The Minnesota Wild made a couple of major moves last offseason, but they didn't have the desired effect. General manager Chuck Fletcher was at it again Wednesday, landing the top two free agents in the Class of 2012.
Expect the additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to have a greater impact on the present fortunes of the Wild -- and putting these two stars with a strong, young foundation already in place could make Minnesota contenders for years to come.
"We've been trying to put the best team on the ice for the last few years," Fletcher said. "We've obviously been trying to build aggressively through the draft in the last three years and build up a foundation of talent that we could get to a point where players could look at us and say, 'They have a bright future ahead of them.' From a drafting and developing standpoint, we have been working hard at this for a while, and yet we have been trying to win. There was an opportunity this summer, with our cap space and a commitment from [owner Craig Leopold] to try to go out and be aggressive in free agency and we did that."
Adding Parise and Suter will make the Wild a fascinating team in 2012-13 -- and should help Minnesota in its quest to make the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. The key for the franchise potentially contending for the Stanley Cup is a wave of elite prospects who are about ready to make an impact in the Twin Cities. They could provide another infusion of talent and depth for the club to make the final step from possible playoff team to Cup contender.
Fletcher added Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi in trades with San Jose last summer, but he also gave up Martin Havlat and Brent Burns in those swaps. Adding Parise and Suter without subtracting any impact players has dramatically improved the talent level.
Heatley and Setoguchi flanked captain Mikko Koivu on Minnesota's most frequent trio at even strength this past season. Expect Parise to move onto that top line with Koivu, and for either Heatley or Setoguchi (or both) to move to the second unit to give the team more balanced scoring. Heatley in particular could see a boost in production with less defensive attention.
Minnesota has some options to fill out the top six forwards. Kyle Brodziak had 22 goals and played more than 19 minutes per game last season. Pierre-Marc Bouchard missed the second half of the season with a concussion, but the Wild are hopeful he'll be healthy for training camp.
Matt Cullen could be the team's No. 2 center, but would probably be a better fit as the third guy on the depth chart. The wild cards are the kids -- specifically Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker and Brett Bulmer. Any of them could force their way into the lineup at the start of next season or end up in the American Hockey League for more seasoning.
Granlund and Coyle in particular project to be impact, offensive-minded forwards.
Suter immediately becomes the anchor on the blue line for the Wild; expect him to log a ton of minutes, just as he did in Nashville. But Minnesota already had an intriguing, young defense corps before Suter arrived.
The Wild have five defensemen on the current roster who played more than half of the team's games, and they were all 26 years old or younger. Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Justin Falk all will be 24 or younger this coming season and should benefit from having Suter around to mentor them.
Minnesota is also blessed with future impact guys on the blue line. Jonas Brodin was one of the best players at the 2012 World Junior Championship, and 2012 first-round pick Mathew Dumba is considered an elite prospect as well.
"Clearly, we are a team that we feel we have a lot of good players. Last year didn't end the way we wanted it to end, but for a certain part of last year we were one of the best teams in the League. We felt that if we could a top defenseman or a top forward, it would really help our team. I don't think we ever assumed we were going to land both of them. But, we shot for the moon, tried or best and, again, fortune smiled upon us and they elected to come to Minnesota."
-- Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher
Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding are back to provide stability in net, while Matt Hackett could be the future at the position for the Wild.
"Clearly, we are a team that we feel we have a lot of good players," Fletcher said. "Last year didn't end the way we wanted it to end, but for a certain part of last year we were one of the best teams in the League. We felt that if we could a top defenseman or a top forward, it would really help our team. I don't think we ever assumed we were going to land both of them. But, we shot for the moon, tried or best and, again, fortune smiled upon us and they elected to come to Minnesota."
The Wild raced to the top of the League standings this past season thanks to a 20-7-3 start, but Minnesota crumbled from there and missed out on the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Parise and Suter will help the Wild score more goals, both at even strength and on the power play.
Another year of development and maturity from the young defense corps and better health from the goaltenders should help the Wild prevent more goals. Both of those things should make the Wild a playoff contender in 2012-13, and maybe even give them enough to challenge the Vancouver Canucks in the Northwest Division.
Beyond next season, the Wild will welcome more of their cache of impact prospects to the League, and integrating them could push Minnesota toward a Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
"I have been on teams that look great on paper that didn't make the playoffs. I've been on teams that just squeak into the playoffs -- this year, for example, we're a [No. 6] seed going into the playoffs and we make it to the Final," Parise said. "It's so hard, the League is so even right now, you can't predict anything. You can speculate all you want.