Minnesota Wild fans were on top of the world when the calendar flipped from November to December in 2011. That's because their favorite hockey team had the league's best record, and were on a roll under first-year coach Mike Yeo. No, the Wild weren't scoring a bunch of goals, but they were playing strong defense, getting great goaltending, and getting enough pucks in the net to win games.
There were warts, however. The Wild were making a habit out of getting outshot, often by a pretty good margin. They also weren't very deep, to the point where one or two injuries at the wrong position had the potential to sink the ship as quickly as Yeo appeared to get it floating again.
And then came the injuries. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Guillaume Latendresse were concussion casualties. Devin Setoguchi was banged up. Mikko Koivu couldn't stay healthy. Goalies Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding both got hurt, forcing the Wild to use youngster Matt Hackett more than they wanted to.
Setoguchi -- while never really being 100 percent -- underperformed when he was in the lineup. Fellow newcomer Dany Heatley played all 82 games but didn't fill the net as he had in the past. That said, the reviews of Heatley's season were largely positive, and he did lead the team with 24 goals and 53 points. Kyle Brodziak stayed healthy for all 82 and had a career year with 22 goals. Forward Darroll Powe was the only other player to play in all 82 games, but he had a tough season with six goals and a minus-20.
The Wild stayed quiet during the draft, just making their picks. That was a stark contrast to the previous season, where they pulled off the Setoguchi trade (with two prospects for Brent Burns) with San Jose. Instead, GM Chuck Fletcher saved his noise for America's birthday.
Offseason Changes / New Additions
Everything changed for the Wild on July 4.
They went from being an irrelevant expansion franchise -- decade-old, but still considered by many to be an expansion team from the era of over-expansion in the league -- to one that is expected to compete.
In doing so, Fletcher and owner Craig Leipold generated more excitement for Wild hockey in one day than the franchise had in the nine years since its only playoff series wins (2003 over Colorado and Vancouver).
July 4 was the day the Wild announced they had signed forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to matching 13-year contracts. Not only were they the top dogs of NHL free agency this summer, but they are players with Midwestern ties, both of whom are said to have taken less money to play in Minnesota because they wanted to play in Minnesota.
(Of course, they may have taken less money, but it's probably easier to do that when "less money" is a $98 million contract with more than $20 million guaranteed over the first year of the deal.)
Parise is from Minneapolis, and still makes a home there. His father, J.P. Parise, played for the Minnesota North Stars. Parise made a name for himself while playing for his dad at Shattuck-St. Mary's prep school, which is near the Twin Cities, before spending two seasons at the University of North Dakota, where the locals will tell you that Parise is one of them.
Suter grew up in Wisconsin before playing one year of college hockey for the Badgers. However, his wife hails from Bloomington, and his father-in-law, Stan Palmer, was a stalwart defensman at Minnesota Duluth.
Their local ties only added to the romance of their signings, and added to the excitement of hungry Wild fans.
To add depth and -- Fletcher hopes -- make the team harder to play against, the Wild also signed center Zenon Konopka and forward Torrey Mitchell. They aren't top-six forwards, but Konopka can win faceoffs and play a hard-nosed style that will keep the team from being intimidated, and Mitchell is a good two-way forward with great wheels.
While Parise and Suter are the front-line guys who will make everyone around them better, the Konopka and Mitchell signings are important toward making this team competitive and deeper than it was. They also make it so none of the team's young prospects show up to training camp with a spot on the roster guaranteed.
That's not a bad thing. It's the depth that was sorely lacking last season, and something that kept the Wild from contending for a playoff spot.
It can't happen that way this year.