What a Fourth of July that was in 2012.
I was golfing in a scramble with one of our sons and some friends and their sons when I received an alert on my phone announcing that the NHL's Minnesota Wild had signed both Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, the most coveted free agents on the market.
Friends beforehand, Suter and Parise basically agreed that if one was going to sign with the Wild, the other one would, too. They inked identical 13-year contracts that would pay each of them $98 million.
And what a success those signings have been, if you define this particular brand of success by the money that's been made by Wild owner Craig Leipold from constant sellouts at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center and a rabid fan base that gobbles up team merchandise endlessly.
But the actual product on the ice? It's a good, solid team, considerably better than it was before Suter and Parise signed. But in the NHL with its parity and crazy way it awards points even if you lose a game in overtime, good and solid is only good enough to shoehorn your way into the playoffs. That's what the Wild have done, admirably so, making it to the playoffs six consecutive seasons.
But then the Wild get smoked.
Although some will claim that "anything can happen" in the NHL playoffs, you can usually count on a team's actual top-end talent level factoring in at some point. With the Wild, the lack of game-changing talent has amounted to gigantic thuds and quick exits from the playoffs. Last season, the Wild were a top team in the regular season, they took on the tough, rugged and big St. Louis Blues in the first round, and were thumped in a 4-0 sweep. Largely because the team is paying all that money to Suter and Parise, not too mention money committed for several years to so-so talents Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, the Wild is constantly battling the salary cap, so fans were told that the team would only be able to retool the roster a bit for the 2017-18 season.
So, predictably, the Wild had another solid regular season, and their reward was having to take on the tough, rugged, big, and, it must be noted, supremely talented Winnipeg Jets, who throttled the Wild over the first two games of their first round series, with large stretches of play that were not just hard for Wild fans to watch, it was almost awkward...embarrassing even. Much like the Blues series last season, the Wild against the mighty Jets in those two losses looked like a pee-wee team trying to skate with and match the physical play of a bantam team. The Wild have some bigger bodies than in seasons past and it was admirable in the first game loss how they responded to the Jets' breezer-rattling hits with some crushing checks of their own. But they were still outshot 40-20 in game one and 43-17 in a pathetic game two loss.
Granted, there are two significant caveats here. Suter broke his ankle near the end of the regular season. It’s impossible to seamlessly cover for all of his smooth, knowledgeable, experienced and responsible minutes. Then, after the Wild rose to the occasion to beat the Jets 6-2 in St. Paul in game three, it was learned before the puck dropped for game four Tuesday that Parise broke his sternum in the 6-2 win and was out for the duration of the playoffs.
But let’s stop dreaming. Even with Suter and Parise, the Wild would face long odds in a seven-game tilt with the Jets. And even if the Wild somehow managed to prevail over the formidable Jets, does anyone think this team is built for a serious Stanley Cup run?
Not only are the Jets players big, some of their biggest players are also their most offensively skilled. It's a devastating combination to contend with. One could argue that the Jets have at a handful of players who are more offensively skilled than the Wild's best offensive player, whomever that may be. Granlund? Staal? Zucker?
Suter has his detractors, but he is an amazing player. The game is so slow for him, and he makes subtle, wily plays that unfairly go unnoticed by casual fans. He led the Wild in assists this season by a wide margin before his injury. But, for $98 million, you're getting a guy closer to the end of his career than the beginning who logs a ton of minutes, makes great passes and makes smooth plays?
Parise? He's a very good player, a real hustle guy who makes plays that players putting forth less effort and with less heart never would. He's excellent at winning puck battles and in front of the net, the way he screens goalies and tips shots with his stick, he’s among the elite. After years of agonizing pain in his back, it also looked like Parise was at full strength again after surgery, before his sternum injury. For the past three weeks or so, he’d been the Wild’s best player. But, for $98 million, you're getting a scrappy "effort guy" closer to the end of his career than the beginning who isn’t known for creating his own plays?
NHL experts are already saying a roster shakeup before the 2018-19 season will be difficult to pull off, if not impossible. That means fans will be left once again hoping solid players somehow become good, and good players somehow become great. They could also hope that great players become elite, if the Wild had any great players.
In the so-called State of Hockey, it’s a frustrating state for the state’s signature squad.