With a nice core of young players already up front, the Minnesota Wild focused on their defense at the 2008 Entry Draft by selecting defensemen with three of their four picks.
The Wild were especially gleeful about the selection of Tyler Cuma with the No. 23 pick. Cuma, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound blueliner, had 32 points and 69 penalty minutes in 59 appearances for the Ottawa 67s in the Ontario Hockey League.
"This was probably good timing for defense, not just because it was a good year for defensemen, but there's a switch of a need here, too," President and General Manager Doug Risebrough told the Wild's web site.
Clearly, the hope in Minnesota is that the franchise now has a young mix of both forwards and defensemen to make a legitimate run at a Stanley Cup. After several years of early disappointments, the Wild are confident they've made the right moves on draft day to take that elusive next step.
Here's a look at the Wild's top prospects entering the 2008-09 season:
Colton Gillies -- At 6-foot-4, Minnesota's first-round pick from 2007 certainly has the size to become a legitimate NHL power forward. After scoring 24 goals for Saskatoon Blades in the Western Hockey League last season, Gillies made the jump to the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League. In 11 games there, the 19-year-old picked up a goal and seven assists.
Whether Gillies will be on Minnesota's roster come October remains to be seen, but he'll certainly have every chance to make the club out of training camp.
"He doesn't have to score points to earn his stripes with us, so that will help him in his attempt to make our team," Wild assistant GM Tommy Thompson said. "We're very pleased with his development.
"With Colton, you don't just look at the points. He had a very good World Junior Tournament, too, and won the gold medal. He's got size and he's an elite-level skater. He's very aggressive and very coachable."
Benoit Pouliot -- The fourth overall selection in 2005 has been a late bloomer in Minnesota's system and played for the Wild down the stretch last season. After racking up 35 goals and 161 penalty minutes in his final junior season with Sudbury of the OHL, Pouliot hit the AHL and scored 19 times for Houston in 2006-07. He made his NHL debut that season, but was held off the score sheet in three games. After going 10-14-24 in 46 games for Houston last season, Pouliot made the jump and scored twice in 11 games for the Wild. Both of those came in one game against Calgary on March 22.
Thompson is confident Pouliot is ready to have a breakout season in 2008-09.
"He's been an enigma, but we accepted that when we drafted him," Thompson said. "He finished the year with our club and played in the playoffs. He's certainly got a chance to make it, too."
Cal Clutterbuck -- Minnesota's third-round pick in 2006 is coming off his first season of professional hockey, which was spent with Houston. In 73 games with the Aeros, Clutterbuck, a 5-10, 196-pounder, scored 11 goals and added 13 assists to go along with 97 penalty minutes. The Welland, Ontario, native had back-to-back 35-goal seasons in his final two junior campaigns with Oshawa.
"We think he can be a solid, two-way, physical player," Thompson said. "He would have had more points if (Houston) had used him in offensive situations. He had 70 goals his last two years of junior. He can score if you put him those situations. He can shoot. I think he's got a good chance with us."
"He's a big, strong guy. He had a good season. He has an excellent attitude. The question with him is whether he'll be able to adapt to the NHL tempo. Hopefully, he will."
-- Wild assistant GM, Tommy Thompson on Ryan Hamilton
"He's a big, strong guy," Thompson said. "He had a good season. He has an excellent attitude. The question with him is whether he'll be able to adapt to the NHL tempo. Hopefully, he will."
Petr Kalus -- The 21-year-old is still trying to find his way after being acquired from Boston in the deal that sent goaltender Manny Fernandez to Boston. Kalus scored four times in nine games for the Bruins in 2006-07, but spent the entire 2007-08 season with Houston. He had just 18 points in 58 games for the Aeros after nearly making the Wild's roster in October.
"I think he lost some of his confidence in Houston," Thompson said. "We got him in the Fernandez trade, and he was pretty good in training camp. He was our last cut as a forward. His play was up-and-down in Houston."
Peter Olvecky -- In his third full season in Houston, the Wild's third-round selection from 2004 set a career high with 17 goals in 61 games. Regarded as a solid two-way player, Thompson believes Olvecky's late development is partly because the franchise didn't know where he was best suited.
