Monday, June 28, 2010

The Wild's 2010 Draft in Review

The 2010 NHL Entry Draft had the usual amount of buzz going in, but there turned out to be little movement of NHL players, like there usually is. The draft itself, however (after the top two or three), was as unpredictable as ever. I think the Wild did as well as I could have anticipated, even though they were faced with a tough decision at pick number nine. I watched the draft the first round at a bar in Louisville, Colorado and flew home just in time to watch most of the second round on in Minneapolis. Now that the draft is behind us, I’ll analyze the Wild’s weekend and introduce you to the newest members of the organization:

In the end, the Wild went with what they needed most, a center, by picking
Mikael Granlund. They failed to make a trade to acquire an NHL second-line center that they still may need (depending on Pierre-Marc Bouchard’s progress by the start of the season), but still have some time to make a deal. They have ample defensemen to use as assets, with plenty of depth built up from previous drafts and Josh Harding waiting for a trade that will make him a number one goaltender for a team with the need for one.

Granlund seems to have been the best center left on the board at nine, with Tyler Seguin, Ryan Johansen, Jeff Skinner, and Alexander Burmistrov already taken, but I think Granlund has the potential to compare with any of those players, despite his small stature. That said, I think every player taken before number nine has a good shot to be effective in the NHL.

Granlund was Central Scouting’s top-ranked European skater, notching 40 points (13-27—40) in 43 games for HIFK Helsinki of the Finnish Elite League—the European league that is most comparable to the NHL in terms of a more physical style of play. It looks like Granlund could make the Wild (or at least come play for Houston) after playing out the final year of his contract in Finland because he seems to be close to being NHL-ready. If the Wild can’t trade for a second-line center or find one in free agency, Granlund will obviously have a good shot to make the team sooner rather than later.

In a year where the draft was dominated by North Americans—as many American high schoolers were taken in the first round as European players—I would normally want the Wild to take a college or Canadian major junior player, but in this case, I am completely on board with their pick. I think Cam Fowler or Brandon Gormley would have been great additions to the organization, but I believe Granlund was the right choice.

In addition to the six D-men Minnesota has slated to make the team next year (I include Clayton Stoner in this group and assume Shane Hnidy is gone), there is Marco Scandella, Tyler Cuma, Maxim Noreau, and Nate Prosser waiting in the wings. In addition to filling a void in the organization’s depth chart with a very talented player, the Wild added another Finn. With Mikko Koivu captaining a lineup that already includes Finns Antti Miettinen and Niklas Backstrom, Granlund will have multiple sources of support when he eventually makes the team, making it an ideal situation for him. I think drafting a Finnish player will also help Fletcher re-sign Koivu—something he must get done as soon as possible.

Granlund has been compared to Mikko’s brother, Saku, a Finnish legend a longtime captain of the Montreal Canadiens. He isn’t the biggest player out there (although his weight is comparable to any of the forwards taken before him other than Nino Niederreiter and he weighs over 20 pounds more than Alexander Burmistrov who was taken eighth overall), but he makes up for it with a great hockey sense and a high compete level. Hopefully Granlund can meet and skate with a few of his future teammates when the Wild travels to Helsinki for its opening games against the Carolina Hurricanes.

In addition to landing a very solid first round pick, the Wild had a very active Day Two, including a three-pick second round.

Minnesota’s round two started with the 39th overall selection where the Wild may have made a reach, taking Brett Bulmer of the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets. He was the first Kelowna player to be drafted in the second round since 2004, when the New York Islanders took Blake Comeau with the 47th overall pick. Bulmer is a power forward who, although he is described by Rockets broadcaster and blogger Regan Bartel as soft-spoken, is not afraid to drop the mitts. Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr has said he has a “nastiness” to him that he likes. While I think the Wild could have possibly waited to pick Bulmer with the 26th pick in the second round (or even later)—he was projected to go anywhere from the third to the sixth round—I can’t argue with the pick. According to Flahr, teams were starting to talk about him around the time the Wild took him. I think Bulmer will help the Wild in going with the team toughness route that GM Chuck Fletcher is trying to get to, now that enforcers Derek Boogaard and John Scott seem to be on the way out.

