Yesterday on Michael Russo's Live Chat for the Star Tribune, Chris asked a question that touches on a talking point that's been brought up around here not only during this playoff series, but long before. Chris asked:
With the Wild being a playoff team, there is no chance they will be in the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. How does the team improve in youth talent when it cannot draft franchise players?
To which Russo replied, "Great question".
Now, there is no doubt that the Avalanche "bottoming out" has led them to drafting franchise-changing players. Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and Nate MacKinnon were direct results of the Avalanche playing poorly enough to secure those spots in those drafts.
And then you look to another division rival in the Chicago Blackhawks, who won the Stanley Cup last season, and are advancing to the second round after defeating the St. Louis Blues in 6 games. They did in large part on the strength of picking two Hall of Fame-type talents in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane with Top-3 picks in consecutive years.
As for the Wild? It's no secret around Minnesota that even when they've been bad, they've been too bad to get in on a Top-3 pick. Since getting the 4th overall pick in 2005 (Thanks, Benoit Pouliot!), the Wild have picked with the 9th, 16th, 23rd, 16th, 9th, 10th, 28th, and 7th picks in the draft. Out of all those picks, Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin appear to be the most likely bets to be stars in the group (though neither are a given just yet), and Mathew Dumba has promise, but there's still some development needed before we can make any judgements.
No, there's not a MacKinnon in there. And there's not a Toews or a Kane. There's not a Crosby or Malkin (which Pittsburgh was fortunate enough to get by bottoming out). But let's not make it out to be that the only way to build a strong contending team is with those level of franchise-changing superstars.
It should come as no surprise when you look at the 5 teams it sent to the playoffs, but the Central Division (also known as Conference III) has a lot of scary good talent playing in it. Let's take a look at each team's very-good-to-elite players (from the ages of 25-or-under) and see how they were acquired.
Chicago- No surprises, Patrick Kane headlines the bunch, and granted, he was a 1st overall draft pick. But Brandon Saad is a sophomore that put up 47 points this season, and was a strong possession guy. He was drafted in the second round (43rd overall). Teuvo Teravainen, a top prospect who is being dubbed as the Finnish Patrick Kane, has only three NHL games under his belt. But he seems very promising (He was The Hockey News' #3 prospect this year), and he fell all the way down to 18th overall.
Colorado- Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, and Gabriel Landeskog are all Top-3 picks, this is true. But Ryan O'Reilly, a great two-way player, was a 2nd rounder (33rd overall), and Tyson Barrie, who broke out this season as a dynamic offensive defenseman was a 3rd round selection (64th overall). If we want to bump it up to 26, Vezina candidate Semyon Varlamov and top-minute defenseman Erik Johnson were acquired via trade.
Dallas- The Stars have their own impressive young players of their own. Tyler Seguin headlines the bunch, and he was a #2 overall pick. However, he was Boston's #2 overall pick. He was acquired in a blockbuster trade over the offseason, which shipped Loui Eriksson among others to the Bruins. Jamie Benn almost scored 35 goals and was a point-per-game player. He was acquired in the fifth round (129th overall). The Stars grabbed a falling Valeri Nichushkin at the 10th overall pick last year, and though he only in his Age-18 season, he managed to get 34 points (14G-20A).
Nashville- I'll grant you- Seth Jones wasn't a Top-3 pick, but it would be disingenuous to not act as if the #4 overall pick isn't in that category. Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok are two highly-regarded forward prospects that are close to NHL-ready. Both of them have been acquired by trades.
St. Louis- Alex Pietrangelo is the only U-25 player that the Blues drafted with a Top-5 pick (#4 overall). On the defensive side, Kevin Shattenkirk is an outstanding offensive defenseman the Blues acquired in a trade. Offensively, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko look like they're going to develop into an excellent offensive core for St. Louis, and they were both drafted with mid-first round picks (14th for Schwartz, and 16th for Tarasenko).
Winnipeg- The Jets have built their young core through the top half of the first round, and Evander Kane is probably the best example of that (4th overall). But Jacob Trouba (9th overall) and Mark Schiefle (7th overall) haven't been drafted in positions that Minnesota haven't had access to recently.
What This Means For Minnesota
While getting a player like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Nathan MacKinnon, or Connor McDavid is probably out of the realm of possibility, given the Wild didn't, nor won't anytime soon, finish that low in the standings. But as you can see above, it's hardly doom and gloom because they can't get a Top-3 draft pick. The majority of bright young players in the division have been acquired due to either picks 7-16, or trades.
The Wild themselves have seen good results in these regards. Picking Granlund and Brodin with a 9th and 10th overall pick saw the Wild attain two players with star potential. Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter both have flashed stud potential, and they were brought in via trade. Mathew Dumba was thought to be a potential Top-3 pick, but he fell down to the Wild at 7th overall, and he has tantalizing tools. They aren't fully-formed, and don't have the generational upside of a MacKinnon, but the Wild aren't depleted in young talent by any means.
But say you feel that the Wild absolutely lack that player, and require one to become true contenders. Is there a way to try to get that kind of generational talent? The best way to do it would be a Seguin-esque trade. The Edmonton Oilers won't let a Nail Yakupov go for free, but a bold trade to acquire him may be a good way to infuse that kind of skill and speed to this team.
The bottom line is this: If you draft well, make good personnel decisions, and maybe take a shot at a golden opportunity like that Dallas had last off-season, it's possible to acquire the elite talent require to compete for a Stanley Cup.
Was Colorado's resurgence helped greatly by drafting high in three really good years to do so? Of course. But if you want to pin Colorado's success and the Wild's relative short-comings entirely on draft position, you can stop. There are ways other than sucking hard for five years that you can build an elite team.