Minnesota Wild still feeling effects of weak 2006 draft

By Peter Prohaska
Photo: After being selected ninth overall in 2006, James Sheppard has gradually seen his value within the Wild organization decrease. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Wild)

The Minnesota Wild did draft Cal Clutterbuck in 2006, but most people remember the draft for other reasons. Holding both the ninth and the 17th (from trading Dwayne Roloson to Edmonton) picks in the first round, the Wild ended up with Pavol Demitra (in a trade with Los Angeles) and James Sheppard. This draft will probably never cease to loom as underwhelming in the minds of observers, but it was an improvement over the Wild’s 2005 draft. How Sheppard continues to develop will be key in determining whether the 2006 draft was a failure or not.

James Sheppard, C, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles (QMJHL) – 1st round, 9th overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games Played: 224

This pick will be talked to death by devotees of the Wild. One sure path to mediocrity for any franchise in the new NHL is to miss on their first round picks, especially when it is a top-ten pick. Unfortunately, Sheppard is close to that. The Wild’s pick however was right in line with projections, as NHL Central Scouting had Sheppard at ninth among North American skaters in its final rankings, and International Scouting Services had him at eighth in March. There were no real size concerns, unlike say with Derick Brassard (CLB) or Bryan Little (ATL), and Sheppard’s point totals were a respectable 84 (30 goals) in 66 games with his QMJHL squad. He had the look of the much-coveted franchise center, at least the best available at ninth.

Since draft day, one could charitably say it’s been all downhill. Despite ample opportunity, the results have not been apparent. Playing in 224 NHL games at the tender age of 22 sounds like a draft success, but to the organization and its adherents, Sheppard has produced only disappointment. With less than 50 points to show for his chances, some were surprised to see his entry-level contract extended at all. Certainly draft pedigree plays a role in the Wild’s faith, as does the realization that the NHL is the toughest league in the world, and only a handful of men are ready to play in it straight out of juniors. Sheppard is not best cast as a gritty checker, and surely needs good linemates to have success at the NHL level. The ATV accident that cost him this season (and a salary) may be the necessary event he needed to reflect on his own failings and grow from them. One hopes that it’s not the end of the road for a player with undeniable ability, but it remains to be seen whether he can overcome the morbid erosion of expectations.

Ondrej Fiala, C, Everett Silvertips (WHL) – 2nd round, 40th overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games: 0

Fiala was a very highly-touted junior, the first round pick (30th overall) of the WHL‘s Everett Silvertips. A decent North American debut (35 points in 51 games) had scouts excited about another skilled Czech star. Fiala sadly could not stay healthy, and that is the tale here.

The Wild took a calculated risk, as Fiala was ranked 14th among North American skaters in the CSS final rankings. The red flags about his durability kept other teams away on draft day. He had knee surgery in the offseason of 2006 and missed three months, but still put up respectable totals his second junior season (33 points in 39 games). As an overager, he was traded east to Saskatoon where he scored 52 points in 58 games. Alas, after the multiple surgeries, the Wild had no interest in keeping him, and he has since slowly sunken through the Eastern European leagues, trying for a spot in the KHL before settling in the Czech second division.

Cal Clutterbuck, RW, Oshawa Generals (OHL) – 3rd round, 72nd overall
Status: NHL player
NHL Games played: 198

Clutterbuck is so far proving to be one of the value finds of this draft for any team. His junior scoring numbers certainly suggested a player with some upside (68 points in 66 games, 139 PIM), and the final rankings from the bureaus had him well above his final draft position. Perhaps scouts felt his numbers were inflated by those of teammate John Tavares, but either way it was the Wild’s gain. Clutterbuck is the premier hitter (in so far as that metric makes sense) in the NHL for three years running, an agitating force who’s now finding a measure of offense as well.

The 23-year-old had the benefit of a full season in the AHL before finding a regular roster spot with the Wild. He’s currently the scoring leader for the Wild, which is a credit to him if not the team, tying his 13 goal mark from last season. He has become a fan favorite for his consistently energetic effort, and of course has one of the great names in all of sports.

Kyle Medvec, D, Apple Valley (MN HS) – 4th Round, 102nd Overall
Status: NHL Prospect
NHL Games played: 0

Burnsville native Kyle Medvec is in his senior year at the University of Vermont. It has been a very trying year for the Catamounts squad, as they sit near the bottom of the Hockey East standings. Medvec is not an offensive defenseman, more in the mold of a Hal Gill, standing 6’5 or so, and weighing a sturdy 225. Despite these obvious natural advantages, he hasn’t really settled into the role of a punishing blue line presence, nor developed offensive skills. He sits at just three points on the year. There is always the chance that his size gets him another look at training camp, but reports about his skating don’t sound all that promising. Medvec does also play a leadership role with Vermont, wearing the A.

Niko Hovinen, G, Jokerit Jrs (Finland) – 5th Round, 132nd overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Hovinen is a very tall (6’6), somewhat gangly goaltender currently playing with Pelicans (Lahti) of the SM-Liiga. A bust in that he is no longer with the Wild organization, his numbers are actually pretty encouraging, and another sign that the Wild has nearly always done an excellent job scouting goaltenders.

Hovinen clearly struggled in his first few years as a pro, but SM-Liiga is a men’s league, and neither that Jokerit team nor this Pelicans team was a real powerhouse. The upside is that after several disheartening statistical performances since draft day, th
e young goaltender has a good-looking .918 save percentage over 25 games this season. Hovinen fell a victim to a system that doesn’t need another goaltending prospect, but other teams might want to keep an eye on the 22-year-old.

Julian Walker, LW, EHC Basel (Swiss-A) – 6th round, 162nd 0verall
Status: Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Walker won’t make it overseas anytime as a pro hockey player, but the Wild weren’t being all that risky when they took a flyer on the Swiss power forward who had gone undrafted twice. Walker probably caught some scouts’ eyes at the 2005 World Juniors as a big body with a decent shot, though he only registered a single assist.

Walker is still in pro hockey, a member of Kevin Constantine’s Ambri-Piotta squad, which has featured other players with Minnesota roots (Erik Westrum, Kirby Law, Hnat Domenichelli). Walker’s best professional season saw him score 25 points in 50 games, and he wasn’t among the players with the Swiss Olympic squad last winter either.

Chris Hickey, Cretin-Durham Hall (MN HS) – 7th round, 192nd overall
Status: Bust
NHL Games Played: 0

Chris Hickey had the makings of a Minnesota legend after leading Cretin-Durham to a state championship his junior year and then being selected by the Wild as a late-rounder. A very distinguished multi-sport prep athlete, Hickey had a decent transitional season with Tri-City of the USHL (31 points in 55 games) before heading over to Madison to start his collegiate career. His Badger career with Coach Mike Eaves was extremely frustrating, only getting into eight contests. Apparently dissatisfied with his chances for development there, Hickey decided to transfer programs. NCAA rules mandated a year’s absence from Division I hockey, so Hickey returned to St. Paul. He is currently a junior playing at Division III St. Thomas, mere blocks from his old high school.