The old saying in team sports is “defense wins championships.” Its pretty tough to argue against it. Whether you’re talking football, baseball, basketball, and even hockey those teams that can defend the best or shut down their opponents best players most effectively are often the team that ends up earning the league championship. Would the Los Angeles Kings be where they are without Drew Doughty? Hard to imagine they’d be as difficult to play against. Honestly, where would the Wild be without Ryan Suter who has been a Norris Trophy nominee twice since being acquired as a free agent two summers ago. So if defense is so important why don’t more teams just draft defenseman only through the first round? Well a few reasons; 1. Teams still need to score in order to win games, so you need players who can bury the biscuit, 2. Defenseman often take longer to develop and thus their selections at times can be seen as a bit more risky in the fact you don’t know precisely what you have (with a few rare exceptions) until a few years down the line. By that time, you might have a star player or be stuck with a bust. The Minnesota Wild certainly know how that feels.
We’ve had some truly mixed results in drafting defenseman with our 1st round pick. The Wild drafted Savage, Minnesota’s A.J. Thelen, 12th Overall back in 2004 after a promising freshman season at Michigan State. Unfortunately, it steadily fell apart from there. Thelen was booted from the team for off-ice incidents and then struggled mightily in the Western Hockey League. Later, in 2008 the Wild drafted Tyler Cuma 23rd Overall as a promising blueliner from the Ottawa 67’s. Wild brass (i.e. Tommy Thompson) crowed loudly about Cuma’s mobility and strong defensive presence but a series of serious knee injuries followed that more or less derailed his opportunities to gain experience. Cuma has played just one game in his career for the Wild and considering the team traded up to get him makes his development path all the more disappointing.
Yet since then the Wild have been better. The team drafted Eden Prairie’s Nick Leddy, but then dealt him (and then leading Wild defenseman Kim Johnsson) in a near deadline day move for Cam Barker that turned out to be a monster miss. Leddy turned into a solid, puck moving defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks and adding insult to injury, Barker spent virtually all of last season playing in the American Hockey League after being let go by the Wild. Then Minnesota drafted a rail-thin defenseman in Jonas Brodin (10th Overall) in 2011. Brodin was a not a choice I was all that happy with at the time as you can read here. Yet much to my surprise he had a terrific rookie season and was probably deserving of far more respect from fans across the league as he was very effective as the defensive partner to Ryan Suter. This season, Brodin showed much more offensive flair in the first half, but a broken jaw injury basically made that assertive part of his game disappear and it also seemed to make him prone to just chipping the puck off the glass as he attempted to avoid being hit. Opponents quickly realized this and often sent bigger, physical forwards on the ice when he was out there and Brodin’s timid play began to become a problem for the Wild. We shall see if he can re-establish the sublime level of poise he had in his rookie season which made him so effective.
In 2012 the Wild drafted Mathew Dumba with the 7th Overall pick in 2012. Dumba got his NHL mini-audition last season and was mostly invisible. When we drafted him he was touted for his booming shot and his penchant for delivering big open-ice hits. We didn’t really see much of either, especially on the physical side of the game. He was dispatched to the Canadian Junior team to participate in the IIHF U-20 World Junior Championships where he did not play well. Dumba then finished the 2013-14 season with the Portland Winterhawks where he was mostly pretty good until the the WHL Championship against the Edmonton Oil Kings where he really fell apart. Then in 2013 the Wild drafted a taller version of Jonas Brodin in Gustav Olofsson (46th Overall). The team has also tried to add to its collection of defenseman by signing two free agents; one out of college in UMass-Lowell’s Christian Folin who brings a size 6’3″ and a two-way game while the more recently acquired Guillaume Gelinas of the Val ‘d Or Foreurs is small (5’10”) but is an offensive dynamo who had 23 goals and 92 points on his way to being named 2014 QMJHL Defenseman of the Year.
So the team has certainly tried to construct its blueline via the draft to varying degrees of success. Yet has it been ignoring certain aspects of the position that have made the team a little too easy to play against?
So what do the Wild need? Here are the 3 biggest needs as I see them.
1. The Wild need a fast, goal-scoring forward to be a major contributor on its top 6. The team has tried the free agent route as well as trades here to limited success, now its time the team selected a player to be that guy. The team played its best hockey by utilizing its speed and as an organization they really lack players who are noted for their ability to finish their chances.
2. The Wild need to draft a blue-chip goaltending prospect to really challenge for that starting role in the future. No offense to Darcy Kuemper, Johan Gustafsson or even Ilya Bryzgalov but the situation with Josh Harding’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis and Niklas Backstrom‘s aging body make it necessary for the team to seriously address its goaltending depth. There are notable free agent goalies available though.
