Zach Parise sat in the Ontario offices of his agents two years ago. He was about to commit the next 13 years of his life to one NHL organization and wanted an education, not about each suitor’s current roster but about how their team would look several years down the road.
Parise’s emphasis on the long-term future of each team was why he was especially intrigued by the list of Wild prospects, which included such unproven names as Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin.
Two years after Parise joined the Wild as a free agent, the prospects’ promise is blossoming, giving the team a chance to reach the NHL’s pinnacle sooner rather than later.
Many teams have talented youngsters, but Parise’s rationale for signing in Minnesota with tag-team partner Ryan Suter is the same reason Thomas Vanek scoffed at seven-year offers and signed for three years with the Wild.
Vanek examined the Wild roster, and said it reminded him of his Buffalo team that went to the Eastern Conference finals in 2006. The Sabres had young guys like Vanek, Jason Pominville and Ryan Miller, but older players Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Mike Grier were guiding the way.
“It is so huge when you’re part of four or five young guys who can grow together in the same organization,” Vanek said. “It was important to lean on each other because it wasn’t one of us or two of us that needed to make an immediate impact. We could slowly grow into the players I think we are today.”
Minnesota has the veterans — guys like Parise, Suter, Vanek, Pominville and captain Mikko Koivu, who are all married with children and live in the suburbs.
And then it has the single guys, the talented youngsters who are growing together and hanging out together in their downtown Minneapolis neighborhood.
Granlund, Coyle, Brodin, Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula go to Vikings and Timberwolves games together, grab dinner together, play video games together. They carpool to games, eat pregame meals together.
“And we push each other every day,” Niederreiter said. “We’re not jealous of each other, but when you see Granny do great things or Chucky do great things, you want to do great things.”
Look at the impact each made in last season’s playoffs: Granlund scoring a pivotal Game 3 overtime winner against Colorado and blocking three shots in the waning seconds of Game 4; Coyle scoring three goals and seven points and secretly playing with two separated shoulders; Brodin logging 24 minutes a night and helping the Wild’s transition game motor; Haula scoring four times and stunning the Blackhawks with his speed; and of course Niederreiter, who set up Jared Spurgeon’s tying goal in Game 7 before delivering the Wild its first playoff series victory in 11 years with an overtime winner.
The Wild begins the season Thursday night with high hopes resting on the potential of the five players who broke out last spring.
Intelligence on ice: Jonas Brodin
Age: 21. Position: Defense Born: Karlstad, Sweden Drafted: 10th overall, 2011
The soft-spoken Brodin is “secretly funny,” Coyle said. “He doesn’t say much, so whenever he opens his mouth, it’s usually something funny. He has us laughing.”
Said Granlund: “Swedes and Finns usually don’t like each other, but Brodes is one of my best buddies. He’s also so, so good.”
At 19, Brodin stepped into the Wild’s top pair with Suter during the lockout-shortened season and wowed with his ability to skate and stickhandle the puck out of trouble. He led NHL rookies in ice time, and he’s doing this playing the right side despite being a left shot.
One of the NHL’s most effortless skaters, Brodin has drawn comparisons to countryman and seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom from the Hall of Famer who coached Lidstrom for nine of his 20 years in Detroit, Scotty Bowman.
“He doesn’t have a gap,” Bowman said last fall. “He’s such a good skater; if you notice, he’s always up. He doesn’t back up at all, and that’s the way the good ones are. Like Lidstrom, there’s no room.”
Brodin’s broken cheekbone last season made it seem as if he was in the old “sophomore slump,” but it wasn’t so much that he struggled; it was just that he seemed almost faultless as a rookie.
After a so-so preseason debut, Brodin was lectured by coach Mike Yeo and “he took it right to another level,” Yeo said. “I 100 percent expect him to have a good year. I see more confidence with him in the offensive zone, and that’s what we want our D doing — being more … of a threat.”
Power forward prototype: Charlie Coyle
Age: 22. Position: Right wing/center. Born: Weymouth, Mass. Drafted: 28th overall, 2010, by San Jose. Traded to Wild: during 2011 draft in the Brent Burns deal.
Chaaaaalie, with the wicked Boston accent, is the Wild’s resident happy-go-lucky nice guy. He doesn’t even look mean with a 4-inch scar below his mouth, courtesy of a Suter shot in last season’s playoffs.
Coyle comes from a mammoth hockey-loving family that includes former NHL goal scorer Tony Amonte, his idol — Coyle wears No. 3 because that was Amonte’s number at Boston University.
