Tomorrow will see the Minnesota Wild enter another NHL Draft where they need a center. Marco Rossi seems destined for the top of the depth chart, yes, and that's a start. But there's a gap growing between him and Joel Eriksson Ek, whom the Wild rather like on the third line. Who goes between them, and can they find out on Thursday?
Head scout Judd Brackett is insistent that they won't deviate from their draft list to target positions of need. But don't be fooled into thinking they'll ignore it altogether. Brackett gave himself a touch of wiggle room, saying to the media last week, "We're always gonna look for the best player, but positional play is part of that discussion for best available, right? There's a premium on a center... but we try to stay away from a specific need."
With picks 19 and 24, surefire centers aren't going to be available at that stage of the draft, though. You're either going to get an Eriksson Ek-type, a safe center that maybe lacks true star upside. Or you'll roll the dice on a player who, when it's all said and done, may convert to wing.
NHL teams only have picked three star centers at No. 19 through 40 overall from 2009 to 2018. Ryan O'Reilly (2009, 33rd overall), Evgeny Kuznetsov (2010, 26th), Sebastian Aho (2014, 35th), and Josh Norris (2017, 19th). That's less than once every two years.
With Eriksson Ek and Marco Rossi under team control for seven more years, they have both safety and upside. So why not double down on someone who's got a touch of both? In that case, the perfect player for them from a need standpoint might well be Filip Mesar, a forward from Slovakia.
Mesar is that type of player you hope sticks at center but is a risk to follow the wing path. The good news currently, though, is he plays center at HK Poprad, against men in the Slovakian league. Does the 5'10", 167-lb. kid need to get stronger to stick there? You bet. But if a slight 17-year-old can hold his own winning 40% of his draws against grown adults, doesn't that bode well for when he gets stronger? His showing at the combine shows he's serious about adding strength.
If that strength arrives, Mesar does a lot that you want in a Top-6 center. Playing down the middle isn't just about racking up points, it's about controlling the tempo of the game. While the elite centers are able to speed and slow the pace of the game down at will, someone like Mesar who mostly increases the pace isn't bad, either.
Mesar can fly. McKeen's Draft Guide has his skating rated at a 60 on the 20-80 scale and lists him as the sixth-fastest skater in the 2022 class. Elite Prospects' staff doesn't just love his speed (they rank him the draft's third-best straight-line skater), but how he uses it as well. The EP Draft Guide puts him in the Top-5 transition forwards in the Draft.
We often talk about two-way centers, but what often gets left out of that is the transition game. There's offense and defense, both very important, but someone's gotta move the puck up the ice. The Wild had two forwards elite at doing that last year in Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala. Now, Fiala's gone. Rossi should be electrifying in transition, but adding one more option with that skill will never hurt.
Especially if he can stick down the middle. One person optimistic about that is Will Scouch, of Scouching and a contributor to McKeen's. He said in a scouting report video from April, "The way that he can read space and attack players with the speed he can generate, and the way that he brings these things together at the defensive side leads me to believe I would try playing him at center as long as I could before moving him back to the wing."
He's also a talented passer, completing over 75% of his passes in the games Scouch tracks. FC Hockey praises other aspects of his skill, saying he can "make plays from both the high-danger areas and the perimeter, aided by the fact he can stickhandle in and out of traffic."
Being able to play in the middle of the ice will be a make-or-break for his center chances. Like fellow smaller players in Kaprizov and Rossi, he's willing to go to the dirty areas. The Athletic's Scott Wheeler observed, "I've seen him make NHL-skill plays on one shift and win a series of 50/50 battles to make something happen on the next. That also sounds a bit like Marat Khusnutdinov, the Wild's 2020 second-rounder who also has a shot at sticking at center.
Scouts like his speed and motor, but his production also checks out really well. Hockey Prospecting's model has him at a 32% chance to turn into a star, which is tied for ninth in this year's draft. A one-in-three shot at a star player might seem small, but for, say, the 19th or 24th picks, that is more than three times likelier than the average picks in that range.
Besides, his top comparable in terms of Draft Year production is pretty intriguing.
By the time 19 and 24 roll around, Mesar may well be the best marriage of upside and organizational need available for the Wild. Is Mesar a sure-fire bet to anchor a team's center depth chart for a decade? Nope. But no one is in that range. Otherwise, we'd see Top-6 from the late first and early second on a regular basis.
However, he is a player who has a fighting shot to stick down the middle, but a great backup plan if he can't. If he isn't a center, no big deal. He can drive your transition game from the wing and spark your offense with a credible dual-threat (passing and shooting) game. If he's a center, Brackett and Minnesota are doing backflips. If he shifts to the wing, they've got a Fiala replacement in-house. As long as he translates to the NHL, drafting Mesar is a no-lose situation for Minnesota.