With the Stanley Cup Finals in the background another major NHL event is getting ever closer, the NHL Entry Draft. A critical event for any NHL team and every year, even in the Stanley Cup Finals we see players who were drafted a year or so ago, now playing prime minutes with one of those clubs. Both the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers provide examples of how they built their teams through the draft. The Rangers let go of fragile sniper Marian Gaborik to the Columbus, no problem as 6th round pick (168th Overall in 2007) Carl Hagelin will provide a similar skillset for the Blueshirts. The Kings need another offensive weapon for its top 6, enter in 2nd round pick (47th Overall in 2010) Tyler Toffoli to deliver in the clutch for Los Angeles. The youngsters may not produce offense at a prodigious rate during the regular season, but time after time they seem to produce the crucial points in the playoffs. The Wild are no different. The strong play of Charlie Coyle (28th Overall in 2010) in 1st half of the Colorado series was a big reason Minnesota was able to even that series early and he seemed to be on the path towards a breakout type performance until he separated both shoulders. Then in the 2nd half of the Colorado series and into showdown against Chicago it was 7th round pick (182nd Overall in 2009) Erik Haula who did an admirable job of trying to provide Minnesota with a spark offensively.
The draft isn’t the only thing, free agency is also critically important in building a quality team in any major professional team sport. Yet, drafting is still by far the most economical way to build a team. And in a league where you have a hard salary cap, maximizing those dollars underneath the cap ceiling are so crucial so your team has the room to add those key free agents to put your team over the top. As I have done for the last 6 years or so, I profile the draft in regards to the Minnesota Wild and what I think its biggest organizational needs are. I go through each of the 3 major position groups: forwards, defenseman, and goaltenders and provide 5 players whom I feel the Wild should consider drafting in the 1st round. You could say its my version of a draft board if I worked in the Wild’s front office.
Now unlike the Wild, I do not have an army of scouts working for me; scouring the globe for talent and trying to find that hidden gem of a player that few clubs even know about. I will give the Wild’s front office some credit, the draft has steadily become more of a thing to look forward to for the Wild than a time to loathe and be frustrated. Assistant General Manager Brent Flahr and the scouting staff; still headed up by Hall of Famer Guy Lapointe have done a much better job the last few years at finding talent that can help build the organization depth of the franchise; something I felt the previous administration under Tommy Thompson failed miserably. While Tommy Thompson might be trying to say “told you so” about Benoit Pouliot these days he still isn’t producing at the level one would expect of a player taken with the 4th Overall selection. Pouliot has had a good playoffs, but lets not forget he’s played on 4 different teams the last 4 seasons. Not exactly a model of career stability.
The Wild benefited greatly from Flahr’s savvy drafting, as injuries to star players up front, on defense and especially between the pipes kept things in a near constant state of flux but with the depth it had those injuries did not send the team into a freefall as it has in the past. The team loses Mikko Koivu to a broken ankle, no problem as Mikael Granlund (9th Overall in 2010) raised his game and demonstrated tremendous chemistry with the Wild’s top two goal scorers, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville. Josh Harding is out with an adjustment to his Multiple Sclerosis medication, that’s ok we can insert 6th round pick (161st Overall in 2009) Darcy Kuemper. Obviously, the ideal situation would be for those players like Koivu and Harding to have managed to stay healthy (even though its mostly out of their control) but the organizational depth was a source of strength and a major reason why the team did as well as it did.
