The Minnesota Wild dealt their first-round pick in the 2013 NHL draft to the Buffalo Sabres in the Jason Pominville trade and, as a result, will be have their first selection at No. 46 overall in the second round.
With that pick, the Wild should select a defensive defenseman. While the team needs to address its goaltending situation, many of the best goaltenders come from later in the draft and need a lot of time to season in the minors.
As evidence of this, look at the past four champions. In 2009, the Pittsburgh Penguins won with Marc-Andre Fleury in net, the first overall selection in the mighty 2003 draft. Fleury was benched during the playoffs, however, and may not be in the team’s plans going forward.
In 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks won with the undrafted Antti Niemi tending goal. Nemo, as he is known colloquially, was a victim of Chicago’s salary cap purge and signed with the San Jose Sharks after winning the Cup. The undrafted netminder is currently the starting goaltender in the Bay Area.
Tim Thomas was in net when the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup. The No. 217 overall selection by the Quebec Nordiques in 1994, Thomas made his NHL debut in 2002-03 after playing in the Finnish SM-Liiga and Sweden’s Elitserien, returned to Finland, then broke in with the Bruins again in 2005. After deciding to take the 2012-13 season off, Thomas was dealt to the New York Islanders for a conditional second-round pick.
Finally, Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings was the No. 72 overall selection in 2005. The third-rounder is still the starting goaltender for the Kings.
In short, it’s smarter to use later picks on goaltending, and therefore Minnesota should focus on defense with its earlier picks.
The best approach is to find a defensive-minded player who can be top prospect Mathew Dumba’s partner on the second pairing for the long term. Dumba can lay down massive hits, but is known more for his offensive prowess, and the Wild want to ensure that their defense is steady when Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin are off the ice.
The following are five players that the Wild should take if they are still available at No. 46 in New Jersey on June 30.
Dillon Heatherington, Swift Current Broncos (WHL)
Heatherington is a 6’2”, 187-pound defenseman from Calgary, Alberta who was plus-25 for Swift Current last year. While he is known for his play in his own end, Heatherington also tallied 23 assists for the Broncos in 2012-13.
Hardly known when he joined Swift Current two years ago, Heatherington established himself as one of the WHL’s top defensemen in this year’s draft class by studying his teammates from behind the Plexiglas.
“I really used my time in the stands as a healthy scratch to my advantage,” he told Yahoo! Sports' Kelly Friesen. “I watched what players did and how they positioned themselves. I really think that helped me to improve on things in my game and get back into the lineup.”
While scouts feel that he is at his best in the defensive zone, he became a better puck-carrier, which allowed him to get involved with the scoring. His improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 and his size are the main reasons why scouts have become bullish on the bulking defenseman.
“I think not focusing on my raking helped me,” he told Friesen. “I just kept working hard and that work has paid off.”
Make no mistake, though, Heatherington’s primary focus is on his defensive play.
“Plus-minus is huge for me," he told Scott Cruickshank of the Calgary Herald. “Most guys like getting the points on the power play and all the glory. But you definitely need players blocking shots on the penalty kill, playing hard in the defensive zone.”
Mitch Wheaton, Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Wheaton, who goes by both Mitch and Mitchell, spent the 2011-12 season with the Spruce Grove Saints of the Alberta Junior Hockey League and went back to Spruce Grove last year after going to training camp with Kelowna. He only played one game for the Saints, however, and decided to join the Rockets instead of trying to play college hockey in the United States.
Wheaton played 39 games for a Kelowna team that finished first in the B.C. Division and reached the second round in the playoffs. He was a plus-20 during the regular season, but was minus-two in four playoff games for the Rockets.
Wheaton was not highly touted coming out of bantam hockey, going No. 207 overall in the WHL bantam draft, but really improved his game in Kelowna.
“Don't be fooled by how late Wheaton was selected in the 2010 bantam draft, he is a very highly-regarded prospect,” wrote Yahoo!’s Friesen. “Wheaton is a part of the 2013 draft class. Since size can't be taught, the Sherwood Park, Alta., native will undoubtedly have a large following of scouts buzzing around him on a regular basis.”
A shoulder injury limited Wheaton to 39 games last season, but scouts like his lateral movement and the long reach he uses to stymie opponents (h/t Hockey’s Future).
Assuming he checks out medically, the Wild should be interested in this guy come draft time.
Michael Downing, Dubuque Fighting Saints (USHL)
While most standout American hockey players spend three years in high school before doing their two-year stint in the USHL, Downing went directly from Detroit Catholic Central to junior hockey at age 16.
Michael benefitted from having his brother Jake in Eastern Iowa and quickly adapted to the junior hockey lifestyle.
“As one of the youngest players in the league, most others held an advantage over Michael—age, experience, being more physically and mentally mature” writes Jason Paul of MichiganHockey.net. “They were used to the travel and living away from home. They were prepared for life in the USHL, while he was just beginning to learn it.”
Downing is plus-15 in his two years in Dubuque and is committed to play at the University of Michigan next season. His accelerated development, along with the experience of playing with first-round draft picks like Zemgus Girgensons (Buffalo Sabres) and Michael Matheson (Florida Panthers), make him one of the more highly regarded prospects in American junior hockey and an attractive option for the Wild if they can get their hands on him.
Mason Geertsen, Vancouver Giants (WHL)
Geertsen has played his entire junior hockey career in NHL cities. He started his WHL career with the Edmonton Oil Kings and was traded to the Vancouver Giants 15 games into the2012-13 season.
At 6’3”, 201 lbs, the Rocky Rapids, Alberta native is already NHL-sized and is able to control opponents in the defensive zone. “Established early as a player prepared to take WHL heavyweights,” reads his talent analysis on Hockey’s Future. “Should become more involved offensively as skating improves.”
Drafted in the first round, No. 18 overall by the Oil Kings, he has been considered a blue-chipper for most of his life. KuklasKorner.com’s Lisa McRitchie reports that he was 6’3”, 200 “hard hitting pounds” at age 17.
Willing to mix it up as well as nail players to the boards, Geertsen once fought former Edmonton teammate Mitch Moroz twice in one game. “It’s fun I guess," Geertsen told KuklasKorner.com. “It’s like you can get out all of the anger you had on the team and stuff. Guys you didn’t like on the team you can take it out now it’s kind of fun.”
Minnesota has always been known as a gritty team, and adding a player that’s got a little edge could work out for them, as long as they know how to handle him.
Jared Hauf, Seattle Thunderbirds (WHL)
Hauf was the No. 4 selection by Seattle back in 2010, and the lumbering 6’4”, 185-pound defenseman has been a staple on the blue line ever since.
His plus-minus numbers are poor—he was minus-32 and minus-18, respectively, in the past two seasons—but the Thunderbirds were also in the Western Conference cellar both years.
Hauf needs to fill out his frame, but his combination of height, strong defensive play and offensive instincts have led scouts to compare him to another Jared—Jared Cowen of the Ottawa Senators, who also played his junior hockey in Washington State (Spokane Chiefs) and was drafted No. 9 overall in 2009.
“The big defenceman will add some much needed size and grit to the Seattle Thunderbirds blueline,” writes Yahoo!’s Friesen. “Despite initially appearing as merely a shut-down defenceman, Hauf can also move the puck.”
The potential of putting a hulking defenseman on their second pairing next to the 6’, 184-pound Dumba has to be tempting for the Wild.
All of these players may be off the board by the time the Wild have to make their second round pick, but if one of them is available, Minnesota should pull the trigger.
It’s always smart to take the best player available, but the Wild should lean toward taking a defensive defenseman with their first pick in order to address a need and then take a goaltender or two later in the draft.