After a slow start to the season, Bulmer skyrocketed 99 spots in the Central Scouting rankings, going from 164th in the midseason rankings to 65th in the final rankings, clearly showing improvement after a subpar start to his WHL career. Bulmer had six goals and ten assists in a weak first half of the season, including a month-long stretch in November where he went pointless. He also had only one fight before the midway point in the season. In the second half of the season, however, Bulmer turned it around in the second half by scoring seven goals and adding 17 helpers while proving to be a physical presence with six fighting majors and 58 penalty minutes. He scored three goals in the first four games of the Rockets’ playoff series against the Everett Silvertips and added an assist to help Kelowna to a first round upset. Not only did Bulmer receive a much higher final ranking by Central Scouting as a result of his increased productivity, but he also received the Rockets’ Most Improved Player Award.

The Wild returned to international waters with their second pick of the second round, which they acquired from Washington in exchange for Eric Belanger at the trade deadline.
Johan Larsson, a versatile center/winger, plays for Brynas of the Swedish League, but made a name for himself as Sweden’s captain in the IIHF U-18 Tournament in April. Larsson had been known as a two-way player that would chip in with some offense every now and then, but showed in the U-18 tournament that he had offensive upside, raising his stock to a potential late first/early second round selection. According to his ranking (34th among European skaters), it looks like the Wild reached again, but I think that may not be so.

In five games at the Under-18 tournament, Larsson proved to be an offensive juggernaut, posting six goals and eight assists and finishing one point behind Finland’s Teemu Pulkkinen (Mikael Granlund’s line mate) for the tournament’s scoring title. He even scored more goals and had more points than Granlund himself. Larsson’s one downside may be his skating which is said to have improved as of time of the U-18s, but it seems that he is a hard worker and a tough competitor and that his two-way game was enough to make him draft-worthy—the potential offensive explosiveness that was hinted at the U-18 tournament could be a bonus. I like the upside in this pick and I think because Larsson was one of the younger players in the draft, he has a good shot at developing into a good NHL player if he can reach his potential.

After trading their third and fourth round picks to Florida for another late second rounder, the Wild took Nevada-native
Jason Zucker. Zucker was the first Nevada-trained player (he was born in California) ever to be drafted by an NHL team. Zucker and goalie Jack Campbell (selected 11th overall by Dallas) were the only two Americans to win three gold medals for their country in the same year by winning the 2009 and 2010 U-18 championships and by shocking Canada in the final of the World Juniors. Zucker was the youngest player on the World Junior team. He will follow a trend of California-born players to attend Denver University in the fall.

As a side note, I must say that recruiting players from California has worked so far for Denver with forwards Gabe Gauthier and Rhett Rakhshani turning into captains of successful Pioneer teams. New Californian-born players Zucker and Beau Bennett (selected 20th overall by Pittsburgh) may or may not stay long enough to be named captains, but will likely continue the trend of success. Even after losing a strong senior class, the Pioneers may not miss a step in the tough WCHA because they recruit so well, using the entire country and Canada to find new talent.

Back to Zucker. I think the Wild showed value for Zucker’s skill set by trading away two picks to get him. He plays a physical game and has some speed and is projected to be a checking line forward in the NHL because he can’t finish enough to be on a scoring line. I think that if any college hockey coach could help Zucker develop a scoring touch (and develop overall), it’s Denver’s George Gwozdecky, who has put the DU hockey program back on the map in the last decade. I was very excited to see Fletcher find a way to get Zucker. I loved watching him play in the World Juniors, fitting in with a tournament full of older players, and I can’t wait to see him play at Mariucci Arena in February and probably on TV again in the WJC.

Had the second day of the draft had the pace of the first day, I could have taken a nice, long nap in between the Wild’s pick of Jason Zucker in the second round and their next pick—Johan Gustafsson in the sixth round. It was still a long wait, but what they got in return for it was worth it, in my opinion (their third and fourth-round picks went for Zucker and their fifth rounder for was traded for Brad Staubitz, who will make an impact in the coming season as a grinder/fighter).

Anyway, the Wild drafted Swedish goalie Johan Gustafsson, who I’m sure I’ll mistake for Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson because they have similar names, are about the same size, and play the same position, with the 159th pick of the draft. Minutes later, Gustaffson surprised everyone at the Wild draft table by unexpectedly introducing himself. Gustaffson was the fifth-ranked European goalie by Central Scouting and he plays for Färjestads BK of Sweden (coincidentally the same team Gustavsson played for before leaving for the NHL), but will be playing for VIK Västerås next year. He was one of Sweden’s starting goalies in the World Under-18 Tournament, playing with fellow Wild 2010 draft pick Johan Larsson in a silver-medal campaign. He faced Jason Zucker and gold medal-winning Team USA twice in the tournament, allowing two goals on 19 shots in a 4-2 win in the preliminary round and letting in three goals on 33 shots in a 3-1 loss the gold-medal game (Zucker assisted on the third goal in the gold medal game). Sweden did not face Mikael Granlund’s Team Finland.

