It’s not for a lack of trying, but the Minnesota Wild have just never been able to draft and develop a true Number One Center™. Mikko Koivu held that title in name only for a healthy chunk of his career. While Koivu was an elite defensive presence, he was never as gifted offensively as the best centers in the league. And with Koivu and Eric Staal departing in the offseason, they will have a hard time matching up with Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Johansen in divisional games.
Paul Fenton’s tweaks and Bill Guerin’s overhaul of the roster just blew a hole down the middle of the Wild roster. Sure, there might be a couple of warm bodies filling holes for this upcoming season, but only Victor Rask is signed past the upcoming 56-game season. Rask is no Koivu, and he’s certainly not the second coming of Staal. The best case for the Minnesota Wild is to fill the position internally.
Luckily, Minnesota has three prospects who could fill that void. Marco Rossi and Marat Khusnutdinov might be the shiny new prospects from this fall’s draft, but there wouldn't be such promise and excitement for the future if Alexander Khovanov didn’t have a crazy breakout season with Moncton of the QMJHL.
His 99 points in 51 games last season immediately jumps off the page, and he's a point per game player at just about every level he's played. That kind of success is promising when projecting the future. As the competition ratchets up, he finds a way to succeed. Some might worry about his showing in the KHL, but he's finding the same kind of success he enjoyed in North America while playing in the VHL.
Even though he's on a positive trajectory, the Wild have to hope that he can stick at center.
Minnesota has had a history of drafting or acquiring centers who ended up more successful on the wing. Charlie Coyle lacked the killer instinct to be a consistent threat every night, and Mikael Granlund didn’t break out until he was moved to the flank and found room to use his incredible vision. Guerin traded Staal and got Marcus Johansson in return, who couldn’t find a home playing down the middle with the Buffalo Sabres. Khovanov, on the other hand, has blossomed into a strong candidate to be a playmaking and scoring threat from the pivot.
His playing style would also fit alongside another top Russian. While the Wild usually avoided Russian players because of their proclivity to stay home, when Kirill Kaprizov lapped up the competition in the Kontinental Hockey League, it changed the Wild's mindset. And five years after drafting Kaprizov, they may have hit on another big-time prospect from the motherland.
Some there is some concern that if the Wild can’t put Kaprizov in a position to succeed immediately, Kaprizov might not stick around long-term in Minnesota. Signing a veteran Russian player to help with the language barrier and assist with getting acquainted with North America and the NHL was bandied about.
But those options cost a lot of money, and the flat salary cap in the near future could force both Khovanov and Kaprizov to be paired together in the NHL. Khovanov is on his entry-level deal and with that comes huge cost savings. Cost-control will be huge in the post-COVID NHL until revenues recover.
Not to mention, if there was ever any time to make lines composed by language and nationality it is now with disrupted training camps and a quick turnaround before the season starts. The Wild could do that by pairing Rossi, who is Austrian, with Fiala who is Swiss, and putting Kaprizov and Khovanov together. The answer for Kaprizov very well could already be signed by the Wild, but Khovanov has to be NHL-ready.
There is a lot to like about Khovanov's game, but Guerin and the player development staff have work left to do with the 20-year-old, former 3rd round pick -- especially with concerns about his diet, conditioning and maturity. However, if they deliver on Khovanov, it would go a long way to keeping Kaprizov in Minnesota.
This article is part of a series ranking the Minnesota Wild’s Top-10 Prospects. Khovanov comes in at #5. Stay tuned for the rest of the top 5 continuing on Friday.