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Exploring the Minnesota Wild’s Age Gap

Zach Parise and Ryan Suter Are 29; Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle Are 21

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | When Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold announced that he had signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the two biggest free agents following the 2011-12 season, to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts, he added two players that were 28 years old in the first year in a Wild sweater.

Wild fans throughout the state rejoiced. Both players were considered world-class athletes; both players were in the prime of their careers; and both players were (relatively) local -- Parise is from Minneapolis, Suter is from Madison. The team's honeymoon had worn off and Leipold knew he had to infuse some life into the Wild. Suddenly attendance was back up and there was a belief that the Stanley Cup was heading to the Twin Cities.

Part of the selling point for Suter and Parise was the future of the team. After years of missed draft picks, general manager Chuck Fletcher had gotten aggressive in replenishing the young talent on the team. He had drafted Mikael Granlund at No. 9 overall in 2010, acquired Charlie Coyle in a trade with the San Jose Sharks (No. 28, 2010), and dealt fan-favorite Cal Clutterbuck to the New York Islanders for Nino Niederreiter (No. 5, 2010).

He also acquired the aging Dany Heatley and Jason Zucker, a second-rounder in 2010, in his trades with the Sharks and drafted Jonas Brodin at No. 10 overall in 2011.

Heatley, Coyle, and Zucker have formed a strong third line and Brodin was placed with Suter as the team's top pairing -- no easy task for the young Swede. Fletcher dealt for Jason Pominville at the trade deadline last season and the former Buffalo Sabres captain has connected with Granlund and Niederreiter on the second line. That means that it's not hard to fathom that Parise and Koivu, who has skated with Coyle and Pominville in the past, will have an older rookie, Justin Fontaine, 26, paired with them on the top line.

Finally, Keith Ballard, 31, was picked up in the offseason and has been used as part of the second defensive pairing with either Marco Scandella, 23, or Jared Spurgeon, 24.

So, just to clarify, here is a rough sketch of the top lines and pairings, assuming everyone is healthy:

Forwards

Parise (29) - Koivu (30) - Fontaine (26)

Pominville (31) - Granlund (21) - Niederreiter (21)

Heatley (33) - Coyle (21) - Zucker (22)

Defensemen

Suter (29) - Brodin (20)

Ballard (31) - Scandella (23)/Spurgeon (24)

This means that there is a significant age gap on the Wild. Take Fontaine out of the equation for a second -- let's assume that Coyle moves back up with Parise and Koivu on the top line and Kyle Brodziak, 29, takes over the third-line center role -- this is how the over-under 25 ratio looks among impact players on the Wild:

Over 25

Heatley (33), Ballard (31), Koivu (30), Parise (29), and Suter (29) *plus Brodziak (29)

25 and Under

Spurgeon (24), Scandella (23), Zucker (22), Granlund (21), Niederreiter (21), Coyle (21), and Brodin (20)

That's a large age gap. Obviously there are players like Fontaine and Spurgeon that fit in the middle, and you can't completely factor out guys like Torrey Mitchell, Clayton Stoner, and Nate Prosser, all 28 years of age, who play bottom line minutes, but the players receiving the most minutes are either in their early 20s or about 30 years old.

While each and every NHL team has only one goal in mind -- winning a Stanley Cup -- expectations would be different in Minnesota if the Wild had not signed Parise and Suter. Odds are, they would not have traded for Pominville or signed Ballard, meaning it would kind of be Koivu and the Kids.

Parise's New Jersey Devils were in the Stanley Cup final the year before he came to Minnesota and Suter left one of the best defensemen in the league, Shea Weber, behind in Nashville. They came here expecting to win championships and would probably like to do it while they are in the prime of their careers -- which for most players is between 26 and 32.

On the flip side, Coyle, Granlund, Niederreiter, and Co. are just trying to establish themselves as NHL players. No doubt, they are looking to win a championship soon as well knowing that young skaters can be productive in the league (to use local examples, Parise had 31 goals at age 22 in 2006-07 and Heatley had 41 at the same age in 2002-03), but at the same time they are under a lot of pressure.

This is not to say that the age gap is all bad: The Wild have four leaders in the locker room that should be around for a long time (Heatley has only one year left on his deal). At the same time, it's up to the coaching staff to keep Minnesota in the playoffs, which means getting the young players to keep up with Parise, Suter, Koivu, and Pominville.

It's no easy task, but then again, nobody said winning the Stanley Cup was going to be easy.

Tom Schreier writes about the Twins, Wild, and Wolves for Yahoo Contributor Network. He previously covered Minnesota sports for Bleacher Report and can be heard on 105 The Ticket in the Twin Cities. Followed him on Twitter @tschreier3.

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