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  • 7/4/2012: The day the Wild set their path for the future


    July 4, 2012 is a day that will live long in the history books of Minnesota. A Minnesota sports franchise did something unique in signing the top free agent available to bolster their offense. They added several exclamation points to the announcement as they announced the signing of the top defensive free agent on the market in tandem, and thus began the Zach Parise and Ryan Suter era for the Minnesota Wild. While the Minnesota sports market has drafted and developed some top level talent from Kirby Puckett to Kevin Garnett to Johan Santana to Mike Modano to Maya Moore, the nature of being in a smaller market has not allowed any of the franchises to be big time players in free agency. Parise and Suter’s matching $98M contracts still reign as the largest handed out to lure a free agent away from another team in Minnesota history, and likely will for some time as the next closest are the Twins’ $55M for Ervin Santana and the Vikings $49M for Steve Hutchinson. So not only did the Wild shock the market, but their double strike stunned the NHL in a thin free agent market with their historical bid to land the best two players available.

    The cost of signing a top player comes not only in dollars, but also in commitment. With both players considered the best available at their position, they also had the control to set the parameters of their deals. Minnesota’s relatively new owner, Craig Leipold, was a known competitor and would give his general manager a virtual blank check to go out and acquire the players. Chuck Fletcher was able to get the deal done, but the market provided little leverage for the team in a time period before the newest collective bargaining agreement went into effect. The biggest cost of the signings was committing to 13 years of Parise and Suter in Minnesota, effectively buying out the rest of their careers and beyond. The collective bargaining agreement expired that September and because of these contracts (and some others like it i.e. Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk) the new agreement instituted tough cap recapture penalties. Essentially, even though the contracts were legal when signed, if either Parise or Suter retires before 2025, they will carry a $3.98M cap hit for the next 5 years. If both retire, the team will carry an additional $8M in dead cap space. So, like it or not, the Wild and Parise/Suter are in the most committed of long term relationships.

    Now in their fourth year, with the team teetering between greatness and lacking, we take a look at how the signings have led the team to this place of consistent mediocrity. The two players combined occupy just 9% of the roster but over 20% of the payroll dollars. This is not uncommon in the NHL, several teams see more than 25% of their payroll taken up by their top 2 players - the Blackhawks lead the league with over 28% of the salary cap going to their top tandem. But what most of those teams have in that tandem are bona fide superstars with the ability to take over games consistently and push their team to higher heights by making the players around them better. With Parise off to a slow start following this season following an injury plagued end to the previous season that also cost him the playoffs, it is easy to point to the lack of producing to the level of expectations that follow his contract. Parise did turn in the best goal scoring season of his career with 33 goals in 2014-15. That same season, he posted 62 total points which was good for 10th in the league overall. But other than that, Parise has landed inside the top 20 only in the strike shortened season of 2012-13, when he finished 18th overall. By contrast, Alex Ovechkin has been in the top 10 in four of four years, and Steven Stamkos & John Taveres have been in the top 10 three of four years, and a number of others at least twice. All of this begs the question about whether Parise is the superstar the Wild thought they were getting with that big contract.

    It is true that the Wild is a more balanced team that has, for the most part, deployed a defense-first system over the past 4 seasons which could have held Parise back. And while he has been consistent and effective while not injured, it is hard to compare his results positively with the other names considered superstars among forwards in the NHL. It has forced the team to accept that it must have a more balanced attack and spread the scoring throughout the lines. When that happens, the team has to acquire and develop the right supporting cast to move the team forward, and there’s been mixed results with draft choices, inexpensive rentals, free agents, and a couple trades. The team is still looking for the right mix of players to surround Parise and Suter to make them a true threat in the playoffs. But a couple of draft busts and a couple buyouts have demonstrated that Parise alone is not able to put the team on his back for long periods of time to overcome any roster deficiencies.

    The story for Ryan Suter is a bit different. He’s somewhat unfairly been given a bad wrap for his time in Minnesota. Sure, he’s played a few minutes too many and been consistently involved in special teams while struggling to produce. But overall, he’s been closer to the superstar the Wild envisioned when they signed him. He’s been an absolute iron man, missing very few games while contributing the highest minutes in the league since coming to Minnesota. And the team strength has been its defensive core for the last several years. Suter has been no small part of that. Sure, the players drafted and developed around him have also been very good, but he’s clearly been a good role model for the very young guys behind him who have been excellent through the whole course of their development. Suter came to Minnesota and was considered an annual Norris Trophy contender. While that hasn’t truly come to fruition, his inclusion in that discussion has been impacted by his light offensive production. There is certainly a separation between his production and that of some other offensive defensemen, but when it comes to defending, there are few in the same conversation as Suter. He’ll never be a 50 point guy, but there’s no doubt his contribution on in his own zone has been truly elite and he doesn’t seem to be regressing in any way.

    So, while it’s hard to describe what the Wild currently are (Fair? Good? Mediocre?), they certainly aren’t a bad team. They are stuck in the middle. They’ve weathered coaching regimes, system changes, and personnel changes, but have mostly been the same team for the last 4 years. It is apparent that since the core personnel has been the same throughout, that the destiny of the team is squarely the result of the players, as there is no one left to blame. These are supposed to be the best years for both Parise and Suter, they are still close to their prime and should be expected to be consistently big contributors for years to come. The pain from their contracts is only going to increase each year as the players decline, so if we look from here forward, the window for this team is closing with its top two players moving farther away from their prime and the team will continue to be bound by their contracts for many years beyond expected productivity. So, in a way, things look worse moving forward and it makes this season even more important to find success. The ray of hope remaining is that it does generally take a full season for a team to hit its stride with a new coach, so it is reasonable to have bigger expectations for next season. And no matter the result, July 4, 2012 will continue to have a huge impact on this franchise through 2025.

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