"He's a guy that turned things around," Thompson said. "We didn't know what he was. We didn't know if he was a center or a winger or offensive or defensive. We never really knew. The second half of the year, he played a lot better. Hopefully he'll give some people a run for their money in camp."
Adrian Foster -- After failing to catch on with the New Jersey Devils, who picked him in the first round in 2001, the 26-year-old finally enjoyed success in his first season in Houston. In 70 games with the Aeros, Foster tallied 15 goals and 23 assists. It marked only the second time that he was able to play more than 50 games in a season.
"He's a smart player," Thompson said. "The biggest thing with Adrian was that he played a full season for the first time in a long time. He's had a whole lot of physical problems. If those are behind him, I think he's got some talent. He has to show what he can do."
Tyler Cuma -- It had been four years since Minnesota took a defenseman in the first round, so Cuma instantly became the franchise's top prospect on the blue line when he was grabbed at No. 23 on June 20.
After winning Rookie of the Year honors in the OHL for his performance with Ottawa in 2006-07, Cuma was the only member of the 67s to finish with a plus rating in 2007-08. Minnesota loves his offensive ability, as Cuma is willing to rush the puck up ice and has tremendous vision.
"This is the ninth draft that the Minnesota Wild has had, and never before have I ever said I was surprised when the guy was there when he picked," Thompson admitted. "I was very surprised. We're just delighted we have him."
Marco Scandella -- The converted forward was grabbed by the Wild in the second round in the 2008 Draft. The Montreal native has grown remarkably over the past few years -- he's now 6-2 and 190 pounds -- and the Wild are excited about his potential to be a stay-at-home defenseman. Scandella had 14 points and 35 penalty minutes for Val-d'Or in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season.
"Our doctors said he had as athletic a body as any of the prospects he'd seen," Thompson said. "This guy is one of these late developers. Three years ago, he was undrafted in the Quebec League as a 5-foot-9, 140-pound center."
Erik Reitz -- He spent the entire 2007-08 season in Houston before joining the Wild for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Wild were so thrilled with Reitz's play that they rewarded their sixth-round pick from 2000 -- who just finished his sixth campaign in Houston -- with a one-way contract for next season. Reitz, who's 6-1 and 215 pounds, had 34 points and 99 penalty minutes in 49 games for the Aeros.
"He was the best defenseman on the ice in the games I saw. He finished the year with us in the playoffs," Thompson said. "We intend for him to be one of our defenseman this season. He has a good, solid two-way game. He's a feisty guy. He can shoot from the point. He's physical. He's a good player."
John Scott -- With massive size (6-foot-7, 255 pounds) and a mean streak to boot, Scott racked up 184 minutes in penalties in 64 games with Houston, his second season at the pro level. The 25-year-old spent four years at Michigan Tech and eclipsed 100 penalty minutes in two of those seasons despite the shorter schedule.
Clearly, his skating will play a factor as to whether Scott can play in the NHL.
"He's come a long way," Thompson said of Scott, who signed with the Wild after going undrafted. "We liked him at Michigan Tech. He's shown some flashes. He's an older guy, but he's huge. He's strong and powerful. Are his feet good enough for the NHL? I guess we'll have to find that out. It's harder for the tough guys to make it on defense. In your own end down low, you can't use your stick and you can't use your free hand."
Anton Khudobin -- A native of Kazakhstan, the 22-year-old is coming off a tremendous season at the minor-league level. Khudobin was masterful with the ECHL's Texas Wildcatters, going 20-1-4 with a 1.98 GAA and .934 save percentage. His play earned him a promotion to Houston, where he posted a 1.99 GAA and .911 save percentage in 12 appearances.
While the Wild are basically set between the pipes with Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding, Khudobin can solidify a spot in Houston with a strong camp.
"I'm anxious to see him at summer camp," Thompson said. "He played OK when we brought him up to Houston, too. He had a tough start last year, but once he found his game again, he was pretty good. We want to see him at our summer camp and see if we can keep him going in the right direction. He's a fiery competitor."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.