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With draft completed, Wild focus on free agency

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By Chad Graff

St. Paul Pioneer Press

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PHILADELPHIA — From suite J at Wells Fargo Center, Wild coach Mike Yeo watched the second day of the NHL draft unfold.

He wore a suit and tie and participated in the festivities. He shook hands and chatted with the Wild’s draft picks. But the players selected this weekend by the Wild won’t be with Yeo in the NHL for at least a couple of years.

Because of that, the coach’s primary focus continued to remain on Tuesday, when free agency kicks off at 11 a.m.

With plenty of salary cap space, the Wild are in on talks with the biggest and best pending free agents. But so are plenty of other teams.

So Yeo has to find ways to improve the Wild even if they’re unable to land top free agents such as winger Thomas Vanek or defenseman Matt Niskanen.

“Some of (our improvement) can be personnel related, but I think it would be a big mistake on our part as a staff to just assume that personnel is going to make us better,” Yeo said. “Whether it’s concepts or philosophies or whatever it is, we have to find a way to be more consistently effective.”

Unlike previous seasons, members of the Wild front office said, several pending free agents have been very interested in what Minnesota has to offer. The Wild want to make sure they add top free agents only because it’s the right fit — not just for the sake of adding another big name.

Yeo said he’s been studying film of free agents and trying to analyze how they would fit with the Wild.

But as they examine each free agent, flaws inevitably arise.

Vanek didn’t play well in the playoffs. Niskanen likely will garner long-term offers, which the Wild might not want to match. And the free-agency class on the whole isn’t deep.

“By adding a player, you don’t always get better,” Yeo said. “It has to be the right player and the right fit. I think that’s very important for us.”

The Wild have been in talks with several agents of big-name players, but after receiving plenty of interest back from the players this week, they’re examining what moves would be worthwhile.

“Sometimes the best trades you do are the ones you don’t do or the best signings are the ones you don’t do,” Wild owner Craig Leipold said.

Both pointed out that they’d be happy to sign a big-name free agent under the right conditions, but they want to ensure that — in addition to term and contract value — they don’t block a young player from taking a step forward.

The team has plenty of players who might be able to take bigger roles next season, both at forward and defense.

Jason Zucker still has plenty to show in the NHL, and Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula took strides in the playoffs. On defense, the Wild has Christian Folin for his first full pro season, as well as 2012 first-round pick Mathew Dumba and 2013 second round pick Gustav Olofsson.

“I think looking at the young kids we have, that’s an opportunity for growth within our team,” Yeo said.

In fact, the Wild had plenty of interest in Tuch and turned down several offers to move back in the draft and acquire extra picks to instead take Tuch with the 18th pick, the Wild’s first-round selection.

“To be honest, we didn’t think he was going to fall to us,” Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. “We looked at options to move back, adding picks, getting solid offers, but we couldn’t refuse taking this kid.”

Added general manager Chuck Fletcher: “We went with quality over quantity.”

The Wild’s perceived lack of interest in Tuch, 18, also was a smokescreen, Flahr said, to prevent other teams from learning of the Wild’s strong interest in Tuch.

In many ways, Tuch is what the Wild’s farm system lacks. He is a big winger, listed at 6 feet 3,220 pounds.

“He’s a big power forward, and those are hard to come by,” Flahr said. “He’s got a good set of hands, he’s got an NHL shot, and we think he’s got tremendous upside — a great kid. We’re very excited.”

Tuch said he was relieved to hear his name called by the Wild.

“It’s a dream come true,” Tuch said.

Like many players drafted Friday night, Tuch is still a few years away from reaching the NHL. He is committed to play at powerhouse Boston College in the fall.

In 61 games with the U-18 U.S. Development Team last season, Tuch scored 29 goals and recorded 35 assists, while accumulating 64 penalty minutes.

“Alex is that rare combination of size and skill,” Fletcher said.

Though Tuch is known for his size, he made a point of saying he can play in any area.

