Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Minnesota Wild.
The Minnesota Wild surprised everyone with their start to the 2011-12 season. A week before Christmas, they were the best team in the NHL with a record of 20-8-5. They weren't scoring -- the second, third, and fourth-place teams had already notched 20 more goals than they had -- but Minnesota seemed nigh impossible to score on, having allowed a league-low 72 goals.
Exactly one month later, the Wild were in ninth place and falling, and by the season's end, they were 14 points out of a playoff spot. What the Hell happened?
Their luck ran out, and when it did, three things became suddenly apparent. First, being outshot every night is not a sustainable, long-term plan for winning hockey games. Second, injuries may not be an excuse, but when you suffer 395 man-games lost to injury and have to use 47 different guys to cover the holes, maybe they should be.
Third, even when healthy, the cast wasn't all that good.
Rather than stock up on Red Potion in the case of another injury epidemic, the Wild chose to address problem number three this offseason, and they addressed it with gusto, signing impact players Ryan Suter and Zach Parise to adorable, matching $98 million contracts. Adding even just one of those guys would change the makeup of a room drastically. Both? That's a completely different team.
But are the Wild "postseason contender" different?
Meet the Wild's two new all-star assistant captains, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The former is fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. He's an elite scorer and one of the league's best forecheckers. The other used to be part of the best defensive pairing in the NHL, and some said he was the best part.
In short, they're both pretty good. Last season, Mikko Koivu was the only real impact player the Wild had. Now they have three.
The Wild also beefed up the bottom two lines by signing Jake Dowell, Torrey Mitchell, and gritty centre Zenon Konopka, whose name would be a Scrabble player's dream if there were two Ks in the bag and it wasn't a proper noun.
Gone are Guillaume Latendresse, although he likely won't be all that missed, having only Laten-dressed in 82 games over 3 years with the team, and defenceman Greg Zanon, who was moved to Boston at last season's trade deadline.
At forward … The Wild are expected to ice a stacked line of Parise, Dany Heatley, and captain Mikko Koivu. That trio that could light up the league, especially if Parise can energize Heatley, who is coming off a a career-worst 53-point campaign.
Behind them, Matt Cullen, Devin Setoguchi, Cal Cluterbuck, Finnish rookie Mikael Granlund, Torrey Mitchell, and Kyle Brodziak will likely make up the middle two lines. Hopefully, they can provide enough secondary scoring to prevent the Wild from becoming a one-line team.
On defense … The Wild's top defensive pairing, which used to be Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon, gets beefed up with the addition of Ryan Suter. Spurgeon has to be giddy, although one wonders how Suter will adjust to a partner that isn't 6'4", 235 and doesn't occasionally put a puck through the net. I'm sure he'll manage.
Behind that pairing, Tom Gilbert will anchor a second duo, and Wild fans should be excited about this. A year after effectively having no one on the back end that could start a breakout, the Wild have Suter on pairing one and Gilbert on pairing two. This will help them at both ends of the ice.
Scandella, Justin Falk and Clayton Stoner make up the rest of the top six, so expect that Spurgeon-Suter pairing to see a lot of ice.
In goal … Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom, one of the league's best tandems, will continue to share the crease after the Wild managed to get Harding locked up at an affordable $1.9 million. Backstrom is the de facto number one, but the $6 million netminder is playing in a contract year, and if he and Harding wind up sharing the load a little more, it could drive his next asking price down. With Matt Hackett on the way up, a middling season from Backstrom could even render him expendable. It should be an interesting situation to watch.
Well, the Wild actually have a song. Here's the definitive performance of it. And whatever you do, don't listen to this version.
Coach Mike Yeo returns for his second season behind the Wild bench. He was credited for the Wild's success early in the season, and there's no doubting he had the team working incredibly hard before everything came apart. Did his system play a role in the regression? It's hard to say, what with the injuries and the thin roster. But this time around, he has some impact players, so it should be a little easier to assess his performance.
Chuck Fletcher enters year four as the Wild's General Manager, and after landing the top two free agents in the summer, it's tough to question him.
Suter and Parise will change everything, but this is still Mikko Koivu's team. The difference: the two-way centre had to do it all himself at times last season, and this time around, he'll have help. With a few more passing options and a desire to remain the top dog, this could be a career year for the Finnish centre.
Speaking of Finnish centres, rookie Mikael Granlund looks poised to make an impact for the Wild this season. The 2011 Finnish hockey player of the year has been a point per game guy his last three years in the SM-Liiga, but he really broke out in 2011-12 with a 20-goal season for HIFK. If he can make a relatively painless transition to NHL ice, he could be a Calder trophy contender.
An alarming thought: Dany Heatley may have further still to fall. Most are pegging a rebound year for the former 100-point winger, especially since 2011-12 was the worst season of his NHL career, it seems unlikely he could fall further, and he'll be playing with two stars in Parise and Koivu. But Heatley has played with fabulous linemates for years now and he just keeps regressing and regressing. If anybody can fall off that top line, it's him.
This is what Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold had to say on April 11, 2012.
"We're not making money, and that's one reason we need to fix our system. We need to fix how much we're spending right now. Our revenues are fine. We're down a little bit in attendance, but we're up in sponsorships, we're up in TV revenue. And so the revenue that we're generating is not the issue as much as our expenses. And our biggest expense by far is player salaries."
And yet, three months after crying poor, Leipold spent nearly $200 million on just two players. He said he's not making money. So where did that money come from?
Consider the following: the weekend after Parise and Suter were signed, 3 Minnesota banks were robbed in a two-day span. Is there a connection?
Does this man, captured on security footage, work for Craig Leipold? There's just no way of knowing.
Parise and Suter. What's the real cost?
Paid for by concerned and sort paranoid citizens.
It should go without saying that the Wild will be better. Parise and Suter are impact players that will help the Wild drive possession in the right direction, improve that abysmal 2.02 goals per game average, and help the Wild contend on any given night.
But they're still not a playoff team, not yet. That should come next year, when a few more of their other high-end prospects like Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, and Matt Dumba join the team and fill out the thin depth chart below the stars. The Wild's future is bright, but another year on the outside of the playoff bubble is in the offing.