Bill Guerin has made it clear this offseason that he thinks the Minnesota Wild need more talent up the middle of the ice.
While budding star Kevin Fiala appears to be on the precipice of his prime, and top prospect Kirill Kaprizov will make his highly anticipated NHL debut next season, both play wing, leaving an obvious question as the Wild move forward into the next phase of their rebuild.
Who’s going to pass them the puck?
That question in and of itself exacerbates a position of need entering the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft on Tuesday night. As does the fact that veteran center Eric Staal recently was traded, and longtime captain Mikko Koivu was not re-signed.
Originally scheduled to take place in Montreal, the draft will be held virtually this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, meaning the Wild will be in St. Paul when they go on the clock with the No. 9 overall pick.
It’s likely director of amateur scouting Judd Brackett will be in the unenviable position of deciding between position of need and best player available.
“We look for that intersection, right?” Brackett said. “As scouts, we evaluate players and talent, and I think from our end, we lean towards best available or the top prospect.”
That very well might not be a center.
While the first few picks are essentially set — like Alexis Lafreniere at No. 1, Quinton Byfield at No. 2 and Tim Stutzle at No. 3 — the Wild likely will be sweating it out after that.
In a perfect world for the Wild, someone like Cole Perfetti or Marco Rossi would fall into their laps. Both play center and project to be impact players eventually. If they are gone, well, that’s where things start to get tricky.
“You might find that intersection where best available is also biggest need,” Brackett said. “It is something that we discuss a lot internally. It’s a fine line between best available and biggest need. You have to be cognizant of both.”
All of that is saying the best center available — in this case, Anton Lundell — likely will not be the best player available.
That title almost certainly will belong 18-year-old Russian goaltender Yaroslav Askarov. While it’s not often that an NHL team uses a high draft pick on a goaltender, Askarov looks like he could be an exception.
He already is a rising star in the mostly-Russian Kontinental Hockey League, the second best league in the world, and viewed by many as a future face of a franchise between the pipes.
“I think there will be many teams in the NHL that would absolutely have him in that range,” Brackett said. “He’s earned it. He’s done it at so many levels against men. I think that would be a common thread amongst teams.”
If the Wild end up taking Askarov, it would be hard to blame them, especially if Perfetti and Rossi are gone.
There’s also a chance the Wild go a little off the board and take the best player available not named Askarov. There could be a couple of offensively gifted wings when they are on the clock, and that might be enticing considering Brackett’s track record.
He previously worked for the Vancouver Canucks and played a role in draft, picking up scoring savant Brock Boeser, as well as future superstar Elias Pettersson, whom he was asked about last week.
“He had what felt like was some untapped potential,” Brackett said. “He was trending in the right way and had a chance to really break through and pop into the player that he has.”
If the Wild decide to go in that direction — thus, neglecting their biggest need with hopes of hitting on a prospect with some untapped potential — it will be because Brackett feels good about the depth of the prospect pool.
“There’s a lot of center depth where players are their team’s top player and playing the middle right now,” Brackett said. “There’s an opportunity (later in the draft) if we have to internally evaluate what’s considered maybe a reach (with the No. 9 overall pick) for a need versus best available.”
No matter what happens, Brackett feels the Wild will get an impact player in the first round. That player just might not play the position Guerin wants them to play.
“This is a very strong draft,” Brackett said. “You can measure the strength of the first round. You can measure the strength of maybe the Top 10. I think this draft has a little of both. You have some really accomplished players here that have done a lot at a young age and done it on a big stage. There’s also a lot of depth throughout this draft and very strong players at every position. That creates opportunity.”