FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. – The adage at any draft is “We’ll take the best player available.”
When NHL teams take unfinished products at 18 years of age, the vast majority that ultimately make it still won’t do so for three or four years — or longer — so current organizational needs can’t typically be fixed at the draft.
The Wild could use top centermen. The Wild’s production up the middle last season was near the bottom of the league. Beyond the NHL, 2011 seventh-rounder Tyler Graovac was the only center at AHL Iowa who looked like a sure prospect.
But even though a number of quality centers could be available for the Wild to select at this weekend’s NHL draft, assistant general manager Brent Flahr said it plans to go by which player is next on its list.
“There was a time when the cupboard was somewhat bare, and it seemed like all we took were forwards,” Flahr said. “Then we traded Brent Burns [in 2011] and suddenly we needed defensemen. So needs change quickly. If you go into the draft just looking to fill a certain position, that’s when mistakes are made and sometimes you miss the better player.”
One area where it does seem like the Wild has departed from the “best player” mantra is with Russians.
Of the 42 draft picks in the Fletcher era since 2009, the Wild chose 13 Europeans. Eleven have come from Finland and Sweden and one each from Switzerland and the Czech Republic. The latter two, Christoph Bertschy (sixth round in 2012) and Pavel Jenys (seventh round in 2014), have turned pro and are expected to play in Iowa next season.
Fletcher admits he has been wary of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League pressuring its homegrown players or even Czechs and Slovaks from either not coming to the NHL or returning in the middle of their NHL contracts (Alex Radulov with Nashville, Ilya Kovalchuk with New Jersey and Vladimir Sobotka with St. Louis are some examples).
“You want to make sure if you draft a kid, particularly in the first few rounds, that you have a legitimate chance to sign them and get them over here and keep them here,” Fletcher said.
Flahr swears the Wild’s not “anti-Russian.”
“Some of the top guys the last number of years get drafted early and they’re out of our range,” Flahr said. “As for the others, if you’re not sure they’re 100 percent committed to coming over here and playing, it’s hard to invest a high pick.
“It’s honestly just the way things have worked out.”
Beating the rep
Some eastern Europeans have reputations of not being “team players.” In the Fletcher-Flahr era, the only Russian to be on a Wild roster was goalie Ilya Bryzgalov in the second half of the 2013-14 season. The Wild hasn’t had a player from the Czech Republic since Martin Havlat in 2011 and Marek Zidlicky in 2012. Both their Wild careers ended in stormy fashion.
Flahr said the Wild has no issues with the personalities of Eastern Europeans, “that it’s no different than any a Canadian player. You’ve got to get to know the player and if there’s a character issue or a question of work ethic or something else you’re questioning, it doesn’t matter where they’re from.”
In 2010, the Wild chose Finnish center Mikael Granlund 10th overall. The Blues took Vladimir Tarasenko at 16 and Evgeny Kuznetsov went 26th to Washington. It’s debatable which of the three will end up being the best, but Flahr said this was an example where several teams, not just the Wild, were worried about the Russian players coming to North America.
“They fell, but no one didn’t recognize their talent,” Flahr said. “You just have to read each player. If they have talent and they’re highly motivated to come over here and play, perfect.”
Coming to Canada
Still, it does seem as if the Wild has missed out on some very talented players. Fletcher said he doesn’t have the same KHL fear anymore because so many draft-eligible Russian and Czech players are showing their commitment to play in the NHL by playing juniors in the Canadian Hockey League.
The two top Russians in this weekend’s draft, Ivan Provorov and Evgeny Svechnikov, played in Brandon and Cape Breton, respectively. Three top Czech kids — Pavel Zacha, Jakub Zboril and Filip Chlapik — all played in the CHL.
Jenys, whom the Wild believes has a legitimate shot to be an NHLer, played for Sudbury last season.
There also might be an improved relationship between the NHL and KHL on the horizon as the leagues work toward a potential transfer agreement.
“We’re seeing more and more players moving this way,” Fletcher said. “There are a lot of good eastern Europeans this year. Last year, too. We’re open-minded to a player from anywhere. For a couple of years, maybe other teams weren’t as concerned as we were, but I think we’re at a different time now.”