Goaltenders are kind of like bacon. You can go on in life without thinking about it much, but it can make life (for teams) so much easier if its there and often can be the difference between something that is ‘just ok’ and something great. Just think about it, a hamburger by itself is pretty good, but you add bacon and suddenly its fantastic. Kind of like the Wild’s defense, which is ok, but you add a quality goaltender and suddenly they’re able to suffocate opposing offenses. Where the bacon / goaltender comparison runs awry is that its far easier to add bacon to anything than it is finding that quality goaltender to make your good team into a great one. In fact, in that aspect of it; discovering the right goaltender to make your good team into a great one is more like finding a truffle, the rare and very hard to find mushroom that restaurants (and their customers) pay through the nose for. Perhaps its ironic that the same animal that provides our world with most of the aforementioned bacon we enjoy, is precisely the same creature that helps us find truffles. If finding that truffle-like goaltender is so difficult maybe that’s why teams are often settling for bacon as there are always a few free agent goaltenders available to gamble on. Some of these bacon netminders were once seen as truffles (Ryan Miller, Ilya Bryzgalov, Tomas Vokoun) but are now sent to teams with the hope that they have enough in them to save their team’s bacon. Yes, I know that was a cheap pun, but since I had started with this analogy it seemed appropriate. Go make yourself some delicious bacon if you’re that upset with me, ok?
The Minnesota Wild have made due with bacon for the last two seasons. The Wild soldiered on all of the regular season with Niklas Backstrom carrying the load until they got to the playoffs where the veteran goaltender was lost due to a hernia injury and thus forced Josh Harding to try to pick up the slack. Harding then started 2013-14 with one of the best first halves in the NHL, only to have it stopped by a change in medication to treat his Multiple Sclerosis. Combine that with Backstrom still being injured with some kind of hip malady and that forced the Wild to get creative. In fact, one could argue the team didn’t try to fill the void with bacon, but rather ‘turkey bacon’ by moving up Darcy Kuemper and trading for Ilya Bryzgalov. The only people that says turkey bacon is just as good as the real deal are people that do not eat real bacon. Yet even despite these set backs the Wild battled their way to a 7th place finish in the Western Conference and a Quarterfinals series victory over Colorado. Not too bad for turkey bacon eh?
So it probably come as no surprise that many NHL experts believe the Wild’s priority in this year’s draft is to look for a future #1 goaltender. No offense to youngsters Darcy Kuemper and Johan Gustafsson who are still developing or the terrific effort of veterans Harding and Bryzgalov but the team really does need to establish a #1 goaltender so it can see the direction its future this position holds.
Yet, the old draft adage goes, “never draft a goalie in the 1st round,” because its the kind of position that often seems to end in frustration or failure especially when you’re looking at potential. Even the Wild have had reasonable sense not drafting goalies in the 1st round and finding quality players via the draft. Harding was a 2nd round pick (38th Overall in 2002), Anton Khudobin who has been a backup both in Boston and Carolina was discovered in the 7th round (206th Overall in 2004), while Darcy Kuemper was found in the 6th round (161st Overall in 2009) and Johan Gustafsson also in the 6th round (159th Overall in 2010). So at least ‘bacon’ quality talent can be had beyond the 1st round. Yet if you want that truffle, do you gamble on spending a 1st round pick?
Success stories like Carey Price, Martin Brodeur and Kari Lehtonen suggest that might be a good idea. Yet, there are plenty of ugly choices too. In fact, a team greatly admired for their ability to draft well and at developing quality goaltenders, the Nashville Predators, have struck out twice with 1st round selections of goalies. Brian Finley was selected 6th Overall in 1999 and played in just 4 NHL games and later in 2008 when it selected Chet Pickard (18th Overall) and he’s yet to play in a game and was last seen bouncing around the Colorado Avalanche organization. The Predators have done far better with its late round goaltenders in 8th round pick in 2004 Pekka Rinne (258th Overall), 7th round pick in 2oo8 Anders Lindback (207th Overall). However the experts over at NHL.com certainly seem to think the Wild are going to be looking for a goalie right away with their 1st selection. Adam Kimelman and Mike Morreale seem to think Boston College’s Thatcher Demko will be our top target.
So what do the Wild need? Here are the 3 biggest needs as I see them.
1. The Wild need a fast, goal-scoring forward to be a major contributor on its top 6. The team has tried the free agent route as well as trades here to limited success, now its time the team selected a player to be that guy. The team played its best hockey by utilizing its speed and as an organization they really lack players who are noted for their ability to finish their chances.
