While the Wild added some free agents last summer like Cam Talbot and Nick Bonino that helped Minnesota get to a seven-game playoff series against the Vegas Golden Knights, the signing that may help Minnesota build a contender for years to come is the one that isn’t talked about as much during the season, but looms large as the Wild approach the NHL Entry Draft on July 23 and 24.
For when Bill Guerin brought on Judd Brackett, former draft Guru for the Vancouver Canucks, as his Director of Amateur Scouting, he made a statement that the Wild were done taking little swings in the draft. The swings were going to be big and they might not always hit, but with a draft table led by Brackett, you’re going to have a better chance of hitting a home run.
Brackett joined the Wild in July of 2020 with only a few months to prepare the Wild’s board for the early October draft. Even with the shorter prep time, the Wild were able to nab two strong prospects in Marco Rossi and Marat Khusnutdinov in the first two rounds, and traded much of their draft capital in order to front-load their picks in the early rounds. This year, the Wild have a full nine selections to play with, including extra first and third round selections from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Brackett had a full year to scout, even if NHL scouting in 2021 meant shortened junior and college seasons, zoom conferences and video highlights.
But what can we expect from Brackett’s first Wild draft after a full scouting season and a full year to plan the teams’ big board? Let’s compare what Brackett did with the Canucks at similar positions during his four years spent running the Vancouver table.
The Canucks were pretty awful during Brackett’s tenure in Vancouver, so he never had the special joy or challenge of trying to find the diamond in the mid-twenties rough. The lowest selection Brackett had to make came in 2019 — his final year running the table for the Canucks, and he had to wait out only nine selections before he phoned in his pick at number 10 overall, where the Canucks selected Vasili Podkolzin (F). His three other first round picks were fifth in 2016 (Olli Juolevi), fifth in 2017 (the vaunted Elias Pettersson), and seventh in 2018 (the also notable Quinn Hughes).
The closest the Canucks have been to where the Wild are in the first round was in 2015, the draft right before Brackett was promoted to Director of Amateur Scouting. Eric Crawford, then the Director of Player Personnel, ran the draft table that season, and while Brackett was a trusted and well-respected scout, it’s unclear how much influence he had in the Canucks’ 23rd-overall selection.
And if you follow Michael Russo, you know exactly who they took with that 23rd pick — Burnsville, Minn.’s own Brock Boeser. The Wild’s beat writer takes quite a bit of joy in reminding Wild fans that Minnesota could have had Boeser at 20th overall, selecting instead Joel Eriksson Ek, though that burn stung a little more before JEEK’s Selke-worthy 2021 season.
During Brackett’s four-year span in Vancouver, the Canucks often moved around their second round picks, trading away two they possessed in 2016, then acquiring an additional second-round selection in 2017. The later of their two picks in 2017 came in the “trade” that sent head coach John Tortorella to Columbus in return for the 55th overall selection — only one spot later than the Wild select this year.
In the 2017 draft, Brackett and his draft team took forward Jonah Gadjovich, a two-way power winger out of the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League. Lauded for his gritty, north-south style of play, his compete level and scoring ability (he finished third in the OHL the season prior to his selection), the only thing keeping Gadjovich from being a late first-rounder was his skating, which most scouts saw as clunky and slow, especially from a dead stop. In fact, Gadjovich is one of the few early-round selections by Brackett that wasn’t a strong skater, as quick, agile and powerful strides are usually hallmarks of Judd’s selections — but more on that later.
Despite playing a significant role on Team Canada’s gold-medal winning world juniors squad in 2018, Gadjovich had a tough time getting things going at the AHL level, spending most of 2019 either in the press box or the trainers’ room for the Cancucks’ minor-league affiliate, the Utica Comets. But Gadjovich continued his growth and improved his skating, especially as the AHL delayed the start of their 2020-21 season due to COVID, and the hard work payed off with 15 goals in 19 games in Utica, and made his NHL debut in Vancouver, where he amassed 17 penalty minutes for the Canucks on May 16th in a 6-5 OT loss to the Calgary Flames. Despite the slow start, his prospect progress is definitely on an upward trend.
Jonah Gadjovich with his 10th goal in his 11th AHL game.— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) April 14, 2021
The man is money in the bank anywhere near that crease pic.twitter.com/bLXMviVIDb
Brackett’s best second-round impact for the Canucks however came in 2019, where he selected Nils Hoglander at 40th overall. Undersized but speedy with great hands (as evidenced by his many highlight-reel, lacrosse-style goals), the skilled Swede’s selection is another strong addition to Brackett’s drafting resume, and his highly anticipated NHL debut met or exceeded Vancouver fans’ expectations.
Hoglander’s strong 2021 rookie season ended with 13 goals and 14 assists while playing in all 56 games for Vancouver. And while his 40th-overall placement in the 2019 draft is 14 picks higher than where Brackett will select for the Wild, it just goes to show he can find talent all over the board.
