I'd like to start this one by saying you (the readers) inspire me. As we approach the final few days before the 2012 NHL Entry Draft there is so much focused on the 1st round. There are tons and tons of mock drafts released by all kinds of websites and publications, including the State of Hockey News. Yet the focus is on the 1st round. The 1st round is certainly important, statistically it is any team's best chance to acquire talent likely to succeed in the NHL. Any team that is looked upon as a 'good drafting' team its often not as much about how well it does with its 1st round picks as it does with its selections in later rounds. The Wild are (at least in theory if you think positively) are good example of this. A few seasons ago, its prospect pool was almost devoid of talent. The Wild's future looked pretty grim and with very little homegrown help on the horizon. Then came the draft of 2009, where the Wild selected Mikael Granlund, but arguably just as important it made 3 important selections in the 2nd round (Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson and Jason Zucker respectively) as well a savvy 6th round selection of goaltender Johan Gustafsson as well as a great steal in the 7th round in Erik Haula and rather quickly hope returned. The Wild had so many squandered draft picks from 2004-2008. To see success beyond the 1st round was a pleasant (and rare) surprise. Cal Clutterbuck was one of the few gems during that 'dead' period of failed drafts. Any good team is built with self grown talent and it can't just come from its 1st rounders, and the Wild seem to be on the cusp of developing its own pipeline of talent. With that pipeline of talent means the team does not have to dip into free agency for the players it needs, and by saving money this way they will have more money to retain its good players and save up and sign the key free agents to sustain success.
Who will be this year's Brett Bulmer for the Wild?
With Brett Bulmer's brief but promising debut with the club at the start of the 2011-12 season there are signs that help from within is on its way. The Wild have 7 picks in the 2012 draft, and each one is an opportunity to keep the replenished prospect pool well stocked. Bulmer was selected 39th Overall in 2010, but some felt it was a bit of a stretch. Yet from an improvement perspective, Bulmer's stock had risen higher than just about any player in that draft and he has continued that positive trajectory. Even after he was sent back down to his junior team in Kelowna he didn't pout, he went to work and was one of the team's top scorers. The draft is a game of chance, and everyone hopes to snag a 'sleeper' in the later rounds. To be lucky like Nashville when they selected Patric Hornqvist 230th Overall in 2005, but even if there is a logjam of talent that stockpile can be assets that you can deal for more picks as was the case of goaltender Anders Lindback who the Predators selected 207th Overall in 2008. On Friday, the Predators dealt Lindback to the Tampa Bay Lightning for two 2nd round draft picks in 2012, not bad return for a 7th round pick eh? So what 'sleepers' might be available for the Wild to pick on Day 2 of the draft this season?
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I've identified 10 players who I think would be excellent selections from the 2nd to the 7th rounds respectively. The players I have identified fit the Wild's needs which are the following in my opinion.
1. A speedy, goal scoring forward to play on their Top 6. The Wild were 30th in scoring last season, and while the team does have a bunch of promising forwards, they do not have any players that fits this description. Overall the team needs fast, physical forwards to improve their forecheck.
2. An aggressive and physical defenseman to clear out the area near the crease. The Wild are a bit soft, especially on their blueline where they have a plethora of finesse, un-physical defensemen. The ability to contribute offensively would be a bonus.
3. An heir apparent 1st goalie to Niklas Backstrom. They have lots of options within their system (Hackett, Gustafsson, and Kuemper) but if they have any doubts a top tier goaltender might be an option for them.
The Wild have the following picks at the time of the publishing of this article.
