Wild prepare for draft in own arena
By Dave Campbell, AP Sports Writer
ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Wild are staying home for the NHL draft.
This weekend's event will be held in their own arena, the Xcel Energy Center, meaning their first-round pick -- 10th overall -- will have the memorable bonus of a warm welcome from the Wild fans in attendance.
"The hometown crowd usually has a terrific reception for the player drafted by the hometown team, and just seeing the emotion of the family and seeing the young man get up with the hometown hat on for the first time is a very special moment," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said.
The Wild are determined to use the draft-and-develop model to become a perennial playoff team, so this will be another critical weekend in their reconstruction project.
"I'm extremely optimistic about our chances to get better in the future, because I know we'll draft well with this staff and we'll develop well after we've drafted these kids," Fletcher said. "We're going to be successful developing players, and the sooner the better."
After a series of not-so-productive drafts, the Wild have begun to restock. They loaded up on playmaking forwards last year with four of the first 59 selections, and Mikael Granlund (Finland), Brett Bulmer (Canada), Johan Larrson (Sweden) and Jason Zucker (Denver University) had solid seasons with their respective teams.
Players like Cody Almond, Colton Gillies and Marco Scandella, draft picks from 2007 and 2008, have had previous tastes of the NHL with the Wild and helped the Houston Aeros to the American Hockey League finals this month.
When Fletcher introduced Mike Yeo as the Wild's new head coach last week, he made it clear he wants the Wild to become younger, faster and more energetic, trying to follow the draft-and-develop model the Boston Bruins and Vancouver Canucks used effectively to reach the Stanley Cup finals.
"I don't think rebuild is the right word, I think we're trying to build. We're trying to build a foundation," Fletcher said. "We've missed the playoffs three years in a row, so clearly we need to upgrade our team."
He added: "There's a lot we need to add. The best teams fill most of their holes through their own internal development system."
Signing college free agents like Chay Genoway, Nate Prosser and Casey Wellman is one way to do that, but the draft is where this all starts. Fletcher traded the Wild's second-round draft pick to the Bruins in 2009, his first year on the job, for Chuck Kobasew, but the Wild have a pick in the other rounds. Trades to accumulate more young talent, whether extra draft picks or NHL-ready players, are a possibility this weekend.
The first round of the draft takes place Friday night. The remaining rounds, two through seven, are on Saturday.
The location will also allow those Minnesota-bred prospects the opportunity to hear their name called, perhaps even by the Wild.
"So many kids play hockey here. It'll be great for them to witness what actually happens," said assistant general manager Brent Flahr.
There are only a couple of players considered to be first-round candidates this year, though the overall depth of draft-eligible prospects from the state this summer is as good as usual. At least one Minnesotan has been selected in the first round every year since 2002, and three went last year.
At the top of the list this year are left wing Mario Lucia, son of University of Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, and right wing Seth Ambroz, who has signed with the Gophers.
"They're not going to have to wait too long, I don't think," Flahr said.
Lucia, from Wayzata High School, is expected to be the first prep star picked. He will likely play at the junior level in the United States Hockey League next season.
Ambroz left New Prague High School before his sophomore season to play at the junior level in the USHL. He led the Omaha Lancers with 24 goals last season. In an interview earlier this month from the NHL scouting combine in Toronto, Ambroz said he's excited to be able to attend.
"Nice little 45-minute drive, so I can't complain," he said.
The Wild have never had an inordinate amount of natives in their system, refusing to evaluate the region differently than the rest.
"I always want to be careful saying this: We don't go out of our way to draft kids from Minnesota, because we'd be doing a disservice to our organization and to our fans," Fletcher said. "But there's so many good hockey players who play in this area, that inevitably you're going to get some kids from Minnesota. You're going to draft some kids. You're going to sign some kids as free agents. You're going to trade for some kids from the area."