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 select 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. RW – Jakub Vrana (Linkoping, SHL)
Height: 6′ Weight: 176lbs Shoots: Left
2013-14 Stats: 24GP 2G 1A = 3pts 2 PIM’s
ISS: 21st Central Scouting: 4th (European) The Hockey News: 19th
Talent Analysis: I think the speedy Czech-born forward flies around the ice and uses his wheels to blow by defenders or draw them towards them before threading a pass to a linemate. He has a sniper’s release and tremendous instincts as where to be on the ice to light the lamp and may be one of the most pure goal scorers in this draft. Vrana’s shot is heavy and he does not need a lot of time to unleash a shot which often catches opposing goaltenders by surprise. He exhibits good puck awareness to keep it protected from defenders giving him the chance to shoot or pass. Defensively he’s a little inconsistent, but at times he has shown a strong willingness to backcheck and help out in his own end. Yet if he gets the opportunity he can turn on the jets pretty quickly and his speed naturally creates odd-man chances. As one may expect with his skillset, he a natural for any teams’ power play and the extra space only makes him that much more dangerous of a scoring threat. While he did not put up big numbers while playing in the Swedish Eliteserien he was only receiving limited minutes, but he was quite dominant at the U-18 Ivan Hlinka World Junior Tournament this late spring. He is the highest scoring Czech player ever in U-18 tournament history. Yet at the U-18′s, Vrana played on the penalty kill and he demonstrated he has the ability to be reasonable in that capacity if he has to. He loves to pressure the puck and has the speed to make players at the point a little nervous with his tenacious puck pursuit.
Why shouldt he Wild draft him? A top six forward who has the skills, speed and scoring ability to bring Wild fans out of their seats just about anytime he has the puck on his stick. He is not afraid to shoot the puck from just about anywhere and whose defensive game is quite promising. If he was 6’2″ or 6’3″ we might be talking about a potential 1st Overall pick.
2. C – Robby Fabbri (Guelph, OHL)
Height: 5’10.25″ Weight: 170lbs Shoots: Left
2013-14 Stats: 58GP 45G 42A = 87pts 55 PIM’s
ISS: 8th Central Scouting: 21st (NA) The Hockey News: 20th
Talent Analysis: Speed and a deft stickhandler to boot it almost makes it criminal with the fact he has been blessed with a deadly quick release too. Fabbri is a creative forward who thinks the game a step ahead of most and when he isn’t lighting the lamp or dangling it around a defender he is threading a pass for a scoring opportunity. The only speed Fabbri seems to play the game at is very fast but while his explosive skating allows him to raise the tempo of a game he can be remarkably patient with the puck as he will wait for defenders to commit before unleashing his shot. Need more to like? He is absolutely relentless in his puck pursuit, almost reminiscent of Zach Parise in that regard. He has no fear of chasing the puck into the corners or the other dirty areas of the ice. Yet a lack of strength is a concern and like many junior prospects he’ll need to bulk up and add strength to his frame so he can’t be knocked off the puck. He had difficulty weathering the physical play of the Edmonton Oil Kings in the Memorial Cup Final, and that seemed to neutralize him; so hopefully that encourages him to hit the weights hard this summer.
Why should the Wild draft him? There is a good possibility Fabbri could be gone by the time the Wild go make their selection, but he’s a player who would be an ideal center on the top two lines who would add both speed and finishing ability to the Wild lineup. Fabbri also plays with a tremendous compete level in all 3 zones meaning its unlikely he’d find himself in the coaches doghouse too. I would imagine the Wild brass took a long look at Fabbri as they made the decision to sign fellow Guelph teammate Zack Mitchell as a free agent.
3. C – Jared McCann (Sault Ste. Marie, OHL)
Height: 6’1″ Weight: 179lbs Shoots: Left
2013-14 Stats: 64GP 27G 35A = 62pts 51 PIM’s
ISS: 17th Central Scouting: 10th (NA) The Hockey News: 15th
Talent Analysis: McCann is an interesting prospect who combines stellar offensive skill with a strong defensive game. In fact, he was one of the OHL’s best defensive forwards despite being his team’s 2nd leading scorer. He is at his best on the forecheck, where his speed and aggressiveness on the puck has him winning most battles along the wall and then has the skill to quickly move out and dish the puck or the wheels race up the ice to start the rush. He has a deceptively quick release and his shot is very accurate. McCann has terrific hockey sense, and can be a very effective playmaker when he isn’t taking the opportunity to shoot it himself. His strong two-way play makes him fit equally well on the power play or the penalty kill. He is an unselfish player who do whatever it takes to help his team win, and has the ability to score in the clutch.