3. The Wild need to draft a big, mean defenseman who can punish opponents with a strong, physical game. Watching the Chicago series, the Wild started off pretty well because the team was playing a physical brand of hockey and taking every opportunity to hit the Blackhawks. Yet as the Wild got beat up, their lack of physical defenseman started to become a problem as Chicago’s bigger forwards could camp out in front of the Wild crease without much difficulty because the team’s defense simply lacked the size and snarl to move them out of the way. The Wild have to be tired of being labeled as ‘soft’ and drafting some ornery, big defenseman can help remove that label to a certain degree.
So with the three biggest needs in mind, I am writing articles that focus on these specific needs and identifying players who I think fit those organization holes perfectly. I have watched many of these players play (admittedly mostly online) as well as read many articles as well as checked out scouting guides such as the International Scouting Service 2014 Draft Guide, the Hockey News as well as the NHL’s Central Scouting List to get an idea on the trajectory of these players which you can see here.
I try to focus on players who I think will be available when the Wild make their likely 1st round pick at 18th Overall. There is certainly a chance these players could be drafted before the Wild go to make their selection, but that happens. So that’s why I have a list of 5 and most likely at least one of them will still be available when the Wild have their chance to make their selection. I have video for all 5 of the players, and while they’re highlights (so they’re all going to look pretty good) they at least going to give you an idea of the talent they possess.
1. LD – Roland McKeown (Kingston, OHL)
Height: 6’1″ Weight: 195lbs Shoots: Right
2013-14 Stats: 62GP 11G 32A = 43pts 61 PIM’s
ISS: 23rd Central Scouting: 27th (NA) The Hockey News: 26th
Talent Analysis: In some ways it might seem like I’ve swayed away from the archetype by placing Roland McKeown the most desireable player for the Wild to draft but simply put, he’s a player whose well-rounded game is so much like Ryan Suter (his potential d-partner) it can’t be ignored. Like Suter, he’s more of a jack of all trades than being a player who excels in one category. McKeown has average size, but he’s a good skater who plays well in his own end and supports well in the offensive zone with that always coveted right-handed shot. McKeown keeps his head up and can thread that long pass to put opponents on their heels. While he’s not the most physical defenseman, he uses his body effectively to seal off opposing forwards and then moves the puck efficiently to break up the forecheck. His intelligent, strong play at both ends of the ice makes him your classic lead-by-example type of player as he served as an alternate captain with Kingston this season. He had a great performance in the Wingate test which is one of the most grueling tests of the NHL combine where he finished 7th among the over 100 players invited for testing. He has no glaring weaknesses other than he may not be as explosive or dynamic as some other players available, but he’s good at so many things he’s the kind of player coaches love because you get the same consistent high quality of play night after night.
Why the Wild should draft him? I think it would be almost impossible for the Wild to pass up on drafting a right-handed Ryan Suter if he’s available when they go to make their pick. He simply does so many things well its pretty tough to go wrong by drafting a player with such a well rounded set of skills. He may not have the snarl or the nastiness Wild fans might be craving but he is a legit top pairing defenseman that could very well be there when Minnesota goes to make their first selection.
2. RD – Adam Ollas Mattsson (Djurgarden, Swe Jr.)
Height: 6’4″ Weight: 216lbs Shoots: Left
2013-14 Stats: 33GP 1G 8A = 9pts 42 PIM’s
ISS: 50th Central Scouting: 15th (European) The Hockey News: 98th
Talent Analysis: Mattsson is a big bodied defenseman who plays the game with a strong dose of nastiness. He is still very much a raw prospect as he needs to refine his skating and his lateral quickness but he still moves pretty well. Sweden used Mattsson as a shutdown defender on their U-18 team as he used his big body to eliminate opposing forwards with solid body checks, separating man from puck with ease. He finished 8th at the NHL Combine in bench press, with 15 reps of 150lbs so he already is well on his way to filling out that big frame of his. Mattsson works hard and battles well along the boards, leaving opponents a bit worse for the wear in the process. He likes to hit but is not undisciplined and he has lots of potential to improve upon. Offensively he doesn’t give you a lot, his shot is decent because of his size and strength but you’re not going to be drafting a player like him for his offensive skills.
Why should the Wild draft him? He’s more of a long-term project, but one that could promise to yield a rock of a stay-at-home-defenseman who makes opponents miserable. If he could add some more muscle to his already big frame, and polish out his skating deficiencies the Wild could have a big and scary Swede patrolling their blueline.
