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Wild count on big-ticket signings to fuel rebound

by Brian Schiazza

Exactly one week before Christmas 2011, the Minnesota Wild had the best record in the NHL at 20-8-5.

Fast forward to July 4, 2012, and the same club that finished the season at 35-36-11 was at the top of the NHL heap again -- for their twin signings of the most coveted free agents on the market, left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter.

Now they just need to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After its sensational start, Minnesota collapsed and missed the postseason for a fourth straight season, finishing 14 points out of the eighth seed in posting its worst record since the 2001-02 season. The team was saddled with 395 man-games lost to injury and used an NHL-high 47 players last season as key cogs Mikko Koivu, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Devin Setoguchi and the since-departed Guillaume Latendresse and Greg Zanon spent time on the injured list.

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The injuries were the biggest reason the Wild averaged a League-low 2.02 goals per game – and fueled an 11-28-7 finish that dropped them to 12th in the Western Conference.

"It was," said general manager Chuck Fletcher, "a tale of two seasons."

But last spring's disappointment has been replaced by a new dawn in the Twin Cities, as the club figures to be in the mix in 2012-13 thanks to the twin signings that became the talk of the hockey world.

"They're obviously highly talented players," Fletcher told the team's website in discussing Parise and Suter. "We view this as a rare opportunity for us to transform our franchise by adding two marquee players who are both in the prime of their careers."

Parise's return to his home state of Minnesota should give the Wild one of the most explosive top lines in the League – he's expected to play with Koivu and Dany Heatley. In seven seasons, Parise has 410 points in 502 career games, including five 30-goal seasons, and captained the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup Final last spring. His presence will deepen the anemic Minnesota offense.

"We believe we're that much closer," second-year coach Mike Yeo said at the Parise/Suter introductory press conference. "There's that much more excitement [in] knowing what these guys are capable of. It changes the way we view ourselves."

Suter's presence on the blue line gives the Wild the defensive anchor they lost by dealing Brent Burns to the San Jose Sharks at the 2011 NHL Draft. The former Nashville Predators d-man will play in all situations and could easily exceed last season's average ice time of 26:30 as he leads a defense corps that includes offense-oriented Tom Gilbert and Jared Spurgeon, but not many others who are proven.

Nevertheless, Suter is undeterred about choosing Minnesota.

"The fact that Minnesota has a lot of good young players, I think will help make this team successful," Suter said on the Wild's website.

At the NHL Draft, the Wild added to their abundance of growing talent, making rugged 17-year-old Matthew Dumba the seventh player chosen -- the second straight year Minnesota took a defenseman with its first-round pick. Fletcher signed Dumba to an entry-level deal a few weeks later.

Parise and Suter were the summer's big additions, but not the only ones. Fletcher added grit for the third and fourth lines by signing Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell. Jake Dowell, also imported as a free agent from the Dallas Stars, and the re-signed Matt Kassian are also in the mix for bottom-six roles.

The added character players will allow Yeo to craft his secondary scoring combinations from a mix that includes some infusion of Minnesota's enviable young talent.

Yeo's natural choice is 2010 first-round draft pick Mikael Granlund, a super-skilled center and Internet sensation who Fletcher managed to sign in May -- just days before the team would have lost his rights and watched the Finland product re-enter the NHL Draft. It remains to be seen if Granlund will team with countryman and World Championships teammate Koivu on a line, but it is likely he will be counted on to bring plenty of flash and production on the second line.

Other returning homegrown players include defensemen Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk and Chay Genoway, who Fletcher signed to new deals (Nick Palmieri, a restricted free agent, is still unsigned). Depth forwards Stephane Vellieux and hometown boy Chad Rau were also re-upped, while American Hockey League veteran Brian Connelly was added for depth on defense.


Additions: LW Zach Parise, D Ryan Suter, C Torrey Mitchell, C Jake Dowell, C Zenon Konopka

Subtractions: RW Nick Johnson, LW Guillaume Latendresse, D Mike Lundin

UFAs: C Warren Peters, RW Jed Ortmeyer, D Kurtis Foster, C Erik Christensen

Promotion candidates: C Mikael Granlund, D Jonas Brodin, RW Brett Bulmer, LW Johan Larsson, LW Jason Zucker

Minnesota firmed up its future in goal by re-signing Josh Harding as Niklas Backstrom's backup in net for three more years. Harding rebounded nicely last season from a knee injury that kept him out for all of the 2010-11 season, going 13-12-4 with a .917 save percentage and 2.62 goals-against average in a career-high 34 appearances. With touted youngsters Matt Hackett and Johan Gustafsson waiting in the wings and unrestricted free agent-to be Backstrom entering the final season of his contract, this could be Harding's time to shine.

Granlund might not be the only young player to get a chance in camp. With the contracts of Suter and Parise taking up a lot of salary-cap space, Dumba, 2011 first-rounders Jonas Brodin and center Charlie Coyle are among the kids who could earn roster spots. What promises to be a fierce competition for a few spots is part of a good problem for this team to have, especially with the crippling injuries of last season.

"Let's see where we're at and let's see where we are health-wise," Fletcher told The Star Tribune. "Let's see who plays well and who doesn't and let the players sort everything out for us. If everyone plays to their level of expectations or even exceeds it, or if everyone's healthy, then yeah, we're going to have a lot of players and that may make sense. There's always a couple guys that don't come into camp in shape or get hurt right away or don't play well for whatever reason. It happens every year. This year I think we're protected against that possibility with the depth that we have. I've never been to a camp where everything went according to plan."

The Wild's offseason plan to pursue Parise and Suter worked wonderfully, and there is huge reason for optimism that the team can flourish.

Now they just have to put everyone together.

Follow Brian Schiazza on Twitter: @NHLSkeetz

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