last season, and Demitra was moved to center and while Gaborik had career highs in goals and points, Demitra struggled and the chemistry was not the same.

Organizational Strengths

Even after letting Ondrej Fiala go without a contract offer, the Wild’s prospect pipeline is front-heavy. Colton Gillies and Benoit Pouliot have the best shot at playing with the Wild this upcoming season. Cal Clutterbuck could also possibly find himself in a fourth-line role. Peter Olvecky is coming off a solid season in Houston and Ryan Jones was a Hobey Baker candidate. Then there are a handful of players with high expectations who are looking to bounce back after disappointing years including Petr Kalus, Danny Irmen and Morten Madsen.

Organizational Weaknesses

Defense. With the Bergeron trade and Reitz signing, it will probably be another year in the AHL for defensemen Shawn Belle and Clayton Stoner, assuming the Wild re-sign them. As the top two Wild blue line prospects, this signals the team doesn’t think they’re ready, and at this stage in the game it likely means that the most that could be hoped for is NHL journeyman status. The other prospects in Houston included the undrafted Paul Albers and Maxim Noreau, both of whom have to be considered long shots. Justin Falk was a member of the Spokane Chiefs in the WHL this past season, winners of the Memorial Cup, but he’s a project and still a few years away from competing for an NHL job. The young Finn Harri Ilvonen could quickly move up their organizational depth chart should he decide to make the move to North America, but the likelihood of that is unknown at this time.

The Wild could also use some depth at goaltender. Anton Khudobin is their top prospect and is under contract for two more seasons. The only other goaltender under contract is Nolan Schaefer, signed through 2009, and at 28 years old, he is more for short-term depth than part of the long-term future.

Drafting Tendencies

There doesn’t really seem to be a prototypical Wild player. The team has taken the speedy sniper Gaborik and the two-way center Mikko Koivu. They’ve taken the shifty Bouchard and the bruising Gillies. Perhaps if there is one theme that runs through all of their higher picks, it’s that they’re all excellent skaters, usually forwards who have played the center position prior to being drafted. But after that, it’s a mix of sizes and skills.

If there’s one particular league in which the Wild seems to favor, it’s the WHL, with the largest numbers coming from there, though their first first-round pick from the WHL wasn’t until Colton Gillies in 2007. Indeed, they do tend to shop around. They have had at least one European pick each year, and usually more, though no one country tends to really dominate. They’ve picked Finns, Slovaks, Czechs, Russians, Swedes, Swiss, a Dane, a Latvian, an Austrian and a Pole, however they haven’t taken a European in the first round since Koivu in 2001. They’ve taken one American and one defenseman in the first round, and that was the same pick, A.J. Thelen, who also happens to be their only first-rounder they did not sign to an entry-level contract. The highest they’ve taken a goaltender is in the second round, with Josh Harding in 2002.

The Picks

The Wild currently have four picks, which would be their lowest number in their history (they had five last year), however GM Doug Risebrough is no stranger to draft-day deals, so that could certainly change. All four are their own.

Current picks:
No. 24 Minnesota’s own 1st round selection
No. 55 Minnesota’s own 2nd round selection
No. 115 Minnesota’s own 4th round selection
No. 145 Minnesota’s own 5th round selection

They recently traded their third round pick to the Ducks for Marc-Andre Bergeron. Their sixth-round pick was dealt at this past year’s trade deadline to the Islanders for Chris Simon. Their seventh-round pick went to the Devils for Aaron Voros in March of 2007.

Hockey’s Future staff mock draft result: John Carlson, D