2021 Minnesota Wild Draft Preview: Sleepers & Steals

2021 Minnesota Wild Draft Preview: Sleepers & Steals

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2021 Minnesota Wild Draft Preview: Sleepers & Steals

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If you’ve ever watched the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, you will remember the excitement of the worldwide search for the golden ticket.  Kids and even adults all across the world were buying up and opening ‘Wonka bars’ hoping to see something shiny to go along with their candy.  Most of them would feel the disappointment of only having opened the wrapper of a candy bar, but a lucky few found the ticket and earned that once in a lifetime opportunity to visit the mysterious Wonka factory.

The film appealed to people’s want to be lucky where your socioeconomic standing doesn’t matter at all if you are one of the fortunate few who find a golden ticket.  For as much hoopla and focus as the 1st round of the draft receives, for many clubs its how well they do at finding talent beyond the 1st and 2nd round that can end up being key components of building a Stanley Cup contender.

Tampa’s Brayden Point (3rd round, 79th Overall in 2014), Boston’s Brad Marchand (3rd round, 71st Overall in 2006) and Jake Guentzel (3rd round, 7th Overall in 2013) are all great examples of players taken later in the draft that went on to play big roles for their respective Stanley Cup winning clubs and having the rest of the league ask themselves why didn’t they draft that player?  Finding a ‘golden ticket’ or a ‘diamond in the rough’ is the result of good scouting, proper talent development and let’s face it some good luck too.  The truth is, more often than not the clubs that are perennial cup contenders often have players they’ve drafted and developed from the later rounds playing key roles on their teams.  Its a way to save cap space by not having to spend more money on free agents and its a regular infusion of youth that helps keep clubs fresh and hungry for those big moments.

The Minnesota Wild was able to feature its own late round gem of its own when Kirill Kaprizov (5th round, 135th Overall in 2015) arrived and put up 27 goals and 51 points in 55 games to win this year’s Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.  Another player the team drafted later, Kaapo Kahkonen (4th round, 109th Overall in 2014) also briefly flirted with some Calder Trophy consideration until about mid-way through the 2021 season.  Despite some of his struggles later in the season, he gave the team important starts and contributed to its regular season success.  Can Minnesota find another Kaprizov-like player in this year’s draft?

So what are the Minnesota Wild’s needs?

1. Strengthen the middle & add speed, scoring up front ~ While the ever-popular draft mantra is ‘take the best player available’ for the Minnesota Wild in the 1st round it should be modified to say, “take the best center available” because they simply need more options down the middle.  Especially centers that project to play in the team’s top six.  The team feels confident it drafted one last season in Rossi, and Joel Eriksson Ek enjoyed a breakout season it still would be wise to add another top prospect at that position.  Fiala and Kaprizov need help in order to maximize their potential, having young, skilled centers available allows the team to save some cap space and give these great wingers some more suitable support.  If a top 6 center doesn’t appear to be available, a fast goal-scoring winger would be a close 2nd on any draft list I’d create for this Minnesota Wild club.

2. Beef up the blueline ~ The 2021 NHL Entry Draft class features lots of defenseman, but many are of the smaller, puck moving variety.  The Wild’s blueline is on the smaller side and while that doesn’t seem to be a problem during the regular season at times it feels like that lack of heft gets exposed in the playoffs where the games invariably get more physical.  The team does have a few decent blueline prospects in its system, in Calen Addison and Ryan O’Rourke but they could use another bigger, more physical defenseman in the system.

3. Bolster the crease ~ The news that the Minnesota Wild was unable to reach a contract with promising goaltending prospect Filip Lindberg was a hit to the club’s depth.  While the NHL club is happy with its two goaltenders right now, it still wants to have viable options if anything were to happen to either of them (short-term or long-term).  With a full slate of draft picks at their disposal I would expect the Wild will add at least one goaltender in this year’s draft.

As of this writing and according to CapFriendly, the Wild have two 3rd round picks (86th, 90th), and a pick in each of the next 4 rounds (118th, 150th, 182nd, 214th).  So with six picks in this latter half of the draft the team has plenty of opportunities to find some more diamonds in the rough.  So what players appear to be within this range when you consider the team’s needs?

I have identified 6 players who I think fit the club’s needs and who I think have a fair chance of being available beyond the 2nd round of the draft.  I have researched these players extensively, watched game film and heard what the experts had to say.  So the order you see is how I’d have these players on my draft board if I worked for the Minnesota Wild’s scouting department.

2021 Minnesota Wild Draft Preview: Forwards

2021 Minnesota Wild Draft Preview: Defensemen

2021 Minnesota Wild Draft Preview: Goaltenders

I would like to thank Eliteprospects.com and Devils in the Details podcast for their shift-by-shift YouTube videos of these prospects to get a real good feel for what these players bring to the table both on and off of the puck.

