ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Minnesota Wild have been stuck in the NHL's mediocre middle, with just two playoff appearances in five post-lockout seasons and only one trip past the first round in the franchise's 10-year history.
What's worse for the Wild and their long-term viability is that they've been too competitive to bottom out. Since getting Marian Gaborik with the third pick in their inaugural draft in 2000, the Wild have been in the top five only once. Benoit Pouliot, the No. 4 selection in 2005, was traded to Montreal last November.
Chicago and Pittsburgh were able to quickly rebuild tattered teams into Stanley Cup champions with top-three picks like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal, but the Wild never had a chance at those gems.
That young-talent drought has been exacerbated, too, by a lack of production from drafts between 2004 and 2007. Pouliot did bring in Guillaume Latendresse, who led the team with 25 goals in 55 games after his arrival in a trade, and another deal last season landed the third overall pick in 2004, defenceman Cam Barker, from the Blackhawks.
But that's essentially it. Aside from Cal Clutterbuck, a third-rounder in 2006 who has been a hard-hitting, productive right wing, the Wild haven't got much from the middle of the draft, either. And trades left them lacking a full slate of picks the last three years.
So when the Wild come up on the clock with the ninth pick in the first round Friday night, general manager Chuck Fletcher and assistant general manager Brent Flahr will need to make a shrewd selection, even if the player probably won't be playing for Minnesota for at least another year or two.
"I don't think it's fair for me to talk about what happened before I was here," Fletcher said last week. "I just know that every year if you're not adding two or three young players into your system, you're falling behind."
The average, Fletcher said, is 1.8 players per draft who play 100 or more NHL games over their career.
"We always are working on adding talent for the future, because if you don't in this system you're in trouble," he said. "You can't buy your way out of the basement. You have to have young players come in every year."
The Wild are also armed for Saturday with two second-rounders plus selections in the third, fourth, sixth and seventh rounds. In all, they have four of the first 69 picks and five of the first 99 selections.
Last year, they had only two of the first 77 and three of the first 103.
This is the first year Flahr will run the draft after former assistant general manager Tom Thompson was fired in April. The Wild look at the Blackhawks and the Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia Flyers as teams to emulate.
"Those clubs were littered with good young players throughout their lineup," Fletcher said. "And the ultimate key to our long-term success is adding more youth into our organization. That doesn't mean we won't trade draft picks. That doesn't mean we won't trade young players. But over time we have to make sure we're adding a lot more than we're subtracting."
The draft isn't the only avenue for this. European free agents, like the Wild hit the mark on with goalie Niklas Backstrom out of Finland in 2006, are one way.
American college free agents are another, which Fletcher called "like free draft picks," after proudly pointing to the Wild's ability to sign forwards Casey Wellman and Jarod Palmer and defenceman Nate Prosser earlier this year.
Wellman had a goal and three assists in 12 games and is on track for a roster spot next season.
But the draft is the place to start this weekend. Might the Wild trade their No. 9 pick to acquire more ammunition?
"If we trade No. 9 for a player, ideally it'd be a younger player with some time left on his contract who can be part of our group here in Minnesota for several seasons," Fletcher said.
The Wild will likely have a couple of Minnesotans available to them at No. 9, in defenceman Derek Forbort of Duluth, a North Dakota recruit, and centre Nick Bjugstad of Blaine, who is bound for the Gophers. Other prospects projected to be picked early include Finnish centre Mikael Granlund, Swiss left wing Nino Niederreiter and Canadian centre Ryan Johansen.
"Whether they be young players in the NHL, prospects, or draft picks, we just want young assets," Fletcher said.