To Paul Fenton, signing a coveted free agent out of college feels like getting an extra pick in the NHL draft. Monday, the Wild general manager landed one he likened to a first-rounder, signing Clarkson forward Nico Sturm to a one-year, entry-level contract through the remainder of the season.
If Sturm gets a work visa in time, he will make his NHL debut this week. That would give the 23-year-old German the opportunity to show why Fenton has been pursuing him for two years.
A 6-3, 211-pounder, Sturm led the Golden Knights with 45 points including 31 assists during his just-completed junior season and is also a top-flight defender, co-captain and faceoff specialist.
Fenton wants to build the Wild by developing prospects, but the franchise’s history of trading high draft picks has left it little to work with. Sturm, whom Fenton believes can play for the Wild “right now,” exemplifies the kind of well-rounded young player he is targeting to restock the ranks.
“This is a really good get for us,” Fenton said. “He wins faceoffs, he’s got character, he’s got size, he’s got bite to him. He’s a guy that I think will fit into our lineup, our top nine.”
Sturm was named ECAC Hockey’s best defensive forward in each of the past two seasons. One of 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award, he finished his college career with 103 points in 118 games and a plus-minus rating of plus-47. Sturm won 57.9 percent of his faceoffs this season after winning an NCAA-best 61.7 percent as a sophomore.
The Wild is trying to expedite Sturm’s visa application so he can play as soon as possible. He will be a restricted free agent this summer.
With Sturm’s size and strength, Fenton said, he can control where his opponent can go. He also uses that physicality to carry pucks to the net and establish position there, a quality Fenton wants to see more of from the Wild.
“That’s one of the presence things I’m looking for,” he said. “To get somebody that really takes it and stays there and wants to compete for pucks.”
Sturm is the second college free agent to sign with the Wild this spring, joining former Gophers goaltender Mat Robson. Fenton is talking with others, with the plan of building the Wild from within as he did with Nashville during his time there as assistant GM.
“It’s like getting two first-round picks when you get Robson and you get Sturm,” Fenton said. “It’s so important to be able to get free agents. Our scouts always did a great job in Nashville, being able to draft guys and bring them in there and getting a winning environment with young kids. And that’s what our goal is here.’’