Euphoria hit Minnesota like a crashing wave on the Fourth of July three years ago. The whole state turned giddy, and justifiably so, with the free-agent signings of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
No one felt the rush of that moment more than Wild owner Craig Leipold, who described himself as a “madman” after committing nearly $200 million to land those two coveted stars.
“They’re not just coming here because it’s Minnesota,” Leipold said that day. “They’re coming here to win in Minnesota. This was an opportunity that you don’t get presented to you very often. This was our time, as Herb Brooks would say. This is our time.”
The sand is rushing out of that hourglass awfully fast.
For sure, the Parise-Suter blockbuster put the organization on a new path to respectability and regular postseason appearances.
But now it’s easy to wonder if the Wild will achieve the ultimate payoff — a Stanley Cup championship — for that aggressive commitment made in 2012.
Sports executives often recite a particular phrase in characterizing a team’s immediate future. Teams are either getting better or they’re getting worse.
The Wild is doing neither in terms of moving closer to a championship level. And that’s a conundrum not easily solved.
The Wild enters the offseason in a tricky predicament. The team is good enough to think it can win a championship. But it’s not good enough to actually win a championship.
The Chicago Blackhawks just blew the Wild’s doors off.
As much as Wild players try to convince themselves that they’re so close, they’re really not. When you get swept in the playoff quarterfinals and don’t hold a lead for a single second in any of the four games, you’re not that close.
That playoff series didn’t come down to a bounce-or-two difference, as hockey players like to suggest. The Blackhawks probably had four players better than anyone the Wild put on the ice, with the exception of Parise.
The Wild is a second-round playoff team as currently constructed. And that’s nothing to dismiss offhand, especially in this threadbare sports market.
But it’s difficult to envision how this team takes that next important step and rises to Chicago’s level if the roster returns mostly intact.
“Right now we’re a good team,” coach Mike Yeo said, “and we have to find a way to be the best team.”
Yeo and General Manager Chuck Fletcher have their work cut out for them in trying to bridge that gap. And it is a big gap.
It’s foolish to think that the window of opportunity has closed for this roster. But it’s also naïve to think that the Wild’s high-priced veteran core automatically will stay at the same level or even show improvement over the next few years. Usually, the opposite happens.
Unfortunately in sports, there is no clear line of demarcation separating a player’s prime from his inevitable decline. Oftentimes, it’s a gradual unspooling that feels like death by a 1,000 paper cuts.
Look at the key players on the roster age 30 or older — Mikko Koivu (32), Jason Pominville (32), Thomas Vanek (31), Parise (turns 31 in July) and Suter (30).
Koivu and Pominville saw their production dip this season and have been largely invisible in postseason play. Vanek became Dany Heatley and Public Enemy No. 1 in his first season with the team.
And Suter looked gassed in the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
Those veterans — Koivu, Pominville and Vanek — have contracts and playoff résumés that make them virtually unmovable.
Fletcher probably is not inclined to blow up the roster anyway. His team desperately needs a true goal scorer, though, and if that means trading away a young, valuable asset, Fletcher needs to swallow hard and pull the trigger because that window won’t stay open forever.
If not, they better hope some of their youngsters — Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Dumba, Jonas Brodin — develop into elite players.
It is amazing how much the mood and perception can change with a playoff loss like the Wild just suffered. A sweep brings a crisis-of-confidence effect, especially since the Blackhawks are so talented and they’re not going anywhere.
Three summers ago, the Wild floated on air after signing Parise and Suter. Many of us went all-in with our expectations for where a $200 million investment eventually might lead.
The answer feels less certain now than a year ago. Or even two weeks ago.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org