A common thought for the last year is that it is time for the Minnesota Wild to enter a rebuild and embrace getting a couple high selections for the NHL Entry Draft. It’s sparked a debate for many middling teams’ fans in the NHL universe. Do you need high draft picks in order to succeed in the NHL today?
Some point out the obvious teams such as the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres. The Oilers have bottomed out for the better of the past decade — with four first overall selections and drafting in the top ten selections in ten of the past twelve years — and have nothing more than a second round appearance to show for it. The Sabres are relatively similar — drafting No. 8 overall or higher in each of the last seven drafts — while never reaching a playoff birth during the Jack Eichel Era.
On the flip side, others argue that a perennial superstar is needed to succeed in this league, and most of them are found very early in the NHL Draft. Only three teams since the 2004-2005 lockout have won the Stanley Cup without a homegrown top ten selection. In a three-year stretch, the 2008 Detroit Red Wings, 2007 Anaheim Ducks, and 2006 Carolina Hurricanes all accomplished the feat. The past 12 years have been dominated by three different organizations; Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s Pittsburgh Penguins, Drew Doughty’s Los Angeles Kings, and Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews’ Chicago Blackhawks. Even if each team played a different style of hockey, each have one similarity — high draft picks leading their team. None of the players listed were drafted later than Toews at No. 3 overall.
This debate leads us to the big question. What should the Wild do? Do the Wild need to bottom out in order to get high draft picks?
We could look at all 30 other teams around the league and depict how they’ve benefited from high draft picks, but for this exercise it seems more precise narrowing it down to the division and how the division has drafted. The Central Division accounts for a third of the Wild’s schedule, and that’s not even including the postseason, which typically is two rounds against the Central Division.
Let’s start with the cream of the crop. The Blackhawks benefitted the most of any team in the division from high draft picks. With No. 3 overall pick Jonathan Toews (2006) and first overall pick Patrick Kane (2007) leading the way, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup three times in six seasons and are still benefitting from the duo.
Although the team did not make the postseason last year, Kane and Toews both had tremendous years, setting career highs in points. By missing the postseason the past two years and a little draft lottery luck, the Blackhawks’ future looks brighter than it did prior to the 2017-2018 season. The Hawks added defensive help in the 2018 Draft, selecting Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist. The No. 8 overall pick has been ranked by many as one of the top defensive prospects and looks to have a bright future in a Blackhawks uniform.
The Blackhawks’ chances at getting a top three selection in the 2019 draft lottery was 8.2 percent, but by God, they did it. Of course they did. In June, the Blackhawks selected 6-foot-4 center Kirby Dach of the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades at No. 3 overall. Dach will have a chance to make the team right out of training camp this fall.
The Blackhawks have won everything besides the holy grail (although, it wouldn’t surprise me if Toews found it last summer somehow) and that has been thanks to not only drafting with high draft picks, but selecting the right players. The future looks good too, with a few more high draft selections in Boqvist and Dach.
The Avalanche are a team who have had high selections, but have recently not found success. We should almost put an asterisk next to them for this exercise, as it seems they are about to finally start to reap the benefits from high draft picks. In the past 11 drafts, the Avalanche have had seven top ten selections; Bowen Byram (No. 4, 2019), Cale Makar (No. 4, 2017), Tyson Jost (No. 10, 2016), Mikko Rantanen (No. 10, 2015), Nathan MacKinnon (No. 1, 2013), Gabriel Landeskog (No. 2, 2011), and Matt Duchene (No. 3, 2009).
That crop, minus Duchene (traded) and Byram (just drafted), has become the core of the new, fast-paced Colorado Avalanche. This group speaks for itself, and with some much needed depth added in Nazem Kadri this summer, the MacKinnon-led Avalanche are ready to take that next step.
Vegas has the Avalanche’s 2020 Stanley Cup odds at 10-1, tying them for third best odds to win it all. Led by their high draft picks, they have a decent shot.
Since 1997, the Dallas Stars have made three selections inside the top ten in the NHL Draft. The Stars drafted Scott Glennie No. 8 overall in 2009, Valeri Nichushkin No. 10 overall in 2013, and most recently Miro Heiskanen No. 3 overall in 2017. Glennie ran into injury trouble, leading to an early retirement and a grand total of one NHL game played. Nichushkin is a bottom six forward on a good team. Heiskanen is the crown jewel of the three, having a very productive first season in the NHL last year, solidifying the back end of the once horrid defense unit in Dallas. The Finnish Calder Trophy snub put up 12 goals and 33 points last season and commanded play when the puck was on his stick. With more responsibility likely given to him by Stars head coach Jim Montgomery, Heiskanen should elevate his game even more in his sophomore season.
It’s hard to benefit from high draft picks when you have rarely drafted inside the top ten. But, with Heiskanen, there might be a large benefit in the next decade from him alone.
Since drafting the Minnesota Wild’s own Ryan Suter in 2003, the Nashville Predators have selected two players inside the top ten — Colin Wilson (No. 7, 2008) and Seth Jones (No. 4, 2013). Wilson provided the Predators with solid depth during his eight seasons in Nashville, with his best season statistically coming in 2014-2015, scoring 20 goals and adding 22 assists for 42 points. On July 1, 2017, Wilson was traded from Nashville to Colorado for a fourth-round selection in the 2019 draft (Marc Del Gaizo). Seth Jones played two-and-a-half seasons in Nashville before being flipped to Columbus for Ryan Johansen. At the time, it made sense for Nashville, who were stacked on defense, but had slim pickings down the middle of the ice.
