This season there's no lockout to deal with, and there's NHL realignment to benefit from. Game on.
By BRIAN HALLFS North
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Ever buy something you highly anticipated and had to wait to use it?
That's the feeling
Minnesota Wild owner Craig Leipold had last year after going out and purchasing the premier free agents in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and then having to sit through months of the lockout.
"That was pretty frustrating," Leipold said. "Knowing that we had this anticipation by our fan base to have the two marquee players that have been on the market at one time in 10 years, to be able to sign them both, it was frustrating not to be able to have (Parise and Suter) out there."
Leipold, a fan himself, was waiting to see the true unveiling of Parise and Suter last year. But the lockout changed everything and perhaps no team was affected as much as the Wild, who were introducing two key players in Parise and Suter into the lineup, but also working in several rookies. Minnesota's lineup had more than a 40 percent turnover from the prior season.
When training camp finally began, the Wild were thrown together quickly. There were no preseason games to adjust last year and Minnesota had a week to prepare before its first game. The Wild won their first two homes games and then struggled to find consistency for a while, in a condensed season in which there was no room for error.
Minnesota had no way to manufacture cohesiveness among the players and coaches had to force-feed the systems with little practice time.
"It was really tough at times last season, just not a lot of practice time," Parise said. "Twenty nine other teams had to deal with it too and it was no different. But it was difficult and it wasn't easy. So it's nice now to kind of work on some things and get better in areas that we need to."
There was no rushed feeling about the Wild this year. Minnesota, like the rest of the NHL, had a full training camp and preseason games to prepare. The Wild also weren't acclimating as many new players into the team and system.
On the roster heading into Thursday night's regular-season opener at home against the Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota only has five players that haven't played a game with the Wild. One of those, forward Justin Fontaine, has been playing for the Wild's minor-league team in the American Hockey League. Another, defenseman Mathew Dumba, has been part of the organization for over a year as a 2012 draft pick and he spent time with the team at the beginning of last season, though he didn't play in a game.
Only free-agent additions Matt Cooke and Keith Ballard and trade acquisition Nino Niederreiter are in their first year with Minnesota.
"I think (last year) was part of where we (were) handicapped a little bit by the newness of the players and the important players and we don't have that now," Leipold said. "So, that excuse is gone. We've had a great preseason and a great camp, a great camp. And they're all eager to get on the ice."
Despite the truncated training camp and lack of a preseason, the Wild still had big expectations following the signing of Parise and Suter.
Minnesota went 15-5 at the end of February through March after its inconsistent beginning. But the Wild slipped at the end and had to win on the season's final day to earn the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Minnesota made the playoffs for the first time in five years, but lost in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
"When you have a long offseason like that and a disappointing finish, you want to start off again," Parise said.
Parise said the focus isn't on making big goals or expectations. Instead working to continually improve and "get further than we did last year."
He sees a difference in his second year with the team.
"Number one, even just coming back this year you already feel more comfortable," Parise said. "But the training camp is nice for guys that it is their first year here and for us to kind of implement some new things that we're trying to do. So, it's good for us."
The frenetic pace from last season is gone.
"Are we playing tomorrow? We're supposed to start the season tomorrow," coach Mike Yeo joked earlier in training camp. "It's just fun because you know that the pressure's not there to be right on top of everything right now. Now, we feel real comfortable with where we're at. Just the idea that every day we can come and we can continue to get better and get ourselves ready, that's good."