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  • Minnesota Loaded Up On Defensemen With Skating and Puck Skills

    Joe Bouley

    Paul Fenton started overhauling the forwards during his brief stint as the general manager of the Minnesota Wild. By unloading the Chuck Fletcher core, he began rebuilding the franchise as they looked to get younger, faster, and more suited to compete in the postseason. It was more than the tweaks that he said he was coming in to do. But the sea change under Fenton truly began in the two drafts he presided over. Filip Johansson was a flop, but the other picks in the two drafts are now the players the Wild are looking to fill in on the NHL roster as soon as next season.


    The defense was largely left untouched. The rotation of the defense since 2017 has been Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon on top, followed by Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba as the second pair. And while the third pairing has been more volatile over the last few years, the Wild have enjoyed depth on defense that included Carson Soucy, Nick Seeler, Christian Folin, and Marco Scandella


    Now that Bill Guerin is in charge, the defensive core is undergoing a bit of a “G” change. Guerin shocked everyone, including Suter, when he chose to buy out his contract, plus Zach Parise's. In doing so, he has crippled his ability to spend to the cap three and four years from now. 


    The G change didn’t stop there. Soucy was plucked by the Seattle Kraken in the Expansion Draft, leaving the Wild scrambling to fill the suddenly vacant spaces in their roster. Minnesota’s top six has been whittled down to a top three. The problem? The list of NHL-ready defensemen in the organization is a short one. Brennan Menell, who isn’t officially signed to a contract, is the only defenseman who could jump into the NHL after showing he can perform at a high level in the AHL with the Iowa Wild two seasons ago and the Dynamo Minsk of the KHL last season. Calen Addison and Louie Belpedio are on the fringe of making the jump and might be forced to make it even though they might not be ready for it yet. After that, Daemon Hunt and Ryan O’Rourke look to be a couple of seasons away.


    This brings us to the 2021 NHL Entry Draft that took place on Friday and Saturday last week. It was as if Guerin looked at his Head of Amateur Scouting and draft guru Judd Brackett and said, “We need defensemen, and we need them now." The Wild selected seven players over the two-day event, four of which were defensemen. Two of the first three picks were defensemen.


    It was clear the Wild were looking to re-stock the cupboards with defense as quickly as possible. Carson Lambos, the Wild’s second first-round pick, is a mobile, strong-skating defenseman who can quickly turn defense to offense with agility and his passing ability. However, a move to Finland during the pandemic didn’t see him improve much, and then an injury held him back even more. But the tools to be offensive and help in transition is a skill that is vital in the post-lockout NHL.


    Skating and the ability to move the puck was the theme of the Wild’s draft. Each one of the newly drafted Wild defensemen has “good edge work” or has hockey smarts that allow them to defend and get the puck up the ice. Funny enough, when reading the scouting reports of the Wild’s second-round pick, Jack Peart, he sounds a lot like Suter. 


    McKeen’s Hockey says that the reigning Minnesota Mr. Hockey out of Grand Rapids High School “plays with the poise of a 10-year veteran.” Daniel Gee, a scout of Elite Prospects, said Peart played “one of the most efficient games he’d seen from a defender in the draft.” Suter’s calling card was exactly that -- efficiency. The Wild appear to have a draft pick that wasn’t taken just for the sake of being a Minnesota-born-and-raised player.


    Kyle Masters, a right-handed defenseman taken in the fourth round, was the third defenseman the Wild took in the draft. Masters appears to have a few more offensive tools than the two-way defensemen selected before him. He has a strong skating ability, which allows him to elude and deke forecheckers while also supplying the puck to his forwards, which could set this kid apart from his fellow Wild draftees. Elite Prospects described him as a “play planner,” meaning he makes plays to set up the best situation up ice rather than taking the obvious pass. He’s very skilled at transition defense and getting pucks out of the zone. Part of the issue that will have to be evaluated is that Masters was only just beginning to do this later in the season. He just doesn’t have enough games where he's put it all together at this point. Hopefully for the Wild, this shows there is more to tap into, making him a more productive player.


    Minnesota wrapped up the draft after selecting Nate Benoit out of New Hampshire. Brackett calls him a “late bloomer” and a “two-way defenseman with bite.” McKeen’s Josh Mallory says that Benoit is mechanically sound and has the tools to do good things. He’ll play at North Dakota, where he’ll have to be more aggressive to thrive in the NCHC, and he’ll have to get stronger. Mallory goes on to say that Benoit frequently had issues with getting outmuscled. 


    The Wild targeted players that had a high floor and marginal ceilings. There may not be any star potential coming out of this draft, but Brackett and Guerin are banking on these players being able to make the NHL someday. Even the forwards taken -- Caedan Bankier and Josh Pillar — have two-way capabilities in their games. It’s clear the Wild were worried enough about the holes they just created on the NHL roster that they needed players who can make the jump when the cap gets squeezed in three years. But even without that cloud hanging over the near future, the Wild needed to build again from the back end out. It started with the goalie and continued with picking good defensemen who will need some time to grow.


    Past the goaltender taken in the first round, there may not be a future star-caliber player to come out of this draft. The one thing they can say from this year’s draft -- one that involved so many problems with leagues not playing, or players flooding Europe, on top of the inability to scout any of it in person -- is that they picked players they believe will develop quickly and get to the NHL.

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