Heading into this year’s Entry Draft the Minnesota Wild only have four draft picks in which to acquire talent of the future. Some think that this situation will mortgage the future of the team as the Wild will be unable to adequately restock their talent pool. Or can they restock another way?
As this year’s NHL Entry Draft approaches many around State of Hockey are wondering if the Minnesota Wild are in a bad position heading into Buffalo. On the surface the situation does look pretty bad. As it stands right now the team will be picking in the 1st, 4th, and twice in the 7th rounds for a grand total of only four draft picks. Needless to say many around the Wild are concerned that this number is dangerously low and actually could significantly damage the future of the team.
The Wild have gotten to this point really because of deadline/win now types of trades. The acquisitions of Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson were mostly paid for with high draft picks as to not affect the Wild’s lineup at the time. Unfortunately the Wild did not really win now as the trades had promised, and many have been left with a bad taste in their mouths wondering what the team actually got for these picks.
So to rectify the situation many have called on GM Chuck Fletcher to trade back in and get some picks in the open market. Sure the Wild can do that to a point. There’s a few pieces they could move to get back into the second or third round very easily, but is that really what they want to do?
It can be argued that draft picks just are not as valuable as they once were. If a NHL franchise wants to acquire excellent young talent for development the draft is no longer the only avenue to do that. With rise of European elite leagues and the KHL there is now a multitude of talent to choose from that might come in the undrafted free agent realm.
The Wild have actually had fairly good success in doing this over the years. Niklas Backstrom is an excellent example as he was signed as a free-agent straight out of SM-liiga. Backstrom played for ten seasons in Finland before the Wild signed him to a contract. On top of not having to draft him, Backstrom was immediately ready for NHL action with no time needed in lower leagues. Furthermore, his experience in Finland ensured he was ready and was big indicator of the success he would enjoy in the NHL.
Another way to acquire young talent outside the draft process is to wait for draft rights to expire on previously drafted players. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) as written has left a huge loop-hole whereby teams looking to be opportunistic, can simply wait and see whose draft rights have expired.
As it is written now the CBA says that if a player is not signed by his NHL team within two years of being drafted can re-enter the draft if they are 20 years old or younger at the time of the ensuing draft. If a player is over 20 they become an unrestricted free agent. The only two caveats to that rule are that players coming out of the NCAA keep the rights of the player for 30 days after they leave college, and if a first round pick is signed by a team other than the one that drafted them the team that drafted the player is owed a compensatory draft pick in a future draft.
The Wild have used this rule to gain talent and it has hurt them a bit as recently as this offseason with Reid Duke opting not to sign with the team. The acquisition of former University of Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly last offseason was an excellent example of how the Wild added seasoned NCAA talent without a expending a draft pick. The Columbus Blue Jackets, the team who drafted him, were unable to come to an agreement with Reilly within 30 days after he left the Gophers after three years playing in the NCAA. Thus he became a free-agent and signed with the Wild.
Reilly will is not the first nor will he be the last NCAA player to take advantage of this loop-hole. Just this offseason Harvard forward Jimmy Vesey decided to snub the Nashville Predators and not sign within 30 days of leaving school. The standard has been set that if a NCAA player wants to cash in on free-agency early they can do it they only need to stay in school for more than two years, and then just refuse to sign with the team that drafted them. This provision was supposed to be a way for teams to allow players to stay in school, but it really is starting to work against them as a team could lose out on a player by allowing them to maturate and pursue an education in college.
So are does this mean a team doesn’t need to draft well? No, because the draft is always the best way to bring in as much young talent as possible. It basically means that if a team is without high draft picks they can still acquire first/second round talent through free-agency.
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The Chicago Blackhawks have this model down. They have taken this devaluation of draft picks and translated it into successfully into building consistent championship teams. The Blackhawks did not have a 1st round pick in last year’s draft and currently do not have picks in the 1st or 2nd round of this year’s draft. GM Stan Bowman has still been able to refresh the team with talent. Most notably his signings of Artemi Panarin from the KHL last offseason and Erik Gustafson from the Swedish elite league who was originally drafted by the Oilers, but could not be signed in the two-year limit, have refreshed the team’s talent base while still keeping them as contenders. Signings like these have allowed Bowman to use high picks to acquire NHL level talent to help win now.
So if you think the Wild need to trade to get more draft picks, just take a minute and ask if that is the best thing to help the team win now or in the near future? If Chuck Fletcher and his staff have a plan to acquire young entry-level free-agent talent outside the draft, then do they waist trading currently viable players on picks that may or may not pan out? If the goal is to win now, then getting players who help the Wild win now is the priority. Acquiring draft picks will require that some of the pieces needed to win now will be lost.
There’s many ways to build an excellent talent base, the draft is only one of them. The Wild do need to draft smart, but more importantly they need to obtain players the smartest way possible. If the draft picks are not there, then free-agency maybe what they need to do. So is it really a huge concern not to have a full complement of draft picks? Not if the Wild have a plan…we’ll just have to be patient to see what that plan is.