1st Round - 7th Overall
2nd Round - 46th Overall
3rd Round - 68th Overall
4th Round - 98th Overall
5th Round - 128th Overall
6th Round - 158th Overall
7th Round - 188th Overall
So without further adieu here are my selections for the best 'sleepers & steals' of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
Kelowna's Damon Severson
Right Defense - Damon Severson ~ Kelowna Rockets (WHL)
Height: 6'2" Weight: 200lbs Shoots: Right
ISS' ranking: #50 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #48 North American (#46 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 56GP 7G 30A = 37pts 80 PIM's +6
Talent Analysis: Damon Severson is best described as a mobile two-way defenseman who does nothing great, but does just about everything pretty well. He can hit and play solid positional defense but also can join the rush. He is very territorial around the crease and does not hesitate to muscle players out from in front of his goaltender. Yet he's not all defense, Severson has a big shot he loves to unleash from the point and can contribute offensively. Sort of like Golden Gophers' defenseman Nate Schmidt, he can feint at shooting to get opposing forwards to drop to to block shots and then side step them to free up a clear shooting lane. He could stand to work on his skating a bit, but he's a smart player who performed well on a team that struggled a lot this season. He is also a player who will stand up for teammates if the need arises and while apart from his booming shot nothing else in his game really doesn't stand out, but he has no glaring weaknesses. A very well-rounded defenseman that ISS rates as the 5th most underrated player in the draft. You can read more about Damon Severson's game here.
Windsor's Ben Johnson
Center - Ben Johnson ~ Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
Height: 5'11" Weight: 186lbs Shoots: Left
ISS' ranking: #56 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #52 North American (#49 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 68GP 18G 20A = 38pts 44 PIM's -5
Talent Analysis: Ben Johnson possesses blazing speed which he uses very effectively in a shutdown role as well to put opposing teams on their heels on the forecheck. He loves to hit and works effectively as an agitator who can't seem to get away from him. The Michigan-native is selfless and does not hesitate to block shots and do what is necessary to kill penalties. He is fiercely competitive and never gives up on the puck which makes him a natural for the 3rd or 4th line. He has some offensive skills and can chip in points and his speed makes him very dangerous in transition. Some scouts compare him to Darren Helm, who is an immensely underrated player for the Detroit Red Wings. His absence from the Red Wings' lineup was very noticeable as they were dominated by an always fast Nashville squad. While he needs to improve on his strength (as do most players his age), his skating and tenacious style makes him a very intriguing role player that would fit perfectly into Mike Yeo's forechecking system.
Spartak's Valeri Vasilyev
Left Defense - Valeri Vasilyev ~ Spartak (Russia Jr.)
Height: 6'1" Weight: 203lbs Shoots: Left
ISS' ranking: #57 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #16 European (#15 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 18GP 1G 1A = 2pts 24 PIM's
Talent Analysis: Remember Darius Kasparaitis? The fearless Russian defenseman who may not have been the biggest player but who loved to deliver jaw dropping open ice hits? Valeri Vasilyev is a physical defenseman who is a little bigger than the former Russian star but plays a game that looks rather similar. Vasilyev prides himself on keeping the area near the crease clear of opposing forwards so his goaltender can have an unobstructed view. The Moscow-native is a solid skater, who can make the first pass out of the zone but he'll never be confused for a great puck mover. He has a decent shot, but the best parts of his game are in the defensive zone. While some big hitters find themselves out of position, Vasilyev does a good job of picking his spots to step up and deliver a hit and uses his angles well to seal off gaps, giving opposing forwards no room to slip away. The fact he's Russian might scare off some teams who always worry whether they will make the journey to North America (especially if they haven't already done so), but if the team wants an physical and aggressive stay at home defenseman than Vasilyev fits that role perfectly. ISS rates Vasilyev as the 2nd best stay at home defenseman available in the draft.
Saskatoon's Lukas Sutter
Center - Lukas Sutter ~ Saskatoon Blades (WHL)
Height: 6'0" Weight: 214lbs Shoots: Left
ISS' ranking: #68 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #39 North American (#86 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 70GP 28G 31A = 59pts 165lbs +15
Talent Analysis: Lukas' father is former Wild scout Rich Sutter. Lukas is a hard-charging forward who gives you 100% on each and every shift. He loves to take the puck to the crease and is willing to pay the physical price necessary to score the ugly goals. Sutter finishes his checks with authority and his relentless style makes him a natural agitator. Like his father and his uncles, Sutter is not afraid to drop the gloves and he's a very competent pugilist. Did I mention he can be pretty effective in a shutdown role too? His competitiveness and drive make him a natural fit for the 3rd and 4th line and he has a high hockey IQ which allows him to be effective either on the power play or the penalty kill. His skating could use a little work, but he is a player whose stock rose significantly this season, and a lot of that had to do with his determination to do whatever it takes to help his team win. ISS rates Sutter as the 5th best defensive forward available in this draft.
