How The Wild Rebuilt Without Rebuilding

Along with the rest of the other three major North American men’s pro sports leagues, the NHL has been slipping into a rather unpleasant trend over the past few decades. One that turns fan bases off for a few years with the promise it will result in your favorite team returning to form. In fact, even better than the previous version you remember.

We’re talking about the tank.

NHL franchises sold themselves on the idea you must be absolute putrid for a year or two. Then they can select high in the draft to become a Stanley Cup contender. It’s understandable why. Recent history backs up that adage, too.

The Pittsburgh Penguins’ teams of the 2010s were a result of being very bad a decade prior. They used those high draft picks on guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Marc-Andre Fleury.

The Washington Capitals had Alex Ovechkin. The Los Angeles Kings sucked enough to land Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl landed in Alberta because the Edmonton Oilers were terrible. Most recently, the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup after being bad enough to land Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog, and Cale Makar. The list goes on and on.

Pittsburgh, Washington, LA, and Colorado laid out a recipe for all general managers. Trust us, most have. Creativity and originality aren’t exactly hallmarks of NHL front offices. Yet the Minnesota Wild may be paving a new path. In a decade where the league’s bottom-feeders have owned the top prospect pools, the Wild is a true outlier.

Astonishingly, the Wild have arguably the top prospect pipeline in the NHL. Remember that most prospects impacting these rankings result from the past four drafts, dating back to 2019. When you compare Minnesota’s last couple of seasons to that of those other franchises listed in the top-10, it’s even more perplexing.

In the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season, the teams ranked 2-9 in Hockey Prospecting’s rankings averaged just 49 points in 56 regular season games. The Wild finished 26 points ahead of that mark on their way to the playoffs. The only other team to make the playoffs from that list was the Montreal Canadiens, with 59 regular season points in an extremely weak North Division.

A year later, that gap in the standings grew even larger. The other nine teams combined for an average of 71.2 points, while Minnesota raced out to 113 total points, the second-best points percentage in the Western Conference. Again, only one other team in the top 10 qualified for the playoffs last season — the Kings finally climbed out of their years-long rebuild.

The point here is obvious. Nearly every team in the NHL with the best prospect pool has not been competitive for multiple seasons. Or the last decade if you’re the Buffalo Sabers. All these teams are consistently picking in the top quarter of the draft; a position history has shown to be a trampoline for teams to catapult them to contention.

That’s definitely not the case for the Minnesota Wild. Finishing as high in the standings as they have the past few years has not been a detriment to acquiring top talent. They somehow managed to get even better over the past couple of offseasons.

To put into context just how incredible the Wild have drafted the past few seasons, check out this chart from Hockey Prospecting.

Recent history proves that to hit on your draft picks consistently, you need to be picking in the top 20. If you are looking for a star or two, good luck. Bottoming out and finishing in the NHL’s basement is your only chance. That is unless you have Judd Brackett managing your draft.

In his three years running the Minnesota draft table, the Wild have just one selection in the top-10 (Marco Rossi – ninth overall in 2020). Then they had two picks in the 11 to 20 range (Jesper Wallstedt and Liam Öhgren). Brackett then added two more picks in the 20s (Carson Lambos, Danila Yurov)

Add up the star percentages of picks in that range, and an average team should get about three NHLers from that yield. As for a star, it looks like you “should” get one about 40% of the time with those five picks. Not bad, but hardly a lock to become a star factory.

And yet, Brackett and the Wild’s scouting department have unearthed extremely high value throughout the past few drafts. Perhaps even much higher than they should be drafting in those positions. With Rossi, Öhgen, Wallstedt, Lambos, and Yurov, their system’s depth and star potential are unmatched in the NHL.

Every other team with a top-ranked prospect pool has been drafting consistently in the top ten, at least. Meanwhile, the wild always finds value in the late teens and 20s. It’s hard to truly understand how crazy this is. The Wild are playing chess in the draft while many teams are stuck with checkers. The result? Minnesota fans have found themselves in a position of very few other franchises in the salary cap era have experienced — a rebuild with a perennial playoff team.

Imagine the frustration Buffalo or Detroit Red Wings fans feel when they look at those prospect rankings and realize their teams have been deliberately tanking for YEARS. Yet, they are still behind a team like the Wild, who have thoroughly entertained with their play on the ice. Well, at least for the past couple of seasons.

Yes, the cap hell of the next three years makes icing a true Stanley Cup contender difficult. However, the Wild should still have a playoff-capable team in all three years. Even if they fall short, there’s reason to be optimistic about Minnesota’s chances once the NHL lifts their buyout penalties in 2025 with how well the Wild are drafting.

If that happens, you’ll have no choice but to tip your caps to Brackett.

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