What happens when you take the top NHL team as of December 2011 and add the top free agent forward and defenseman as of July 2012?
A team that should at least contend for second place in the Northwest Division, that's what.
The Minnesota Wild have instantly transformed their fortunes and their future with the double-bonus free agent score of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to 13-year, $98-million deals. But that doesn't mean they are instantly Stanley Cup contenders.
Yes, it's a watershed moment for the franchise. Yes, it will have fans acting like Dan Gladden just walked into the building. But the transformed Wild will still have to fight for first place in their own division with the annual Northwest favorite Vancouver Canucks. Last season's fourth-place team in the Northwest will have to leap two teams and make up what was a 30-point difference before it can enter the conversation with the contenders from Vancouver.
But the important thing is the Wild will be in the conversation -- something they couldn't claim at the end of last season, despite topping the NHL in points as recently as December.
How much the Wild's good standing was due to unsustainable luck last season and how much it was due to "quality" play that quickly suffered due to injuries is the subject of advanced statisticians' debate. But the Wild were nonetheless right there halfway through the season, and now that same squad has added a great top-line winger in Parise and a minute-munching, all-role defenseman in Suter -- to say nothing of top prospect Mikael Granlund, who is headed to these shores after starring in Finland.
Even accounting for workhorse Mikko Koivu's effect, in Suter and Parise the Wild have at minimum added two new players to their top three. Add in Granlund and it's possible they've added three of their top four.
The Wild still have work to do -- Dany Heatley consumes $7.5 million of cap space as a "first line" forward and Jared Spurgeon and Clayton Stoner are still too high in their top six on defense. But the name of the game in the NHL is depth and star difference-makers, and by adding Suter and Parise the Wild have added two stars and bumped every other adequate player down an appropriate notch on the depth chart.
Suddenly Mikko Koivu does not toil alone. Suddenly the underrated Tom Gilbert can play -- and excel -- in a role appropriate to his abilities. Coach Mike Yeo now has options, as he can put the two-way forces of Koviu and Parise together or separate them to have Koivu handle shutdown roles while Parise capitalizes on offensive opportunities.
In free agency, the rule of thumb is overpayment. (The "free" in "free agency" is a bit of a misnomer.) But if you're overpaying, at least do it for top-flight players. The Wild managed that not once, but twice on Wednesday.
While it doesn't make them automatic contenders, it does suddenly re-insert them into the playoff conversation -- a place they've been only three times in their 11-season history.
As the Stanley Cup-winning Los Angeles Kings showed this spring, entering that conversation is half the battle.