Moncton's James Melindy
Right Defense - James Melindy ~ Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL)
Height: 6'3" Weight: 191lbs Shoots: Right
ISS' ranking: #79 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #63 North American (#93 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 61GP 9G 18A = 27pts 74 PIM's -7
Talent Analysis: Melindy is another defenseman who is more of a physical stay-at-home type. The Moncton was a shadow of their former selves and his play allowed the Wildcats to keep games close. When he commits to delivering a check its finished with an element of ferocity. After highly touted teammate Brandon Gormley was dealt to Shawinigan he demonstrated there is some latent offensive ability in his game too. He is not a big risk taker, and plays very well positionally but knows the right moment when to deny opposing forwards from having too much time and space. The St. John's, Newfoundland-native has good potential and some scouts believe he's on the cusp of taking his game to another level now that he's the leader on the Wildcats' blueline. His game will remind many of Florida's Jason Garrison.
Everett's Nicholas Walters
Left Defense - Nicholas Walters ~ Everett Silvertips (WHL)
Height: 6'2" Weight: 187lbs Shoots: Left
ISS' ranking: #86 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #67 North American (#68 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 62GP 6G 12A = 18pts 95 PIM's -27
Talent Analysis: Nicholas Walters is just plain mean. He is a player who plays the game on the edge and is the kind of guy that gets the other bench chirping and more worried about where he is on the ice. Yet, he's not just some goon. Walters is a phyiscal stay at home defenseman who is a decent skater who denies time and space effectively. He clears his crease with tenacity and loves to deliver the big hit. The St. Albert, Alberta-native does need to work on picking his spots a bit more when he does go looking for the big check, but that isn't the main reason for his -27. The Everett Silvertips were absolutely atrocious this season and that was more of a reflection being the WHL's whipping boy than poor defensive decisions on his part. He is a one-dimensional player, you're not going to get a lot of points out of him but if you want that player that will make opposing forwards have their head on a swivel before they charge into the corners for a puck in the Wild's end he's your guy.
Baie-Comeau's Raphael Bussieres
Left Wing - Raphael Bussieres ~ Baie-Comeau Drakkar (QMJHL)
Height: 6'1" Weight: 195lbs Shoots: Left
ISS' ranking: #99 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #129 North American (#57 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 56GP 21G 23A = 44pts 60 PIM's -2
Talent Analysis: This is a player who I've been watching a while now. The Baie-Comeau have had it pretty rough the last few years, and Bussieres has been through all of the tough times and as the Drakkar have started to build themselves back into a respectable team the 6'1" forward has been at the foundation of that resurgence. Rated by ISS' as 3rd toughest player available in this draft might make you wonder if he likes to fight. He seldom does, but its not because he can't, its because most opponents don't want to get their clock cleaned. Bussieres is a fast, physical forward with reasonable offensive skills. He isn't afraid to go to the tough areas of the ice and pay the price necessary to get the puck along the boards. He's made steps to improve his first step and with his solid off-ice commitment to hit the weights he's added more speed as well. The Longueuil, Quebec-native played in the CHL Top prospects game where he played for Team Orr and did not look out of place. He has a good, heavy shot and is continuing the development of the offensive side of his game. He had a fairly strong playoffs before the Drakkar faced the QMJHL champion Saint John in the 2nd round and were swept. Bussieres has lots of potential and could become a very effective 3rd or 4th liner in the NHL someday.
