The Wild seemed to take a step forward in 2014-15 though it took nearly the whole season to clinch its wild-card berth in a very tough division and conference. The team overcame, individually and collectively, a series of obstacles that could have devastated men of less character. The Wild managed to beat a St. Louis Blues team many thought capable of winning it all, but faltered against an experienced Chicago Blackhawks squad whose top talent overwhelmed the Wild’s in a clean sweep en route to its third Stanley Cup in six years.
Chuck Fletcher shored up the goaltending mid-season with a savvy trade for Devan Dubnyk, but neither Chris Stewart nor Sean Bergenheim nor Jordan Leopold proved to be reinforcements sufficient for the team to overcome its nemesis. Falling well short of a Stanley Cup once again, the Wild organization ought to be engaged in some deep soul-searching as to what could possibly help them get to Chicago’s level. As of now, neither free-spending for slightly-used veteran scorers nor perpetual mid-range drafting has been the anodyne for a club that has established an unfortunate identity as an also-ran.
Time is running short for the Wild’s high-priced veteran core. The best course of action at this draft might be to deal yet another first round pick for another veteran capable of scoring some goals. However, shedding salary at this point might be more of a priority for management than re-stocking the pool is. Reloading the team for a deeper playoff run while restructuring for the future to give this team a chance in the western conference is a balance that might be more than this management team will have the chance to handle.
Top Ten Prospects
Minnesota’s drafting and developing ability in the past few years has been somewhat overstated. The prospect pool is plainly one of the league’s weakest. After relocating its AHL team from an enormous and challenging Houston market to a modest-sized and currently forgiving one in Iowa, the Wild has delivered two consecutive cellar-dwelling squads to the good folks of Des Moines. There are bright spots in the college ranks, with Alex Tuch a likely NHLer in a year or two and Louie Belpedio, Avery Peterson and Adam Gilmour developing well, but the pro level prospects have delivered very little and the CHL guys are not elite.
After Alex Tuch, there is not an impact prospect anywhere in the system. Successful picks like Marco Scandella, Erik Haula and Darcy Kuemper were drafted under Doug Risebrough’s watch. While Mikael Granlund, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin are good young NHL players, each has a significant question mark attached to his ultimate upside as well.
The trading of Nick Leddy for Cam Barker in 2010 was immediately obvious as a terrible evaluation error, but Fletcher has continued to fumble with prospects since. In 2011, the Wild spent a first round pick on Zack Phillips, who is already out of the system, and second, third and fourth round picks (by trading up) for Mario Lucia, whose development has flatlined. Charlie Coyle has been a reasonably good depth player in the early part of his career, but Brent Burns remains easily the best player in the transaction that sent him to San Jose. After trading the veteran defenseman, the Wild incoherently proceeded to compromise its development process by trading Johan Larsson, Matt Hackett and first and second round picks to Buffalo for winger Jason Pominville in 2013. Additional value picks were sent away recently for players like Ilya Bryzgalov and Matt Moulson, who contributed very little to the Wild. Questionable high picks used on prospects Raphael Bussieres, Kurtis Gabriel and Brett Bulmer have not worked out even to provide much AHL help. Chuck Fletcher gets credit for acquiring Jared Spurgeon, Christian Folin and Nino Niederreiter at relatively cheap costs, but his AHL team has been a black hole from which only Tyler Graovac emerged this season.
The Wild won’t solve all its developmental problems at the 2015 NHL Draft. The team will have to sit and watch other franchises add significant talents before making a selection at 20th overall that will either help the franchise take another step forward or risk miring the Wild in disadvantage.
Despite a prospect pool that lacks in high-end talent, the Wild scouts have been productive with their picks and aimed for project players, several of whom have developed in positive ways. If players like Pavel Jenys, Christoph Bertschy or Grayson Downing can make an impact in the AHL next season, the trip to respectability becomes much shorter.
At defense, free agent signing Christian Folin looks like a solid option for the bottom-pair. With Ryan Suter capable of playing huge minutes, young Matt Dumba taking a major step forward, Jonas Brodin’s heady game evolving a more aggressive offensive zone awareness, and Marco Scandella earning power play time, the Wild defense is an effective, youthful and dynamic group, even if it must part ways with Jared Spurgeon out of fiscal constraints. Gustav Olofsson missed last season with injury, but he is a good prospect who may be capable of joining the NHL squad for seasoning by the second half of next season. Dylan Labbe and Zach Palmquist should help the Iowa cause next season too.
Again, the Wild does not have a blue-chip prospect. An NHL player is an elite athlete by definition and Mike Yeo has instilled an effective system, but the Wild does seem to have a talent deficit compared to most other squads. Hard work and systems play can yield positive results, but NHL games are ultimately won with the marginal advantages provided by the best of the best. The Wild simply needs more such players in order to get closer to the Cup. Although the team features many great skaters and passers and often had possession of the puck, at times they looked intimidated by larger, heavier squads and lacked a physical push-back until Chris Stewart arrived.
Positionally, all the forward positions need more talent, but goaltending has been a major struggle. With Josh Harding due to retire with illness, Nik Backstrom highly-paid, often-injured, and ineffective, Darcy Kuemper a question mark from injury and inexperience, Johan Gustafsson back in Sweden for the foreseeable future, Steve Michalek no longer eligible to play for Harvard, and Kahkonen in need of more time in Finland, it is no wonder that Devan Dubnyk’s agent is exercising his leverage. John Curry has been a stabilizing force for Iowa, but he does not provide an NHL solution. Brody Hoffman, signed out of the University of Vermont, and Michalek might be asked to do more than they are capable of doing for Iowa next season.
Hall of Famer and Director of Amateur Scouting Guy Lapointe has been with the club since the very beginning, amassing a mixed record. The major tendency of the Wild has been its avoidance of Russia, and a balanced approach to the rest of Europe – mainly Sweden and Finland, with a respectful nod paid to Minnesota high schools, a voguish respect for the US National Development program and an attention to the CHL which seems belated and cursory. The team likes size and is not afraid to draft role players in the early rounds, such as Matt Kassian, Bulmer, Gabriel and Bussieres. The Wild has been aggressive in trading up for players, such as Jason Zucker, Mario Lucia, and Tyler Cuma. The team seems to also emphasize players taking the NCAA route.
HF Staff Mock Draft Results
One thing is for certain: there will be an impact player available at this spot and the Wild should go for the skater with the highest upside, regardless of position. Minnesota native Paul Bittner put up excellent numbers this season as part of a line with experienced WHLers Nic Petan (WPG) and Oliver Bjorkstrand (CBJ). Drafting him here might not be the best possible value, but Bittner has several qualities that would fit in well with the Wild’s current direction. He has size and skill to go with the current young group’s emphasis on puck possession. His scoring totals compare favorably with many other projected first rounders, but Bittner did the majority of his damage at even strength, something that suggests he will be capable of translating his offense to the next level. The Wild might look to other players at this position of course, or even trade it away in search of more experience, but Bittner as a left wing also addresses an area of need. As a player he benefited some from the talent around him, but also brings a range of talent that stands on its own.