It’s been two weeks since the Minnesota Wild were eliminated by the St. Louis Blues in the opening round of the 2021-22 NHL Playoffs. Although the fanbase certainly wanted a deep playoff run over another early summer, there is a silver lining to the situation. The Wild’s failure to meet the conditions regarding the draft pick that they sent to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Marc-André Fleury trades means that Minnesota gets to keep its first-round pick for the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.
The 2022 class is already shaping up to be stronger than last year’s, and the Wild currently hold the 26th overall pick, allowing them to find someone that’ll be NHL-ready in the near future. They’re set on defense and between the pipes for the next couple of years, so expect them to target a forward towards the end of Round 1.
With many talented up-and-comers to choose from, here’s a look at three prospects that the Wild should target in the first round of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft.
1. Luca Del Bel Belluz, Center/Left Wing, Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
All signs point to Kevin Fiala leaving Minnesota at some point this offseason, likely in a trade. Finding a prospect that can eventually become a top-six forward is near the top of the agenda, which is why the Wild should consider targeting the Mississauga Steelheads’ Luca Del Bel Belluz.
Del Bel Belluz is an offensive-minded forward that can score with the best of him. After an uneventful 2019-20 Ontario Hockey League (OHL) campaign saw him record a goal and five assists in 58 games, the 18-year-old looked completely different in 2021-22. He led all Steelheads players with 46 points in 68 games while also finishing second on the club with 30 goals. Unfortunately, Mississauga couldn’t make it past the second round of the OHL playoffs, but that didn’t stop Del Bel Belluz from recording four points in his first 10 postseason games.
Beyond his scoring and passing abilities, Del Bel Belluz is also talented in the faceoff dot. Those draws will be harder to win when he faces more experienced centers in the NHL, but the Wild have been among the worst teams at faceoffs in recent years and desperately need the help. While Del Bel Belluz could afford to work on his speed over time, his hand skills, creativity, leadership and ability to play center and wing more than make up for it.
The NHL’s prospect rankings have him as the No. 8 North American skater, which is high praise considering he was ranked 11th at the midterm update. The Wild already have bright offensive prospects like Marco Rossi, Mason Shaw and Marat Khusnutdinov waiting in the wings, and adding Del Bel Belluz to that group could help put them over the top.
2. Isaac Howard, Left Wing, USNTDP Juniors (USHL)
If the Wild are looking to specifically replace Fiala on the left side, Isaac Howard is another solid option to draft with the 26th overall selection. The 18-year-old is far from the biggest skater, standing at 5-foot-10 and weighing 183 pounds, but he makes up for his lack in size with some impressive on-ice skills.
Howard is a balanced player that can score goals just as well as he can set up his open teammates. He had 27 goals in 55 games over the last two seasons playing for the United States National Development Team. That’s not even to mention that he also had 43 assists over that stretch as well. He isn’t afraid of getting into those hard-to-reach areas, whether it’s to chip home a loose puck in front of the net or to eventually create a scoring chance for a linemate.
Another good reason for the Wild to draft Howard is that he’s essentially a local talent. Despite being born in Wisconsin, he played high school hockey in Minnesota until he was 16 and is also committed to playing hockey at the University of Minnesota-Duluth for the 2022-23 season. The Wild haven’t been shy when it comes to drafting local players or those who’ve played hockey in-state in the past. Plus, it would give the club an opportunity to keep a closer eye on their first-round pick while giving fans a chance to see him up close before he hits the big time.
Sure, it may take Howard a couple of years until he’s ready the join the Wild’s roster, but Kirill Kaprizov’s lengthy journey proved that patience with a prospect’s NHL journey could pay off in spades. If Howard can reach the potential that many scouts see in him by playing in Minnesota, he could end up being one of the bigger steals in the 2022 NHL Draft.
3. Nathan Gaucher, Center, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
Center is clearly one of the Wild’s top priorities ahead of the 2022 NHL Draft, especially when it comes to adding size down the middle. Ryan Hartman, Joel Eriksson Ek, Frederick Gaudreau and Tyson Jost all stand at 6-foot-1 or below (according to Hockey Reference), making it easier for bigger opposing centers to take advantage of the Wild. That could all be addressed if general manager Bill Guerin considers drafting Quebec Remparts center Nathan Gaucher 26th overall.
Related: THW 2022 NHL Draft Guide
Gaucher is far from the most skilled player in the draft, and he won’t dazzle with his moves either, but that isn’t what the Wild would need from the 6-foot-3 prospect. He’s made a name for himself by using his body to bully the opposition, often putting himself in the perfect position to jam home the dirty goals that pro teams love. Speaking of which, the 18-year-old does have some goal-scoring potential down the line, proven by the 45 goals he amassed over 99 games in his final two Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) seasons. That translates to 0.45 goals per game.
Something else that makes Gaucher the perfect first-round draft pick is that he’s the net-front presence that the Wild need on the power play. Minnesota was outmatched against the St. Louis Blues in the 2021-22 NHL Playoffs when it came to special teams, highlighted by the former converting on just 16.7 percent of their power-play opportunities — seventh-worst in the postseason. Having Gaucher’s massive body in front of the net would certainly open up a lot more opportunities, and the coverage that he demands should create more space on the perimeter, too.
Throw in the fact that Gaucher is solid at faceoffs and can kill penalties with the best of them, and it’s hard not to like the idea of him in a Wild jersey. He may only ever develop into being a second-line center, but that’s all Minnesota would need from him. They already have several offensively-talented forwards in the top-six, with more on the way in the prospect pipeline. As long as Gaucher can be a two-way center with some scoring upside, Wild fans should be happy with him at No. 26.
At the end of the day, the 2022 NHL Entry Draft being as deep as it is, it happens to be a saving grace for the Wild and the 26th overall selection. Del Bel Belluz, Howard and Gaucher are each terrific in their own way and can help the Wild in the near future, regardless of which one they might choose. The future is already looking promising with the Wild’s young core, but adding any member of that trio to the mix would give fans even more to be excited about.
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As a lifelong hockey fan and recent Master of Journalism graduate, it’s always been my dream to write about the sport. That’s why you can find me here on THW covering the Minnesota Wild! You may also see my work on FanDuel, the Ottawa Citizen, and various sports betting sites. Follow me on Twitter @devplat!