November 31-in-31: Minnesota Wild

Sam Happi

2020-11-15

The 31-in-31 Summer Series is an annual event here at DobberProspects! Every day in November we will be bringing you a complete breakdown of a team’s draft and insights into their off-season movements thus far. Following this up, the December 31-in-31 Series will dive into every team’s prospect depth charts with fantasy insights and implications for the upcoming seasons. Check back often, because we plan on filling your hockey withdrawal needs until the season begins!

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Minnesota was eliminated in four games by the Vancouver Canucks in the qualifying round of the NHL restart, meaning that their 2019-20 season technically went down as a playoff miss, despite their participation in Edmonton’s bubble. Wild general manager, Bill Guerin, clearly appears to be taking the team in a new direction, moving out a pair of steadfast veterans at the center position in Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal. Eventually, young talent like the newly drafted Marco Rossi will be leaned on to fill that void down the middle. For now, the upcoming season looks like it may be a “retool” year of sorts, with the Wild seeking to determine what kind of immediate impact they’ll receive from potential stars Rossi and Russian Kirill Kaprizov, who finally signed with the team in September after several years in the KHL.

Offseason

Mikko Koivu departs the Wild after fifteen seasons with the club, signing with the Columbus Blue Jackets in free agency. The Wild also moved away from a pair of once-promising young forwards this offseason, sending Ryan Donato to San Jose for a 2021 third-rounder, and two days later, trading Luke Kunin and a 2020 draft pick to Nashville for Nick Bonino and the 37th and 70th picks at the draft. Bonino joins Nick Bjugstad, acquired from Pittsburgh in September, as veteran adds that should shore up the Wild’s depth at center. The Wild will hope Bonino and Bjustad can help shore up the gap left by Eric Staal, who was traded to Buffalo for former 58-point scorer Marcus Johannson, who has struggled to match his former offensive numbers over the last few years.

In net, the Wild traded Devin Dubnyk to the Sharks and will look to their free-agent signing, Cam Talbot, to deliver strong results as his replacement.

9th-overall pick, Marco Rossi, appears to be tagged as Minnesota’s potential number-one center down the road and should have an opportunity to compete for a significant role for the Wild straight out of the gate. With Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal out of the picture, the Wild lack clear top-six options down the middle going into next season. Rossi will be at training camp and could strive to earn an immediate skill role.

The most exciting news of the offseason, however, has to have been the long-awaited signing of Russian winger, Kirill Kaprizov. Kaprizov, 23, has been one of the best wingers in the KHL for several years now and is coming off a career-best season that saw him atop the point-per-game mark for the first time. He’s seen as a potential NHL star and could be the Wild’s offensive leader as soon as next season. The Russian should be met with an immediate top-six role.

Next season could be the last for Louie Belpedio, Minnesota’s third-round-pick in 2014, to establish himself as an NHL-level rearguard for the club. Carson Soucy leapfrogged him in the depth chart last year and was rewarded with a three-year contract this offseason. Belpedio received a one-year, two-way extension and will look to compete with veterans, Brad Hunt and Greg Pateryn for third-pairing minutes.

From a fantasy perspective, look for Kirill Kaprizov to become an immediate contributor for the Wild. Marco Rossi could do the same – the indication is that the 9th overall will be given a fighting chance to not only make the team but earn a skill role out of the gate. Trade acquisition Marcus Johansson could also contend for one of the team’s top-six center roles; if the Swede can earn minutes next to a winger like Kaprizov or Kevin Fiala, he could see a rebound towards his level of play with Washington a few years back.

Draft Recap

Round One, 9th Overall – Marco Rossi, LHC

An undersized, ultra-skilled center, Rossi led the entire CHL in scoring as an 18-year-old, all while delivering reliable all-around play on the other side of the puck. The Austrian was seen as a potential top-five pick entering the draft and could produce excellent value for the Wild, as well as eventually step into a role as the team’s top-line center a few years down the line. Rossi is expected to attend Minnesota’s training camp and could win an NHL job right out of the draft, which would be a highly impressive feat for a ninth-overall pick.

Rossi is only 5-9, but his excellent agility and wide balance as a skater allows the forward to stack up to larger opponents surprisingly effectively. He’s short, but not small – at 185 lbs, Rossi is built solid. His deceptive, powerful wrister and strong shooting volume of just under 3.5 shots-per-game, made him a near 40 goal scorer for the 67’s. But Rossi is even more capable as a playmaker, where his vision and exceptional passing touch allow him to pick apart defenses and force the puck into the slot.

The 9th overall pick was the best player on an OHL-tops Ottawa 67’s roster, centering an extremely dangerous first line and playing a key role on a powerplay that was nothing short of devastating to opposing teams. Ottawa controlled an astonishing 75% of the goals when Rossi was on the ice at even-strength. If his development goes smoothly, Rossi should be very much capable of centering Minnesota’s top line at some point in the future and will likely be very involved on the powerplay, where he is most effective.

Round Two, 37th overall – Marat Khusnutdinov, LHC

The MHL, Russia’s top-tier junior league, can be a difficult league to scout, thanks to wide variations in team strength, extremely inconsistent defensive play across the board, and a strange style of play. That might be why Marat Khusnutdinov, despite being one of the better skaters in the draft and displaying a well-rounded skill set in all three zones, fell to the Wild in the second round. To be fair, Khusnutdinov had a weird year with SKA’s junior program, slowly working his way up the lineup throughout the year and finishing under a point per game, but there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about his skillset.

