There was a time, boys and girls, when Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were dearly beloved in the State… the State of Hockey. Back on the 4th of July, 2012, two proud Americans joined forces here (here!) on an expansion team known for retiring the No. 1 to pander to fans, a pretty fun regional anthem, an improbable playoff run in 2003, and little else.
They chose us, and people jokingly pantomimed LeBron counting out the championships they would win together. Not one… not two… not three. Of course, there wasn’t the pomp and circumstance of three world-famous basketball players expressing league domination with smoke and flashing lights surrounding them. We’re talking about hockey, after all. Gotta keep it subdued. This was about just about two dudes, one Cup, and a franchise that needed this jolt of energy after years of uninspired hockey.
By 2012 the Minnesota Wild was a B-movie in a state-of-the-art theater. The arena still felt brand new (still does!), but the dump-and-chase felt old (and, uh, still does…), and the sellout streak went from affirming to manufactured to donezo after ten years. Tickets and beer were still expensive, even if the team wasn’t worth paying for. So the giant swing for Parise and Suter was warranted.
Here’s what always perplexed me: Then-GM Chuck Fletcher almost pretended that it didn’t happen. This was his crowning achievement as general manager — or at the very least, a coup — and he just went along with his old plan as though nothing happened.
When he signed on to GM the Wild, he took over for a guy who whiffed on five straight drafts (that’s 2004-08 for those keeping score at home) that produced *checks notes* Cal Clutterbuck, Marco Scandella, and, um, Clayton Stoner. And he lost his only star player, Marian Gaborik, to free agency.
Fletcher came in with a pretty concrete, well-considered plan. He would draft better, sign those players to team-friendly deals and promote their promising, up-and-coming AHL coach to guide them into the NHL. His was more of a slow-burn plan, one that usually is pretty well received right away and can wear on a fanbase over time — but also one that, if executed correctly, can create a perpetual winner in a hockey-crazy state.
There’s probably some retroactive respect for Fletcher as time has gone on, especially after the zaniness of the short-lived Paul Fenton regime. Of course, Fenton was the polar opposite of his predecessor, a maniac who needed to get off of the Nino Niederreiter contract and needed to trade for Kevin Fiala and ultimately needed to blow up the core Fletcher built — tweaks of all nature be damned.
Fletcher’s best and worst quality was his unwavering belief in himself.
He sat stoically in an empty stadium hours before a game where the Colorado Avalanche could eliminate the Parise-Suter Wild in their first year together. He calmly explained that Minnesota didn’t need to build a team to beat the Chicago Blackhawks, specifically, after Chicago eliminated Minnesota in the playoffs three years in a row. He gently proclaimed that “the system worked” when Jake Allen (Jake Allen!) stood on his head, and the St. Louis Blues eliminated a 106-point Wild team in the first round in 2017.
He believed in the players he had assembled, handing out long-term, team-friendly contracts to guys like Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker. Even as a gaping rift developed in a locker room with a core of players adjusting to the NHL — remember the Zucker shuttle down I-35 to the minor league team in Des Moines? — and two handsomely paid veterans in their prime and the team captain who wanted to win now. Even as it became evident that Mike Yeo, a first-time coach, was overwhelmed by the task at hand. Even as his team with two $98 million players nearing 30 hadn’t gotten out of the second round.
What did he do as his team nearly slipped into oblivion in 2014-15? He traded for Devan Dubnyk. Devan Dubnyk, the failed first-round goaltender on his way out of the league. And it worked!
In many ways, he was a genius. But sometimes he couldn’t get out of his way. It was always going to be Coyle and Zucker and Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund and Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin and Jared Spurgeon coached by Yeo. It was almost like Parise and Suter were just complementary pieces.
Sure, he went out and got Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville, but both were on the wrong side of 30 when they arrived in St. Paul and magnified to the age rift. He burnt draft capital to add guys like Matt Moulson, but that just emptied the prospect cupboard for little return. He eventually moved on from Yeo and hired Bruce Boudreau, a veteran coach who could ease the tension in the locker room. Still, he could have hired a veteran Peter Laviolette or Ken Hitchock after Parise and Suter signed.
Hindsight is 20-20 on all this, but Occam’s razor indicates that this team needed a veteran coach and probably some players in their mid-20s to bridge the gap between the young core and Parise, Suter and Mikko Koivu. For example, packaging Niederreiter and Granlund may have brought back a 20-something forward who could be an impact player who wasn’t as green and identified with both the veterans and the developing players in the locker room. Hitch would have had the experience to know what to do when things became unstable.
The point here isn’t to look back and wonder what could have been. It’s to understand why Bill Guerin is acting with the urgency that he is. He knows he has a championship defensive core, so he’s locked everyone in. He knows that the offense has been lacking, so he has all his forwards on short-term deals. He knows there was some rot among the leadership group, so he moved on from Eric Staal and Koivu and named Spurgeon captain — leapfrogging him past Parise and Suter.
He dealt Zucker and kicked the tires on a Parise trade. He’s thrown everything off-kilter knowing that what was happening before wasn’t working, but hasn’t gone full-Fenton and started trading for every player his former employer is willing to give up while nuking the young core. He probably will scout the players he trades for, so he doesn’t end up with a player like Victor Rask.
The blueprint here is simple: Build a forward group that complements the defensemen he has. If Marco Rossi and Kirill Kaprizov pan out, and Fiala is as good as he appears to be, that’s enough to build a contender around. If they don’t, he has prospect depth to hedge against it. But he can’t get attached to them in a way that slows the path to winning.
They have a transition year here in a 56-game season, and then it’s go-time. Parise and Suter are here and are going to be difficult to offload. But we knew that all along; that’s why the team should have been in win-now mode as soon as they arrived. Thankfully both are still productive players. The defensemen aren’t going to be this good forever. At some point, there’s going to be a significant cap crunch, if there isn’t one already.
Fletcher was brilliant but also stubborn and overly-patient. Guerin needs to display Fletcher’s intellect while channeling a watered-down version of Fenton’s anxiety. He needs to know what he’s doing and do it with a sense of urgency.