Looking back at a piece of Wild history on the NHL's 100th birthday, this article also appears in the November issue of Wild Magazine.
ST. CLOUD -- As Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau puts his team through an intense October practice, former Minnesota Wild forward and current TV studio analyst Wes Walz can't help but watch this new generation of Wild players with a degree of awe.
"The pace of the game is ridiculously fast," Walz said of the current state of the National Hockey League. "It was fast when we played, I thought, even when we had our success in 2002 and 2003. But the pace of the game today is absolutely amazing, and where the game goes 10 years from now I'm not a hundred percent sure."
While the future of the game may be difficult for Walz to envision, he has witnessed a remarkable evolution since he was terrorizing opposing puck carriers with his blazing speed and tenacity. He says today's up-tempo game play has a simple explanation.
"You've got to remember when we got through the lockout that was the first year of the obstruction rule coming into play," Walz said. "That really changed the ballgame and the landscape of hockey for me."
Between the 1992-93 and 2003-04 seasons, a time frame affectionately known as the "Dead Puck Era," the NHL's combined goals per game average dropped by more than two goals. Much of that was attributed to the league largely turning a blind eye to hooking and holding infractions.
The lockout season of 2004-05 brought the league and the NHL Player's Association (NHLPA) to the table to hammer out a bevy of rule changes designed to combat the scoring drought, along with a renewed commitment to enforcing the obstruction rules already on the books.
Walz's former teammate and current Wild assistant coach Darby Hendrickson said buckling down on obstruction was a game changer.
"In our era, if you were a forward you had to hold back a forechecker like water skiing almost," Hendrickson said. "You see a lot of old highlights with all the hooking and holding, you got away with a lot."
Rule changes introduced by the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed prior to the 2005-06 season included eliminating the center red line for two-line passes, limiting goaltenders to playing the puck within a designated trapezoid area behind the net and the introduction of the shootout to decide games still tied after overtime.
The signature piece of the 2005 CBA, however, was a salary cap system which not only included a designated a salary ceiling but also a floor that owners are required to meet or exceed.
Walz, Hendrickson and Wild Assistant GM Andrew Brunette were all driving forces on the 2002-03 Minnesota Wild roster, a plucky collection of hard-working, relative unknowns only three seasons into the team's existence. Coach Jacque Lemaire earned the Jack Adams Award as NHL Coach of the Year after leading the Wild to a third-place finish in the Northwest Division and their first-ever playoff berth as the No. 6 seed.
The spring of 2003 was a time when 50 Cent topped the music charts, Nokia dominated the cell phone industry and President George W. Bush regretfully declared, "Mission accomplished." It also saw Minnesota make history by becoming the first NHL team to come back from a three games to one deficit twice in the same postseason in defeating both the heavily-favored Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks in seven games.
"That was unheard of, what we did, in the pre-cap world," said Walz, whose five goals in the Vancouver series tied Marian Gaborik for the team lead.
Although they were swept out of the Western Conference Final by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, the Wild proved the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This was significant because, in terms of payroll, the sum wasn't all that great.
The 2002-03 Minnesota Wild payroll was a league-low $20,743,750, a figure dwarfed by the $62,860,926 Colorado paid its players that season. Ironically, the NHL's highest paid team, the New York Rangers ($76,477,08), failed to advance to the postseason.
Brunette, who scored the series-clinching goal against Colorado in overtime of Game 7 at the Pepsi Center, recalled how big-budget franchises like Detroit, Dallas and Colorado dominated the Western Conference in those days and what his team had to overcome to advance.
"For us to get where we got that year without spending all the money, and players that maybe weren't paid enough, that was pretty special and unique," he said.
Closing the gap between the NHL's haves and have-nots has resulted in teams like eighth-seeded Nashville making deep postseason runs as the Predators did in reaching the Stanley Cup Final last spring.
The Predators were the fourth NHL team since 2006 to reach the conference finals as a No. 8 seed and joined the 2006 Oilers and 2012 Los Angeles Kings in advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. The Kings ultimately became the first and only No. 8 seed to hoist the Cup.
"[The cap] makes it much easier today, for sure, for the teams that get into the playoffs to do some damage," Walz said. "There's so much more parity, which I think is really healthy for the league."
While the offensive impact of the changes have been minimal, thanks in large part to advances in goaltending, the speed of the game has taken its toll on fighting and its primary participants.
Fighting is down 44-percent overall (from 668 to 372) since 2003 and games featuring more than one fight have dropped by 60-percent. As the Kings demonstrated by rolling four lines in their 2012 Cup run, teams can no longer afford to carry classic enforcers with limited skills.
"When I was a 20, 21-year-old kid, I played with Lyndon Byers and Chris Nilan, those were my wingers," Walz said. "So do you want to talk about being scared before a game, like if the game was going to get out of hand? I was going to have someone like Rob Ray grab me at the end of the game.
"That cuts into your sleep in the afternoons and that was no fun."
Former Columbus winger and current Blue Jackets TV color analyst Jody Shelley paced the NHL with 249 penalty minutes in 2002-03, with Wild enforcer Matt Johnson's total of 201 ranking him third in the league.
"In that era the guys might play one shift and have a fight or play three to four minutes," said Hendrickson, whose goal with just under six minutes to play in Game 7 in Vancouver was the series winner. "Now, because of the rules of the game and the style of play, on a fourth line you have to be able to play."
Putting that into perspective, Ottawa's Mark Borowiecki's 2016-17 NHL-leading total of 154 penalty minutes would not have even cracked the league's top 15 in 2003, whereas 2016-17 Wild leader Chris Stewart's 94 would barely be on the radar. "The game is faster than it was before and you need four lines that can play," Brunette said. "You need 12 forwards night in and night out. If not, you're just tiring out your superstars."
In the years since 2005, the NHL has introduced modifications to penalties addressing contact with the head (2011), hybrid icing (2013) and adopted a 3-on-3 overtime format (2015). The latter is the one aspect of the current game Walz says he missed out on, but not for the reason one might think.
"When I played, yes I could skate, but I also was a very cerebral player too and there's a lot of a chess match that goes into the 3-on-3 play," Walz said. "When I'm watching games at night with my little 8-year-old son and my 10-year-old daughter, we're all cheering for overtime games because it really is so exciting."