Gustaffson had a lower GAA (2.02) and higher save percentage (.918) than highly-touted Canadian goaltender Calvin Pickard in the tournament, although Pickard got more playing time and faced more shots. Gustaffson’s showing at the World U-18s raised his stock after an average start on his Swedish League team. Interestingly, The Hockey News ranked Gustaffson 94th overall in their draft preview, while Wild second rounders Brett Bulmer and Johan Larsson went unranked. I think this was another solid pick by Flahr and company. With depth at goaltender with the likes of Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper, Gustaffson will have plenty of time to get better, so I think the Wild made a smart choice with a late-round pick.

Moving on to the last round of the draft, the Wild took Dylen McKinlay of WHL’s Chilliwack Bruins. McKinlay has gotten in a few scraps for the Bruins, but isn’t said to be an overly physical player. He started his WHL career as a checking line winger, but has developed into a somewhat of a scorer. If he can add some muscle to his 5’10’’, 162-pound frame, he may develop into a late round steal for the Wild. Like most of the Wild’s picks, it will take some time to see how McKinlay pans out, but it was nice to see the Wild not waste their last pick in the draft with this pick.

The Wild took one center and one goalie and stocked up on wings with their other four picks in this draft. Every pick has some serious upside and after Granlund (who went from a possible top-five pick to nine—not bad in my book), it seems like every player the Wild drafted would be ranked higher if a new set of rankings came out, as Bulmer, Larsson, and McKinlay finished their seasons strong, showing offensive potential in addition to another attributes such as physicality and versatility. Despite having more exposure than a lot of players drafted later in the second round, they also snagged Jason Zucker, who may have what it takes to become the first Nevada-trained player to play in the NHL. Assistant GM Brent Flahr made sure the Wild selected players that, with some development, should be able to play in a physical league like the NHL (or AHL) and add some scoring. The Wild wanted the biggest, fastest, strongest, and most skilled players that had character and I think it looks like they did a good job finding them.

Obviously, it’s too early to tell how the Wild made out in this draft with its selections, but I think as long as Fletcher continues to be patient with his players, the Wild will end up with a couple really good NHL contributors here or at least some good trading assets. Going into the draft, I didn’t think the Wild could go wrong with their first pick, unless they went off the board like they (kind of) did last year with Nick Leddy—and they didn’t disappoint, drafting one of, if not, the smartest player in the draft with high-end talent in Granlund. Although I think the four Minnesotans in the first round of this draft will turn out to be solid pros, I’m glad they didn’t give them a home state advantage, like I think they gave Leddy last year. Leddy got off to a poor start last season possibly because it seemed he had the whole state riding on him as a member of the Gophers and a part of the Wild organization, but once he was traded to Chicago, he flipped the switch and earned the team’s Rookie of the Year Award.

We’ll probably never know what Fletcher was offered for the ninth pick when his phone was ringing off the hook with Fowler and Gormley still on the board, but I’m happy that he kept it and made a good pick. After they passed up on Jordan Schroeder (I think the best in-state pick they could have made in the past two years, who ended up with the arch-rival Canucks) twice last season, I was happy to see that Fletcher realized that there was still a great player left when their name was called.

I do think the Wild passed up on some good players (I think Kirill Kabanov, Jordan Weal, and others will end up being steals, despite their respective risks), but that the “sleeper-ish” picks they made will end up doing just fine. They made more picks in the top two rounds than they ever did with Doug Risebrough as GM and our first round pick isn’t being automatically being thrust into the NHL, which is a good thing. Hopefully the Wild can get a spark from one or more of these players in the coming years. If not, hopefully they can land a really high pick in the next draft or two and can build a Stanley Cup contender like Pittsburgh and Chicago have done in the past few years. I would take a few years of finishing even closer to the bottom for a true contending team after witnessing how it can pay off, but after a year under the Fletcher/Richards regime, I know now that the Wild brass will try its best to contend in the current season—every year.

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