Wild NHL Draft preview: Forward in first round likely

Minnesota has drafted a defenseman with its top pick each of the last three years. With needs changing, the draft's depth falls in line with the Wild's preference of adding a skilled forward on Friday.

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Without a first-round draft pick last year, Chuck Fletcher went to the NHL Draft trying to find a way to address needs for his team while also slashing payroll.

The Minnesota Wild general manager had scrappy forward Cal Clutterbuck as collateral and had talked to several teams. Only in the day or two before the draft did the potential to turn Clutterbuck into Nino Niederreiter develop.

Fletcher traveled to Philadelphia this week without the same urgency. He is always willing to talk and listen, and he’s open to trades with the team’s first-round pick at No. 18, but he doesn’t feel trades will come together until the last minute again.

"Usually the draft-pick type of moves, nobody really wants to move up or down until they know exactly what’s happening that day," Fletcher said. "So usually during the first round is when you’re going to have to make that decision. So that’s something that would interest me in theory, but I just get the sense that we’re going to end up taking a player at 18 and exploring the UFA market starting July 1."

Fletcher said he’d look at moving up or down in Friday’s first round — moving up is unlikely with the team not having a second-round pick — but sees the potential to draft a forward at No. 18, in what is considered a forward-heavy draft.

Minnesota has drafted a defenseman with its top pick each of the last three years. With needs changing, the draft’s depth falls in line with the Wild’s preference.

"Ideally if we could add a skilled forward, that’s what we’d like to do," Fletcher said. "Picking at 18 it’s hard to predict what will be there. Certainly there’s a couple defensemen that if they were there at 18 would change our opinion. Realistically, I don’t anticipate us drafting a goaltender at 18. That’s not to say we wouldn’t move back to look at certain options that may present themselves. But where we’re picking at 18, we think there will be some pretty good, pretty talented forwards that we could consider."

Minnesota’s uncertainty at goaltender, where the Wild featured four No. 1 goaltenders at different times this season, has led many to project the team could take Thatcher Demko, the Boston College goaltender considered the cream of the crop.

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Demko had a 2.16 goals-against average and .920 save percentage this past season in his first collegiate season after leaving the U.S. development program.

Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr, who leads the draft for Minnesota, downplayed the possibility of Demko at No. 18.

"Some teams don’t typically draft a goaltender in the first round just because of the time it takes to develop a goalie," Flahr said. "If you look in the year’s past, unless there’s an elite goalie at the top of the draft, a Carey Price for example or goalies like that, typically there’s goalies going in the third or fourth round that end up being better.

"Goalie is one of those positions where there’s so many variables involved. Obviously you look at a guy’s talent level and that, but a lot of it’s mental, maturity and how they can handle the pressure in situations and developing. We’re not totally opposed to it. But at the same time, it would have to be the right fit."

The Wild have taken a goaltender in the draft in four of the past five years, and have apparently hit on Darcy Kuemper, a sixth-rounder in 2009 who had a strong rookie season for Minnesota in filling in while Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding dealt with injury and illness. Fletcher said there is goaltending depth through the mid-rounds, and Kuemper helps to support the belief goaltenders can be discovered later and take time to develop.

"Obviously our goalie situation here is one that we have to draft goalies regularly and develop goalies," Flahr said. "At the same time, any goalie we draft this year you’re not going to see for probably four or five years down the road, realistically."

This year’s draft could be led by a defenseman, Aaron Ekblad, at the top of the draft but isn’t as deep on the blue line. Ekblad and three forwards — Samuel Bennett, Sam Reinhart and Leon Draisait — are considered to be the top tier, without a consensus No. 1 overall.

Flahr said some teams will consider the top tier to include six players, including Michael Dal Colle.

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"It’s a better draft than we initially thought, I think," Flahr said. "I would say the top end there’s a number of quality players. There’s no franchise, (Sidney) Crosbys, or anything like that. There’s a number of quality players. As the season went on, a number of players stepped up, kind of off the map a bit, which gives the draft some depth. Overall it’s a good draft. There’s some depth, but again, there’s no consensus No. 1 even for a lot of teams."

Another name projected to Minnesota has been Swiss forward Kevin Fiala, the third-ranked European skater behind Kasperi Kapanen and Michael Nylander, by the Central Scouting Service.

Fiala is only 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds but had 10 goals and 15 assists in 27 games in the Swedish junior league and three goals and eight assists in the Swedish Elite League and played for Switzerland in the World Junior Championships.

"I think the way the game’s played now, I think you’re going to see more and more small players have success," Flahr said, generally speaking. "That doesn’t mean you want a whole team of them. But skill level with speed, a lot of it is how much heart you have as well to play the game. If you’re drafting a small player, you’ve got to make sure that they’re committed, they’re driven and our guys have done a pretty good job of that in the past."

Fletcher has proven willing to maneuver during draft time with the league’s general managers all assembled together in one city. This year in Philadelphia, there is also the league’s "shopping period" where teams can begin talks with the agents for prospective undrafted free agents. Deals can’t be finalized but parameters can be discussed.

"I guess you could say we’re prepared for the draft, so probably the few days prior to the draft will be all about the shopping period," Fletcher said. "So, that’s sort of a new wrinkle. But I anticipate it will be very busy."

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