Talk has shifted from "When will they start?" to "Where will they finish?" in a cathartic buildup for the Wild's opener.
More than six months ago, with #PariseWatch and #SuterWatch trending toward Twitter overload, Wild fans were steered through four days of twists and turns in NHL free agency.
The tension came to an abrupt stop July 4 when the team signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts. Then all the Wild's summertime momentum was eventually doused by an NHL lockout, creating a tense four-month wait.
And that long wait is over. Parise and Suter will slip on Iron Range-red jerseys for the first time and make their Wild debuts against Colorado on Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center, in a fitting end to Hockey Day Minnesota.
"It's been a long time of nothing since all that excitement, and now that we're finally here, it's kind of surreal," said Suter. "I just got goose bumps thinking about walking down that tunnel.
"This is where we can hopefully spend the rest of our careers and have a lot of success. It's the first of many games. Finally."
Thanks to the addition of Parise and Suter, there have been grandiose predictions.
Barry Melrose of ESPN and the NHL Network picked the Wild to win the Stanley Cup.
"This team doesn't need a savior," Parise said. "Ryan and I can only help a team with already really good players and a really, really bright future."
Infusion of youth
The Wild has missed the playoffs for four consecutive seasons, three with Chuck Fletcher as general manager. But a major reason Parise and Suter committed for 13 years was because of blue-chip prospects -- Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba, among others -- ready to burst onto the scene.
There is a reason Wild players have been issued undershirts that read, "Take the next step. No excuses."
The expectation is the Wild will end its string of early offseasons.
"Talent-wise, depth-wise, character-wise, we're there," coach Mike Yeo said. "But the biggest thing for us to understand is that next step is the hardest step."
The offseason spending spree also included forwards Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell, giving the team a strong sprinkle of veterans and role players.
"There's definitely a different atmosphere as far as expectations, and I think that they're warranted expectations," said center Matt Cullen, 36. "The time is now to make a move. This is my third year [here] and we haven't been close at the end of the year.
"Now we have a legitimate shot. Anything but making a serious playoff run would be a disappointment."
No room for error
With a weeklong training camp and no exhibition tune-ups, this is the most unnatural start to a season imaginable.
There is no way to ease in to a schedule of 48 games in 99 days.
Some stretches will be hellacious. From Feb. 1 to March 1, the Wild plays eight of 13 on the road. That's not abnormal in the NHL. What is, however, is that those eight road games come by way of four taxing road trips west -- twice to Anaheim and Phoenix, twice to western Canada.
Players say it's not so much the travel that incapacitates, it's the constant time zone changes. The Wild only plays five road games this season in the Central time zone, but heads west on eight different trips in three months in a schedule that includes only Western Conference teams.
"You know what? For years, guys have been saying we wished we could play more and practice less. Well, our wish came true," center Kyle Brodziak said. "I think it's going to be fun. It's going to be playoff hockey for the next three months."
There will be two determining factors for all teams this season.
One will be health, whether it's a middling little injury that hangs around for three weeks or teams losing a really important piece for two or three months.
The other will be avoiding losing streaks.
"A team that loses five or six in a row will really be in hot water," said former NHLer Ray Ferraro. "There's just no time to make it up. Lose six straight, you've got to win six straight just to get back to level water."
Big guns arrive
The atypical season is not an excuse to flounder. Owner Craig Leipold didn't shell out $20 million in signing bonuses for Parise and Suter to spend another spring vacationing in Exuma.
One has to wonder how Fletcher reacts if the Wild hits spurts of injuries or poor performance.
"We like the moves we made, we like our team and we certainly feel we're a much more competitive team," Fletcher said. "Now we've got to go out and prove it."
The first line will be Mikko Koivu centering Parise and Dany Heatley, while rookie Mikael Granlund centers Cullen and Devin Setoguchi. That leaves two of the better third and fourth lines in the league -- Brodziak between Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Konopka centering Darroll Powe and Mitchell.
"Their forward lines seem stacked," said former Wild sniper Brian Rolston.
But defensively, the Wild looks thin. Suter and Tom Gilbert are veterans. But Jared Spurgeon, Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk, Nate Prosser and the injured Marco Scandella have combined for only 450 NHL games.
Dumba and Brodin are next up. They might be future stars, but now, they're just inexperienced teenagers.
No time to wait
Fletcher knows he might need to address the blue line.
"[Former NHL General Manager] Brian Burke used to tell me, 'After the 20-game mark, you need to really evaluate your team and see what you need to do,' " Fletcher said. "Well, the 20-game mark this year may be too late. In this type of season, you've got to take advantage of every game and every day to get better.
"If players aren't performing this season, you're going to have to make adjustments more quickly than you normally would. That's not a threat. That's just reality. In 48 games, you can't allow 20, 25, 30 games to go by and say, 'OK, we can make a move now.'
"You have to have some patience, but this year, we won't hesitate to look elsewhere or to Houston if players are not up to expectations."
Koivu, an All-Star last season, is tired of missing the playoffs and skating in the world championships every May. Two years ago, he captained Finland to gold in the tournament. He felt an elation he has yet to experience in his three years as Wild captain.
"It's frustrating, but I'm not going to quit," Koivu said. "When you get that feeling of winning, you just want it even more. To be honest, I don't think it's necessarily about the winning. I think it's the road to the winning and all the ups and downs you go through to get there as a team.
"That's what's satisfying and that's what I want to feel here. It's time to take the next step."
|Atlanta - WP: E. Stults||4||FINAL|
|Detroit - LP: J. Chamberlain||2|
|Washington - LP: X. Cedeno||2||FINAL|
|St. Louis - WP: M. Wacha||6|
|Miami - LP: D. Haren||1||FINAL|
|NY Mets - WP: R. Montero||7|
|LA Angels - LP: N. Tropeano||3||FINAL|
|Seattle - WP: T. Walker||5|
|Minnesota - LP: C. Johnson||2||FINAL|
|Boston - WP: J. Masterson||14|