A fitness freak, Coyle set his template for what people expect in the final 10 games of last season and the playoffs. After a sensational preseason last year, Coyle sprained a knee in the second game and wasn’t the same upon his return.
But after Yeo called him and Niederreiter into his office late last season, Coyle became a beast, scoring five goals and 10 points down the stretch. He was more physical, played with an edge, and parked at the goalmouth. He carried that in the playoffs, playing through a couple of separated shoulders, which he calls “common for hockey players.”
“I’m a bigger body out there, so that’s the role I have to play,” Coyle said. “I need to play physical. When I do that, I get more into the game. I want to bring physicality, be relied upon, score. Be a complete player. That’s what I want to be.”
Playmaker extraordinaire: Mikael Granlund
Age: 22. Position: Center. Born: Oulu, Finland. Drafted: Ninth overall, 2010.
As a teenager, Granlund was on murals all around Helsinki, and followed by Finnish paparazzi, because of his hockey exploits.
But after a tough rookie initiation in 2012-13 that included a demotion to the minors and an eye-opener as to how much stronger and faster he needed to get, Granlund returned last season and emerged dramatically when Parise and Koivu were hurt at the same time.
His idol, Teemu Selanne, predicted last October that Granlund would break out.
“You have no idea this kid’s character,” Selanne said then. “He wants nothing more than to succeed and show Minnesota fans he’s a great player.”
That was not a shock to the Wild, which drafted Granlund as much for his character off the ice as his immense talent on it. In 2011, he showed everybody how good he was by leading the Finnish Elite League in scoring to lift IFK to the SM-Liiga title, then scoring a picturesque lacrosse-style goal in the world championships en route to a Finland gold medal.
There’s an impressive work ethic and grit to his game that makes him special. After a handful of concussions, the Wild would prefer he be a little less aggressive.
Expectations are great. Yeo openly says that as big a step as Granlund took last season, “I’m expecting him to take another one this year.”
Said Granlund: “It’s a different situation to come in here now. I feel comfortable. I’m confident. I’m ready to take that step.”
Ice-melting speed: Erik Haula
Age: 23. Position: Center. Born: Pori, Finland. Drafted: 182nd overall, 2009.
There are times Haula just can’t believe the way the stars have aligned since he moved across the ocean as a teenager seven years ago.
After attending Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Haula played three years at the University of Minnesota, leading the Gophers in scoring twice. He signed with the Wild in 2013, ended up debuting last season and dazzled with impressive speed, work ethic and a defensive acumen that coaches trust.
“All those tough times you had paid off,” Haula said. “All the hard work paid off. It’s awesome to look back to see the choice I made, which was a pretty big choice in my life to leave everything behind, paid off. If I had to map it out again, this would be it. All my friends complain to me all the time how lucky I am.”
There’s an air of confidence, almost cockiness about Haula, and he openly admits, “I believe in everything I do.”
His mom was a speed skater. His dad was a Finnish football coach (not soccer; American football!).
“We used to carry him and put him on the ice, and he would just skate away,” Tomi Haula said.
Haula already is considered a seventh-round steal, one of the few late-rounders in Wild history that connected.
He got his shot last season with Koivu injured and made the most of it. His former Gophers coach, Don Lucia, isn’t surprised, saying, “I saw every day how competitive and what a complete player he is.”
Sniper on the rise: Nino Niederreiter
Age: 22. Position: Winger. Born: Chur, Switzerland. Drafted: Fifth overall, 2010, by N.Y. Islanders. Traded to Wild: 2013 in Cal Clutterbuck deal.
Niederreiter’s two Game 7 goals against Colorado — the first in the third period, the second to win it in overtime — were bullets from his off-wing on what Yeo calls the “silly hard shot.”
He’s a speedtalker, loves to have fun away from the rink and is the king of the goalmouth scrum on it. Nobody on the Wild gets into more skirmishes than “El Niño,” who typically skates away with a smirk and already is sporting a nice raspberry under his right eye thanks to St. Louis’ Jay Bouwmeester.
Niederreiter led Switzerland to a historic silver medal at the 2013 world championships but first saw his fame rise in the 2010 world juniors when he scored a last-second tying goal and overtime winner to upset Russia.
He caused a ruckus with the Islanders when he asked to be traded in 2013. The Wild’s sure glad he did, and the feeling is mutual.
“This is definitely what I was hoping, to get a chance like this,” Niederreiter said. “I still learned a lot of things on Long Island, but I am very happy to be where I’m at right now. And I’m really glad to be part of this young corps. It’s nice to have people your age to go through the tough times and the good times with.”