When the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets faced off on Dec. 31 of last year, there were two main storylines. 1) This was a historic matchup of two streaking teams -- the Wild had won 12 straight; the Jackets, 14. And 2) The NHL wouldn’t be all that happy if these two teams met in the Stanley Cup Finals this year.
Wild fans shouldn’t worry about this too much. This is Minnesota sports after all, and Bruce Boudreau is known as a great regular season coach whose teams putter out in the playoffs (especially in Game 7s). But it’s hard not to feel that this season is a bit magical. A year ago the Mike Yeo era was finally put to rest and career minor-league coach John Torchetti was at the helm of a vastly underperforming team that would back into the playoffs; now they are on top of a weak Western Conference.
If there is any time for this team to win, it is now: Jason Pominville appears to be passing his prime, Zach Parise’s back may give him trouble as the years go on and Ryan Suter has a lot of miles on his legs. And as much as the Wild organization appears to have a good future ahead of it -- prospects like Alex Tuch and Gustav Olofsson already have NHL games under their belt, and players like Luke Kunin and Jordan Greenway are looking more and more big-league ready by the day -- if they’re going to win it while their aging and expensive players are still in their prime, the time is now. There has to be a sense of urgency with this team, especially among its current leaders.
Fans of the Wild obviously won’t care whether or not puckheads in other markets, or the league itself, is excited by a playoff run. But die-hard supporters of the team have to be a bit miffed that the storyline with this team is that they’re not as exciting as, say, the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins.
It’s easy to understand why the league and hockey fans, in general, are excited when the Original Six teams do well. All six are located in major markets and have storied histories. Among the “Second Six,” the Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers are in sports-crazed cities, even if they aren’t traditional hockey markets like Montreal, Boston or Detroit (Penn State’s hockey team didn’t join the NCAA until the 2012-13 season, for example), and are a national draw. And while the Los Angeles Kings were largely mismanaged for most of their existence and have had minimal success outside of the Gretzky years, their recent Cup runs in the Drew Doughty-Anze Kopitar era has been embraced wholeheartedly.
So this all might be a bias towards historical teams. The Flyers, Penguins and Kings all started playing in 1967. The Vancouver Canucks, who came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2011, joined the NHL in 1970. All of these teams are frequently on NBCSN and rarely, if ever, is there any question that their success will draw viewership and generate interest in the league.
There is also the matter of market size. The Kings and New York Rangers play in the two largest television markets in the U.S. Chicago and Philadelphia are No. 3 and 4, respectively. Toronto and Montreal are Canada’s biggest cities.
The whole market size argument feels a bit misguided, however, in determining which teams will get the general public interested in the Stanley Cup. The Kings and Rangers made the finals in 2014, and it hardly was leading SportsCenter every night. It’s not as though the league, which has an infinitesimal salary cap as compared to other leagues, took a step forward after that series -- or that the world stopped to see two of the league’s oldest teams face off. A Canadian team winning it all for the first time since 1994 would make a bigger impact on the hockey world. A Sun Belt team’s success might expand the game into areas where kids aren’t already playing. Pittsburgh (No. 23 U.S. market) and Detroit (No. 11) facing off in back-to-back years in 2008-09 garnered as much, if not more, buzz for the league as Kings-Rangers did.
So what is it with the Wild? Is it because they lack a bona fide superstar? Is it because they are the Wild, not the North Stars, a Second Six team like the Kings, Penguins and Flyers? Is it because Minneapolis-St. Paul is a mid-sized television market (No. 15)? Maybe it’s just plain fitting for an already self-loathing sports town.
All three factors have to contribute in some way (the fourth, really, is self-determined). Parise and Suter are billed as superstars on NBCSN and paid like them, but are of the boring superstar variety. Parise is a great two-way player that doesn’t put up eye-popping offensive numbers and is hardly a game-breaker like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin or even Vladimir Tarasenko. Suter is a minutes-eating defensive defenseman. The lack of a Tarasenko or Kopitar hurts even more because the Wild could have drafted them.
As for not being the North Stars, there’s not much fans can do about it. There still is a feeling that the two teams are connected, even if the North Stars history technically resides in Dallas -- the old North Star players participated in the Winter Classic alumni game and fans still wear the green and yellow in the stands. Perhaps NHL fans at large would embrace the Wild more if they had more history behind them. The Blue Jackets, which are located close enough to Detroit and Pittsburgh to develop a rivalry if they can sustain success, probably suffer from this as well.
And regarding the size of the Twin Cities area, that shouldn’t be a major factor. The Wild have sold out all of their games since they started making the playoffs again, largely do well on local television and are in a larger television market than the Colorado Avalanche (No. 18), St. Louis Blues (No. 21) and Penguins (No. 23).
The truth of all of this is that NHL fans really might only care about their own teams. NBCSN has a smaller reach than ESPN, the Canadian teams are underexposed on American television and the game is better live in person anyways. Plus the NHL does not get as much coverage as the NFL, MLB or NBA.
Still, the Wild going on a playoff run should not be seen as a negative for the league as a whole. Along with Michigan and Massachusetts, Minnesota produces the most players in the NHL. The team has likable veterans in Parise and Suter and a whole slew of young, up-and-coming players on its roster. And Bruce Boudreau is virtually entertainment personified.
Maybe, given the ingredients involved, all this team needs is just one playoff run to remind people that this a new Minnesota Wild team -- not the defensive Jacques Lemaire club of yesteryear or the Swooning Yeos of the past four seasons -- but one that just might live up to its potential in 2017.