ST. PAUL, Minn. – The story of the summer in the NHL, before the lockout wiped out almost half of the season, was the free agent market for standouts Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Minnesota was their unexpected choice. The two friends signed identical 13-year, $98 million contracts, and the Wild will finally unveil their upgraded lineup Saturday night at home against Colorado.
For the first time in the franchise’s 12 seasons, there is national star power here—and legitimate depth at the forward spots.
“We have a lot of talent. Now we just have to put it together,” said Suter, the slick-skating, puck-moving defenceman who played the last seven seasons for Nashville and will be asked to help set up Parise and the others for scores. “It’s going to be an exciting year.”
If there’s been one constant for the Wild since they joined the league, it’s been a lack of offence. They were last in the NHL last season with 166 goals, the fewest in the league in 10 years. Since entering the NHL in 2000-01 as an expansion team, they’ve never ranked higher than 17th in the league in scoring. That was in 2007-08, the last of three times in 11 years they’ve made the playoffs.
That’s one of many reasons why owner Craig Leipold and general manager Chuck Fletcher went all out to land Parise and Suter. Minnesota is a hockey-loving state, but the Wild have been lacking in local buzz for some time. Coach Mike Yeo, who watched his team race to an NHL-leading 20-7-3 start last season only to sputter down the stretch with a slew of injuries and finish 35-36-11, described the wait for the lockout to end like having Christmas presents he wasn’t allowed to open.
With only one week of training camp and 48 regular-season games, there’s not much time for the team to mesh.
“I think there will be a sense of urgency, definitely. … Guys know we have to be going from day one,” Yeo said. “In the past you could get away with having a little slump. But now with the shortened schedule, you’re not going to be able to.”
One advantage the Wild will have is that the many of their players skated together to stay in shape while negotiators worked on the collective bargaining agreement. So Parise’s new teammates already have a strong sense of his ability.
“He’s an elite player for a reason, just the way he works and his focus level and his skill level,” centre Kyle Brodziak said. “He’s just an all-around hockey player. He deserves what he gets because he works so hard.”
Captain Mikko Koivu will centre the first line with Dany Heatley on the right wing and Parise, who had 31 goals and 38 assists for New Jersey in 2011-12, on the left. Rookie Mikael Granlund, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2010 who’s so popular in his native Finland he has paparazzi following him around town, will be on the second line with Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi.
Brodziak, whose 22 goals and 22 assists last season were second on the Wild behind Heatley, will centre the third line with Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck. Two other role-playing acquisitions, Torrey Mitchell and Zenon Konopka, will anchor the fourth line with Darroll Powe.
“This team never needed saviours or anything. They already had great players,” Parise said. “Ryan and I, we think we can make a team better, and that’s all we want to do. We want to be pieces to a team we feel is going to be very good, so that’s all we’re looking at.”
Granlund is joining the team at an ideal time, when he won’t be asked to carry too much of the load.
“NHL has been my dream since I was a kid, and now it’s come true,” Granlund said, adding: “I think it was a good choice to come here, and now let’s just play.”
Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are back in the net. With more back-to-back games and quick-turnaround road trips — on an intra-conference-only schedule, the Wild must travel more air miles than any other NHL team this season — the two will probably rotate games more than usual.
The key to success could be on the blue line. Suter’s college buddy at Wisconsin, Tom Gilbert, will give the Wild another veteran presence on the second defensive pairing. But the rest of the group is unproven. From Jared Spurgeon to Clayton Stoner to Justin Falk to Nate Prosser to whichever other young players take their turn on the ice, they must stay healthy and continue to improve if the Wild are going to make a run at the Stanley Cup to match the preseason hype generated by the pricey acquisition of Parise and Suter.
“We’re all excited to play and put it all together. It should be a lot of fun,” Parise said.
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