“I’m a big, strong power forward,” he said. “Very versatile, highly skilled, heavy shot. I use my body, but I also play all three ends of the ice.”

With the draft complete, Fletcher can return his full attention to preparing for the start of free agency.

At one time last season, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the Wild would push hard for top free agents. But after big strides last season and with a free-agency class that’s not overly deep, it’s conceivable that the Wild could improve without signing a big-name free agent.

“I still think we have a lot of players that are going to get better and will be better next season than they were last season,” Fletcher said. “To improve, you either go outside and add pieces or you hope for internal improvement. And I do think it’s very realistic to assume there will be some internal improvement for some of our younger players as they either get a bigger role, or with the experience they’ve gained, start to produce more.”

They took seven players Saturday to complement their first-round selection of Alex Tuch on Friday night. They concluded the draft with four forwards, three defenseman and one goalie.

Here’s a look at the Wild’s Saturday draft picks:

LOUIE BELPEDIO

With their third-round pick, the Wild drafted one of Tuch’s teammates on the U.S. Under-18 Development Team.

Belpedio is described as a high-character player. He captained the U-18 team and was a well-regarded teammate.

“He was one of those guys when you asked all of his teammates which player you’d take with you, everyone pretty much said him,” Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr said. “He’s a character kid, a smart player, and plays a solid two-way game.”

The defenseman is 5 feet 10 and 193 pounds. He recorded 20 points in 53 games with the U-18 team last season and is committed to Miami University.

The 18-year-old is from Skokie, Ill., and said he grew up a fan of the Chicago Blackhawks, the Wild rival that has bounced Minnesota from the playoffs the past two seasons.

“They’re rivals with the Blackhawks,” Belpedio said when asked what he knew about the Wild. “I’m a Chicago kid. I’ve definitely switched to the other side already, though.”

KAAPO KAHKONEN

Drafted in the fourth round, Kahkonen became the first goalie the Wild drafted before the sixth round since 2009.

The 17-year-old Finland native said he followed the successes of the Finnish players already on the Wild and said he’d heard a few things about Minnesota.

“I’ve heard that it’s like Finland,” Kahkonen said. “There’s trees and mosquitoes and some lakes, too.”

The Wild had been scouting Kahkonen, 17, in Finland and were pleased he fell to the fourth round.

“To be honest, we were very high on him all year,” Flahr said. “He struggled a little bit at the under-18 tournament at the end, which may have cost him a little in the draft. But he’s a talented young goalie.”

TANNER FAITH

The Wild’s fifth-round selection was categorized as a risk/reward pick.

The 6-foot-3, 211-pound defenseman played in only 10 games in the Western Hockey League this season before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

“Coming into the season, he was a higher-profile guy,” Flahr said. “(The injury) is why he fell to where he did. But our guys have seen him the last couple years and we talked to their coaches to make sure he’s healed. At that point in the draft, we felt it was a quality risk.”

PONTUS SJALIN

The first of three sixth-round selections, Sjalin isn’t a well-known prospect.

The Sweden native was only scouted by one other team, Flahr said, but the Wild wanted to select him before that other team could.

“He’s very mobile,” Flahr said. “He has to put some weight on and get stronger.”

CHASE LONG

The 17-year-old is a 6-foot-1, 176-pound center who played in the Western Hockey League last season, where he totaled 10 goals and 15 assists in 68 games.

“He’s a smart two-way player on a deep Calgary team,” Flahr said. “He’s a guy that we liked all year.”

REID DUKE

The Calgary, Alberta, native put up respectable numbers in the WHL last season as a center for a Lethbridge team that struggled.

He recorded 15 goals and 25 assists in 62 games during his second season with Lethbridge.

PAVEL JENYSIN

The Wild’s final pick of the day — No. 199 overall — is a center from the Czech Republic.

The 18-year-old recorded 15 goals and six assists in 55 games with Brno in the Czech Republic last season.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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