Time never stops. The young get older. Opportunities are there for the taking and are either grabbed or missed. For certain things, there is more than one opportunity given, or perhaps more time to take the opportunity. Perhaps there is more time to be younger than older. However it could be the opposite, sometimes there is more time being older and looking back at what was.
The NHL has had a lot of time lately, trying to end a strike that has affected not only everyone in the league, but all of the fans outside of it as well. And while all 30 teams have had players move to different leagues for the time being and have nothing else to do but wait, there is one team in particular that is against the clock more than any other team in the league.
The Minnesota Wild is that team. The Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets joined the NHL as expansion teams in the 2000-01 season, rounding out the 30 teams the NHL has today. The team is based in St. Paul, but more importantly in an area where hockey is more popular than the other regions NHL teams reside in.
Like any expansion team in any league, everyone hopes for the best. The worst situation for the NHL, which has always been last in the four major sports when it comes to popularity, is having a new team pull a 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers situation: losing the first 26 games as a franchise over one and a half seasons.
The Wild didn’t do that though. They drafted now star player Marian Gaborik, who would go on to score the first goal in franchise history. When the Dallas Stars came up to Minnesota to play their first game in the state they moved from in 1993, the Wild shut them out 6-0 in front of a sellout crowd of 18,000. Although young, this team was slowly headed in the right direction. It seemed clear at the time, that in time, hockey would officially be back in Minnesota.
They were taking the roles of the 1997 and 2003 World Series winning Marlins in baseball or the Jaguars and Panthers in football who both went to the playoffs in their first years as franchises. They were a new franchise that went out and got good players right away instead of waiting and building for years and years.
They finished last in their first two seasons, but the Wild finally broke into the playoff scene in 2003. Led by a 30 goal scorer in Gaborik, a 20 goal scorer in Pascal Dupuis, four players with 15 or more goals, and a goalie with a .927 save percentage named Dwayne Roloson, the team finished 3rd in the Northwest division and 6th in the west. They embraced the underdog role, coming back from a 3-1 hole to the Colorado Avalanche, and then beating the Vancouver Canucks in seven games to reach the Western Conference Finals. There, they were swept by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim but exceeded everyone’s expectations and were ready for more. Or so it seemed.
From 2004-2006 they struggled, dealing with injuries, goalie controversies, and contract issues. Not to mention the lockout in 2004.
Still, they worked around those problems and were able to comeback once again like they did in 2003. They put Niklas Backstrom in net, traded for guys like Miko Koivu and Pavol Demitra, who would lead the team in scoring in 2007, and kept their core guys in Gaborik and Dupuis. They reached the playoffs that year, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Ducks in the first round. Like the first time around, it seemed Minnesota was back on the map. In 2008, they won their first division title, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs. It was getting to the point where division titles and just making the playoffs wasn’t good enough.
Like the first time however, as soon as expectations rose, the team fell. Minnesota hasn’t made the playoffs since. They’ve lost Gaborik, Dupuis and others. Coaches and GMs have been fired, and it seems that a state where hockey is the most popular sport, has the least amount of results.
Even the deaths of Derek Boogard and Demitra are just one more negative thing associated with the franchise. Not to say the Wild had anything to do with the deaths, obviously, but still, as a franchise it’s ideal to raise the Stanley Cup, not be mourning a death of a former player.
Remember though, time never stops.
And it seems that once again, the Wild are on the right path to success. They have talent once again. They signed Zach Parise, the high-scoring wing who will quickly become the hometown favorite because that IS his hometown. They signed defensemen Ryan Suter, who had much success in Nashville. Both signed for 13 years. In other words, this is Minnesota’s time. To go along with Parise, they have Devin Setoguchi, Dany Heatly and Koivu, aged 25, 31 and 29 respectively. Niklas Backstrom is still the man between the pipes for the Wild, and the defense around Suter is young. Minnesota, for the third time in their short history, has a chance to make a splash. Not a division winning-first round losing splash, but rather a win it all back to back to back years splash.
Not only are they becoming stronger, but also their division is weakening. The Canucks are a threat, but always collapse in the playoffs. Calgary and Colorado are always on the playoff bubble and Edmonton has young talent, but not the experience and depth Minnesota has.
In the west as a whole, they can compete. Detroit is old. The Kings can’t possibly have another magical run like they did last year, and San Jose folds like a cheap suit in the playoffs year after year. Minnesota doesn’t have to learn to embrace the underdog role; it’s their turn to be the favorites.
While the lockout may not end before this year, when hockey does come back, look out for the Wild. They’re going to be a threat for at least the next five years. And what’s scary for every other team in the league is that this time they know it.
The franchise knows that time never stops. They know their young players will get older. They know they’ve had opportunities in the past but have missed them.
But now they know that they’re getting a greater opportunity than ever before, and that this time, they’ll take it.