Five years ago, Chuck Fletcher and his staff took over a Minnesota Wild system that severely lacked upside. The draft record of the club throughout the mid-2000s was middling despite some later round picks that worked out, mostly due to a series of underwhelming first round selections.
In 2009, the Wild missed the playoffs, the team's cupboards were essentially bare of impact prospects, and Marian Gaborik had just departed for free agency. Today, 2009's draft results are beginning to bear fruit in the somewhat unlikely forms of late-round picks Darcy Kuemper and Erik Haula. 2010's Mikael Granlund and 2011's Jonas Brodin look like the special talents those early first-round picks are assumed to be. Adding first-round picks from other teams is an extremely savvy way to replenish your youth in a hurry and Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter also look like impact players at the NHL level.
That said, the patient rebuild may have taken a slight detour. Some financial flexibility was lost by signing free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and trading for Jason Pominville added another productive veteran but at a big cost to the developmental side of the franchise. The Wild made steady progress this year with its first playoff series win in a decade, so while it is hard to be too critical of the strategy, the strength of the prospect pool has taken a dip. The AHL team had a very poor season and some of the higher draft picks are not coming along quite as well as one would expect.
The missing first round pick in 2013 plus the missing second round pick this year mean that the team is once again in a precarious position in terms of being able to add high-end and inexpensive talent. There is considerable pressure on the scouts as well as on GM Chuck Fletcher, who has been great with draft day trades, to get this one right. This group got past the Avalanche, but can they reach the summit?
Top Ten Prospects
The Wild has lost to the Chicago Blackhawks two playoffs in a row, and even with a stronger showing this year, the disparity is plain to see. The Wild lack lottery pick talent like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, as well as a future Hall-of-Famer like Marian Hossa, but the Wild's depth did not compare favorably either. The Wild is very top-heavy on defense, which eventually limits those players' effectiveness. The Wild's power play was mediocre all season, although there are players already on the team who could help it if given the chance. The penalty kill was also a point of weakness, despite an ostensible insistence on team defense. Only woeful Buffalo had fewer shots on goal per game than the Wild last season. The team needs greater offensive depth at both wings, but it could also use more true two-way center prospects in the Mikko Koivu mold, as the captain becomes less effective with age.
The goaltending situation, with Niklas Backstrom an injury risk and past his prime and Josh Harding battling illness, also unsettles everything. Kuemper is likely ready to backup an NHL veteran, but pressing the young man into full-time duties would be a huge gamble. Though the chaos will obviously not be corrected at the draft table, it must be addressed.
The scoring depth system-wide is rather poor as well, as Iowa's struggles showed this season. Signing European veteran Michael Keranen was a low-cost way to bolster that depth but more will be needed to make the leap at the NHL level.
The Wild's greatest prospect strength is on the blue line. Signing college free agent Christian Folin bolstered an already solid group of young players. Matt Dumba remains the one with the highest upside, but he has an occasionally erratic game that the coaching staff will have to work to improve. Gustav Olofsson was fast-tracked into the pro ranks, partially due to turmoil at Colorado College, but has a lot of good tools. After them, John Draeger, Dylan Labbé, Nick Seeler and others are growing in experience and have some useful skills, but all are a year or so away from regular professional action.
Though the Iowa Wild struggled this season, a year's worth of experience and another good summer working on individual skills should see them with a better showing in 2014-15. Though the numbers were underwhelming, there is a good core in the AHL with Zack Phillips, Raphael Bussières, and Tyler Graovac headlining. A lack of AHL veterans cost the team some points, but also provided a greater opportunity for these players to contribute.
The Wild has a very solid core of players younger than 23, a legitimate top defenseman in Ryan Suter, and an all-star forward in Zach Parise to go with some very good veteran players led by Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville. This kind of balance is a credit to the organization, even if there was a measure of good luck as well.
After Darcy Kuemper, there are a lot of question marks among the goaltending prospects. Although one can always point to team effects, none of them put up great numbers and Johan Gustafsson struggled where it matters most for a prospect and eventually lost his AHL starting role.
Drafting for size can lead to overvaluing less-skilled players, but the Wild is sometimes overmatched physically by teams like St. Louis, Nashville and Los Angeles. Of the players who might reasonably play an effective grinding role, Brett Bulmer and Kurtis Gabriel are not without issues.
Adding elite talent without being in the draft lottery is the crux of the challenge for NHL general managers. Chuck Fletcher has been very creative in his career with Minnesota in terms of player procurement, but the team has room for improvement.
At least one Minnesotan being selected is more or less a constant over the franchise's history. The team has actually seemed to focus on the midwest, not necessarily as a player source, but with a focus on players committed to NCAA programs in that region. Although the Wild boasts some high-profile Finns and Swedes, the scouts were seemingly disinterested in Swedish or Finnish juniors last year and the team has never had much interest in trying out the Russian pool. Similarly, most of eastern Europe has not produced even a depth pick for the Wild over the last few years. Perhaps the presence of Nino Niederreiter and some historical ties with Swiss clubs will encourage some extra scouting in Switzerland. While obviously the bulk of players in the NHL draft are out of North America, there is value to be found in Europe as well.
As mentioned above, Chuck Fletcher has done some of his best trading at the draft itself. With a pair of extra sixth round picks, perhaps moving up for a targeted player is part of the strategy again this year.
The main thing at the 2014 NHL Draft has to be adding an impact forward with the first round pick. With a good playoff showing, the Wild's pick falls in a tough spot, adding to the pressure to keep the system working well to supplement the good work done so far in building a contender.
The Wild’s second-round pick was sent to Buffalo as part of the Jason Pominville trade, leaving the team with the 18th, 79th, 109th, 139th, 160th (from Matt Kassian trade), 167th (from Justin Falk trade), 169th, and 199th overall selections going into the 2014 NHL Draft.
Hockey's Future Staff Mock Draft Results:
18. Kevin Fiala, LW, HV71 (SHL)
A Swiss national of Czech descent playing professional hockey in Sweden, Kevin Fiala embodies the international sportsman. Still just 17 and coming off a season where he played for Team Switzerland at the Ivan Hlinka U-18 Tournament, the World Juniors and also the World Championships, as well as making his professional debut, Fiala has a very bright future.
In European leagues, one often sees players put up very good numbers with a club's junior team before looking a bit overwhelmed at the elite level. Fiala adjusted quickly, scoring eleven points in 17 games with HV71. The teen rookie then came in second on his club team in playoff scoring, ahead of a group of veteran pros like former Wild skater Erik Christensen, with six points in eight games. Indeed his numbers at the SHL level are outstanding, and if he can match this productive pace next season, he would be competing for a league scoring title. Fiala has excellent puck skills, is strong on the puck despite an average frame, and has special creativity. Though as with any player his age there are holes in his overall game, the Wild need to add a player with elite offensive ability and get the chance with the 18th pick here.