Shawinigan's Anton Zlobin
Right Wing - Anton Zlobin ~ Shawinigan Cataractes (QMJHL)
Height: 5'11" Weight: 195lbs Shoots: Right
ISS' ranking: #100 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #137 North American (#128 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 66GP 40G 36A = 76pts 50 PIM's +42
Talent Analysis: Like some experts going into the Memorial Cup I did not really know what to expect from the Shawinigan Cataractes. Despite having the Q's 2nd best record in the regular season they were bounced early in the playoffs and even though they had a fairly star studded lineup they hadn't played any meaningful hockey almost an entire month before the start of the tournament. Yet after a 1st game hiccup, the Cataractes circled the wagons and proved to everyone they certainly belonged there as they eventually prevailed as Memorial Cup Champions. One player who really stood out to me was this young Russian sniper Anton Zlobin. After being passed over in the draft last season, Zlobin had another strong year for Shawinigan where he was one of the leaders offensively. Zlobin possesses excellent speed, great hands and outstanding offensive instincts. He has a wickedly quick release and is at his best with the puck. Away from the puck he sometimes can look a little lost but he knows well enough to stay near the scoring areas where he's quick to pounce on loose pucks. He is an average defender but he has real Top 6 potential. In someways his game reminds me a lot of Alexandre Burrows minus the agitating parts of his game, but he's pure goal scorer who uses his quickness effectively to keep defenders at bey and to open lanes for him to shoot or pass (notice I said shoot first). The Moscow-native is not a physical player, but he has a wiry frame and plays fairly strong on the puck. I think the "Russian factor" does not apply to him because he's spent the last two seasons in North America should convince teams he's committed to playing in the NHL and not the KHL. Even though he dropped in Central Scouting's rankings, it should be noted those came out prior to the Memorial Cup Tournament.
Shattuck-St. Mary's Samuel Fejes
Left Wing - Samuel Fejes ~ Shattuck-St. Mary's (USHS-MN)
Height: 6'1" Weight: 190lbs Shoots: Left
ISS' ranking: #126 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #91 North American (#111 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 55GP 38G 40A = 78pts 20 PIM's
Talent Analysis: This Colorado College commit is more of a long-term project but is a player who has many of the skills you'd want to keep the Wild's prospect pool stocked with fast, skilled players who have an element of versatility to their game. Fejes is a good skater who uses his body to protect the puck effectively and is not afraid to move into the high traffic areas of the ice. He has soft hands and is an adept finisher and passer. While scouts consider him a skilled player he does not shy away from physical play and does not hesitate to finish his checks. He prefers to out leg opposing defenders along the outside and then protect the puck with his body as he drives towards the crease but he has a decent release too. The Anchorage-native has lots of natural ability and while his game is fairly simple and unrefined his natural talents suggest he is just only just starting to tap into his potential. His game kind of reminds me of the Buffalo Sabres' Drew Stafford. If the Wild drafts him they know they have a player they will likely be giving at least 3-4 years to develop in college, but in a quality program like Colorado College I don't see how that can be a bad thing.
Guelph's Justin Auger
Right Wing - Justin Auger ~ Guelph Storm (OHL)
Height: 6'6" Weight: 214lbs Shoots: Right
ISS' ranking: #149 NHL Central Scouting's ranking: #107 North American (#179 Mid-term)
2011-12 Stats: 58GP 7G 7A = 14pts 39 PIM's -7
Talent Analysis: Justin Auger is that rare mix of a giant frame that can move pretty well. He is still trying to fill out his huge frame but he's showing steady progress after being used as a role player on the Guelph Storm. Auger has pretty soft hands, and likes to camp out near the crease where his big body makes him a goaltenders worst nightmare. While his lateral quickness could use some work, he gets up to speed pretty well for a player of his size. In many ways, he plays a lot like a very young and raw Brian Boyle who currently plays for the New York Rangers. Unlike the Wild's previous attempts to draft a giant with the hope they can figure out how to skate effectively (ex Derek Boogaard, Riley Emmerson, and Derek Boogaard), Auger already moves pretty well so its just about adding strength and gaining more prime ice time to take his game to the next level.
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