It's too soon to say just how far down the standings the Wild will finish, but it's looking like they may have a pretty decent pick in the draft this summer. I think the Wild should put a preference on skill with speed when they draft this year. The aspect of the Wild's prospect pool that is the weakest is forward talent with elite skills, and there are a number of draft eligible centers who could help fix that weakness, some of whom will probably still be available when it's the Wild's turn to call a name.
He is elite at everything. He's got explosive speed. His exceptional maneuverability allows him to consistently dodge checks and make plays with individual effort. But his playmaking ability is also outstanding; he can fit passes through seams so small it seems impossible. In addition to all his natural skills, his effort level is off the chart. It's hard to watch other players when Mitch Marner is on the ice because he always does something exciting. And he excels at so many facets of the game, he is always doing something different to impress. Only 8 times in 44 games this year has he failed to tally a point, and he had a 16 game point streak that spanned the entirety of November. One of the games in that November point streak was a 4 goal 1 assist game. (The following game, he had another hat trick, his fourth of the season). He leads the OHL in scoring with 92 points which is 11 more points than the nearest OHL player, 14 more points than the leading scorer in the WHL, and 16 more than the leading scorer in the QMJHL. At 5'11", he's not the shortest of the highly ranked centers, but at only 155 lbs, he certainly has room to add muscle, and that's pretty much the only negative thing to be said about this prolific scorer.
Dylan Strome has a great combination of skill and size. It's accurate to call him an excellent two-way player, but that really understates his offensive abilities. He can use his size and strength to make more space for himself and to get close to the net. Because his strength also helps him excel at face-offs, he is frequently the player tapped to take draws at the end of game, which is remarkable considering that he calls Connor McDavid a teammate. An all-around player, both his passing and shooting are excellent. He is a slower skater than many of the likely top ten picks, but it's not a big enough issue that it will drop him out of the top ten, and he has improved his speed this year. His skillset is one that will translate well to the NHL and will do so quickly, perhaps even next season.
Travis Konecny excels at everything except being big. The 5'9" skater is blisteringly fast and exciting to watch. I know they say you can't teach size, but you also can't teach the kind of speed that he has. Even though he's little, he's not afraid of playing physically. The main concern with Konecny is that he will play so physically that he will get injured. That will be the main reason teams pass on him if they choose to do so. He's great at skating with defenders and then jumping past them at the last minute to get unhampered shots on net. He's got soft hands, smarts and out of this world skating. The only thing he's missing is size. The NHL CSS midterm rankings list him 26th of North American skaters which seems insanely low for someone with his skillset who is possibly the fastest skater of the 2015 draft class. He's also a team leader and is currently the captain of his Ottawa 67's at age 17. In his January 9th game, Konecny had two goals that illustrate breadth of his abilities. Not only can he burn down the ice on a breakaway, but he can receive a pass from a teammate and have good timing and patience, but most importantly, finish.
Mathew Barzal's best asset is how he thinks the game and it shows in his playmaking ability. Not only is he good at figuring out which players are in a good position to score, he is excellent at putting himself in position to receive passes and get good scoring opportunities. He is also a maneuverable skater who plays with finesse. His skating and hands keep up with his smart game. He may not be as flashy as some of the early first round picks, but his vision and hockey sense are obvious. In early November, he sustained a knee injury which kept him out of action until last Friday night, but being sidelined hasn't hurt his draft status as he was listed as the 9th best North American skater on the NHL CSS midterm ranking.
Pavel Zacha's most talked about attribute is his size, but he's got skills to go along with his 6'3" frame. For one thing, he's fast and strong skater. He can use his size at speed to make plays, to break through defenders or steal the puck. When he wants to go to a particular spot on the ice, it's hard to stop him because he is so strong. It's also hard for goalies to stop his heavy slap shot, and his passing ability is top notch. He has, however, been suspended twice for a total of eight games already in his first North American season with the OHL's Sarnia Sting, which can be the downside of such physicality.
The Kelowna Rockets Nick Merkley is listed as a center both on information published by the WHL as well as the NHL CSS Midterm Rankings. But he has played right wing all season, and after Kelowna's midseason acquisition of Leon Draisaitl, it's even less likely that the Rockets will find a spot for him in the middle. But his physical play style along with his great passing ability make it possible that he'd find success as a center in the NHL. He looks bigger than 5'11" that he's listed at, probably because he's physical. Aggressive and strong, Merkley is a beast for defenders to deal with. Because he's a complete player with a little bit of everything, I could see the Wild liking him.
Tank for McDavid?
There's no need to root for the Wild to tank. There will be plenty of talent left after McDavid and Eichel come off the draft board. Any one of the above guys would make the Wild better, make the Wild more fun to watch. As frustrating as the Wild have been this season, they will never beat the true bottom feeders at tanking, but that doesn't mean the Wild won't find talent when it's their turn to draft.