3. LD – Dominik Masin (Slavia Praha, Czech Jr.)
Height: 6’2″ Weight: 194lbs Shoots: Left
2013-14 Stats: 39GP 3G 19A = 21pts 102 PIM’s
ISS: 55th Central Scouting: 10th (European) The Hockey News: 35th
Talent Analysis: Masin is an intriguing two-way defenseman prospect who plays the game with the edge which forces opponents to keep their heads on a swivel when he’s on the ice. He anchored the Czech’s U-18 entry and did an outstanding job of erasing opposing forwards with an aggressive style that eliminated time and space. While not as big as Mattson, he uses his 6’2″ frame well using his reach to take away even more ice from attacking forwards. He battles ferociously along the boards and wins far more puck battles than he loses. He also has some decent offensive tools, including a strong low-lying shot that makes it an ideal set up on the power play. He moves well, but his skating stride could use some refinement, but beyond that he plays a quality two-way game. Adding to this, is his character and leadership he had as an alternate captain for his Slavia Praha junior team. He need to add strength in order to continue to play his physical style, but he certainly has the work ethic to get there.
Why the Wild should draft him? Masin is a strong, physical two-way defenseman who is an ideal on the 2nd pairing. He an assertive, physical presence who might remind some fans of Tampa Bay’s Radko Gudas.
4. LD – Travis Sanheim (Calgary, WHL)
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 181lbs Shoots: Left
2013-14 Stats: 67GP 5G 24A = 29pts 14 PIM’s
ISS: 30th Central Scouting: 53rd (NA) The Hockey News: 21st
Talent Analysis: In some ways the draft is a bit like surfing. You want to catch that big wave and hopefully have the ride of your life. Same thing for the draft, where a player whose stock rises rapidly becomes a very attractive commodity because you hope they turn out to be an absolute steal. If there is one player in this draft who has ridden this kind of wave through the rankings its Travis Sanheim. Sanheim was rated 167th in NHL Central Scouting’s Mid-term rankings and rose up to 53rd after a very strong showing this season. Scouts are salivating at this kid’s potential and already well-rounded game. Sanheim is kind of like McKeown in the fact he doesn’t excel in anyone area, but he does not possess any glaring weaknesses either, but in a larger 6’3″ frame (compared to McKeown’s 6’1″ frame). He takes away space well with his size, and then has the skill to make the good first pass or lead the counterattack on his own. He made steady improvement in all areas of his game (skating, physical play, offensive awareness, etc) over the course of the season with Calgary. Sanheim battles hard all over the ice and his hockey IQ is tremendously sharp as he makes minor adjustments to improve himself with each shift. As he adds strength to his frame, he’ll be more of factor physically but right now his reach and skating ability make him a pain to play against. He is considered a raw prospect, which coaches like because he can be developed into precisely the kind of defender your team wants and Sanheim has the intelligence to sharpen that game when given the direction.
Why should the Wild draft him? He’s the kind of kid that you might kick yourself if you don’t take the opportunity to draft him if he’s available. He has the size, athleticism and intelligence any coach would want in a player. Whether he can develop a mean streak might be the only question mark he has to his potential right now, but if he’s proven anything so far, he’s a fast learner. My only concern about drafting a player like this, is you really can’t teach playing a mean game. That is a mentality a player either seems to have or they don’t.
5. RD – Andreas Englund (Djurgarden, Swe. Jr.)
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 189lbs Shoots: Left
2013-14 Stats: 33GP 5G 5A = 10pts 26 PIM’s
ISS: 67th Central Scouting: 30th (European) The Hockey News: 46th
Talent Analysis: Englund is a classic, big-bodied shut down defenseman who can neutralize forwards with solid physical play and good positioning. He skates reasonably well and plays his angles well to deny lanes of attack for opposing forwards to exploit. While he still needs to add strength to his frame, he has not been pushed around at all playing in Swedish junior league. He has extremely limited offensive skills and is probably best served making the quick pass instead of trying to move the puck up the ice himself. Another intangible to Englund is his willingness to be a leader on and off the ice. He is vocal in the locker room and his honest, no shortcuts style of game makes for a good example for his teammates to follow. If he can add a little more muscle to his frame so he can really punish someone, the team that drafts him could have a Douglas Murray / Niklas Hjalmarsson type of player at their disposal.
Why should the Wild draft him? Another solid, no-nonsense physical defender who has decent mobility in an NHL-sized frame. He can hit, he keeps things simple and plays the game with an edge that keeps opponents wondering who he’s going to light up next.