If all goes according to plan, the self-proclaimed State of Hockey ought to finally nab some long-term relevance in the NHL as the Minnesota Wild welcome two elite Americans in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
Independence Day, otherwise known as the fourth day of NHL free agency, was highlighted by the announcement that the two touted free agents will be joining the Wild for the next 13 seasons. They follow the likes of Torrey Mitchell and Zenon Konopka, each signed on Sunday to shorter contracts with Minnesota.
The two tandems amount to one forward and one defenseman who can deliver a considerable element of physicality and one player of each position who can create and finish scoring opportunities.
Both of those winning ingredients have been scarce in St. Paul, which made the latter two-thirds of the 2011-12 season immensely less surprising than the first third.
Minnesota was 20-7-3 through Dec. 10 of last season. An ensuing eight-game winless streak (0-5-3) presaged a plunge to an eventual 35-36-11 finish in 12th place of the Western Conference.
With an elite forward and elite blueliner on their side, all it will take is some prompt personnel assimilation for Minnesota to have a more sustained winning ride.
When and if that happens, the Vancouver Canucks will finally have some reckonable competition in the Northwest Division. The Canucks have won each of the last two President’s Trophies but followed through with disappointing postseasons, in part because none of their divisional rivals accompanied them, meaning they bulked up on cupcakes during the regular season.
If the NHL wants maximum attention in all markets, it needs the Northwest Division to undergo a collective face-lift.
The previously speculated prospects of Parise and/or Suter going to the likes of Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, part of the four-headed Atlantic Division monster, would have done no good from a parity or promotional standpoint. Ditto if they had gone to Detroit, a member of another division that sent four teams to the 2012 playoffs.
Just their luck, the Wild, along with the Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames, are feverishly rebuilding in the first month of the 2012 offseason. The Avs have signed defenseman Greg Zanon and forward PA Parenteau while the Flames have picked up Jiri Hudler and Dennis Wideman.
All of those rivals ought to make each other better once they pit their revamped lineups against one another. In turn, the fanbases of Calgary and Colorado can replenish their pride and the Minnesota rooters can cheer for more than the mere fact that they have a franchise at their disposal.
And with more competitive teams, or at least more teams with competitive potential and well-known individuals, should come better ratings every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night on the NBC Sports Network.
There is also no cause to ignore the sentimental aspect of Parise’s acquisition, in particular.
There was a time when Twin Cities hockey fans rooted for a Minnesota North Stars team captained by J.P. Parise. Nothing quite like reeling in Parise’s son, himself with a year of NHL captaincy under his belt, to bridge the past and the present.
The presence of such a marquee name for Minnesota hockey history students and for contemporary NHL fans in general should also improve the prospects of a Winter Classic coming to the Twin Cities. So, too, should the Wild’s instantaneous improvement in the standings, which ought to go hand-in-hand with the arrival of the celestial personnel.
As much as the league has opportunistically benefited from the recent success of the Pittsburgh Penguins and all of the U.S.-based Original Six franchises, it must broaden its horizons to less storied markets. It must learn to spread the spotlight to places beyond the Eastern Time Zone.
The one state that trumps the other 49 in terms of hockey interest from peewees to pros is a no-duh area to start.
The best-case scenario would have a Parise- and Suter-led Wild team making ripples early in the 2013 playoffs, then hosting a game Jan. 1, 2014 at TCF Bank Stadium or Target Field. Preferably against the likes of Colorado in the first all-Western Conference Winter Classic since the Chicago Blackhawks hosted the Detroit Red Wings in 2009.
The Penguins still have a Cup-caliber lineup co-piloted by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and still have their radiant rivalries with the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals. The New York Rangers are still on the rise and Boston, Chicago and Detroit can still stand to improve but are unlikely to fizzle off the radar anytime soon.
Wednesday’s news is all about gain for another franchise that can give to its league in gratifying quantities now that it has the opportunity.