Despite a series of interruptions due to COVID-19 and a brief losing skid, the Minnesota Wild are still in the thick of the battle for the top spot in the Central Division. While the Wild’s present appears to be promising, so does their future, which includes the seven prospects that they selected at the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
Prospects vary on a case-by-case basis, with some being ready to make the immediate jump to the NHL, while others could use a bit more seasoning. Even though Minnesota’s seven prospects from last year’s draft might be at different points in their hockey journey, most of them are enjoying some degree of success in their respective leagues this season.
Here’s a a brief check-in on each of the Wild’s selections from the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
Round 1, Pick 20: Jesper Wallstedt – G, Lulea HF (SHL)
A lot of hockey fans couldn’t believe their eyes when Swedish goaltending prodigy Jesper Wallstedt continued to fall in the first round of last July’s draft. Many scouts and experts had him listed as a top-10 pick, which is why the Wild didn’t waste a second drafting him when he was available at No. 20. Expectations are high for any goalie taken in the first round, so it’s easy to see why the organization is thrilled with his play this season.
While Wallstedt was already impressive in his draft year, he’s somehow topped himself throughout the 2021-22 Swedish Hockey League (SHL) season. The 19-year-old netminder has started in 17 games for Lulea, and even though his 9-8-0 record isn’t amazing, his 1.82 goals-against average (GAA) and 0.923 save percentage (SV%) are impressive given that he’s a teenager competing against men. Considering how he was 12-10-0 last season with a 2.23 GAA and 0.907 SV%, he may continue to get better with age, at least as long as he’s in Sweden.
With the way he’s played this season, Wild fans have been clamoring for his eventual NHL debut. Keeping that in mind, goalies can be unpredictable when it comes to their development. He’s doing great in the SHL, but his success may not immediately transfer over to the NHL. Regardless, Wallstedt is likely the best goaltending prospect that Minnesota has ever had and as long as his trajectory stays on course, he could steal the starting job from Kaapo Kahkonen and Cam Talbot in a few years.
Round 1, Pick 26: Carson Lambos – D, Winnipeg Ice (WHL)
Thanks to the trade that sent Jason Zucker to the Pittsburgh Penguins in February 2020, the Wild had a second first-round back in 2021. At 26th overall, Minnesota selected Winnipeg Ice defenseman Carson Lambos from the Western Hockey League (WHL). The 18-year-old opted to spend most of his draft year in Finland, however, an injury-riddled campaign held him to just 17 total games, with only two coming with JYP Jyväskylä’s men’s team.
Lambos decided that it was best for him to come back to the WHL to continue his career, and it’s worked out marvelously. The Winnipeg native has been playing well in the games that he has suited up for, recording five goals and 13 assists in 19 games. Considering how that put him on pace to beat his previous WHL best (32 points in 57 games in 2019-20), coming back to North America appears to be the right call.
The bad news is that Lambos could be doing so much more had it not been for the injury bug biting him again. He hasn’t played a game since Nov. 19 due to an upper-body injury. He was initially listed as being ‘week-to-week’ with his injury (from ‘Lambos Out Week-to-Week,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 11/22/21), so it’s a bit concerning that he hasn’t played in nearly two months. The hope is that he can return at some point in the near future and pick up right from where he left off. The Wild signed him to his entry-level contract back in August for a reason, so a full and speedy recovery is needed to keep him in line with Minnesota’s vision for the future.
Round 2, Pick 54: Jack Peart – D, St. Cloud State University (NCAA)
Anyone familiar with the Wild knows that they love to draft defensemen, which is why it wasn’t surprising when they drafted Grand Rapids, MN native Jack Peart at No. 54. The two-way blueliner impressed scouts with his footwork and ability to start plays right from his defensive zone. He split the 2020-21 season playing with his high school team and the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League (USHL), leaving Wild management wondering how he’d perform in the NCAA.
Peart has had a smooth transition into the collegiate stage of his hockey career. The 18-year-old has 11 points (two goals and nine assists) in his first 13 games playing for St. Cloud State in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Injuries have held him back a bit, but the fact that he sits eighth in team scoring despite playing five fewer games than most of his teammates is impressive. He’s also the youngest player on St. Cloud State’s roster, so it truly does look like the sky is the limit for the former Mr. Hockey Award winner.
Round 3, Pick 86: Caedan Bankier – C, Kamloops Blazers (WHL)
Minnesota had high hopes Kamloops Blazers center Caedan Bankier when they selected him 86th overall last July. While a COVID-19-affected season held him to just 22 games, he still managed to put up 23 points over that span. If that’s what he pulled off in just his second WHL season, fans were salivating at the thought of what he could do on a full schedule.
Unfortunately, things haven’t gone exactly the way that the Wild or Bankier had hoped in 2021-22. While he averaged 1.05 points per game (PPG) last year, he’s averaging 0.80 PPG this season. It’s not a huge drop-off, but it’s clear that Logan Stankoven’s emergence as Kamloops’ No. 1 center has limited Bankier’s opportunities. There’s still plenty of time for him to turn things around in the second half of the campaign, so look for Minnesota’s third-round prospect to make the most of the remaining schedule.
Round 4, Pick 118: Kyle Masters – D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Whether it’s on their roster or in their prospect pool, the Wild have more defensemen than they know what to do with, and Kyle Masters is one of them. The 2021 fourth-round selection had 10 points in 20 games during his draft year, however, he hasn’t found that same offensive success this season (10 points in 34 games). Nevertheless, his defensive play has improved a lot on a very good Red Deer Rebels team, leading to a plus-24 plus/minus rating after being a combined minus-12 in his previous two WHL campaigns. It’s going to take a lot to separate him from other defensive prospects like Lambos and Peart, so it’ll be interesting to see how Masters progresses going forward.
Round 4, Pick 127: Josh Pillar – RW, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)
Nine picks after selecting Masters, the Wild decided to draft one of his teammates. Josh Pillar showed some playmaking talents in a COVID-shortened 2020-21 WHL season, putting up 11 goals and 18 assists in 22 games. The Warman, SK native is producing at a lower rate this season (1.32 PPG in 2020-21 vs 1.07 PPG in 2021-22), however, his 20 assists in 29 games show that he has no trouble setting up his teammates. He sits just two points out of the Rebels team lead as well, so it’s good to see that he’s leading by example. At the same time, this is his fourth full WHL campaign and he must continue building up as much momentum as he can before potentially jumping to the American Hockey League (AHL) next season.
Round 6, Pick 182: Nate Benoit – D, Tri-City Storm (USHL)
Nate Benoit was the fourth defenseman that the Wild selected at the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, going 182nd overall in the sixth round. While he was more of an offensive blueliner during his AAA hockey days, he’s assumed more of a defensive role with the USHL’s Tri-City Storm. His four points in 28 games may be alarming for some fans, but his plus-12 rating is tied for fifth-best on the team. He’s already committed to the University of North Dakota for the 2022-23 NCAA season, which should do wonders for his development considering how the Fighting Hawks are typically one of the best teams in collegiate hockey. Expectations are usually low for the sixth-round defenseman, so it’s up to Benoit to prove why he deserves a shot in the NHL one day.
Wild’s 2021 Prospects Show Promise
At the end of the day, it’s a great sign that the Wild’s seven prospects from the 2021 NHL Entry draft are trending in the direction. Some of them have had their struggles, while others have taken huge steps towards an eventual NHL. They aren’t all guaranteed to crack Minnesota’s roster one day, however, there also isn’t a reason to rule any of them out just yet. As with any year, it’ll be fascinating to look back in a few years at the organization’s most recent draft to see just how many of them have and haven’t reached expectations.
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!