For days now, it appeared as if the Pittsburgh Penguins were the favorites to land coveted NHL free-agent Zach Parise. No. Apparently not. On Wednesday, soon after he and Ryan Suter shocked the hockey world by signing identical 13-year, $98-million contracts with the Minnesota Wild, Parise revealed that ultimately his decision came down to either leaving for Minnesota or staying on with the New Jersey Devils.
It probably doesn’t make the Devils feel any better today, but there you have it. Winners of the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes two summers ago, the Devils were the bridesmaids this time around.
“I have great friends in New Jersey,” said Parise, on a conference call with reporters. “I’m a loyal person. I loved playing there.”
But in the end, the chance to come home and play before family and friends trumped his affection for the Devils organization.
“Just the opportunity to play at home, it really meant a lot to me and it meant a lot to my family,” said Parise. “My parents were so excited when they knew I was considering coming back home.
“That played a big part in it. I grew up here. I loved coming back here in the summers. I just thought, we enjoy it here so much, it would be great to be here year round.”
As for Suter, he said that the Predators, Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota were all under consideration until he made his final decision earlier today. The telephone call, to Predators’ general manager David Poile, to tell him he was leaving Nashville was the most difficult one he ever made in his life, he said.
“It was so hard to make that to David,” said Suter. “David has done so much for me. It’s a first-class operation in Nashville and it starts with David.”
Soon after making that phone call, he also contacted his long-time defence partner, Shea Weber, and told him he was signing with Minnesota. Weber is a restricted free agent, a year away from unrestricted free agency, and Suter’s departure may have an effect on Weber’s own plans a year from now.
“He was happy for me,” said Suter. “He understood. He said, you have to do what’s best for you. He wishes me nothing but the best of luck.”
The twin signings for the Twin Cities represents a coup for the Wild’s young general manager, Chuck Fletcher, son of former Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames’ GM Cliff Fletcher. The Wild were always in the picture financially, but it was critical for Fletcher to sell the pair on the possibility that Minnesota was poised for a major on-ice turnaround as well.
The Wild boast one of the deepest prospects groups in the NHL - half-a-dozen players who starred at last year’s world junior tournament were on their reserve list - but they were just an 81-point regular-season team last season, good for 12th overall in the Western Conference.
The presence of Suter and Parise to supplement a team that includes team captain Mikko Koivu and goaltender Niklas Backstrom should make the Wild far more competitive than they’ve been these past half-dozen seasons.
Minnesota, which hasn’t made the playoffs since 2008, had a decent start last year. On American Thanksgiving, in late November, they were leading the Western Conference with 29 points, two ahead of the San Jose Sharks and the Chicago Blackhawks. But the bottom fell out in the final three quarters of the season, and they finished the year with just 177 goals, by far the fewest in the NHL.
“Last year didn’t end the way we wanted it to end,” said Fletcher, “but for a certain part of last year, we were one of the best teams in the league. We felt if we could add either a top defenceman or a top forward, it would really help our team.
“I don’t think you ever go into it assuming you’re going to land both of them, but certainly, we shot for the moon, we tried out best, and fortune smiled upon.”
Left winger Dany Heatley (53 points) was the only player who scored more than 50, although Koivu (44 points) would have easily reached that number had he not missed 27 games as a result of injuries. Suter knew Heatley from the University of Wisconsin and says the latter texted him, encouraging him to sign in Minnesota.
When Suter broke in, playing for Nashville in 2003, the Predators owner was Craig Leipold, who now owns the Wild. Leipold committed almost $200 million to sign the two players and was giddy with the results.
In a surprisingly frank and open letter to Minnesota fans, stated that the Wild’s “secret weapon” in the negotiations was the players’ familiarity with Minnesota, known colloquially as “the State of Hockey.”
“It’s no secret that both Zach and Ryan have strong ties to this area,” said Leipold, who added:
“Now, the real proof will come when we hit the ice this season.”
Yes, there is that to consider.
At some point, perhaps as early as next year, some of the team’s highly regarded prospects - Mikael Granlund, Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle, and Jason Zucker - will crack the NHL roster and eventually have an impact. Granlund, the new Finnish Flash, is considered the most NHL ready of the four. But the Wild will also need to see a young defence corps emerge and need better years (and better health) from key supplementary pieces such as Devin Setoguchi (36 points in 69 games) and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (22 points in 37 games).
But for the first time in a long time, the Wild have something to get excited about.
On Independence Day, both Suter and Parise took advantage of their emancipation to earn those heavily front-loaded mega-bucks contracts. Their decisions were difficult, and time-consuming, but really, the hard work starts in September.