2. The Wild need to draft a blue-chip goaltending prospect to really challenge for that starting role in the future. No offense to Darcy Kuemper, Johan Gustafsson or even Ilya Bryzgalov but the situation with Josh Harding’s battle with Multiple Sclerosis and Niklas Backstrom‘s aging body make it necessary for the team to seriously address its goaltending depth. There are notable free agent goalies available though.
3. The Wild need to draft a big, mean defenseman who can punish opponents with a strong, physical game. Watching the Chicago series, the Wild started off pretty well because the team was playing a physical brand of hockey and taking every opportunity to hit the Blackhawks. Yet as the Wild got beat up, their lack of physical defenseman started to become a problem as Chicago’s bigger forwards could camp out in front of the Wild crease without much difficulty because the team’s defense simply lacked the size and snarl to move them out of the way. The Wild have to be tired of being labeled as ‘soft’ and drafting some ornery, big defenseman can help remove that label to a certain degree.
So with the three biggest needs in mind, I am writing articles that focus on these specific needs and identifying players who I think fit those organization holes perfectly. I have watched many of these players play (admittedly mostly online) as well as read many articles as well as checked out scouting guides such as the International Scouting Service 2014 Draft Guide, the Hockey News as well as the NHL’s Central Scouting List to get an idea on the trajectory of these players which you can see here.
I try to focus on players who I think will be available when the Wild make their likely 1st round pick at 18th Overall. There is certainly a chance these players could be drafted before the Wild go to make their selection, but that happens. So that’s why I have a list of 5 and most likely at least one of them will still be available when the Wild have their chance to make their selection. I have video for all 5 of the players, and while they’re highlights (so they’re all going to look pretty good) they at least going to give you an idea of the talent they possess.
1. Thatcher Demko (Boston College, H-East)
Height: 6’4″ Weight: 195lbs Catches: Left
2013-14 Stats: 18GP (13-2) 1.76GAA .935%SP
ISS: 1st Central Scouting: 1st (NA) The Hockey News: 28th
Talent Analysis: The virtually unanimous choice as this draft’s top goaltender is this outstanding freshman from Boston College. Demko is your prototypical big-bodied goaltender who plays a hybrid butterfly style. He uses his size effectively to deprive shooters of net to look at and is technically very refined and efficient in his movements from post-to-post. Demko is virtually unshakable in his crease, so traffic near the blue paint, being bumped around just rolls off his back without incident. He is not the type of player who lets a goal haunt him and take him off his game. The BC Eagles’ star was one of the best players in college hockey last year despite being one of its youngest players. His glove, his legs and athleticism are all top notch. Demko is not the most aggressive goaltender, but he plays his angles well to make that not a glaring issue. If he has any real sort of weakness to his game is sort of a compulsion to try to stop every shot he sees. At times this has him guessing and can make him vulnerable to pucks that change direction. His potential is clearly that of a potential #1 NHL goaltender.
Why the Wild should draft him? Drafting a player like Demko is making a big splash towards having their future long-term starting goaltender locked up. He is a big body to stop pucks, mentally strong and calm under pressure he has a very bright NHL future ahead of him.
2. Mason MacDonald (Charlottetown, QMJHL)
Height: 6’4″ Weight: 177lbs Catches: Right
2013-14 record: 29GP (8-15) 3.44GAA .900%SP
ISS: 2nd Central Scouting: 2nd (NA) The Hockey News: 52nd
Talent Analysis: MacDonald is the poster child for what can happen when given an opportunity. After being dealt from Acadie-Bathurst to Charlottetown he found the confidence of being placed in the starter’s role and helped make the Islanders have a solid run in the QMJHL playoffs. He is an extremely precise goaltender, who plays his angles perfectly giving shooters very little to shootout. He is tremendously efficient from post-to-post. MacDonald also exudes confidence but also has a calming effect where he makes tough saves look easy which serves to demoralize opponents. He anchored Team Canada’s U-18 Ivan Hlinka entry and was a stabilizing presence that allowed them to come away with a bronze medal. He is another goaltender who has starter potential, and many scouts feel he may have the highest development ceiling of any goalie available in this draft. The other x-factor going for him is, just like Wild goaltender Josh Harding he’s a right-handed catching goalie which forces shooters to adjust how they attack him.
Why the Wild should draft him? MacDonald is another goaltender who combines that big 6’4″ frame with terrific athleticism to be a prototypical NHL starting goaltender. He has shown the ability to steal games, and his confidence resonates through the rest of the team. The fact he’s a right-handed catching goaltender makes him that much more interesting considering shooters will have to adjust to the difference.
