The Wild still doesn’t have a No. 1 center on its roster or developing in the pipeline, but that could change soon.
Trade talk around the league is likely to intensify now that the offseason is in full swing, giving the team an opportunity to address its most immediate need, and the Wild may be able to find a long-term successor with the ninth overall pick during the first round of the NHL’s virtual draft on Tuesday.
“I just think the draft, it’s critical,” General Manager Bill Guerin said ahead of his first draft with the Wild. “Look at Tampa Bay. They just won the Stanley Cup. How many of their players, their core guys, their key players, they drafted? They did a great job with filling it around, but they drafted really well.”
This is the first time the Wild has held a top-10 pick since it selected defenseman Matt Dumba at No. 7 in 2012. The team also has single picks in the second, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds Wednesday.
Guerin’s philosophy is to nab the best player available, but the scouting staff will also consider positional need. Judd Brackett, who was hired in July to be the team’s director of amateur scouting, is running the draft.
“At times, there’s perfect harmony and you might find that intersection where best available is also biggest need,” Brackett said. “It is something that we discuss a lot internally.”
That overlap could happen for the Wild in the first round, which has center depth.
Centers Quinton Byfield and Tim Stuetzle are expected to fill out the top three in either order after consensus No. 1 Alexis Lafreniere; Marco Rossi and Cole Perfetti are other skaters up the middle who will probably be off the board before the Wild picks.
But Anton Lundell, a reliable, smart player already contributing in the Finnish Elite League, could be intriguing. Dawson Mercer and Seth Jarvis are also centers projected to still be up for grabs at No. 9.
It’s possible the top prospect when it’s the Wild’s turn is not a center.
He might be a goalie; Russian Yaroslav Askarov is generating plenty of buzz.
Last season, Askarov went 12-3-3 in Russia’s second-tier pro league as a 17-year-old and just recently was recognized as the Kontinental Hockey League’s goalie and rookie of the week after recording a 0.75 goals-against average and .974 save percentage in three games. Brackett believes many teams have Askarov in their top 15.
“He’s a winner,” Brackett said. “He continues to win internationally. He’s done it even above his age group. It’s the size, the length, the athleticism, the second effort, desperation that he can play with. He gives his team a chance to win.”
Still, there are impressive centers near the top of the draft, and that might encourage the Wild to move from No. 9. Guerin said he’d listen to ideas that would have the team trading up or down. The Wild’s draft board is set, but insight is still trickling in and there could be some last-minute tweaks.
“This is a really accomplished group early on in this draft with high-side potential,” Brackett said. “But there’s also a lot of depth throughout this draft, very strong players at every position. You see it even in the early grouping. Whether it be center, defenseman, goalie, you see it all — even in the first 10 or so of this draft. So, there is strength throughout. With that, that creates opportunity.”
Not only does the Wild have a new voice at the helm in Brackett, but the setup is unique, too.
After the coronavirus pandemic caused the draft to be postponed from June 26 and 27 in Montreal, the NHL made its annual event remote.
Wild brass will be huddled at team headquarters in St. Paul. The war-room vibe could be helpful, since the staff can check video during the draft and have honest conversations.
“Sometimes when you’re at the draft table on the floor, it’s harder to have some discussions as you see things evolve,” said Brackett, who joined the Wild after a lengthy tenure in Vancouver, where he drafted Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes.
“The tables are close. Other teams are nearby. You sort of talk in code at times if you have to. So, I think this could be advantageous.”
The pandemic also cut prospects’ seasons short, scrapped tournaments such as the IIHF World Under-18 Championship and Memorial Cup and nixed the combine. But the Wild adapted, utilizing video, engaging in more talks about players and interviewing prospects virtually. Teams also had access to some testing results for 75 of the top 100 prospects from prospect games.
“I don’t feel in any way we’re incomplete,” Brackett said. “We got through the middle of March. Yes, were there some players that we absolutely wanted to see maybe in a playoff scenario or back-to-back games with sort of heightened expectations and more contested games? Absolutely. But I think as a group we have experience. I’ve seen enough of the sort of trajectory of young players to have a good sense and feel confident going into the draft.”
Even though GMs will be scattered instead of huddled on the same draft floor, Guerin said it’s possible trade winds leaguewide pick up during the draft and beyond based on the chatter he’s hearing.
Already, though, the Wild has been overhauled.
Gone are veterans Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal. Dumba is a prime trade candidate — perhaps to lasso that coveted center for the present. The team has added forwards Nick Bjugstad and Marcus Johansson, but the roster still looks to be in a state of flux without that top-line center and with goaltending under the microscope after a down season.
Veteran goalie Devan Dubnyk is the subject of trade rumors as the Wild explores a dramatic change in net.
Even so, Guerin said he isn’t masterminding a teardown. He wants to keep the team’s competitiveness intact, and the draft is another chance for him to bolster that — for now and the future.
“We’re not just accumulating draft picks,” Guerin said. “We’re not just trading away draft picks. We’re trying to do what’s right for the team. If something makes sense, one way or the other, we’ll do it.”