With 19 games left in the season, the Minnesota Wild is gearing up for a playoff run. While they’re unlikely to make a splash at the trade deadline, could Minnesota add a few quality prospects out of the undrafted collegiate ranks? It’s certainly a possibility.
Before I start rattling off names, let’s take an inventory of the prospects about to join the pro ranks. Big 6’3” center Tyler Graovac is in his last year of eligibility in the OHL, and will likely make his pro debut with Minnesota’s farm team next season. Dynamic Finnish forward Erik Haula is already being encouraged by the Wild brass to forgo his final season of NCAA eligibility to turn pro at the end of this season. Both Minnesota Wild 7th round picks have had great careers playing Junior/College hockey, and could make a significant impact with Minnesota and its farm team in the not too distant future.
The thing fans need to realize is that the prospect pool and farm system is bursting with real solid forward prospects. Graovac and Haula—and Raphael Bussieres, Mario Lucia and Adam Gilmour later down the road—only add to that depth at the minor league level. Next season, the only top-end caliber defenseman that will likely make his pro debut is 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba. Intriguing defensive prospects John Draeger and Nick Seeler are a few years away still and will likely play college puck all four years.
As such, Minnesota will likely be looking to sign the best young defenseman available on the market. As you can imagine, if you follow Wild and Gopher hockey, most Minnesota Wild fans are hoping—nay, praying—that the young defenseman Wild GM Chuck Fletcher chooses to sign is Nate Schmidt out of the University of Minnesota. The 6’ 195-pound blue liner has been very productive on the Gophers’ backend, notching 31 points in 38 games this season as a junior, and is tied for third in scoring amongst NCAA defensemen. This is coming off of a sophomore campaign that saw him notch 41 points.
The only question is whether Schmidt will forgo his final year of eligibility to turn pro. Whether he jumps to the pro ranks this season or not, you can be sure Minnesota is monitoring his situation closely and for good reason—the kid is good. He’s not the biggest defenseman ever, but he plays with confidence, poise, has good defensive instincts and wields a heavy, accurate point shot. With a season or two in the minors, Schmidt could develop into an impressive top-4 impact NHL defenseman.
If the Wild can’t sign Schmidt, Danny DeKeyser would by no means be a consolation prize. The 6’3” 198-pound defenseman out of Western Michigan has been pegged as the top free agent available by more than a few media outlets. The hulking defenseman has potted five goals and notched 17 points in both his freshman and sophomore seasons and will likely forgo his senior season to begin his NHL career after being expected to sign last offseason. So far this season, DeKeyser has notched two goals and 15 points.
With just one contract available, Fletcher will likely have to make a trade or two to free up some contract space if he wants to sign more than just one prospect. He may want to do that, because in addition to a few good defensemen available, there are one or two young forwards that could make a significant impact in the NHL. One such forward that could be in serious consideration by the Minnesota Wild is St. Cloud State center Drew LeBlanc. A “super” senior, LeBlanc leads all NCAA skaters with 37 assists in 38 games. The 6’ 195-pound forward is tied for third in points with 50 and is in the mix for the NCAA scoring title along with University of North Dakota’s Danny Kristo (Montreal), Boston College’s Johnny Gaudreau (Calgary) and University of Minnesota’s Haula (Minnesota).
Minnesota has a history of spending contract room on undrafted collegiate free agents, including guys like Nate Prosser, Casey Wellman, Justin Fontaine and Chay Genoway among others. Does that change this year? I doubt it. Minnesota has enough organizational depth that it’s no big deal if the franchise decides not to sign anyone out of the collegiate ranks, or doesn’t make a move at the trade deadline. However, there are a few young undrafted free agents about to jump into the pro ranks that will likely make an impact in the NHL. Could one or two of the 2013 crop make that impact in Red, White and Green? You never know; anything’s possible. As usual in the State of Hockey, in Fletcher, we trust.