3. Alex Nedeljkovich (Plymouth, OHL)
Height: 6’0″ Weight: 184lbs Catches: Left
2013-14 Stats: 61GP (26-35) 2.88GAA .925%SP
ISS: 3rd Central Scouting: 4th (NA) The Hockey News: 45th
Talent Analysis: The young Parma, Ohio-born goaltender was named this year’s OHL Goalie of the Year and also played well for the United States for the U-18 team at the Ivan Hlinka tournament. While not blessed with tremendous size, Nedeljkovich makes up for it with outstanding quickness and a terrific attention to detail on his angles make him appear bigger to shooters than he actually is. Nedeljkovich absorbs rebounds like a vacuum cleaner and rarely gives up 2nd opportunities for opposing shooters. The bigger the game, the better Nedeljkovich is and he is the kind of player that can steal games and create a lot of confidence for his team with his stone-cold calmness under pressure. Even with traffic near his crease, Nedeljkovich finds the puck consistently and his focus maybe the best of any goaltender available in this draft. The only real knock on him is he’s not as big as Demko or MacDonald.
Why the Wild should draft him? He’s a complete gamer. He plays confident, focused and extremely quick from post-to-post. The fact he has such great rebound control means he can frustrate opponents almost all by himself.
4. Ville Husso (HIFK, Sm-Liiga)
Height: 6’3″ Weight: 198lbs Catches: Left
2013-14 Stats: 41GP (19-14) 1.99GAA .923%SP
ISS: 5th Central Scouting: 1st (European) The Hockey News: 87th
Talent Analysis: Perhaps the next ‘big thing’ to come out of Finland’s goaltending factory is Ville Husso. Husso again has that prototypical NHL goalie size that is so coveted these days, but he’s been sharpening his game playing against men for HIFK Helskini (Mikael Granlund‘s former club) and hasn’t looked out of place doing so. The big Finn went undrafted and hopes his respectable season in the Sm-Liiga probably assures him that won’t happen again. He has good quickness, and is a classic butterfly goaltender who is extremely difficult to beat down low. He is patient and doesn’t just drop into the butterfly right away, which is something you see a lot from younger goalies. Husso has a terrific glove hand and recovers quickly after making a save which is so important in a game where so many forwards just simply crash the crease. Some scouts believe he could stand to challenge shooters more, but his positioning and angles are often so good they have little to shoot at anyways. The only thing flagging his game is his play of the puck outside the crease and his hesitance to sometimes go back behind the goal to stop the puck to set it up for his defenseman. Beyond that, he’s noted for his mature veteran-like presence despite being just 18-years old.
Why the Wild should draft him? Husso is a goaltender with terrific potential to be an NHL starter someday. He has shown he can play well against players much older than himself and his skill set translates well to the NHL style of game. Husso certainly can round out his game by improving his confidence in handling the puck, but that is a coachable skill which makes him a very intriguing goaltending prospect.
5. Julio Billia (Chicoutimi, QMJHL)
Height: 5’10” Weight: 164lbs Catches: Left
2013-14 Stats: 41GP (10-27) 3.52GAA .894%SP
ISS: 20th Central Scouting: 21st (NA) The Hockey News: N/A
Talent Analysis: Billia is not your big-bodied prototypical NHL goalie. He’s small, which he make up for it with fantastic quickness, athleticism and tremendous compete level. Billia played for a pretty weak Chicoutimi team this season, and often kept his team in games they had no reason to be which was a testament to his dogged determination and his strong play. He played very well for Team Quebec at the U-17 World under-17 challenge helping them get 4th place and then was a backup to Mason MacDonald at this year’s Ivan Hlinka tournament gives you an idea of how well he’s respected in Canadian hockey circles. Billia plays the game with an emotion and flair not often seen in goaltenders but has the personality and attitude that inspire teammates to work that much harder in front of him. His recovery against shooters is superb and his movement in his crease is very precise so he makes his small frame appear as big as he can. Even though he is small, he sees the puck well through traffic and absorbs rebounds effectively; even up high. His style of play should remind Wild fans of Anton Khudobin, but in many ways is far more technically refined than the bombastic Russian was at that same age. Billia is excellent with the puck on his stick and can make the long outlet pass to almost be an extra defenseman in his own zone and with the supposed discussion over making the trapezoid bigger that means that part of the game becomes that much more of a coveted skill to have.
Why should the Wild draft him? I wouldn’t say he’s a candidate to being selected in the first round, but he’s a goaltender who has a top-level skill set that can rank near the top of this draft. His only real problem is his lack of size. Last year, the Wild passed on another goalie like this in Finland’s Juuse Saros, who backed Finland to gold at the WJC’s. I hope the Wild don’t pass up on this kid.