The Wild's big free agent signings last season may have dented the scouting budget. The Wild stayed pretty close to home this year, not drafting a player out of Europe for the first time in team history. The scouting staff did travel coast to coast in Canada with a studied focus on defense and size, but with an implicit directive of taking the long view with this draft class. Several of these players will be playing at the NCAA level next year and keeping tabs will mean a two hour drive rather than an eight hour flight. It also means that all of these players remain two years away from consideration at the professional level. All in all, it was quite an unspectacular draft that will take much patience to assess properly.
The Minnesota Wild did not have its first round pick after trading for Jason Pominville back at the trade deadline, but added a first round pick nonetheless. In what should prove to be a very savvy trade, Chuck Fletcher acquired Swiss winger Nino Niederreiter from the New York Islanders in exchange for a third round pick, 70th overall, plus restricted free agent Cal Clutterbuck. Niederreiter was the Islanders' first round pick in 2010 at fifth overall in the draft that got the Wild Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, Brett Bulmer, Johan Gustafsson, and Charlie Coyle (via trade). Niederreiter put up impressive scoring totals at the junior level with a strong Portland Winterhawks team. He also finished second in scoring last season on the Islanders' AHL affiliate in Bridgeport, putting up 50 points in 74 games. Niederreiter's struggles with the NHL were well-documented but he has plenty of potential to find redemption in the pro game. With the Wild's propensity to scout Swiss players, it is clear the staff liked Niederreiter in 2010 and bolstered the prospect core a lot by acquiring him at the draft at a very reasonable cost.
Several hours into the draft the Wild finally made its first selection, picking Swedish-born defenseman Gustav Olofsson. Central Scouting had him at 51 among North American skaters, so this was not an enormous reach, and Olofsson trended up throughout the year. A tall and still lanky player who has done much of his hockey education in the United States, Olofsson gets some good praise for his ability to process the game, playing a conservative and effective style.
Though born in Sweden, he trained with the San Jose Jr. Sharks and the Colorado Thunderbirds of the Midwest Elite League. He was second on his Colorado team in scoring before moving on to the USHL, where he scored a decent 23 points in 63 contests for the Gamblers.
Olofsson is now bound for Colorado College, a program which has done a good job developing NHL talent over the years. Olofsson has moved pretty quickly along in his career thus far and he is a player with some intrigue about him. Whether he grows in height is one thing to track, and whether he has more of an offensive upside to his toolkit will be worth investigating as well.
An interesting selection in that it corresponds more with the Wild's desire to add character than it does to any hockey need, Gabriel could nonetheless be a useful player in the organization. He is somewhat without pedigree, a highly-motivated young man on his third year of draft eligibility who gained his recognition from the men who choose hockey players of interest through force of will. Jeff Twohey, working as a scout for the Phoenix Coyotes, called Gabriel to attend training camp in the fall of 2011. Twohey has since become General Manager of the Oshawa Generals and his endorsement has some gravitas to it. The interest in Gabriel was not isolated apparently, as other NHL teams also spoke to him prior to this draft.
Gabriel's numbers as a junior will not impress, though they show improvement right up through Owen Sound's playoff run this past season, where he registered five points in 12 games. He has good size and strength, but it is clearly in the area of personal desire that the Wild felt he excelled. Wild Assistant GM Brent Flahr praised the "physical element" Gabriel can bring, and it is not hard to see what kind of team the Wild are building, with a lot of strength along the walls.
Whether Gabriel has eventual NHL upside is open to question, but he has the size and enough hockey acumen to be effective in a defensive role for the Attack. Not all of a hockey player's value is found on the ice and having a player like Gabriel in the organization, at training camp, and in the locker room can provide a push for other young players to re-examine and improve their own work ethics.
Hockey's Future shot video of Gabriel at the NHL Draft. You can view the player's extended remarks in this HF video.
Labbé looks to be another very solid pick by the Wild as the team seeks to create a wealth of blue line options. He has had some involvement with Team Canada already, appearing with the under-18s in Sochi before sustaining an injury in pre-tournament action. Labbé played this season on a pretty poor Shawinigan team, and while his 28 points over 61 games may not stand out, it was good for fourth on that team and best among its defensemen. Seven goals also speaks to his offensive ability and he certainly produced at an impressive clip as a midget. The coaching staff in Shawinigan showed increasing confidence in Labbé in his rookie season. As the season went on, he was firmly in the top pairing and played 35 minutes a night, according to Brent Flahr.
The Cataractes should be somewhat improved next season, and Labbé is projected to play a large role in that. As the team gets better, a metric like Labbé's -40 plus-minus last year should look more like an anomaly that does not say much about what this player can do.
