Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin may speak softly, but his he carries a big stick. He and Judd Bracket, the team’s Director of Amateur Scouting, have taken concerted action in building the future of the franchise this offseason. The process started with trading Jason Zucker back in February. It continued with letting Mikko Koivu walk and moving Eric Staal. And it culminated this week with the NHL Entry Draft and free agency.
You can tell a lot about the type of team the general manager has imagined by the players picked in the draft. Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman picked players that fit the hard-nosed defense and strong running game style that his coach employs. Doug Risebrough, the Wild’s first GM, favored responsible, two-way forwards. That’s how the Wild ended up with Koivu. Chuck Fletcher tried his hardest to not mess up the first round pick by picking safe, high-floor players who would make the NHL roster, but lacked the high upside to propel a team to a Stanley Cup. Fletcher’s draft model was safe early in the draft and gradually took more risks in later rounds.
Guerin isn’t waiting. Drafting Marco Rossi at No. 9 isn’t a safe pick by any means, but Rossi has the talent and tools to become a true star in the league. Guerin and Brackett weren’t resting on their laurels either when they made an aggressive move to trade Luke Kunin and their 3rd round pick to nab Marat Khusnutdinov. The Russian center prospect has elite speed and good hands.
With the center position nailed early in the draft, Minnesota loaded up on defensemen. First, they picked Ryan O’Rourke out of Sault Ste. Marie. The defenseman has two-way tools, can play well with speed, power and in transition. He is also willing to punish the opponents physically.
In another aggressive move, Minnesota moved up five spots to pick 65 and selected Daemon Hunt. He is more of a project, having lost precious development time due to a laceration by a skate blade, but the two-way skills as a defensemen are there. The Moose Jaw Warrior enjoys playing physically, but uses an active stick and positioning to thwart scoring chances. Not mention, he’s got nasty side to him that will drive opponents crazy.
Then, instead of waiting to pick in the final two rounds, they traded their sixth and seventh round picks to move into the fifth to select Pavel Novak, their final pick of 2020. Novak is a right shot out of the Czech Republic who scored 58 points in 55 games with the Kelowna Rockets. He can turn on a dime and uses his edges well to elude opposing defensemen. There are some scouts that said Novak is more likely to become a playmaker than a goal scorer as he develops.
You can pick apart the scouting reports on any of the Wild’s five draft picks this year and see the skating, puck skills, shooting talent and hockey IQ of each of them. Digging deeper reveals the common thread between all of them: they all compete.
“Compete” is used more generically by coaches and scouts to talk about guys that try hard. The 2020 draft class for the Wild isn’t just about trying their best. They want to make it as difficult on opponents to play against them as possible. Rossi has confidence and swagger. O’Rourke punishes players physically. None of them couldn’t care less about the opposing goalie’s first win. They get sour about losing, and they’ll do just about anything to win.
Rossi spent 600 hours in the gym because he wants to be in the NHL right away. Khusnutdinov has a motor that never quits. O’Rourke, Rossi and Khusnutdinov captained their junior teams. Hunt is a strong skater, can close the gap quickly and finish with a big hit. Add in that he missed significant time, he’s got a lot to prove in his draft plus-one season. Novak, like each player selected by the Wild this year, is mature and has a fearlessness about him.
The Wild sought and found players in the draft that have plenty of talent. Guerin was aggressive throughout the draft by making trades to move up and grab the players they identified as the right fit. He didn’t hesitate to move Kunin for picks and veteran forward Nick Bonino, whom the Wild GM said was a “culture guy” and “what we need here.”
Guerin set out to change the culture of the Minnesota Wild as soon as the team left the Edmonton bubble. After an active offseason, his plan is coming into view. He wants to compete for a Stanley Cup and will stop at nothing to get the right players to make that happen. He expects his players to carry that attitude to the ice with them. He isn’t carrying a big stick and making tweaks — he’s overhauling the franchise.