Before every game, more than a dozen Wild players, most young, some old(er), find a dark spot in the bottom of any arena for a game of soccer hackysack.
As the ball bobs off heads, feet and knees and arena pillars, piping and parapets, loud, laughing teammates are wearing T-shirts that say, “I’M COMMITTED” on the front and “OUR TIME IS NOW!” on the back.
There’s no doubt the Wild’s best chance of delivering the Stanley Cup to the “State of Hockey” in the organization's 16 years is now and begins Wednesday night against St. Louis Blues.
The Wild, as deep as it has ever been, had its best regular season in franchise history and scored more goal than every team in the West. It was only 6½ weeks ago that General Manager Chuck Fletcher put all his “chips in the middle of the table for this year” and freighted a haul of draft picks to Arizona for Martin Hanzal because “we are taking a swing” for the Cup.
Three players who don’t take part in the soccer warmup are elder statesmen Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. They have other means of prepping for games.
But the slogan, “Time is Now,” arguably best describes the Wild’s captain and his two lieutenants.
Koivu is 34 with only one year left on his contract. Parise turns 33 this summer. Suter is 32. After helping lead the Wild to five straight playoff appearances but not yet past the conference semifinals, the veterans have their best chance of winning it all this postseason.
“They probably feel it as pressure because I think they just want to win — all of them. All three of them want to win,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I don’t think it’s, ‘If we don’t win, it’s all on me though.’ They just want to win because they love to win.
“When you see Zach score a goal, he looks like it’s a Stanley Cup goal every time. Mikko wants the team to work more than anybody. Suts is the one guy, I think, internally that keeps it all in, but I guarantee he wants to win as bad as anybody else.
“You always hear about ‘windows closing,’ and every time they talk, they all believe this is a special year. Hopefully that helps push them when it comes that time.”
Ever want to get Fletcher going though? Bring up the whole “window” concept. He says properly managed teams don’t have windows because different players move in and out of the core.
Fletcher says the Wild’s window is hardly closing due to fifth- and sixth-year pros Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle, who established career highs in goals or points this season, Jared Spurgeon’s emergence as an elite defenseman, Matt Dumba and Jonas Brodin’s continued development and prospects such as Joel Eriksson Ek, Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin, Kirill Kaprizov and Alex Tuch in the pipeline.
“But, clearly, every player has a window. You can’t play forever,” Fletcher allows. “No question, Mikko, Zach and Ryan, they know this is a good hockey team and you can’t play forever, so clearly there’s probably some urgency from that standpoint. But the depth of the team provides a lot more insulation for individuals now. They don’t have to take it upon themselves to do everything for this team. They just need to be good contributors.”
In other words, this isn’t like 2013 when Koivu, Parise and Suter lifted the Wild into the playoffs for the first time in five years. They had to be the ‘guys’ because the Wild had little depth. They had to be key contributors in every situation.
Boudreau notes that Koivu doesn’t have to take every big draw or play in every sizable situation anymore with Eric Staal and Hanzal at his disposal. Parise doesn’t have to be the go-to, solely-relied-upon scorer.
And Suter gets to share the load with Spurgeon.
“I don’t think [Spurgeon] gets anywhere near the recognition on a national level that he deserves,” Fletcher said. “He’s quietly having an outstanding season, one of the best seasons of any defenseman in the National Hockey League, and he continues to go under the radar, which I know he likes.
“But his emergence has been amazing the last couple seasons, and now he’s right there with Ryan in terms of being able to take a big load of minutes.”
Parise, who missed last year’s playoffs because of a back injury, and Suter are proud of helping change the Wild’s culture since signing identical 13-year, $98 million contracts before the 2012 lockout.
“Just look at where we came from five years ago where we came [into Denver] having to win a game to get in and now, this is probably the first year we’re one of the teams that has a target on our back, that we’re a legitimate team and have a legitimate chance to win," Parise said. "It means we’ve done some pretty good things as a group.”
But feels it’s time to help lead the team to something special.
“This is the best I’ve felt in my career,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing some pretty good hockey, but the season starts [Wednesday]. Good teams don’t even really care about the regular season. Chicago doesn’t think about the regular season. They plan their year to prepare for the playoffs. That’s where we have to slowly get to.”