The Wild's road map looked so much different three months ago. Actually, even a week ago.
Help was on the way. The kids were coming. A team that had become stale and boring and predictable would get injected with life -- and skill -- with the arrival of Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Johan Larsson and the rest of the crew.
The youngsters promised to bring excitement and energy. And hope. Let them learn on the job, develop against the NHL's best and in two or three years the Wild would reap the benefits of this rebuilding plan.
That's why General Manager Chuck Fletcher professed optimism as he picked through the rubble of a disappointing season wrecked by a sustained free-fall that ensured a fourth consecutive playoff absence.
"We're not far away at all," he said in April.
They are a whole lot closer now, the timeline accelerated by the additions of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, prized free agents who are regarded as top-10 players at their positions.
In a span of 24 hours, the Wild transformed itself and its image, shifting from a team with a promising future to an immediate playoff team on paper and in perception. That's the expectation now. That's what happens when an owner steps forward and spends $196 million on two highly coveted players.
Everything changes. People look at this team differently now.
The Wild sold 700 new season tickets within five hours of the signings on a holiday. One sports betting website moved the Wild's odds of winning the Stanley Cup to 22-1, compared to 200-1 a few weeks ago. The team became media darlings as the hockey world applauded the organization's boldness and commitment.
Can you imagine the fallout if this team misses the playoffs next spring?
"Clearly, there's going to be higher expectations, and there should be," Fletcher said. "That's a good thing."
The Wild probably is not a true Stanley Cup contender yet. The team still has some holes in the roster, and the young defensive corps needs seasoning. This is not a finished product by any means. But the Wild unequivocally has more talent, better depth and enough pieces to be a playoff team this season.
Parise's ability to score (194 goals, 410 career points) should boost an anemic offense that mustered only 166 goals last season, the lowest output in the NHL since the 2004-05 lockout. Suter makes the blue line instantly more consistent and reliable.
Injuries are a wild card in any sport. They are unavoidable and can dramatically alter a season, but the Wild is better equipped to handle those instances now, even if it involves one of the top players.
The roster remake also means the Wild won't rush its prospects. Granlund is a lock, but everyone else must earn their way on the roster in training camp. "It makes it more difficult to make the team," Fletcher said.
Management can have patience with the youngsters, but not with the results on the ice. A nightly lineup that features Parise, Suter, Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, a healthy Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Granlund, Kyle Brodziak, Marco Scandella and Niklas Backstrom or Josh Harding should succeed.
It's up to second-year coach Mike Yeo and his staff to make it all fit. Yeo endured a topsy-turvy debut on the Wild bench. He looked like a genius as his team shot to the top of the NHL standings with a 20-7-3 start. Then the season unraveled amid injuries and ineffectiveness, causing a frustrated Yeo to blast his team publicly on several occasions.
That approach won't work with this team. Nor should it be required. Yeo can become a successful NHL coach. His lineup resembled a minor league outfit at times last season. Injuries forced him to cobble together lines and ask players to perform above their ability too often. We should get a better evaluation of Yeo's coaching acumen this season, but the pressure is squarely on his shoulders.
Leipold's actions this week demonstrated just how badly he wants to win. Simply signing Parise or Suter would have improved his team, but he upped the ante and targeted both.
Leipold lives and dies with his team, something he put on full display when he invited a few media members to his suite for a game last season. Leipold screamed and squirmed and agonized over every icing. He watched from the edge of his seat, except when he stood and cheered.
Never mind that it was only a preseason game for a team that, truthfully, had no real grand expectations. That's no longer the case. The Wild's bold, aggressive moves made the rest of the NHL take notice.
That won't stop once the puck drops.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org