- Craig Custance
Wild fans often stopped him and asked, "Are we going to get Zach?" If not that, it was, "Are we going to get Ryan?"
Few even dared to ask if they could land both.
On Wednesday, it happened. Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher and owner Craig Leipold landed the two best players in free agency by signing defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise, changing the grocery store question dramatically.
Now it becomes, how much can they win with them?
"It's been a dry spell here for quite awhile," Cullen said during a Wednesday afternoon phone conversation. "I'm here all summer in Minnesota and man, the whole state has been in a standstill waiting to see if we could get one or both of these guys."
The wait is over. And with these two premier players, so should be the wait for real success on the ice in Minnesota.
"When you look at our team on paper with those two guys, it absolutely changes the whole look of it," Cullen said. "It's a huge deal for our lineup."
The Wild finished 15 points outside of a playoff spot after injuries buried a strong start to the season, so it's important to note that this team entered the summer with a large gap to close on the best teams in the Western Conference.
Or as Fletcher put it Wednesday during the conference call with Suter and Parise: "We're coming from behind a bit."
But last season was never supposed to be the season this team reached contention status. The Wild have carefully built aggressively through the draft, and Fletcher has been clearing salary-cap space in anticipation of this free-agent class to give the Wild a shot at a moment like the one that transpired on Wednesday.
The hardest part of the blueprint was landing two premier free agents. As Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, Pittsburgh and all the other franchises in the mix can attest to, it's hard enough just to land one of them.
"Until this morning, when I received signed documents, there was always a chance this wouldn't happen," Fletcher said.
Now with that uncertainty removed from the formula, the focus turns to the young talent Fletcher has accumulated since taking over as GM in Minnesota. Part of the selling point for Parise and Suter was the bright future in Minnesota. The Wild were the only non-playoff team to end up as a finalist for either of them. Location helps, with Parise a Minnesota native and Suter from Madison, Wis., which is a reasonable five-hour car ride away.
Of course, money was also a factor. They each got $98 million contracts with generous bonuses, that ESPN colleague Pierre LeBrun reported were worth $20 million the first two years of the deal. With CBA talks heating up this summer, both players will get a $10 million bonus that is untouched by rollbacks or a lockout.
But chances are, neither of these competitors signs with the Wild if they weren't convinced they could win big in Minnesota. As good as Suter and Parise are, they still need the highly regarded prospects to develop into legitimate NHL players in order for it to happen.
"We like what they're doing in Minnesota," said Parise, who had a conversation with Dany Heatley to get a sense of how close to competing the Wild are. "They've got the pieces there."
But Parise is also a realist.
"It's so hard. The league is so even right now," he said. "You can't predict anything."
Especially the future production of young talent. Prospect Mikael Granlund looks every bit like a can't-miss forward and was on the short list of best players not playing in the NHL last season. But can't-miss prospects have missed before.
With the No. 7 overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Wild selected Mathew Dumba, a flashy offensive defenseman with star potential who is still in the process of tightening up his game defensively.
"All season the coaching staff has helped me to become more of a reliable player on the ice," he said at the draft combine. "To take on more responsibility, be more accountable in all areas of the ice. I think I've really done that and shown that and proved that to everyone."
What better way to learn the NHL game on defense than from a polished decision-maker like Suter?
And that may be the biggest coup of them all for the Wild. Their young talent is emerging, and now they have proven leaders in Parise and Suter to help mold those prospects into NHL players. When Adam Henrique arrived in New Jersey, one of the first things he was told by Devils coaches was to watch Parise. Watch the way he competes. Watch how hard he works.
Now, Wild coach Mike Yeo can modify that message for the young Wild players. It's watch Zach. It's also watch Ryan.
There are few better examples in the league in how to succeed at the NHL level.The young players are already excited about the possibility.
"Oh, it'd be unbelievable," said Coyle, a former first-round pick by San Jose traded to Minnesota in the Brent Burns deal. "To play with a guy like Parise, and Suter too. It definitely gives me more motivation to get up there and play."
Craig Custance writes the Minnesota Wild have gained two leaders in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter who can inspire their young players.