On July 4th 2012 the Minnesota Wild made the two biggest signings in team history with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signing matching 13 year, $98 million dollar contracts. This launched the team into the spotlight throughout the hockey world, with experts like Barry Melrose picking them as the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. On paper this was the best team the franchise had ever seen, the two most high profile free agents (Paris end Suter) joined veterans like Mikko Koivu, Danny Heatley, and Matt Cullen. Ideally this group, paired with exciting prospects like Jonas Brodin, Mikael Granlund, and Charlie Coyle would lead the State of Hockey on a deep playoff run. What happened was a significant disappointment. Although, to the delight of Minnesota hockey fans, the team was ranked atop the league through the first twenty games, things only went downhill from there. After a dismal stretch the Wild fell from 1st place all the way to barely making the playoffs, finishing in the 8th spot in the Western Conference. The playoffs were even more of a let down as Minnesota was ousted by the Chicago Blackhawks 5 games into the 1st round.
Although it is important to keep expectations at a reasonable level in regards to a team with this much talent, it can be very hard as a Minnesota sports fan. Seeing a Minnesota franchise go out and spend high profile money is extremely rare, and sends expectations soaring and senses of reality into a tailspin.
So the question remains: What separates this team of both proven and promising talent from the NHL’s elite teams? The answer can be somewhat complicated…allow me to explain.
When looking at this question the easiest thing to do is make excuses. Yes, it’s true the Wild have been plagued by injuries this season, and yes many of those injuries were members of their top two offensive lines and defensive pairings. In addition, the team has had so many new faces in the past two seasons that it could be legitimate to say that the team is still struggling to create chemistry. Another route to take when high expectations are not met is to blame the coach. In this instance it could be more plausible to blame a relatively young and inexperienced head coach like Mike Yeo than it would be to blame someone with the prestige of Mike Babcock. Nevertheless, none of the previously mentioned shortcomings have enough merit to be legitimate. Yes these things are true, but they play such an insignificant role in the outcome of each individual game that they cannot be the actual reason the Wild are on the outskirts of the playoff picture.
The fact is that hockey is a rough game, and the people who play it have to be tough not only physically, but mentally. This is why when a team is faced with adversity like a new coach, a new group of guys, or a seeming constant stream of injuries they know exactly how to be professional and deal with it. The Wild aren’t lacking talent, composure, leadership, or bodies. They are missing one thing that is more important than all of those things. It’s something you see in all great teams, from the Soviets of 1980 (and before) to the Blackhawks of today: Confidence. These teams go into every game knowing they have a great chance of winning. This leads to a team being much more in tune with the game of hockey, and the beauty that can surround it when played the right way. It may seem easy to fix, or like an overly simple solution but the truth is that with the right amount of confidence a team can do anything.
So here’s to hoping that the Wild somehow manage to find that confidence be it through a solid victory over the Blackhawks on Thursday night, or the return of superstars like Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Whatever it is needs to happen soon, and it needs to stay consistent through the rest of the season and the playoffs. If they can accomplish this, they will join the NHL elite, and could even make a deep playoff run. (But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves)