ST. PAUL, Minn. — Ever since star forward Zach Parise signed his mega-contract last summer with the Minnesota Wild, coach Mike Yeo had dreamed of putting Parise with center Mikko Koivu and wing Dany Heatley.
Yeo felt the three could complement one another well and become the top scoring line Minnesota has sought for years, while also being responsible defensively. The coach had time to change his mind when the lockout robbed him of the chance to see his improved team on the ice, but he kept coming back to those first thoughts he had last summer.
Now, Parise, Koivu and Heatley are demonstrating the potential Yeo envisioned back when mosquitoes — not snowflakes — were flying in Minnesota. The trio has scored 11 of the Wild’s 18 goals to lead Minnesota to the top of the Northwest Division with a 4-2-1 record.
“We’re talking about the guys that shift after shift you’re hoping they can go out and create some offense, but this is the line that has gotten in on the forecheck the most times,” Yeo said. “This is the line that has the right structure in their forecheck so they can get those pucks back. They’re the ones getting the shifts in the offensive zone. They’re the ones that are creating the chances because of it, and they’re the ones that are drawing the penalties because of it.”
Parise has somehow lived up to the enormous expectations so far after signing that 13-year, $98 million contract last July. A five-time, 30-goal scorer, Parise leads the Wild and is tied for second in the NHL with five goals. With his four assists, he has a team-leading nine points, which is tied for eighth in the league. Heatley, a four-time, 40-goal scorer, has four goals and two assists. Koivu, long underappreciated playing in Minnesota, has two goals and a team-high six assists.
Together, they’ve been one of the most productive lines in the league and perhaps the best line to ever play together for the Wild.
“I’m excited about where we can get to,” Parise said. “Where we’re at now I think is pretty good. Where we can get to is going to be really good. If we can just keep learning more and getting better, I think we’ll do OK.”
Parise and Koivu are renowned for their work ethic and success on the forecheck. Parise can also snipe and leads the league in shots on goal. Heatley, who has 353 career goals, has been adept this season finishing around the net, as he did opening night when he scored two power-play goals on rebounds.
Together, their ability to create scoring chances and finish has the trio looking like the perfect mix.
“With Mikko and I, we like to work down low in the corners and below the goal line and retrieve pucks and get it deep, and Heater’s got that scoring touch that you just can’t find in players,” Parise said. “Get pucks in front of the net, deflections, he gets his stick on it. So, it’s kind of a good mix.”
Heatley was one of only two Wild players to appear all 82 games last year and led Minnesota with 24 goals and 53 points. Yet, he often took the criticism as the Wild ended the year with just 177 goals as a team, the lowest total in the league last year and the second-fewest goals by a team since the 2004-05 lockout.
Yeo saw things differently and called Heatley the team’s MVP. Safe to say, Yeo also saw a rebound coming from Heatley.
“We had two guys that (played 82 games) last year and especially in that second half, it was tough,” Yeo said of Heatley. “There was a lot of heat on him. He played most of the year without Mikko. And so you put Mikko with him, and Heater’s a great player, and he’s an even better player with Mikko. And you add a guy like Zach and that just compounds.”
Heatley, who had knee surgery after last season, came to training camp in better shape and with added bulk. The changes weren’t about Heatley redefining himself after a career in which he’s been known as one of the league’s top snipers. With Koivu and Parise getting Heatley the puck, he’ll just finally be getting the recognition for his work in front of the goal.
“You’re not going to score 50 goals from all out in the top of the slot one-timers,” Yeo said. “You’ve got to score the majority of your goals around the blue paint. We talked about this last year and him getting to those areas. Now if you don’t have players that are getting pucks to that area and getting pucks with bodies and drawing that attention, then a lot of times it goes unnoticed. That was a focus for him last year. Obviously now, we have guys that can get him the puck in those situations and can draw attention away from him when the puck is there.”
With the arrival of Parise and return of Koivu from injury, along with the other moves the Wild have made to add depth, Heatley doesn’t need to feel the pressure of being the lone scoring threat. He came to camp focused and has been able to work in relative anonymity. But like Yeo, Heatley has been beaming since last summer.
“I was smiling the day we signed these guys,” Heatley said last week in reference to Parise and Ryan Suter. “And I’m still smiling.”
Parise, Koivu and Heatley have given everyone with the Wild reason to smile.