As a kid growing up I used to collect baseball cards. It was a hobby shared by lots and lots of kids during these days; at a time when you could buy a 'wax pack' of Topps or Donruss for around 50 cents or a little more and get about 15 cards and that sliver of gum that was more like a razor blade and lost its flavor after just a few minutes of chewing. The packs were always fun as you hoped to nab a coveted 'rookie' card of the next great of Major League Baseball or a card of your favorite player. Being a Twins fan, I always got a little emotional boost whenever a Twins player crossed my path even though their roster was more often than not, nothing to get too excited over. No offense to LaTroy Hawkins or Doug Mientkiewicz, but they were not the kind of players that were sought after by baseball card collectors that were not Twins fans. I collected thousands and thousands of baseball cards during the mid-1980's to early 1990's during the so-called 'Baseball Card Boom', mostly Topps and Donruss, but occasionally Fleer, Score, Bowman, and Upper Deck. I'd go to the local card shop almost weekly during the summer, and I'd buy Beckett Guides to see how my 'investment' was doing. It seems silly now, but if you had a card that was worth over a $1 it seemed like you had something special, and if it was worth over $10 then you had a priceless artifact on your hands. Of course that was the boom, and when the baseball card market went bust in the early 1990's most of those way overproduced sets were more or less worthless. After this time, the card companies began to produce 'premium' sets which priced out most kids like myself because who in their right mind is going to pay $4 or more for just 4 cards, even if they're platinum edition hologram jersey swatch cards. Maybe $4 is to be expected these days but it got me out of that realm of sports collectibles, and I still am guilty of checking out a Beckett guide only to be depressed that virtually none of my cards have increased in value since I was kid; not just cards made during that window of time from the mid-80's to mid-90's but even cards made long before that time. The collector in me has kept these cards at my parents house where they seldom see the light of day but I guess its that mentality that if I wait long enough then maybe, just maybe they'll be turn out to be valuable afterall. One of the other things you collected apart from that shard of gum, were the obligatory checklist cards that gave youngsters like myself the opportunity to assess what players you had and what players you still needed.
Will the Wild be a winner on the opening of NHL free agency?
You would go through the list saying "got 'em", or "need him" all the way through. In some ways its a lot like NHL free agency. Where you assess your current roster (i.e. the cards you have) and note the ones you need (i.e. the cards you want). Sometimes it is easy to acquire those assets, other times it can be tricky or expensive (or both). The Wild, along with 29 other teams waded into the rather small pool of quality free agents. Its a cutthroat business where teams wheel and deal and in most cases the most lucrative offer wins. Like Minnesota, most teams in the NHL have lots of cap space to burn and just like that little kid who got $5-$10 in their pocket seeing a bunch of 50 cent wax packs was too good too pass up. So will the Wild find the right deal or will they end up with not much more than a few pieces of crappy bubblegum?
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For the Wild, like many teams, Free Agency started quietly. The reasons for the most part, is every team and every other free agent in the league was pretty much waiting to see what would happen with the top two free agents, being Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Teams that were in the running, had to make sure that they had enough money for one, if not both of them. As far as free agents go, some of them were waiting to see what they were going for before signing with teams.
Day One for the Wild saw additions coming to the fourth line. According to General Manager Chuck Fletcher, it was a need they felt they needed to address as well. First, the Wild signed Zenon Konopka for $1.85 million over two years. In those matchups against the Ottawa Senators, I know I always feared Konopka. Not just because he's a tough player. The Wild haven't been strangers to fighters on the roster. What they have been strangers to, are fighters who can actually play hockey. That my friends is what we finally have gotten in Konopka. He is a strong person in the faceoff circle, and trust me, that is an area where teams can literally win or lose games. When you see the number of times that Mikko Koivu gets tossed from the circle, it will be reassuring that there is someone on this team who can actually accomplish his job, and from the fourth line no less. Plus, there is no cooler name in hockey right now than Zenon Konopka. It sounds like some sort of chemical compound.
The next player the Wild acquired has an interesting place in Wild history. Torrey Mitchell finds his deal with the Wild worth $5.7 million over three years. Reading tweets by fellow former San Jose Shark Devin Setoguchi he's excited to have his former teammate with him. According to Setoguchi, Mitchell is very fast. On a relatively slowpoke Wild team, speed is much needed. However, for Wild fans, Mitchell does have a bit of a infamous history with the team. Many of us remember the horrific on-ice accident between Mitchell and Kurtis Foster. Foster was racing to the puck and Mitchell hit him from behind which sent the 6'5" careening into the boards where he broke his femur. After surgery, where a metal rod was inserted into the bone as well a torturous rehab Foster made an improbable comeback. It was not a malicious hit that intended to cause and sort of injury. It was just one of those hockey plays, where unfortunate injuries happen.
However, fans across the league were beyond antsy. Toward the end of Sunday, we heard from both camps that we wouldn't hear of any decisions until Monday. Monday became Tuesday. Tuesday became Wednesday. We read of countless trips by team executives of various teams to make personal, face to face pitches to Parise and Suter. The rumor mill had the Detroit Red Wings in the lead for at least Suter's services. However, the rumor mill is just that. Today, we started hearing that a decision would come, and Americans quickly put a halt to their Independence Day festivities to remain glued to Twitter. First, it was announced that Pittsburgh was out of the running for Parise. Then Detroit was out of the running for Suter. It quickly became obvious, that the two were going to be a package deal. While everyone in the State of Hockey was beginning to think that our turn at being the winner in the free agent sweepstakes was finally upon us, we still held our collective breaths. Shortly after 11am (CDT) the news broke that Suter had signed a 13-year deal with the Wild. His deal is worth $98 million with a cap hit of $7.5 million. What felt like just a few minutes later, came the coup de grâce, the Wild had also signed a 13-year deal with Parise. He also will be netting $98 million with a cap hit of $7.5 million.