Why should the Wild draft him? As Wild fans have seen with Jason Zucker, just because you’re fast and you can score doesn’t mean the team will ignore your lack of attention in the defensive zone. McCann will not have that problem; he is fast, he can score and he may be even better defensively than he is offensively. He is the type of player that would gain the confidence of the Wild coaching staff almost immediately and would be a natural fit on the 2nd or 3rd lines.
4. LW – Sonny Milano (U.S. Nat. Team, USHL)
Height: 5’11.5″ Weight: 183lbs Shoots: Left
2013-14 Stats: 58GP 29G 56A = 85pts 25 PIM’s
ISS: 16th Central Scouting: 16th (NA) The Hockey News: 24th
Talent Analysis: Its all about the dangle with Sonny Milano who could be the player with the best hands of this draft. Milano can dangle the puck about as well as anyone can in the world, and he loves to use that skill to make defenders look silly as he moves the puck around and through them. He also has outstanding wheels which make him a nightmare for opposing defenseman who already know he’s got huge supply of potential moves he could go to make them apart of Milano’s personal highlight reel. The future Boston College star also has outstanding vision and is fantastic playmaker. His vision, skating and ability to score in tight spaces will remind a lot of people of Patrick Kane but with Zucker’s speed. While I would not say he has a big shot, he certainly has proven he can finish effectively and does not need much of a window to score. He does lack strength and he does not win many puck battles along the wall but moving the puck up the ice he is about as dangerous a player as you will find in this draft. Milano was the set up many for top rated 2015 prospect Jack Eichel and another likely 2014 1st round pick Alex Tuch. He can play the center or on the wing. Defensively he’s just ok.
Why should the Wild draft him? Milano is another player who would bring Wild fans out of their seats whenever he got the puck on his stick, who plays the game with oodles of skill and personality. He is a player that is fun to watch and has the ability to be a big time scorer; whether lighting the lamp himself or setting up his linemates. The only reason I have him 4th is because of the fact he’s more of a playmaker than a pure sniper and his lack of a strong defensive game might make the team wary of selecting him.
5. RW – Nikolay Goldobin (Sarnia, OHL)
Height: 5’11.75″ Weight: 178lbs Shoots: Left
2013-14 Stats: 67GP 38G 56A = 94pts 21 PIM’s
ISS: 28th Central Scouting: 24th (NA) The Hockey News: 34th
Talent Analysis: Goldobin is a very skilled scoring forward who is your Top 6 or bust type of player. He has possesses tremendous creativity and has outstanding awareness of where his linemates are. One thing that really struck me while watching Goldobin was how perfect his passes were. He didn’t just find the open skater but he put the puck in such a place that it was right in the wheelhouse of that player so they could get off that quick one-timer. He also demonstrated deft touch on his passes to fit the situation so when he needed to zip a pass cross the ice on the power play or move a more gentle saucer pass over a stick to send a teammate on a breakaway as he calculated it so precisely. His excellent playmaking ability should not overshadow his ability to score, as he possesses a lethally accurate shot that he can unleash quickly. In fact its his goal scoring ability that helps make him an effective playmaker as opposing defenses must account for his deadly shot and thus he opens space for his linemates to get into prime scoring position. He has good wheels and can either race by or dangle through would be defenders, and his skill set makes him that much more dangerous on the man advantage. Goldobin was among the OHL league leaders in scoring despite playing on one of its weakest teams. He mostly a one-dimensional player who does not really put in a lot of effort defensively, nor does he have any physical game to speak of.
Why should the Wild draft him? Goldobin is a player who will most likely be available when the Wild go make their selection in the draft. The lack of a defensive game makes him a bit more risky but his offensive skills are pretty special. This kid is reasonably fast, can finish well and is an ideal fit in a top six role and on the power play.