The Minnesota Wild brain trust heads to the draft without a first round pick for the first time in franchise history. High expectations buoyed by the acquisition of bona fide stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in July 2012 led management to make a somewhat hasty trade as the shortened NHL season waned, sending Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett, this year's first round pick, and next year's second round pick away for Buffalo Sabres captain Jason Pominville. While Pominville is certainly a good player who adds a needed dimension to the offense-starved Wild, the price may have been too high.
Despite making the playoffs, surely an important indicator of progress along the journey to perpetual contention, the quick trouncing by the Blackhawks raised many questions about the team's overall ability to compete next season as currently constructed. If the Wild should stagnate next season, there is a sense of impatience and discontent around the team that could become toxic. Chuck Fletcher, Brent Flahr, Guy Lapointe, and the scouting staff have a number of interesting assets, some important pieces already in place, and a full day's work in New Jersey to continue bolstering one of the better prospect groups in hockey. The ultimate goal is balancing patience, risk, and talent evaluation for the team's first Stanley Cup.
Top Ten Prospects:
1. Mikael Granlund, C
2. Jonas Brodin, D
3. Charlie Coyle, RW
4. Mathew Dumba, D
5. Jason Zucker, LW
6. Darcy Kuemper, G
7. Zack Phillips, C
8. Erik Haula, C
9. Mario Lucia, LW
10. Johan Gustafsson, G
It is a big temptation to look at a playoff matchup and try to assess what the losing team could have added or done differently to be equal to the better team. In the Wild's case, there was a ready excuse as Nicklas Backstrom suffered an injury during the game one warm-up. The goaltending was not really the most important story though, as the Wild finished below league average in several important areas. Building from the back out though, it is clear some changes are coming. Re-signing a below league average goalie in Backstrom, relying full-time on the uncertain health status of Josh Harding, or pressing a still quite untested Darcy Kuemper into NHL action, are all options of limited appeal.
Furthermore, the Wild still needs a top-line center capable either of supplanting Mikko Koivu as an offensive pivot, or of contributing offense against weaker opposition. Another top-pairing option on defense would also take some pressure off the duo of Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin and help drive possession. The Wild's fourth line was completely crushed by Chicago during the playoffs, so improving the team's overall depth is also a need, albeit a vague and redundant one.
Since the famous regime change of a few years ago, the Wild's drafting has improved. The team's overall development structure is still open to criticism though, as high salaries have limited options in free agency for the time being, while prospects capable of bridging the gap for cheap have either been traded or remain at least a year from competent NHL service.
The Wild has some excellent young prospects at important positions. Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, and Jonas Brodin should all take steps forward next season and graduate from prospect status after a good introduction to the professional game in a truncated season. Coyle and Brodin in particular fit in very well at the NHL level and look like legitimate options if not possible stars. Granlund struggled in his debut season after years of hype but he still has an elite set of skills that can surely make a difference at the NHL level given the right mixture of opportunity and execution.
At goaltender, Darcy Kuemper was pressed into NHL playoff action sooner than the team would have liked, but he has posted excellent AHL numbers for two seasons and may even be ready for a limited NHL backup role. If he is not ready, Swedish goaltender Johan Gustafsson may challenge Kuemper for the starting position with Iowa after a tremendous Elite League season. The emergence of these two goalkeepers made Matt Hackett an expendable trade piece, although he is still a prospect of interest and could be better than either one. Steve Michalek's future with the organization is somewhat uncertain at this point after an academic scandal and an underwhelming USHL season.
The Wild also has a good mixture of skill and grit coming up through the system on the wings. Raphael Bussieres and Brett Bulmer should complement the veteran core for the new AHL affiliate in Des Moines and could be significant difference-makers at the AHL level as they develop. In the NCAA, Mario Lucia should take a significant leap forward for Notre Dame next season, given a full summer to work out and a very promising freshman season upon which to build. Christoph Bertschy was buried a bit on Swiss League champions Bern, but he is a player with world-class skills who can take a more prominent role with his club team next season as he has on the international stage for Team Switzerland.
The Wild is a very weak team up the middle, and compounded that difficulty by trading its best two-way center prospect for another finesse winger. Adding some pieces to replace Johan Larsson (56th overall in 2010) in the system should be a priority. With Mikko Koivu showing that he may not have the fine touch to bring out the best in Zach Parise, and with Mikael Granlund not yet appearing ready for first-line NHL duties, the team is at a bit of a crisis that the draft won't do anything to alleviate. Charlie Coyle is certainly an option at center, and team may yet retain Matt Cullen, but Coyle is somewhat raw for such responsibility while Cullen is at the tail end of his fine career. Zack Phillips had a great junior career and a very tough rookie season in the AHL, Tyler Graovac is an unknown even after a big OHL season, and Adam Gilmour is just coming into his freshman season at Boston College. Erik Haula is poised for a solid pro season with Iowa, but like the other centers in the system, is far from a sure bet to be an NHL player at this point.
At defense, the Wild did well to draft Jonas Brodin, who combines skating and positional acumen in a very special way. A healthy season from Marco Scandella should shore up some issues on the blue line but the group as a whole is somewhat thin on reliability after the top pairing. In the meantime a lot is expected of Matt Dumba, who should certainly spend some time, if not the whole season, in the AHL in 2013-14. After Brodin and Dumba, there just is not much defensive depth at the prospect level, especially in terms of puck-movers. John Draeger might be an answer in the near future as he takes on many roles at Michigan State, but the Wild could certainly stand to find another good bet for a top-four role in this draft class.
While the team has found players with positive trends in later rounds, such prospects often have a longer time line for development that can leave gaps in the organizational depth chart.
The Wild has the 46th (2nd round), the 70th (from the Marek Zidlicky trade) and the 81st (from the James Sheppard trade) picks in the third round, the 107th (4th round), 137th (5th round), 167th (6th round), and 197th picks (7th round).
The Wild has managed to identify good players in all rounds of the draft in recent years. If any real trend has emerged, it is that the Wild favored players from the QMJHL and Minnesota high school hockey in the early rounds more than other teams did, and notably ignored Russia. The attention to Minnesota high school hockey makes some sense, both in terms of scouting strategy and as a concession to its fan base (or management group), but it has not done much for the franchise to date. It will not be a surprise to see a typical set of picks from the CHL, Sweden, and Minnesota in this draft. What would be welcome in addition to the mostly solid strategy that has rebuilt the prospect group is a bold trade of the type Chuck Fletcher made in 2011. The Wild is a team trending in the right direction, but the journey gets harder the farther one goes.