With this weekend's NHL Draft, the Minnesota Wild have an excellent opportunity to restock a cupboard that has gone pretty bare. Over the course of the last few seasons, trades to keep the team in contention have gutted the team of a foundation of high prospects, while recent graduations to the NHL by Luke Kunin, Jordan Greenway and Joel Eriksson Ek have left the Wild with no quality prospects to speak of in their pipeline outside the high walls of Russian hockey.
This was one of the several reasons Chuck Fletcher was let go to start this offseason, and rebuilding the farm system was tops on the to-do list for incoming GM Paul Fenton. Fenton had a history of strong drafts in Nashville as the assistant GM tasked with running the team's draft table. He's been with the Predators since the beginning, and when you look over their draft history, it's an interesting look at the inherent swings and misses that come with drafting teenagers.
But woven through that draft history, I noticed a promising trend, that every draft the Preds made from 1998-2010 had at least one player who ended up playing 400 NHL games or more. After 2010 it'd be much harder for a pick to rack up that many games, but every draft from 2011-15 has produced at least one player that contributed at least 100 NHL games so far.
The recent drafts don't have much of an NHL sample size to work with, but they look promising as well, with his last four first round picks being Seth Jones, who was flipped for Ryan Johansen, Kevin Fiala, who is developing into a really nice defender, Dante Fabbro, whom the jury is still out on while he scored 29 points in 38 games at Boston College last season and finally, Eeli Tolvanen, who fell to the Predators in the draft last year and went on to score 36 points in 49 games in the KHL last season as a 19-year-old (by comparison, Kirill Kaprizov scored 40 points in 46 games).
The Tolvanen pick to me is one that gives me a little bit of hope, because he was a premium draft talent last season who slipped due to character concerns. He was a risky pick, a Finn who had played two seasons in the USHL but was unable to attend Boston College due to academic issues, and clearly had enough red flags to free fall down draft boards. The fact that Fenton was willing to make that pick, a real risk/reward pick, is a great sign for Wild fans.
It's a great sign because the Wild need to take risks to get some real impact talent back into their farm system. It's hard to say that the Wild could be turned around by a draft pick this summer, but having impact prospects is so important to any team, even contending ones. The NHL continues to prove itself to be a young man's league, and swinging for the fences on a super talented player is something that is almost a requirement of the Wild at this point, in desperate times to gain some fresh blood.
Wild fans probably have a knee-jerk aversion to drafting a 'safe' player at this point, due to the team's history, to the point where any 'two-way' forward or 'stay at home' defenseman is met with an eye-roll, a dry heave, or even a torch lighting. These picks aren't the devil as they're made out to be, as you absolutely need those kinds of players to fill out rosters and play roles, and occasionally they can develop into something more.
That being said, that's not what the Wild need right now. The Wild have role-player types in spades, and they have plenty of strong defenders up and down the ice. What the Wild need now, and probably in the near future as well, is a lethal weapon in their lineup, whether it be a forward or defender. The Wild aren't that short on talent, but they are short on finishing ability, as the playoffs have proven, and getting a player that can be a dynamic game changer most likely won't come from a safe pick.
Going back to Fenton drafting players like Tolvanen, it's a promising sign that he's willing to put talent first when drafting players. There's actually some theories that drafting 'safe' players isn't really safe at all, with a pretty decent argument to be made that drafting more skilled players means that they have more tools to fall back on as they ascend the ranks. Players who may be deemed 'safe' at the time, are less skilled players that are having success through other means besides their talent, and those other means are mitigated as the pace of play speeds up as they get into professional hockey.
While there are all the reasons in the world for the Wild to shoot for the stars on a flashy prospect, it's no guarantee that Wild fans will see a pick like that this draft. Fenton is still very new, and is leaning on Brent Flahr to again run the Wild draft table, and while Fenton may have the ultimate say, it's entirely possible he'll take the advice of the existing Wild scouting staff and Flahr still.
In the end, Wild fans shouldn't be too upset if the Wild make a pick that seems 'safe' because that player will still be the only first-round pick prospect in the system after the draft, which is a start to rebuilding the depleted farm, and that really can't be a negative. However, fans should want Fenton to make the home run pick, and should be excited if the team drafts a player with tremendous upside, accepting the inherent risk, because that is what the team needs right now, more than ever.
Stay up to date on the Wild offseason with Giles & The Goalie!