Souhan: Compressed NHL season will be sprint for Wild

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2013 - 7:37 PM

A 48-game season will mean the deeper, more talented Wild's playoff push must start as soon as the puck is dropped.

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Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck on the abbreviated NHL season: "We're used to 82 games. So 48 will be no problem. I don't think the compression is enough to hinder our abilities. Plus, we feel pretty fresh right now. You don't usually feel this fresh in January."

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune file

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Saturday afternoon, Wild players practicing at Xcel Energy Center set up goals at both ends of the red line, creating an 85-foot rink for a 3-on-3 scrimmage, with extra players lining up on the blue lines acting like human boards.

That might turn out to be an apt visual metaphor for the NHL season. It's going to be short, intense, odd and perhaps even more exciting than when played at standard length.

Given that many Americans don't care about the NHL in November, and that few really care how much money an NHL owner or player makes, it's time to look at the lockout in a fresh way.

It might have created the ideal NHL season.

In six days, the Wild will open with Colorado at the X.

The Wild has the best front-line talent in franchise history, with the addition of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. In a shortened season, talent should prove to be more important than systems and experience.

"I really look for good results from this team this season," said team broadcaster Tom Reid, owner of Tom Reid's Hockey City Pub. "I think this is the most talented this team has been since the inception."

The Wild has improved roster depth.

"Just talking to a few of the guys who have been here in years past, we've got a lot of guys who are healthy now," Parise said. "I really like our depth. Sometimes that takes you a long way. You always see it in the playoffs. There's always that great third- or fourth-line story."

In a shortened season, the influence of a hot goalie will be dramatic. The Wild employs two goalies capable of getting hot.

The Wild as a franchise faces more competition for the sporting dollar than most NHL franchises. Many NHL franchises are based either in Canada, where hockey is the No. 1 sport, or in a market where they can claim to be the No. 1 pro sport, such as San Jose or Columbus.

Every fall, the Wild competes with the Vikings and Gophers football as well as the Timberwolves, Gophers basketball and Gophers hockey. By starting in mid-January, the Wild will play its entire schedule without competition from the almighty NFL.

"It'll be a playoff hockey sprint," Wild winger Cal Clutterbuck said. "It will be pretty interesting. It will be great for us as a group, with us being healthy and excited and ready to go."

The shortened schedule offers one other advantage: the promise of chaos.

The modern NHL has become almost too well-coached and systematic for its own good. The defensive systems that aid winning teams damage hockey as an entertainment product.

Watch a high school or college hockey game, and you see open ice and breakaways. Watch two good NHL teams, and the winning goal is frequently scored on a rebound or power play. In 2013, defenses might be just disorganized enough to allow for spectacular play.

"I think there might be some of that early," Suter said. "A lot of guys have changed teams and are learning new systems. I think it will take some teams some time to adjust. I hope we don't have that problem."

They might not. Many of the Wild's players live in or have been staying in Minnesota and practicing together. While some NHL teams were still scrambling to find ice times or get their physicals done on Saturday, the Wild had its entire roster on the ice.

"We're used to 82 games," Clutterbuck said. "So 48 will be no problem. I don't think the compression is enough to hinder our abilities. Plus, we feel pretty fresh right now. You don't usually feel this fresh in January."

For the average American sports fan, the 2013 season could be ideal, a combination of two of the most dramatic events on the calendar: March Madness and playoff hockey.

"It's going to be a sprint right away to get into the playoffs," Parise said. "Before anyone knows, the playoffs will be starting. It's going to be pretty unique."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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