BUFFALO, N.Y. – When Chuck Fletcher arrived in Minnesota in 2009, the new general manager talked about filling a bare cupboard by building through the draft and pursuing junior and college free agents.
But once the Wild signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year contracts in 2012, that signaled a shift in philosophy, a win-now approach that caused the GM to start using draft picks as currency in an effort to acquire players who could aid in deep playoff runs.
By making seven trades in the past two years involving draft picks, the bill has “come due,” as Fletcher said this week.
At this weekend’s NHL draft, one in which Auston Matthews should go first overall in front of blissful Maple Leafs fans making the 90-minute drive across the border, the Wild has only four draft picks.
The Wild owns its first-round pick at 15th overall Friday but only has its fourth-round pick and two sevenths Saturday, where choosing someone who some day actually will end up playing in the NHL is a long shot.
Having so few draft picks has limited, and will limit, Fletcher’s ability to make trades.
“With no second or third this year, no second next year, those are typically the types of assets you need to move up in a draft,” said Fletcher, who dealt this year’s second in the Matt Moulson trade, this year’s third in the Sean Bergenheim trade and next year’s second in the Chris Stewart trade.
The other way to move up would be to trade prospects, and he doesn’t want to deal a living, breathing player or the unknown.
“Players like [Alex] Tuch and [Joel] Eriksson Ek and [Jordan] Greenway have all developed really well and they’re well down the path,” Fletcher said. “Those guys to me are even more valuable than picks, because they’ve already developed, too, which isn’t always the case. So we’re not really pursuing to move up all that hard.
“Our goal is to draft a real quality prospect at 15.”
If it means acquiring more picks, Fletcher would be inclined to move down only if there are a number of players still on the board who the Wild likes.
“At the top end of this draft, most teams may rate guys similar,” Fletcher said. “But, we may get a guy that we rate 10th or 11th on our list at 15. In that type of scenario, you probably don’t get too cute. You probably just take the player and call it a successful first round and move on.”
Assistant GM Brent Flahr, the man tasked with finding a quality player, said if the team can get a couple high picks, it would consider that.
“But I’m always hesitant to do that,” he said, meaning the Wild would take a player it really covets.
Flahr believes there should be a number of quality players available at No. 15.
Some centers in the Wild wheelhouse could include Tyson Jost, Michael McLeod and Clayton Keller; wingers who could be available are Kieffer Bellows and Julien Gauthier.
The Wild’s strength is largely deemed to be defense, but the organizational need could be dramatically different in a few years. Flahr said if the right defenseman was there, the Wild would take him. Names that could be available include Jake Bean and Charlie McAvoy.
This will be the eighth draft in the Fletcher regime, and the seventh with Flahr guiding the draft table. Since 2009, the Wild has had seven first-round picks, including Friday’s, and has selected at an average of 14th overall.
So it rarely gets to pick from the cream of the crop no-doubters — like this year’s Mathews, Patrik Laine, Jesse Puljujarvi and Matthew Tkachuk. Flahr says “[that] would be nice, but I’d much rather make the playoffs every year.”
As bad as the Wild’s AHL team in Iowa has been — worst team in the league the past two, worst team in the West three seasons ago — Flahr believes things will improve markedly with an influx of youngsters, including Tuch, Adam Gilmour, Mario Lucia and Sam Anas.
There is pressure on the Wild that Tuch and Eriksson Ek, who played as an 18-year-old for Färjestad BK in Sweden’s top league, pan out.
“We think we have some good players coming,” Flahr said. “We’re not in the place we were six, seven years ago where we needed to fill the whole pool and man a team. We want to always have assets coming.”