An explosive skater that blends lateral agility with straight away speed extremely well, Khusnutdinov is a mobile player that can hound the puck in all three zones. He’s an east-west attacker, opening lanes and manipulating defenses with a sideways motion. The Russian is also a patient, comfortable puck handler that can hold onto the puck until things open up for him, as well as a gifted dual-threat attacker that can threaten with his vision and quick wrister from the slot. He has a responsible two-way game as well, applying constant puck pressure with his high work ethic and motor, and is always positioning himself to support his defencemen and teammates.

Khusnutdinov’s slight frame could make it difficult for him to initially break into the KHL, which is the natural next progression in his career as a Russian forward. He’s dressed as the extra forward in a couple of KHL games so far but hasn’t gotten into any game time. Khusnutdinov will spend the majority of his season in the MHL again, where he’ll strive to be one of the most dangerous forwards in the league. Khusnutdinov is already buzzing at a rate well over a point-per-game, so he’s very much in that conversation.

Round Two, 39th Overall – Ryan O’Rourke, RHD

Before getting into his actual game, it’s worth noting that O’Rourke has two characteristics that NHL teams should hold in high regard: he’s a right-shot defenceman, first of all, and captained the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds as a 17-year-old, a major rarity for the CHL. O’Rourke is a rugged, defensively-oriented player with a well-rounded game. He plays a physical, active defensive game, keeping opposing forwards to the outside and closing them off along the boards. He skates well enough to contain players on the rush and can use his quick stick to stop opposing attacks just as they enter the offensive zone.

Offensively, O’Rourke isn’t as impressive. He has an excellent slapper and a strong wrister, both of which he can get through to the net with consistency. The defenceman likes to creep in from the blueline when the opposing team doesn’t cover the point, improving his odds at making something happen with his shot. O’Rourke joins the rush when he can, looking to sneak in and release shots as a trailer. His shot can be a weapon at times, but O’Rourke’s offensive game is quite limited – he lacks the creativity and aggressiveness to activate like a forward and make high-level offensive plays.

O’Rourke’s transition game is quite similar. He can make a good first pass and complete the play in front of him, but he doesn’t have the explosiveness or puck skills to consistently skate the puck out himself or evade forechecking pressure. O’Rourke can make the basic play but lacks the skill to play a consistently advanced game. If he makes the NHL, his dependable defensive game and capacity to make the basic play should make him a useful defenceman. Will that be in a top-four role? Maybe not consistently, but it’s a valuable skillset even just as a third-pairing player.

Round Three, 65th Overall – Daemon Hunt, LHD

Hunt is a smooth-skating defender that has shown flashes of strong transitional ability and offensive upside. However, an injury took him out for a good portion of the season just as he was gaining momentum in bigger minutes on Moose Jaw’s blueline in November of 2019. He didn’t put up the raw offensive numbers to skyrocket him up draft boards after a promising 16-year-old season in limited usage for the Warriors, recording 15 points in 28 games. But, Moose Jaw was an extremely weak team, and Hunt’s skating ability, sneaky offensive involvement, and passing vision are reason for optimism about his offensive future.

It’s difficult to judge exactly how much weight Hunt’s draft season should hold towards his future projection. He was robbed of three months of his draft season because of a freak skate laceration in a game against Edmonton and only got into a few games before the pandemic claimed the rest. As well, Moose Jaw won a measly 14 matches all season long, averaging only 2.35 goals per game. It’s difficult to involve yourself in the offense on a frequent basis when your team lacks so much offensive firepower, especially as a defenceman.

From the Wild’s perspective, there is plenty to like about this bet. Hunt carries plenty of uncertainty with all the unknown about what he might have done in a draft season if he hadn’t missed so much time to injury, or played on a stronger offensive team. Yet, his smooth mobility, patience, and comfort with the puck on his stick and developing two-way game could very well be enough to eventually carry Hunt to the NHL. He’s a skill player, drafted for his fluidity and talent with the puck. Hunt has lots to prove, but it’s hard to find qualms with a bet like this one.

Round Five, 146th Overall – Pavel Novak, W

Novak’s 58 points in 55 games for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets gives him one of the strongest basic statistical profiles of any player to go outside of the top three – maybe even two – rounds. Add in that he did that in his first North American season after making the jump from the Czech Republic, and you begin to get the sense that the Wild may end up extracting real NHL value from this pick.

The Wild select has a strong wrister that he loves to use on the powerplay, moving around on the half-wall and looking to fire shots through screens and traffic. His shot created a lot of opportunities for him last season – Novak scored 25 times on 16% shooting– but he didn’t actually use it as much as you might expect, averaging about 2.8 shots per game. That’s good volume, but not as much as we usually see from top junior snipers. That’s largely because Novak was a lot more eager to distribute at even-strength, looking for teammates in the slot and making things happen with his distribution abilities from the perimeter of the ice.

The Czech winger is back in his home country with the WHL currently on hold until January, where he currently has 4 points in 5 games in the Czech second division. Novak is expected to rejoin the Winterhawks when the WHL season starts up again, where he’ll be looking to take a significant step forward just like 2019 Minnesota third-rounder, Adam Beckman did last season. Like Beckman, Novak could prove to be another gem for the Wild in the middle-rounds out of Western Canada.

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