ST. PAUL, Minn. — Speaking at the Minnesota Wild’s annual predraft press conference last week, general manager Chuck Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr tried to avoid tipping their hand at who they might be looking to select with this year’s No. 7 overall pick.
The two spoke about selecting the best player available, regardless of position. Then the topic of goaltenders was brought up. Fletcher wasn’t even going to pretend a goaltender would be an option for the Wild.
“I’d fall of my chair if we draft a goalie at No. 7,” Fletcher said.
Flahr replied: “I’ll be getting my resume ready probably.”
No, after re-signing Josh Harding to a three-year contract, having Niklas Backstrom as the starter and young goaltenders such as Matt Hackett waiting, Minnesota won’t be selecting a goaltender in the first round of Friday’s NHL draft. After that, Fletcher and Flahr insist any options are open.
Fletcher said he’s received phone calls about trading up and trading back. The Wild have had trade talks internally. They are willing to take a forward while sticking to their draft board despite several young forward prospects on the verge of making the NHL roster. And a highly ranked group of defenseman near the top of scouting rankings plays into the Wild’s need for defensive depth.
Through it all, Minnesota will stick with its “best player available” philosophy.
“In the first round we draft skill,” Fletcher said. “The player we draft will be a skill player whether a defenseman or a forward. Again, there’s different types of skills, but we’re looking for somebody that is very difficult to acquire in the trade market. And when you pick seven, you should be able to draft a good hockey player and a player that’s very difficult to acquire otherwise.”
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After a frustrating season when they fell from the top of the NHL to near the bottom in record fashion, the Wild own their highest pick since missing on Benoit Pouliot with the fourth choice in the 2005 draft. Only three times in team history has Minnesota owned a top-seven selection, and before Pouliot you have to go back to the franchise’s first two drafts when the Wild selected Marian Gaborik third overall with their first-ever pick in 2000 and followed with Mikko Koivu at No. 6 a year later.
But those drafts were done under the previous management regime. Since coming to Minnesota, Fletcher has tried to build up a sagging talent base after several first-round failures. Flahr’s first draft was in 2010, and Minnesota hopes to see the fruits of those drafts starting as early as this year with the possible arrivals of Mikael Granlund, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin and Zach Phillips, along with Charlie Coyle, who was added in a draft-day trade last year.
Even with the young talent they’ve accumulated, Fletcher and Flahr aren’t changing their approach.
“The key is to continue to draft well so the cupboard doesn’t get empty again,” Fletcher said. “I’m not sure the top-end talent in this draft is as strong as some seasons. Having said that, there is a lot of good players in the top-10 and potentially even down to 20, 25. There may not be a lot of separation between some of the picks this year, which makes it an interesting draft from the scout’s perspective.
“It’s a lot harder for us to project right now, how we see the names falling before we pick. We’re intending on drafting a good player this year with our first pick. And then after that, once you get to rounds two through seven, you hope obviously that if you can nail two more players with your last six picks then you’re doing really well. We’re trying to nail them all, but history says if you draft three NHL players in any one draft, you’re ahead of the curve. That’s my base goal every year, and it starts with drafting a really good player at No. 7.”
Most scouts or mock drafters have narrowed down 10 players who likely will comprise the top 10 picks this season, led by Nail Yakupov, the Russian-born player who is coming off a 31-goal, 38-assist season while playing junior hockey in Canada. Yakupov’s teammate, Alex Galchenyuk, Mikhail Grigorenko, Filip Forsberg and Teuvo Teravainen are the top forwards. A strong group of blue-liners includes Ryan Murray, Morgan Reilly, Matt Dumba, Cody Ceci and Griffin Reinhart.
“It goes on a pretty good run there,” said Flahr, who leads the Wild drafts. “I think this year, I would say the top 12, maybe 13 players on each team’s list are fairly similar but can be in dramatically different order. The names are the same probably. So it’s going to be an interesting draft. It could go in a lot of different directions and in a lot of lists or people talking on TV you can see it’s all over the place, which is great. It’s interesting and makes for an interesting draft.”
Flahr said Minnesota can’t get caught up in drafting a position of need, though the draft’s depth on defense certainly would seem to be in the Wild’s favor. With Murray, Reilly, Dumba, Ceci and Reinhart joined by the likes of Olli Maata, Jacob Trouba and Derrick Pouliot, eight of the top 12 North American skaters, as ranked by the NHL’s Central Scouting Service, are defensemen.
“We’re happy to take any of the roles, whether it’s a scoring forward, a playmaking center, a big centerman or a defenseman, certainly we could use depth in all the areas,” Fletcher said. “It’s a pretty well-rounded draft, and there’s a couple top goalies. But again I don’t think that’s the way we’ll go this year with our goaltending depth. Clearly there’s some position players that can help our franchise.”