VANCOUVER – Preparing for the future and embracing youth were priorities for the Wild last season, and that was demonstrated by what the team did and didn’t do.
It became younger through trades, swapping out members of the established core for fresh faces, and chose not to acquire outside help at the expense of its draft picks when injuries to defenseman Matt Dumba and captain Mikko Koivu weakened its lineup.
While one of the results of those decisions was a group that fell short of a playoff berth for the first time in seven years, another result is the sizable stable of selections it’ll have when the first round of the NHL draft kicks off Friday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver — the next opportunity to continue this evolution of the Wild.
“The most important thing was continuing to save our draft picks to make sure we had a full draft,” General Manager Paul Fenton said. “Now we’ve got eight picks this year, and that’s great.”
At No. 12, the Wild is scheduled to make its highest pick since it drafted Dumba seventh overall in 2012. The team also has single picks in the second, third, fourth, fifth and seventh rounds and two in the sixth. Rounds 2-7 are Saturday.
Center Jack Hughes and winger Kaapo Kakko are the consensus top overall picks, with Hughes likely to go first to the New Jersey Devils and Kakko second to the New York Rangers.
A dynamic playmaker, Hughes has the skating ability, skill and smarts to be a franchise figurehead and is set to headline a deep class of Americans taken in the first round. Kakko, however, might make a more immediate impact in the NHL since he has the size and strength to flex his prowess on the wing — like he already has internationally with Finland.
With those picks seemingly locked in, the draft essentially starts at No. 3 with the Chicago Blackhawks. An intriguing pool of centers will be available, but the talent tapers off so that a player later in the top 10 is of a similar caliber as someone in the teens.
Because of that, the Wild could trade down — not just in the first round but also in Rounds 2 and 3. The team is also open to moving up in the first round, but it would likely take a significant deal for that to happen.
“There’s a couple of rounds here that we really have a lot of players that we would still be interested in,” Fenton said. “We are going to explore everything.”
Targeting the best player available will be the team’s focus when it’s on the clock rather than addressing a specific need, and the Wild could be enticed by all three positions at No. 12.
Forwards Trevor Zegras, Matthew Boldy and Peyton Krebs might be options. Same with defensemen Philip Broberg and Cameron York. And although goalies aren’t typical first-round picks, Spencer Knight might tempt the Wild if he hasn’t been taken.
Amateur scouts P.J. Fenton and Darren Yopyk will be running the draft.
“This year I can confidently say at 12 that we are going to get a very good player, a very good player,” Fenton said. “It does not matter what the position is. It is going to be a very good player.”
If the Wild retains all eight picks, this class will match the team’s haul from a year ago — a windfall compared to the 10 selections the team had over the previous two years, with only one of those in the first two rounds.
Its reigning top pick, defenseman Filip Johansson, went at No. 24 last year but was projected to go later.
Team brass could be feeling a sense of urgency to dazzle with its draft performance this go-round, but the importance of the weekend also seems stoked by the direction the Wild is veering. And that’s one that puts a premium on up-and-coming talent.
“This organization has traded away picks for the last six years, and that has affected where we are with the development of our prospects, our lack of prospects, and we have to build from within,” Fenton said. “That is part of my motto, is part of the reason that I’m here is that we are going to be able to develop from within.”