1. LW – James Malatesta (Quebec, QMJHL) ~ Pointe-Claire, Quebec

Height: 5’9″  Weight: 179lbs  Shoots: Left

Central Scouting: #64 (NA Skater)  Hockey News: N/A  ISS: N/A

TSN McKenzie: #82  HockeyProspect.com: N/A

Future Considerations: #73  The Athletic – Wheeler: #94

The Athletic – Pronman: #107

Talent Analysis:  Malatesta is high-energy winger who seems to have one speed, full blast.  He has great wheels and uses them to apply pressure to opponents on the forecheck as he pursues the puck.  Even though he’s a smaller player, he relishes physical contact and consistently finishes his checks which makes him a natural agitating presence on the ice.  Skill-wise he has a decent wrist shot which he likes to fire off the rush, but he’s ok handling the puck but you will see him use his speed to get by defenders as opposed to trying to dangle.  His game lacks nuance that way which makes him fairly straight-forward to defend, but he’s got the explosiveness in his skating that he fly by you if you’re not careful.  He’s an ok passer, but again this an area in his game where its fairly simple.  His upside is ideal for a bottom-6 role but he’s the kind of player opposing teams hate to face because of his relentless style of play.

Bottom Line:  He’s a fast, immensely competitive winger who drives opponents crazy with his relentless puck pursuit game who kind of reminds me of Yanni Gourde or Cal Clutterbuck.  While his skills are not high end, his all out effort each shift and a willingness to be physical makes him an ideal checking winger.  If he’s available in the 3rd round and beyond I’d pick him up because I sure as heck wouldn’t want to have my team have to play against him.

2. LD – Cameron Whynot (Halifax, QMJHL) ~ Kentville, Nova Scotia

Height: 6’1″  Weight: 181lbs  Shoots: Left

Central Scouting: #44 (NA Skater)  Hockey News: #75  ISS: N/A

TSN McKenzie: #56  HockeyProspect.com: N/A

Future Considerations: #148  The Athletic – Wheeler: #86

The Athletic – Pronman: #50

Talent Analysis:  Some players are blessed with great strength, tremendous speed, and impressive puck skills and some are lucky to have a combination of many of those traits.  Whynot’s exceptional gift is in situational awareness.  His mind quickly processes what needs to be done and he puts himself in good position to make the right play whether its stepping up to hold the offensive zone, or taking the body to seal off an opposing forward from getting to the puck.  He has decent mobility to go along with his high hockey IQ.  Whynot doesn’t mind being physical, but he picks the right moments to dish out hits and while he will need to add strength to be effective in that capacity at the next level.  His puck skills are rather rudimentary and he probably won’t be a be point-producer at the next level but he still does a lot of things well and is a capable puck mover.

Bottom Line:  A player who projects to be a third pairing defenseman who plays a very smart, two-way game even though he has limited skills in the offensive zone.  He’s well-rounded, combining good mobility with a penchant for being physical at the right moments.

3. RW – Jackson Blake (Eden Prairie, USHS-MN) ~ Eden Prairie, MN

Height: 5’10”  Weight: 148lbs  Shoots: Right

Central Scouting: #52 (NA Skater)  Hockey News: ‘Sleeper’  ISS: N/A

TSN McKenzie: N/A  HockeyProspect.com: N/A

Future Considerations: #123  The Athletic – Wheeler: #78

The Athletic – Pronman: #59

Talent Analysis:  The son of former NHL’er Jason Blake, you can certainly see a lot of his father in his son Jackson’s game.  Blake is a smaller winger who has combines excellent skill and anticipation with a fearless style that has him go to the high traffic areas of the ice to make plays.  He split time between the USHL with the Chicago Steel and Eden Prairie where he scored the game winning goal in the State Championship title game.  Its that penchant for making the big play when you team needs it that seems to be a hallmark of his game.  The North Dakota-commit is a terrific finisher but he’s also a great set up man.  At times he tries to do too much with the puck and can be guilty of holding onto it too long that it leads to a turnover.  He definitely needs to add strength as he’s too easy to muscle off the puck.  His skating is ok, but its another area that he would be well-served to improve.  Defensively, he closes the distance and has a knack for forcing turnovers.  The Hockey News labeled him a ‘sleeper’ pick in their 2021 NHL Draft Guide.

Bottom Line:  He’s a skilled winger who is equally adept at setting up teammates or lighting the lamp.  Blake goes to the high traffic areas to make plays and demonstrates that on-ice awareness that seems to put him in the right place on the ice time after time which is he always where he needs to be in order to make a big play.  He certainly needs to add strength and probably at least another 25-30lbs to his frame to make him stronger on the puck.  He kind of reminds me of Brad Marchand with his ability to deliver in the clutch without the shenanigans.

