ST. PAUL, Minn. — Given the extra time afforded him by the NHL lockout, Mike Yeo has already spent half a year envisioning the type of lines and defensive pairings he can put on the ice for the Minnesota Wild.
After the Wild’s July 4 shopping spree netted Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the two biggest names on the free-agent market, the second-year coach started scratching power-play units and shootout lineups on pieces of paper that have seemingly had time to yellow by now.
Some saw the two free agents – both signed to 13-year, $98 million contracts — as saviors for a franchise that has missed the playoffs for four straight years. Yeo was able to see something else.
He knew Minnesota already had the pieces to put around Parise and Suter, a roster that surprisingly gave the Wild the NHL’s best record in December 2011 before injuries struck, good fortune wore off and Minnesota fell precipitously in the standings.
Just take a look at the power-play groups Yeo could only dream about for more than six long months. The coach believes the Wild have essentially added another complete unit with Parise and Suter plus the returns of injured playmakers Mikko Koivu and Pierre-Marc Bouchard and the development of top prospect Mikael Granlund, who will make his NHL debut Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche.
“That’s five new guys to your power play, and those are pretty good ones,” Yeo said this week. “That’s a huge difference.”
Parise and Suter are big additions to be sure. The two were named assistant captains before their introductory press conference in Minnesota, but the reason both players were eager to sign with a team that hasn’t had much success recently is because a strong, young nucleus was already in place. Suddenly, the Wild are expected to join the league’s elite.
“This team never needed saviors or anything,” Parise said. “They already had great players, so Ryan and I think we can make a team better, and that’s all we want to do. We want to be pieces to a team that we feel is going to be very good. So that’s all we’re looking to do.”
So who are the guys you didn’t hear as much about after Parise and Suter signed – the ones who won’t get as much credit for turning optimism into reality this season?
Koivu, a 2012 All-Star who retains his status as captain and team leader, is a talented two-way player who has had three 20-goal seasons and finished with a positive plus-minus in five of the past six years. He’ll play on the first line with Parise and Dany Heatley, a four-time All-Star who led the team with 24 goals last season.
Granlund — a star in his native Finland who is considered perhaps one of the top two or three players in the world yet to play in the NHL — will have Devin Setoguchi, who’s scored 92 goals the past four seasons, and veteran Matt Cullen with him on the second line. Bouchard, a 63-point scorer five years ago before his career was interrupted by concussion symptoms, is relegated to the third line as he makes his way back after not playing since Jan. 4. 2011. Bouchard, still only 28, is a proven playmaker with good vision and passing skills who excels on power plays and shootouts.
“We have a lot of talent,” Suter said. “Now we just have to put it together.”
On defense, Suter has been paired with 23-year-old Jared Spurgeon in training camp. But the Wild started to bolster their blue line during last season by trading for for Tom Gilbert, a former college teammate of Suter’s. Two of Minnesota’s top prospects, 2011 first-rounder Jonas Brodin and 2012 first-rounder Mathew Dumba, are defensemen who are with the Wild in training camp, though it hasn’t been determined if either will break camp with the NHL squad. The Wild also have tested goaltender Niklas Backstrom and a quality backup in Josh Harding.
“I think everyone knows you need everybody,” Heatley said. “I think both of those guys are fitting in well. Their track records speak for themselves. They’re fitting right in with our team game, and they just bring a lot more depth to our team. I think we have some talented guys here. We have some really talented young guys that have a shot here and then to add those two, I think we’re a real deep team right now.”
Which only gives Yeo more ideas to put down on paper – and finally out on the ice.