I can't tell you how long I have waited for such a conquest. We as fans have deserved such acquisitions for a long time. After the long, dark years of Doug Risebrough at the helm, bringing in garbage year after year, we are finally heading in the right direction. The fact that Fletcher and Wild owner Craig Leipold were able to pull off this feat is altogether fantastic. And the Twitter-verse just might explode. Coming from Daren Drager's feed, he says that Dany Heatley had been communicating with both Suter and Parise this past week. It seems that both asked if they could win if they came to Minnesota. Heatley's response was 'yes.' Devin Setoguchi seems very excited about these signings on his feed. Whether or not this creates enough buzz for Wild fans to pick up season tickets and fill the Xcel Energy Center on a nightly basis is yet to be seen. However, these signings are two giant steps in the right direction. Fletcher himself probably has to be feeling pretty exhiliarated and exhausted on what was no doubt a tough few days of negotiations, and the fact he was able to sell the idea of a bright future for the Wild was no easy salespitch. Leipold cannot be doubted one iota over his commitment to building a winner in Minnesota. So if you hear any casual Minnesota sports fan complain about how the team 'finally' has spent money know full well they had no clue as to what they were talking about. Leipold has been wanting a winner in Minnesota from the beginning and the bold move to land both Suter and Parise in one fell swoop proves it. Flying out to Madison (plus picking up his agent Neil Sheehy and flying him back to his home in International Falls) to meet with Suter and again back to Minnesota to talk things over with Parise were a major reason the Wild were able to make this deal happen.
The Wild also added another player with WCHA and somewhat local ties when it signed free agent center Jake Dowell to a 2-year deal. Dowell is an Eau Claire, Wisconsin-native who won a national title with the Wisconsin Badgers. Dowell provides grit additional toughness to a 4th line that now boasts a fair amount of sandpaper. He is not going to provide a lot of offense, but he is a player who is a tireless worker who puts 100% into every one of his shifts and plays a good, honest, blue collar game where he finishes his checks and stands up for his teammates. The 6'0", 202lbs center had 2 goals, 7 points and 53 penalty minutes in 52 games for the Dallas Stars last season. More importantly, he provides the team with another player of outstanding character. The former Badger is another shining example of being one of the 'good guys' as a person who is generous with his time to those going through tremendous circumstances. Here is a Puck Daddy article where Dowell, who was then playing for the Chicago Blackhawks granted the wish of a 5-year old who was dying from a rare, incurable form of cancer. The child's story is one very close to Dowell's heart because of his own father's long battle with Huntington's disease, which not only affects his father but also his brother Luke. You can read about that here. Hopefully being that much closer to Eau Claire will allow his family to attend more games.
The Wild now find themselves very close to the salary cap ceiling, at around $68 million dollars with financial commitments to 22 players. With the salary cap at $70.2 million the Wild are banking on their much improved depth to buoy their chances at success. The additions of Parise and Suter also buy time for the Wild's stable of young talent to develop in the minors instead of having their development accelerated in order to fill organizational holes. Seriously, if you're Mikael Granlund, don't you feel a little pressure taken off your shoulders? The Wild not only took a giant step forward towards boosting their offense with Parise, but also brought the team the defensive anchor it sorely missed last season with Suter. Suter's arrival also take some of the urgency for Jonas Brodin who may otherwise have been thrust into a fairly significant role as a rookie NHL'er. Too often in the Wild's history the team felt compelled to accelerate the NHL debut of its young players because it didn't have enough organizational depth. While I have little doubt for some of the younger players like Brodin, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, Brett Bulmer, Jason Zucker, Matt Hackett and Matt Dumba it may have been a little bittersweet I'd suggest for them to take a look at the Wild's current cap situation before they feel too down. The Wild now have the 2nd highest payroll in the NHL as you can see here on CapGeek.com, but the youngsters should notice the contracts of Niklas Backstrom, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Matt Cullen, Jared Spurgeon, Cal Clutterbuck, and Marco Scandella which will be expiring at the end of the 2012-13 season. I am not hoping these players all depart, but its only reasonable to suspect that more than a few of them may not be retained thus opening up spots for these youngsters as they join a now powerful core of players which includes Parise, Suter, and Mikko Koivu.
The Wild lineup as I see it is as follows:
Kassian / Powe-Konopka-Mitchell / Dowell
Ryan Suter - Tom Gilbert
Marco Scandella - Jared Spurgeon
Clayton Stoner - Nate Prosser
There may be a bit of shuffling as the team establishes some individual chemistry in training camp, but without question the Wild are as deep as they ever have been even going back to the days of Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston Pavol Demitra and Kim Johnsson. No offense to the players that have been with the team prior to today, but the Wild have never had a player of Suter's calibre on its blueline and his arrival bumps Scandella and Spurgeon down to the 2nd pairing where they will likely be a better fit.
Congratulations State of Hockey! We are finally relevant once again. And Happy Fourth of July! To borrow a famous movie line, "today is our independence day." Let the celebration begin!
You can track all of the NHL free agent signings here with TSN's Free Agent tracker.