Preview: Wild at Avalanche
The Minnesota Wild had the foundation for a strong future when they signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to big free-agent deals in the summer of 2012.
The local boys came home to give the Wild a star forward and an impact blueliner, but six years into a pair of 13-year, $98 million deals, Minnesota is still searching for its first title. As year seven starts for both players, the window seems to be closing a little for the Wild, but they have a chance to start fresh when they open the 2018-19 NHL season at the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night.
For Parise, it will be an opportunity to get back to the level he is used to playing. He missed a chunk of the 2017-18 season after undergoing back surgery on Oct. 24. He returned midway through the season and took time to find his rhythm before he suffered a broken sternum against Winnipeg in the first round of the playoffs.
He has had six months to get healthy again, and he feels ready.
"I knew that I was capable of that and my body just wasn't allowing it," Parise told the St. Paul Pioneer Press about last season. "It got to the point when I was skating where I would be like, 'Oh, my gosh, is this how it's going to be for the rest of my career? I'm brutal now.' I couldn't even move out there.
"I feel like I'm back to the player that I was before this started a couple of seasons ago. I feel normal again."
Nothing says normal like playing Colorado early in the season. The two Central Division teams have built up a good rivalry over the past 15 years, meeting three times in the playoffs, including a hard-fought seven-game series in the 2014 first round.
A lot of the same players remain from both rosters but while Minnesota is trying to take advantage of its aging but talented roster, the Avalanche are one of the most-talked about young teams.
With good reason, too. They finished last in the NHL with 48 points in 2016-17 but nearly doubled that with 95 points last season. Colorado made the playoffs for the first time in four years and gave No. 2 seed Nashville trouble before losing in six games.
That experience, plus the dynamic first-line trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen, has increased expectations.
MacKinnon was the runner-up for the Hart Trophy after putting up 39 goals and 58 assists, and the 23-year-old center seems to be getting better.
Where things might change is in net. Semyon Varlamov has had an up-and-down, injury-plagued career with the Avalanche and is entering the final year of his five-year contract. Colorado acquired Philipp Grubauer from Washington on a three-year deal over the summer to give the team more depth at goaltender.
Varlamov will start against Minnesota but the rest of the lineup is still in question due to injuries.
"We're still waiting on a couple guys, see how they came through practice today. Some guys have been off for four, five, six days," coach Jared Bednar told the Denver Post. "So we're still getting information from the training staff. As expected, it may look different. It just depends on some of the information we get over the next 24 hours."