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Wednesday, July 4, 2012
GM Fletcher's bold moves will pay off

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

And so with the stroke of two pens -- or was it the exact same pen, given that the contracts Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed with the Minnesota Wild on Wednesday morning were identical in term and dollar? -- the fortunes of two players and a handful of NHL franchises forever changed.

Never mind Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya joining forces to sign in Colorado back in 2003 to try to win a Cup before the lockout, the joint signing by Parise and Suter to identical 13-year deals that will pay them $98 million marks a seminal moment in the history of free agency for the league.

Which brings us back a few short weeks to a meeting of the NHL's general managers in a New York hotel during the Stanley Cup finals.

Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher was on his way out the door but stood to chat about the disappointing turn the Wild's season had taken.

In early December, the Wild won a franchise record seven straight road games. They were at one point first in the overall standings. There was unbridled optimism about a corner being turned with rookie head coach Mike Yeo.

And then it all fell to pieces as the Wild missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season, settling in at 12th place in the Western Conference, 14 points out of eighth.

In New York, Fletcher talked about the lessons learned from the second-half collapse and of the optimism that a handful of young prospects were going to get a chance to prove that they were NHL-caliber players. He also insisted the team would be active in free agency. The implication was that Fletcher would go hard after Parise and possibly Suter too, both of whom had ties to the State of Hockey.

But, really, what chance did a rebuilding team that had just one winning playoff year, a surprise trip to the Western Conference finals in 2003, have of landing either of these blue-chip free agents?

Even as the hours after noon ET on July 1 slipped into a full day without a decision from either player, and then two days and so on, the Wild's public insistence they were still in the mix looked merely like good public relations fodder.

When Suter and Parise signed elsewhere -- and surely they would, wouldn't they, given the interest shown by the Devils, Predators, Penguins, Flyers and about half of the NHL's 30 teams? -- the Wild's efforts could be applauded as bold even as the franchise slid back beneath the surface of hockey discussion.

But that's not how it played out at all and suddenly Fletcher, the quiet, understated son of Hall of Fame builder Cliff Fletcher, has joined the big boys' table.

He spent almost $200 million of owner Craig Leipold's money before the Fourth of July barbecues were lit and suddenly his Minnesota Wild are the toast of the National Hockey League.

"This is a great day in the history of the Minnesota Wild," Fletcher said during a Wednesday afternoon conference call.

A great day? How about "the greatest day"?

Fletcher sold Parise and Suter, two of the more understated of NHL stars, on a host of things, including lifestyle (Parise is from Minnesota and Suter's wife is from Bloomington). He sold them on the future of this club and their role in making that future a bright one. Mostly, though, he sold them on being able to play together, something both players said had been intriguing to them for many months now.

"We kept in touch throughout the process," Parise noted during the same conference call. "We thought the best fit would be Minnesota."

One of the factors players like Suter and Parise, homegrown products of the Nashville Predators and New Jersey Devils, respectively, face when making a decision about whether to leave is that they are giving up something unique.

Suter grew up with the Predators. He was part of the fabric of the team and the community through rocky times, when it looked like the team might fail right through two straight trips to the Western Conference semifinals. The Predators were as much his team as they were Shea Weber's or Pekka Rinne's or anyone else in that room.

Suter said calling Nashville GM David Poile on Wednesday morning was the "toughest phone call that I've ever had to make in my life. David's done so much for me."

The same can be said for Parise, who was captain of a Devils team that a few short weeks ago surprised the hockey world by advancing to their first Stanley Cup finals since 2003. Had he not signed in Minnesota, Parise said he would likely have returned to the Devils, so great was his affection for president and GM Lou Lamoriello and the team.

Usually, then, when players of this quality move on, it generally means giving up that special status, that feeling of being part of the bedrock of a team and not just another hired gun.

Usually.

In this case, though, the two players aren't joining a Cup contender like the Detroit Red Wings or Philadelphia Flyers, where they would be more complementary pieces brought in to complete an already established picture.

Instead Parise and Suter, drawn by the prospect of playing together and enjoying the comfort of family ties to Minnesota, have taken a leap of faith that by making the Wild their team, they can be part of something equally unique and special.

In the end if they, and by extension, the Wild, are successful, their roles in Minnesota won't be all that different than the roles they played on their former teams.

Can Suter and Parise make that kind of difference?

Anyone who has watched Suter understands that as much as Weber receives the accolades -- the Preds captain was twice a Norris Trophy nominee -- Suter is considered in hockey circles to be Weber's equal. They are different players, certainly, but Suter's positional play, his ability to react quickly and make smart plays to clear the puck prompt comparisons to the recently retired Nicklas Lidstrom.

Suter will join a Wild defense that has lacked that kind of dynamic player on the back end, especially since Brent Burns was dealt a year ago to San Jose for Devin Setoguchi and top prospect Charlie Coyle along with a first-round draft pick (the Wild also sent a second-round pick to San Jose in the deal).

Suter was part of a power play in Nashville that ranked first overall last season and joins one that ranked 27th.

Over his past five full seasons (Parise missed all but 13 games two seasons ago), the former Devils captain has averaged slightly more than 35 goals per season.

He is a tenacious checker, able to log minutes on both the power play and the penalty kill. He is the complete player and a treat to have in the dressing room. Anyone who spent any amount of time around the Devils' dressing room during their run to the finals this spring understands that the easygoing nature of the room, the high level of camaraderie that marked the Devils, is due at least in part to Parise's personality and work ethic.

When the Devils were shut out twice in the first three games of the Eastern Conference finals, it was Parise's strong play that was a catalyst to the Devils getting back in a series they would win in six games. Conversely, in the finals against Los Angeles, when Parise struggled, the Devils could not generate enough offense to tip the series against the Kings their way, and they were defeated in six games.

Combine the elements that both players bring to the table and they should invigorate a Wild offense that was last in the league last season by a country mile, registering just 2.02 goals per game. For comparison the 29th-ranked Los Angeles Kings scored 2.29 goals per game.

It's not just their own offensive contributions that should vault the Wild into the middle of the playoff pack in the Western Conference but the ripple effect on the Wild lineup.

The arrival of Parise will take pressure off of Dany Heatley, who had just 24 goals a year ago and who reached out to Suter via phone and Parise via text to encourage them to sign with the Wild. Likewise captain Mikko Koivu and Setoguchi should benefit from Parise's addition.

Defensively, the Wild ranked 13th in goals allowed per game, much of that due to their second-half collapse after being among the stingiest of teams through the first half of the season.

Look for the Wild to move back into a top-10 position defensively next season.

Still, both Parise and Fletcher were quick to avoid predicting just what kind of impact the signings might have on the Wild's ability to jump up the standings.

Parise said he's played on teams that looked great on paper but missed the playoffs and also noted the Devils were a 6-seed that recently came within two wins of a Stanley Cup championship.

Fletcher noted that the signings in and of themselves guarantee nothing.

"We feel we're a better team," he said. But, he added, "the real work is just starting."

Beyond the on-ice play, the arrival of Suter and Parise should make the Xcel Energy Center a more difficult place in which to play.

Think a buzz around a team doesn't help?

Think teams liked coming into the MTS Centre in Winnipeg?

The arrival of Suter and Parise should reinvigorate a loyal fan base that had become inured to the team's evolutionary inertia.

Inertia, by the way, that officially ended July 4, 2012.