4. C / LW – Victor Stjernborg (Vaxjo, Eliteserien) ~ Malmo, Sweden

Height: 5’11”  Weight: 203lbs  Shoots: Left

Central Scouting: #50 (Euro Skater)  Hockey News: #77  ISS: N/A

TSN McKenzie: N/A  HockeyProspect.com: #101

Future Considerations: #62  The Athletic – Wheeler: #95

The Athletic – Pronman: #135

Talent Analysis:  Scouts say that Stjernborg is one of the smartest players available in the draft.  He is a defensive-minded shut down center that exudes maturity and leadership.  He is willing to take a hit to make a play or dish one out regardless of the likely outcome.  His hustle every shift makes him an absolute pain to play against as he consistently takes away time and space which is why he has earned the trust of his coaches in Sweden’s top league to be used on their penalty kill.  While his defensive play is what stands out, he is a decent puckhandler and puck distributor.  He isn’t afraid to go into the corners to battle for pucks and prefers to take the puck to the middle of the ice when he goes on the attack.  He is crisp and accurate on his passes, but that cannot be said about his shot which certainly is one of the weaker parts of his game.  His skating could be more efficient in his technique but his effort-level allows him to be where he needs to be on the ice to do his job effectively.  He plays a team-first game where he’s selfless and isn’t afraid to do the hard work to help his team win.

Bottom Line:  A smart, competitive shut-down center who could be a penalty killing marvel for years.  The fact he’s already being used as a penalty killer in Sweden’s top league tells you he might have a slightly faster development curve than you might expect for a late-round selection.  A junkyard dog in his determination in each and every shift who is willing to do anything to help his team win.

5. RD – Jack Bar (Chicago, USHL) ~ Newmarket, Ontario

Height: 6’2″  Weight: 194lbs  Shoots: Right

Central Scouting: #41 (NA Skater)  Hockey News: #66  ISS: N/A

TSN – McKenzie: #58  HockeyProspect.com: N/A

Future Considerations: #55  The Athletic – Wheeler: #64

The Athletic – Pronman: #82

Talent Analysis:  He’s a strong well-built defenseman who is a decent skater and plays an energetic game.  Bar likes to be involved at both ends of the ice and likes to engage physically and join the rush when the opportunity presents itself.  However its this tendency to want to be ‘involved’ that sometimes gets him into trouble as he might try to force passes that are not there and at times can get caught being a bit careless with the puck.  His gap control is good, and he likes to neutralize attackers by using his size and strength to seal off players from the puck or to tie them up.  His agility is another area where he could stand to improve his game.  The Harvard-commit is still rather raw and will need some time to refine his skills but he has a lot of great physical tools that make him a good project player with plenty of NHL potential when he sticks to playing a simple game.

Bottom Line:  A raw, 6’2″ right-shot defenseman who is a decent skater who asserts himself at both ends of the ice.  He is kind of a project player but if developed properly could be kind of similar to a McKenzie Weegar or Colton Parayko.  I think he will probably spend at least 2-3 seasons at Harvard before turning pro, but there is a lot to like from the Newmarket, Ontario-native’s game.  There is a fair chance some team will decide to pick him up in the 2nd round of the draft, but if he slips to the 3rd round I think you have to take him.

6. G – Joe Vrbetic (North Bay, OHL) ~ Dunvegan, Ontario

Height: 6’6″  Weight: 181lbs Catches: Left

Central Scouting: #6 (NA Goalie)  Hockey News: #86  ISS: N/A

TSN – McKenzie: #96  HockeyProspect.com: #92

Future Considerations: #233  The Athletic – Wheeler: N/A

The Athletic – Pronman: N/A

Talent Analysis:  He’s a goaltender who has prototypical big NHL goalie size who uses his big frame to give opposing shooters little to look at.  Vrbetic is precise in his movements but he could be quicker which might be a sign that he lacks lower body strength.  Even though his lateral movement has definite room for improvement he’s very quick in going from standing to the butterfly to back on his feet.  His tracking of the puck through traffic and he anticipation of puck movement in the offensive zone can be inconsistent.  However its not all bad, as his height makes him difficult to screen and he does see shots better through traffic than most goaltenders in his age group.  His rebound control is another area of his game that he must improve.  Because of the OHL suspending their season due to the pandemic he didn’t play this season, but scouts are optimistic he can fix many of the deficiencies in his game.

Bottom Line:  Because of the lost season, he drops a bit despite being a big goaltender with above average reflexes using his size to its greatest advantage.  He is probably best described as a bit of a project goaltender, but with some development he could add valuable depth to the team’s stable of goaltending prospects.

What players you feel will be available in the later rounds of the draft interest you?  Tell us on Twitter at @CreaseAndAssist!

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