June 27, 2009

Wild goes local in NHL draft

MORE: Rangers draft high schooler in first round of NHL Draft

MONTREAL Chuck Fletcher didn't fill the immediate hole on next year's roster he was hoping to during the opening round of the NHL draft Friday night, but the rookie general manager did deliver two big things to the Wild and State of Hockey.

Extra draft picks and a bona fide, real life, born-and-bred Minnesotan.

Check Eden Prairie High School star defenseman Nick Leddy's birth certificate.

It says "Edina," which should please the provincial Minnesotans who have been all but demanding that the homestate team take the hometown kid.

"You never know on draft day," said Leddy, the Gophers-bound 2009 Minnesota Mr. Hockey who was taken 16th overall. "You really never know what could happen. I'm just happy they took me and I can be one of the hometown guys."

Assistant GM Tommy Thompson said other Minnesotans will be in the Wild's "gun sights" during Rounds 2-7 today.

The Wild took Leddy, whom Fletcher called a "prototypical new-rules defenseman," six spots ahead of top-ranked draft-eligible Minnesotan and soon-to-be Gophers teammate Jordan Schroeder. Last season's WCHA Rookie of the Year slipped to 22nd and went to Vancouver, the Wild's bitter rival, meaning both players' development will be closely compared and debated for years.

"It's not an indictment on Jordan Schroeder at all. We like Jordan Schroeder," Thompson said. "When it comes down to two really good hockey players, you have to ask, 'Is the job that one does, the role he can fill, is it harder to find?

"I think what Leddy provides is the hardest thing to find guys who can legitimately generate offense."

The blockbuster Fletcher hoped to make never transpired, but he moved to Plan B accumulating more draft picks for the asset-starved Wild.

Fletcher worked the phones so long before the Wild was supposed to select 12th, Commissioner Gary Bettman actually issued a warning. Finally, Fletcher dropped four spots, trading his pick to the New York Islanders for the 16th pick, 77th (third round) and 182nd (seventh round). Fletcher tried hard again to deal the 16th but "didn't want to get too cute" when teams like Columbus (26th) were calling.

"I felt it was very important to add more picks so we could restock the cupboards and restock our talent pool," Fletcher said. "We had nine picks the last two years. Now we have nine just this year."

For months, Thompson said he wanted to add "pizzazz" to the Wild and says he found the guy in Leddy.

"I like to be entertained, and this guy's fun to watch," said Thompson, who feels Leddy is a "better prospect at his age than (former Gopher) Keith Ballard was."

Thompson watched 12 of Leddy's games and some practices last year at Eden Prairie, which won the Class 2A state championship with a 4-2 win over Moorhead. Leddy, 18, scored 37 points in 25 games and proved himself to be one dynamic, smooth-skating blue-liner.

But Thompson was blown away at the combine in Toronto, where Leddy, a late bloomer (5-3, 115 pounds as a freshman), showed off big time.

"There's no magic test, but we don't tell our strength coach how good a prospect is beforehand because we don't want to prejudice them," Thompson said. "Our first year, (former strength coach) George Kinnear comes up to me and says, 'What kind of skater is this Marian Gaborik?' I said, 'Probably the best skater in the world.' He goes, 'He just blew the field away in the standing long jump.'

"Now Leddy at the combine, he was real good in the standing long jump, real good in the vertical, won the hopscotch, was top-three in the balancing drills. And you look at his body and say, 'Hmm, this guy is just coming into his own."

The Wild called upon Leddy for a second interview in Montreal on Thursday. Leddy started to wonder if the Wild was actually leaning toward him, but he never thought the Wild would take him over Schroeder. The two go way back, having played AAA hockey against each other as kids.

"It was life and death," Leddy said, laughing.

In the end, though, the Wild actually twice passed over Schroeder, who later was called to the stage by Canucks star goalie Roberto Luongo.

"He's an unbelievable player," Leddy said of Schroeder. "I can't wait to play with him next year. I was figuring he was going to go, but I guess you never know."

Said Schroeder of dropping: "My parents were very positive. They kept saying, 'You're going to go. We have faith in you. We love you very much, so don't worry about it.' The draft is just a number. It's what you do after the draft that counts."

Leddy, whose uncle, Steve, was Wild coach Todd Richards' old defense partner at Armstrong High, knows playing in his hometown will be pressure-packed. The Wild has never been able to develop a Minnesotan, blowing the 12th pick in 2004 with Savage native A.J. Thelen.

A lot of eyes will be on Leddy, but he's not nervous.

"I know it's going to be a lot of pressure on me, but that's the kind of player I am," Leddy said. "In high-pressure games, I always seem to do well. ... I'm really glad I went to the Wild. It's my hometown. I love the crowds there, it's unbelievable. I actually got to go in the locker room, and it's all first-class stuff down there. It's going to be great."

The draft started off with a bang 10 minutes before when the Star Tribune first reported Anaheim's Chris Pronger had been dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers for Joffrey Lupul, prospect Luca Sbisa and two first-round picks after Scott Niedermayer decided to return to the Ducks.

After more than a week's worth of buildup, the Ottawa Senators were unable to trade Dany Heatley, the two-time 50-goal, 100-point scorer.

It was a difficult trade to make for several reasons, including four more years of a $7.5 million salary-cap hit, a $4 million lump sum bonus to be paid on July 1 and the baggage that comes with off-ice issues and demanding to be traded from two organizations.

The Wild was interested in Heatley and had a lot of trade talks with several teams. Fletcher said some potential trades are still out there, but trades proved difficult to make Friday, as evidenced by Pronger being the only player transaction in the league.

"There was a lot of talk and a lot of tire kicking, and at the end of the day I just found it difficult to complete any, and obviously most of the teams experienced the same feeling," Fletcher said.

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