As the games piled up last season, one specific population on the Wild also ballooned.
Homegrown players on the roster.
By the time the Wild were whisked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs after only five games, five draft picks had made their NHL debuts and 13 players hand-picked by the organization appeared in the lineup.
Injuries keyed most assignments, and salary cap constraints made the pipeline an obvious resource to utilize. But merit was also a factor. And the results were flattering, as youngsters like Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway and Nick Seeler capitalized on the chance to help the Wild skate beyond the 82-game minimum.
While this progression is every organization’s goal, it’s certainly not guaranteed.
That makes adding the right prospects to the mix vital, an opportunity the Wild has this weekend when the draft begins Friday in Dallas.
“It’s a critical, critical part in our development and in our growth,” new Wild General Manager Paul Fenton said.
After lean returns the past two years, with the team lacking a first-rounder in 2017 amid its six picks and selecting only four players in 2016, the Wild is poised to assemble its heftiest haul since 2014. The team has eight picks, including No. 24, three in the third round, two in the fifth and one in the sixth and seventh. Rounds 2-7 are Saturday.
“It’s a lot more exciting,” said Brent Flahr, Wild senior vice president of hockey operations. “When you’re not picking until the third or fourth round, it’s tough to sit there.”
It’s possible that stable of picks swells or shrinks; a stockpile of that size certainly gives the team flexibility to maneuver, and the Wild has discussed trading up or down. But even if it keeps all eight picks, team brass doesn’t feel that’s a bad alternative.
This is the first major milestone of the offseason with Fenton at the helm since he was hired to replace Chuck Fletcher on May 21, but Flahr will be spearheading the team’s draft for the ninth time.
“He’s done all the preparation this year and hard work, and his knowledge and experience will be valuable,” Fenton said.
In the lead-up, though, Fenton has been involved. He has shared his philosophy, which is similar to the incumbent staff’s values: character and hockey sense along with speed and skill. Talent also trumps need; only once in his career with the Predators did Fenton target a position, with Nashville loading up on defensemen in 2003 — the year the organization drafted Ryan Suter, Kevin Klein, Shea Weber and Alexander Sulzer.
The Wild, however, would like to add a goalie this year.
“I’ve kind of let the people running it run it,” Fenton said. “I certainly have opinions on certain players and how deep of an opinion I have compared to theirs is something we’ll just weigh as it goes along. But for me, I’m going to rely heavily on Brent and his staff to make the right decisions for this year.”
Who the Wild takes at No. 24, if it holds onto that pick, is poised to be an intriguing choice.
Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin is the consensus No. 1 pick, which belongs to the Sabres, while Russian winger Andrei Svechnikov has emerged as the second-best option. But how the order transpires after those first few selections is up in the air, an unpredictability that could leave the Wild with a handful of possibilities when it’s on the clock near the end of the first round.
“I’m not certain that this draft is going to play out like a lot of other drafts where you could go from one to 20 and say, ‘Here’s the 20 guys that are going to make it,’ ” Fenton said. “I think that there’s a lot of things that can change. Talking to different people, some people have one order. Some people have another order.”
Although cases can be made at the draft table for later-round picks, the Wild has the top of its list finalized and will target seven to eight players at No. 24.
Centers Ty Dellandrea and Liam Foudy and wingers Martin Kaut and Akil Thomas might be available at that pick; if he’s still on the board, center Ryan McLeod looks like a solid addition after a 26-goal, 70-point season in the Ontario Hockey League.
Defenseman Bode Wilde might also be scooped up by then since he’s touted as boasting a well-rounded skill set. But K’Andre Miller of Hopkins might not be, along with fellow blueliners Jared McIsaac, Rasmus Sandin and Ryan Merkley.
Either way, whoever the Wild tabs isn’t likely to make an impact on the roster for four to five years in Fenton’s mind.
A timeline like that is a potential reality of this process, but identifying those worth taking a chance on is the first step.
“It’s good for the organization to have some guys in the hopper coming,” Flahr said.