PITTSBURGH — Zach Parise and Ryan Suter -- names that have been joined at the hip for almost a year, not only locally, but nationally, as the two biggest potential free agents to hit the market this summer.
In Minnesota, it has required an incredible amount of patience from fans as they have waited for July 1.
Now, with Sunday approaching, the incredible anxiety begins.
Chuck Fletcher, fresh off his fourth draft and preparing for his fourth season as Wild general manager, will have to make the sales job of the century.
The Wild isn't the only team in the NHL with dollars to sign the New Jersey Devils captain and Nashville Predators defenseman. Several teams, including those with more impressive lineages of success such as Detroit and Pittsburgh, are expected to make runs at the two guys atop the free-agent pedestal.
So how will Fletcher attempt to make the Wild stand apart?
He might have given a peek at his strategy moments after Day 2 of the draft on Saturday when he talked glowingly about the Wild's crop of nine prospects that will be given the chance to compete for jobs next season.
"There's not a team in the league that has the number of young players we have coming into camp next year," Fletcher said. "We're already dramatically improved in my opinion, especially for the long-term."
And that will be the key to the Wild's game plan.
The Red Wings are the Red Wings, a franchise that has done a marvelous job of creating a culture where players simply want to play there. It is a first-class organization that has made the playoffs 21 consecutive seasons and has won four Stanley Cups since 1997.
The Penguins are the Penguins, a team with an appetizing core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury. How is it possible for the Wild to convince Parise or Suter to choose Minnesota over the enticement of playing with Sidney and Geno?
Parise being a Minnesotan and Suter's wife being from Bloomington surely won't be enough.
The Wild, like others, have lots of salary-cap space. Maybe more than the Penguins, the Wild will have the ability to sweeten an offer with frontloaded money.
But money isn't everything, especially when you are talking about the millions and millions all of the teams that go after Parise and Suter will offer.
So Fletcher will have to sell the Wild's plan, that the team is building a quality corps led by captain Mikko Koivu, that it is developing such an impressive crop of youngsters with guys such as Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba that Parise and Suter will be wholeheartedly convinced that they will be able to win in Minnesota for the length of their contracts.
"This is a start of a new era," Fletcher said. "The fact they're turning pro is significant. It's not just down the road anymore. We can actually see the road now. What's exciting for me is when you look at it now, just from a prospect standpoint, you look at the forwards we have, the goaltenders we have, the defensemen we have, it's a well-rounded prospect pool.
"Our best days are ahead of us. We all want to get there tomorrow. But if we have a little bit of patience here, we're all going to be rewarded in a big way."
If the Wild is smart, the team will go after veteran Jamie Langenbrunner, a friend of Parise's and the type of veteran that can bring leadership and a work ethic this team could use. This is, of course, if St. Louis doesn't re-sign him -- and the Blues are trying hard.
If the Wild strikes out with Parise, it may dip into the forward market with some short-term deals for offensive forwards, but there's no long-term piece in free agency anywhere in the vicinity as Parise.
So with the trade market expected to open up in July, the Wild would examine that -- perhaps Bobby Ryan, Anaheim's 25-year-old scorer.
If it strikes out with Suter, expect the Wild to make a big run at Florida's Jason Garrison, a 27-year-old, hard-shooting defenseman who played three years at Minnesota Duluth. A Plan B could also include Philadelphia's Matt Carle and Washington's Dennis Wideman, although the Flyers are trying to re-sign Carle, or trading for Paul Martin or Keith Yandle.
But the fact the Wild has to rely so much on free agency to cure all of its ills is the biggest reason Fletcher has brought the draft-and-development philosophy to Minnesota.
"You can't control what happens on July 1," Fletcher said. "You can have your list, you can have your game plan, you can do a great job of presenting your situation, but the players have earned the right on July 1 to choose where they want to go. You don't have control. You have more control over a trade and the most control over developing yor own kids.
"It's the easiest way to add talent provided you draft and develop well. And it also pays long-term dividends because you're talking about kids you'll have close to a decade if you handle it right. That has to be the foundation of your team. We'll keep looking. But I think the best chance to be successful is when our own talent base speaks for itself. That's when your program can really sell itself. And we're getting there."
Michael Russo • firstname.lastname@example.org