Now, it looks as if Columbus got the better end of the one-for-one deal, as Seth Jones has emerged as one of the top defenseman in the NHL. Jones is an absolute menace to play against. With the addition of Matt Duchene this offseason, Johansen may slot down to second center — a spot he should thrive more in compared to the heavy load as the top center in Nashville the past three-and-a-half years.
Overall, the Nashville Predators have benefited somewhat from drafting Seth Jones No. 4 overall back in 2013. They flipped their high draft pick in Jones for a center they desperately needed in Ryan Johansen. The Predators did go to the Cup Final in 2017, and if you remember correctly, Johansen got injured during the Western Conference Final. With Johansen, perhaps it might have been enough to lift Nashville past Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
St. Louis Blues
St. Louis is another case of a team rarely picking inside the top ten. High draft picks for the Blues have come far and few in between. In the past 30 NHL Entry Drafts, the Blues have only had two picks inside the top ten.
Erik Johnson was selected first overall in 2006 by the Blues. This was simply a draft miss by the Blues. Johnson was considered the top pick by many and a sure thing to be a solid top pairing defenseman in the NHL. Johnson had a couple good seasons in St. Louis before eventually being shipped to Colorado with Jay McClement and first-round pick in the 2011 draft (Duncan Siemens) for Chris Stewart, Kevin Shattenkirk and a second-round pick in the 2011 draft (Ty Rattie). Not a good return for a former first overall pick after selecting the Johnson before the likes of Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Phil Kessel, and Claude Giroux.
The Blues did, however, make up for the Erik Johnson selection by taking their future captain, Alex Pietrangelo two years later in 2008. A rock solid and “every game he is good” type of defender, St. Louis’ No. 4 overall selection proved to be one of the better draft picks in Blues history. On his way to a Stanley Cup victory, the Blues’ captain scored 19 points in 26 games before hoisting Lord Stanley.
Although the Blues have only had two selections in the top ten in the past 30 years, they hit the jackpot with their most recent selection and have basked in the glory (no, not Gloria) of the Stanley Cup this offseason.
The Winnipeg Jets have only participated in nine drafts since moving from Atlanta, but have had a few key additions to their core through high draft picks. The Jets have picked four times inside the top ten. In 2011, the Jets selected the uber-talented Mark Scheifele No. 7 overall. We all know how good he is and how important he is to the current Jets’ roster, commanding the team’s power play from the pivot position in the high slot for one of the best PP units in the league.
The following year, Winnipeg selected right-handed defenseman Jacob Trouba. The University of Michigan alum was a big part of the Jets’ defensive core until being traded this offseason. Trouba never fully wanted to commit to a long-term contract in Winnipeg, so the Jets had to try and get something for their young stud defenseman. Eventually, they traded him to the New York Rangers for Neal Pionk and a first-round pick in the 2019 draft (Ville Heinola).
In 2014, Winnipeg selected speedy winger Nikolaj Ehlers No. 9 overall. At 23-years-old, Ehlers already has 199 points in four seasons with the Jets.
The Jets’ most recent top ten selection came in 2016 when the team selected Patrik Laine second overall. The Finnish winger has potted more than a couple goals during his tenure in Winnipeg. In 237 games played, Laine has scored 110 times (including the 44 he scored in his sophomore season two years ago). He had a down season in 2018-19, but don’t count the 21-year-old out. He could be on the verge of a big bounce-back season following his down year of only scoring 30 goals.
Only 30. What a travesty.
The Jets have done a great job drafting with high draft picks. Scheifele, Laine, and Ehlers all make big contributions to their team and are important pieces going forward. They haven’t made it to the Stanley Cup Final yet, but the Jets’ young group of forwards should help them keep contending.
A lot of people are writing off the Jets after an early playoff exit and losing Trouba this offseason, but don’t be shocked if they surprise everyone. Winnipeg has lots of talent from their high draft picks, and that’s not even including Blake Wheeler who was drafted by the then-Phoenix Coyotes No. 5 overall in 2004.
How do the Wild compete?
One thing’s for sure — the Wild have drafted poorly. The Wild have eight top ten draft picks; Marian Gaborik (No. 3, 2000), Mikko Koivu (No. 6, 2001), Pierre-Marc Bouchard (No. 8, 2002), Benoit Pouliot (No. 4, 2005), James Sheppard (No. 9, 2006), Mikael Granlund (No. 9, 2011), Jonas Brodin (No. 10, 2012), and Matt Dumba (No. 7, 2013) with Dumba, Granlund, Koivu, and Gaborik really the only ones who move or moved the needle.
The other teams in the Central Division, particularly the Blackhawks, Avalanche, and Jets, have benefited from high draft picks. Each of those three teams had a player in the top 15 in scoring last season.
The Central Division is loaded with high draft picks who have paid dividends for their respective teams. The other teams in the Central Division have benefited from high draft picks, and surely the Wild can benefit just as their Central Division foes have.