After a failed attempt to trade back into the second round, the Minnesota Wild stuck to their plan and took a few chances on the final day of the NHL Draft on Saturday.
Minnesota general manager Chuck Fletcher said the team had a trade in place to add a second-round pick after the Wild’s pick was traded to Buffalo for Matt Moulson at the trade deadline last year, but the players Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr were seeking ended up falling off the board.
"There were three or four players that we were keying in on and unfortunately all four of them literally went right before that pick," Fletcher told reporters after the draft. "We had the trade done to move in, but the last player had to be there and he got picked the pick before, so that was a little disappointing. But on the other hand, it would have involved moving next year’s second and continually kicking the can down the road, so I guess we paid the price this year in the second and we still have ours for next year.
"That was maybe the only, I wouldn’t call it disappointment, but that was sort of the only thing that happened that we really didn’t expect. We thought we were going to be able to get in and get a kid that we liked quite a bit in the second round. Unfortunately it didn’t happen, but again, next year’s draft’s supposed to be good and we still have our second rounder."
When Minnesota finally got on the clock for its first pick of the second day in the third round, the Wild selected defenseman Louis Belpedio from the U.S. National Team Development Program, the same team that produced Minnesota’s first-round pick, forward Alex Tuch.
Minnesota drafted seven more players on Saturday, including Finnish goaltender Kaapo Kahknonen in the fourth round and followed with defensemen Tanner Faith (fifth round) and Pontus Sjalin (sixth), and centers Chase Lang (sixth), Reid Duke (sixth) and Pavel Jenys (seventh).
"We weren’t really fixated on position," Fletcher said. "We were just looking for opportunities to maybe find some players that slipped for various reasons; took a few chances. The Tanner Faith kid was a kid who missed a lot of time last year, a big right-hand shot defenseman. But we felt had he been healthy he may have been selected much higher this year. So there’s a little bit of a leap of faith there. The scouts were pleased with the players we got."
Faith, 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds, only played 10 games last season because of a shoulder injury and had one assist for Kootenay of the Western Hockey League.
"Coming into the season he was a higher profile guy, unfortunately he injured his shoulder 10 games in and missed the rest of the season," Flahr said. "That’s obviously why he fell to where he did. But our guys have seen him the last couple years and we’ve talked to the coaches and made sure he’s healed. So we’re hoping he’s a guy if he was healthy would have gone much higher in the draft so at that point in the draft, we thought it was a quality risk. He’s a big guy. He’s a solid defender and his coaches rave about him.
"He’s a guy our scouts out west kept bugging me to draft. So we did."
Belpedio had seven goals and 13 assists for the U.S. Under-18 team last year and was a team captain. Born in Skokie, Ill., Belpedio know he has to change sides of a rivalry now.
"I’m a Chicago kid, so there’s a little rivalry there," Belpedio told reporters. "But I think I switched to the other side already. So I’m happy to be a part of it. . . . I try to play in all three zones. Try to jump in the play when I can, be aggressive, use my body as much as I can and skate. Be offensive, I guess."
Belpedio, who will play next season at Miami University, said he tries to pattern his game after Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, his favorite player. Flahr called Belpedio a "character" guy.
"He’s one of those guys when you ask all of his teammates which player, which defenseman you’d take with you, everybody pretty much said him," Flahr said. "He’s a character kid, but he’s a smart player, plays a solid two-way game. He’s a little shorter in stature, but he’s well put together and physically strong. He’s going to a good program and we’re excited about him."
The Wild stuck with their development plan at goaltender by picking Kahkonen in the fourth round. Minnesota was projected by many to draft a goaltender in the first round, but Flahr stuck with the philosophy of drafting and developing a mid-round pick.
Kahkonen was the fourth-rated European goaltender by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service. He played in 38 games last year for the Espoo Blues in the Finnish junior league and had a .912 save percentage.
"We were very high on him all year," Flahr said. "He struggled a little at the Under-18 tournament at the end, which may have cost him a little bit in the draft but he’s a talented goalie. Like any young goalie, he’s got things to work on, but he’s got a certain style of a European goalie. He’s a competitive guy and obviously we’re going to work with him. He’ll probably stay over there for a while and hopefully develop into a quality prospect."
Finland has turned out several top NHL goaltenders, including Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom. Kahkonen said his favorite Finnish goaltender is Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen. Kahknonen will train with the Espoo men’s team this summer and could play in the Finnish elite league next season.
"I’m kind of calm and I play butterfly style most," Kahkonen said. "I try to fight for pucks and try to help my team."
Asked about the tradition of Finnish netminders, Kahkonen said: "We have good coaching. I had my first goalie coach when I was like 9 or 10. People want to go to the net. Nobody’s pushing guys to the net, kids want to go to the net to play goalie."
The Wild went off the board a bit in picking Sjalin with the first of three sixth-round picks. Somewhat of a hidden gem, Sjalin wasn’t even in the NHL.com’s draft database, but Flahr said Minnesota knew of one other team interested in the Swedish defenseman.
"He’s very mobile," Flahr said. "He’s got to put some weight on and get stronger, but he’s an intelligent player. He’s a smooth skater and we knew one other team that knew about him so we made sure in that round we drafted him ahead of them."
Cuma, Foucault to move on: Speaking after the draft, Fletcher said the team will extend qualifying offers to each of its NHL restricted free agents, which includes Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Justin Fontaine, Jon Blum and Darcy Kuemper.
However, two players in the organization with the Iowa Wild won’t receive qualifying offers. Fletcher said Tyler Cuma, a 2008 first-round draft pick, and Kris Foucault, a 2009 fourth-rounder, will have a chance to sign elsewhere.
"At this point, in fairness to them, I think it’s time for them to have an opportunity to try a new situation," Fletcher said.
Cuma, a defenseman, had played in one NHL game for Minnesota. Foucault, a forward, had also played in one game. Both were scoreless in the NHL.