Brackett made only five total selections between the third and fourth rounds in the four drafts he oversaw in Vancouver, owning third-round picks in 2016-18 and a fourth round pick in each of the 2017 and 2019 drafts. A few of those players have since made NHL debuts, with the most notable being 2017 fourth-round prospect Jack Rathbone, selected at 95th overall, or five spots later than where the Wild will select this year. Rathbone made his debut in May after sitting out roughly an entire calendar year between the end of his 2019-20 NCAA season with Harvard, and the beginning of the AHL’s Utica Comets season.
He didn’t get on the board in his debut, but he showed enough defensively to earn more playing time, and he finished the season with eight NHL games under his belt, scoring a goal and two assists and placing second on the team in shot attempt share behind Quinn Hughes.
Carson Focht (#19) had his fingerprints all over last night's game.— Brett Lee (@brett1ee) February 2, 2020
He scored 2Gs while also initiating the play on CGY's first goal.
Focht is up to 40Ps in 45GMs as well as retaking the team lead in goals with 24. pic.twitter.com/WJJlk2jewg
2016 third-rounder Will Lockwood also made his NHL debut in 2021, though the physical and zippy forward failed to find the scoresheet in either of the two games he played in.
Both Rathbone and Lockwood (as well as 2018 third-rounder Tyler Madden — whom the Canucks later traded to the Los Angeles Kings as a piece in the Tyler Toffoli trade) are examples of your typical middle-round Judd Brackett picks - good to great skaters with solid playmaking skills, usually with a touch of grit. They might have some other kind of deficiency to their game (and who in the middle rounds doesn’t?) such as size, decision making or balanced play between the offensive and defensive zones, but the aspects that are harder to teach are already there.
Players taken in the fifth round or later tend to have a pretty long road to the NHL, in most cases due to a prolonged learning curve, or in Kirill Kaprizov’s case, a bunch of KHL money and a pair of three-year contracts. Dolla Bill Kirill aside, the last late-rounder to make an impact on the Wild is 2013 fifth-round selection Carson Soucy, who looked good in Minnesota after four years at UMD and another two seasons in Iowa, but might not be on the Wild roster much longer as a prime expansion target for the Seattle Kraken.
None of Brackett’s late-round prospects have made their NHL debut and all seem to be at least a couple seasons away. Aidan McDonough is the standout of the bunch, finishing his sophomore year at Northeastern second on the team in points with 10 goals and 10 assists in 21 games and earning Hockey East player of the month in February.
Aidan McDonough (@Canucks) breaks a 5-game goalless stretch with 3 goals for the hat trick as @GoNUmhockey beat UNH yesterday.#Canucks @RidertownUSA alumni.https://t.co/MjRxDEmSJ9 pic.twitter.com/JDiUCVx5hh— EP Rinkside (@EPRinkside) February 13, 2021
McDonough lacks a little of the skating prowess of the usual Brackett selection, but the playmaking skills, shooting ability and physical play are all there. JFresh Hockey predicts a 7% chance of McDonough becoming a consistent NHLer (he uses the benchmark of 200+ NHL games with a positive Wins Above Replacement to measure that), and while that number looks pretty low, it’s the highest among Canucks’ late-round picks, and higher than any Wild late-round prospect save one — 2016 seventh-rounder Dmitry Solokov, whom the Wild reportedly have decided to not tender a qualifying offer this offseason.
Another pick from the waning rounds of the 2019 draft that had some Canucks fans excited was fifth-round selection Carson Focht, who put up strong numbers (58 goals and 120 points in 129 games) over two seasons with the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, though his first season in Utica was a little slower to get started last season, with four goals and eight assists in 28 games. Unlike McDonough, Focht is exactly what Brackett looks for in his draft picks. Canucks general manager Jim Benning describes Focht as “competitive and a hard worker,” “Has a good two-way game and speed on the forecheck to force plays,” and “has a good work ethic and chance to develop to be a pro.”
What we can learn
Though Brackett’s selections with Canucks are just starting to pay dividends, we know that Vancouver’s fanbase was sad to see Judd leave to take a job with the Wild, and seemingly for good reason. Bracketts’ drafts were lauded as some of the strongest in the league during his time there, and his methods of choosing players with good speed, good hands, good work ethic and physicality should net the Wild some strong prospects as long as he’s with the organization.
Brackett and Guerin had a splashy 2020 draft, netting players like Rossi and Khusnutdinov while making big trades to move up the board, so it will be interesting to see what the pair can do with nine total picks at their disposal. But whatever happens, if the Wild grab guys with speed, good intangibles, high upside and improvable warts, you know Judd Brackett was the one writing the name on the card to be delivered to the podium.