Carson Soucy, D, Spruce Grove Saints (AJHL)
5th Round, 137th Overall
Height: 6'4 Weight: 190
The NCAA has proven to be an excellent place for defensive prospects to blossom of late, with Minnesota-Duluth alone producing solid NHL blueliners like Jason Garrison, Justin Faulk, and Matt Niskanen. Wild fans hope that UMD head coach Scott Sandelin and the Wild scouting staff have found a solid consensus on Spruce Grove's Carson Soucy. A bit of a beanpole at this stage at 6'4 and still under 200 pounds, Soucy certainly has a good frame to grow into.
He missed some time in November this season in order to play in the world juniors of softball. Just after returning, he suffered a torn MCL and so ended up playing in just 35 games this season, where he registered 15 points. He rebounded for the end of the season and played in all 16 playoff games. Soucy did not see first pairing power play minutes, which helps explain his meager two point showing in the postseason. That said, his offensive upside is certainly a facet of his appeal as a player.
Soucy is clearly a talented athlete, and drafted right where he was ranked by NHL Central Scouting. A trip to the stunning shores of Lake Superior to see Soucy in person ought to appeal to Wild fans and staffers alike.
Avery Peterson, C, Grand Rapids Thunderhawks (MN-HS)
6th Round, 167th Overall
Height: 6'2 Weight: 193
The Wild certainly has not shied away from drafting high school players the way other teams have of late. Adam Gilmour, Mario Lucia, John Draeger, Nick Seeler, Louis Nanne, and now Grand Rapids's Avery Peterson have been added to the fold. Peterson was pretty highly rated by Central Scouting at 77th overall, but the overall consensus was that Peterson needs some work to fulfill his potential. He possesses good size, and certainly used it to his advantage to put up some impressive numbers as a high school junior. His skating has been ranked as decent, but it is not a standout strength.
It is somewhat a point of worry that it is not clear whether he will return to Grand Rapids for his senior year or remain with Sioux City of the USHL, and he has also not committed to a college at this point. His brief eight game stint in the USHL is not much to go on, but he put up a few points as he got used to the pace, and would probably benefit more from staying at that level than he would from returning to high school. Peterson is a long ways off, but he fits the size and character requirements the Wild are explicitly seeking.
Nolan De Jong, D, Victoria Grizzlies (BCHL)
7th Round, 197th Overall
Height: 6'1 Weight: 181
De Jong did not improve much statistically over his two seasons in the BCHL, which may have contributed to his relatively low ranking by some scouts. That said, he had been a Cornell commit before deciding to pursue his hockey education with Red Berenson at the University of Michigan next fall, so college scouts liked his game plenty. Given too the bullish assessment by Central Scouting which ranked him 111th among North American skaters, De Jong could yet prove to be an excellent pick.
He is a player touted for some good offensive instincts, though his production was pretty average with Victoria. De Jong had 24 points in 51 games, plus four points in 10 playoff games. Brent Flahr gave a blunt assessment on this pick, calling De Jong "physically weak" at this stage, though he praised his "mobility." It remains to be seen how De Jong will cope with the big challenge of transitioning to college hockey, but if his skating is as good as it seems, he will certainly have a chance to get some minutes as a freshman.
Alexandre Belanger, G, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies (QMJHL)
7th Round, 200th Overall
Height: 6'0 Weight: 170
With its final pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, the Wild grabbed another goalie to replenish its depth chart at that position. Steve Michalek's future with the organization is cloudy and the team did not take a goalie last year so this pick makes good sense. Though Belanger's numbers at a glance are not going to induce confidence, it is often a mistake to judge a young goaltender on stats alone, especially in a high-scoring league like the QMJHL.
Belanger started 44 games for Rouyn-Noranda, followed by 14 playoff games in which the team held off Drummondville before upsetting Quebec in the second round. The Huskies then had to face Halifax in the semifinals. Though Belanger's team got outgunned by the prodigious talent of the Mooseheads, they did take them to overtime twice. Belanger finished the season with a save percentage of around .875 and a goals against average of 3.46.
Although a seventh round pick on a goalie might feel like a total flyer, Red Line Report projected Belanger to go in the third or fourth round. Central Scouting ranked him 14th among North American goaltenders. At only 6'0, Belanger is bucking a trend pointing to big bodies who block a lot of net, but the Wild's scouts have a decent track record at identifying solid goalie prospects. There were a lot of keepers taken in front of Belanger, and he may benefit from that additional motivation. He is also a young player with room to grow, but he has a very solid season of experience under his belt already.