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NHL: Wild may not be provincial after all in draft

MONTREAL -- Jordan Schroeder, Nick Leddy and Zach Budish. These three highly touted, University of Minnesota or Minnesota-bound Twin Cities-area residents might all go in the first round of the NHL draft Friday.

MONTREAL -- Jordan Schroeder, Nick Leddy and Zach Budish. These three highly touted, University of Minnesota or Minnesota-bound Twin Cities-area residents might all go in the first round of the NHL draft Friday.

The Wild love all three, each of whom received a tour of Xcel Energy Center and a home visit from team personnel.

But guess what? The Wild, choosing 12th overall as of now, might not take any of them.

If that happens, the provincial Minnesota hockey fan might rebel. After all, there is a perception that the Wild has a bias against American hockey players, and specifically native Minnesotans.

But the Wild have spent months refining their draft list for Friday (Round 1) and Saturday (Rounds 2-7). They have ranked the draft-eligible players, and when it comes time for the Wild to choose, assistant general manager Tommy Thompson vows to do what most teams would do -- take the player highest on that list regardless of where he's from.

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That's not to say the Minnesota guys don't have talent. Schroeder was last year's WCHA Rookie of the Year and the Gophers' second-leading scorer. Leddy was last year's Minnesota Mr. Hockey, and Budish is a prototypical power forward from Edina who missed last season because of a knee injury.

"I've told Schroeder, Leddy and Budish," Thompson said, "'If we take you, it's because in our view, you're the best prospect in the world available at that time. This is nothing for public relations. If we pass you up, it's for that one reason only.'

"We really like all these guys, but the only pressure I feel is to provide the best possible prospects for the team."

Talent is what matters

Want to get Thompson worked up? Ask him about the Wild's alleged prejudice toward Minnesota natives and Americans. He claims he's never overlooked a player because of where he's from and points out the biggest mistake the Wild have made in the draft was when it took Savage native A.J. Thelen 12th overall in 2004.

Thelen has since been dropped by the Wild and last season played with the East Coast Hockey League's Florida Everblades.

As for the stars in the NHL with Minnesota ties, the Wild didn't have a chance at most unless they traded up to get them. In 2003, Thomas Vanek went fifth and former UND standout Zach Parise 17th. The Wild didn't draft until 20th. In 2004, Blake Wheeler went fifth and the Wild chose 12th. In 2006, Phil Kessel went fifth and the Wild chose ninth.

Sure, there can be debates. The Wild took Pierre-Marc Bouchard eighth in 2002; Keith Ballard went 11th. But Bouchard was a Quebec League superstar. In 2000, the Wild took Nick Schultz 33rd; Paul Martin went 62nd. But Thompson notes Schultz, the Wild's all-time leader in games played, was a "sure thing."

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"There were players we didn't have the right read on," Thompson said. "One of the Minnesotans that falls into that category is (Virginia, Minn., native) Matt Niskanen. We were like a number of teams. One of the teams I really respect came to me when Dallas picked him (28th overall in 2005) and said, 'Geez, we like him, but he's small.' I said, 'That's our concern, too.' But then he goes to Duluth, his body fills out and now he's a pretty good NHL player.

"So if we miss somebody, it's not that we overlooked him. We've made those wrong moves on a number of guys who grew later."

Since, though, the Wild have their orthopedist, Joel Boyd, examine draft-eligible prospects to determine their potential for growth. For instance, last year, Boyd told Thompson that eventual second-round pick Marco Scandella had a wingspan of a guy 6-8.

As it turns out, Scandella, a promising defenseman, grew more during the past year than anybody on the Wild's reserve list.

Roster an 'aberration'

Thompson believes most Wild fans simply want to watch the best possible team, one that wins and entertains, no matter where the players are from.

"I went to the season-ticket's breakfast (last season). I sensed passionate feelings by people on things they thought the club was doing right and things they felt the club was doing wrong," Thompson said. "When they're disappointed we didn't sign Brian Rolston, it's because of what they perceived his hockey ability to be and he was a solid guy. Like we should never have let this guy go, and that's a solid point of view.

"But I'm not hearing people say, 'That would have given us one more American.' The whole thing is, (last) year was an aberration. We happened to have one guy (Dan Fritsche) who happened to be born in the United States. The year before we had five (actually four), which is the league average. This year we might have five. It varies from year to year."

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