Hello, Payroll, How’s It Going?

Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the amazing Minnesota Wild . . . payroll. The Wild spent the cash, eh, and what they’ve gotten for it so far is a record of 10-7-2 going into Friday night’s game against Anaheim. They are second in their division and in the last playoff spot in the West.

After a so-so start which saw them win two, lose two, and then take one in OT, the Wild posted three straight losses. Thus after the first ten games, they were sitting outside the playoffs, but part of why they looked so bad was that so many others (Chicago, San Jose, Ducks) looked so good. Now that things have evened out a little bit, it’s maybe easier to get the measure of the team.

In the old days, their strategy of bringing in two superstars (Parise and Suter) would have been frowned upon. You can’t have one guy be the team. OK, you can, as Gretzky proved. But I said the old days. I’m talking the era when Montreal was romping all over the league all during the last half of the 1970s. Their trick was balance. But the same could be said of that Edmonton team that did pretty OK, in the 1980s. Or Detroit, since the middle-1990s.

So, come to think of it, in the new days, the strategy of making two guys the whole squad should be frowned upon also. The only thing is, with the balance and parody and whatever else you call the NHL’s strategy of making everyone a contender (shared mediocrity? Two more teams is going to do a lot to remedy that, right?), there’s not a lot of choice but to throw your hat in the ring of a couple of high-profile players. The smart teams make sure neither of those is their goalie, and then they find the hottest, cheapest goalie out there, and ride him hard to playoff success.

So is that what the Wild are doing? And what of the deal, anyway? You can analyze all you want in the abstract, but there’s something about seeing a player live, where you can watch him away from the play and see what’s really going on with the “system” and how he works into it. So in that spirit, please accept some comments on the Wild, their two highly paid prizes. and the game in which they played, and lost to, the Anaheim Ducks Friday night.

First, though, it’s funny the logic that links these two guys together in the public imagination. For one thing, these guys weren’t pros together. In fact, they were coming from teams with relatively similar, defense-first philosophies, but they had not played in the NHL on the same team. Thus the idea that they would have immediate chemistry in the league when put on the same team is a bit far-fetched.

The other thing is, they aren’t linemates, or a defensive pairing. Rather, it’s like getting two distinct individuals, Rob and Scott Niedermayer, say, and calling the Ducks a better team for it. They were a better team, but not because the brothers played together. They were just two solid pieces to add to the puzzle.

So what if one were simply to see Suter as Suter and Parise as Parise, two distinct players who just happened to land in Minnesota over the same summer? That was my experiment in the Honda Center Friday night. And here are the results:

Parise first. Look at the numbers. He leads the team in scoring, which is good. That he had 14 points coming into Friday is not so good. That would put him only tied for fifth with Bobby Ryan were he on the Ducks’ roster. But he’s also about exactly on pace for his typical numbers, which average to about a goal every second game.

On the ice, he’s a buzzsaw, pursuing the puck everywhere. He’s not afraid to crash into the corners. In fact, if you’ll forgive the comparison, he looks at times like a Jordin Tootoo, but obviously with far more offensive talent. He played over 20 minutes, got five shots, and didn’t figure in the scoring. To say he dominated would be a stretch. To say he wasn’t invisible would be true. Is that worth ten million bucks? Well, you can’t score every night. On this evening, he was probably less visible than Devin Setoguchi, who seemed in the middle of a lot of things, but more than Mikko Koivu, who was ineffective in 20 minutes and, according to a colleague in the media, willing only to give two-word answers when asked for an interview.

Suter, meanwhile, with the vaunted slapshot, takes heat every single day for not having scored a goal yet. You’d think by the clamour that he was a Mike Green in terms of scoring. Anybody bothering to look at the guy’s numbers will see the plain truth: he has played over 560 games, and he has scored 38 goals. That’s .14 of a goal a game, or one every 7.14 games. That works out, in a full season, to about 11 goals. In a 48-game season, that’s six this year. Actually, 6.72, but you can’t score three-quarters of a goal, right?

So all he has to do is pump in a couple of goals in a week, then have a two-goal game, and he’s about on his average for the season. He’s also in Minnesota to captain the defense, though, and in terms of his minutes, he’s doing that. Friday night, he was at 8:35 after one period. After two, it was 17:27. After three, well, wait a minute for that.

He made some mistakes, though. He iced a puck on a breakout pass, putting it off the boards past his intended target. He was burned on the first Anaheim goal, too. That came when Perry passed the puck over to Getzlaf in the slot. Suter had done a stutter step in front of his net, not sure, it seemed, whether to pursue the puck or to mark Getzlaf. That hesitation put him out of position to defend the Ducks Captain. Perhaps he did this because his teammate, Setoguchi, was coming back and called that he had the check. Either way, it looked bad for Suter.

He also contributed to the third Anaheim goal as he reached out with his stick to get the puck from the Ducks player only to see it bounce off his skate and then off his goalie’s skate and into the area of the five-hole. Matt Beleskey came in and poked it past goalie Darcy Kuemper with one hand. Of the goal, Beleskey commented, “It was great work by [Cogliano] in the corner. Daniel [Winnik] took it out front and it just kind of sat there. It was one of those ones you like to get. I knew where the puck was, but I think I was the only one who knew where it was. It was one of the easier ones you’ll get, but I’ll take what they give me.”

Still, the assessment of Suter from Coach Boudreau of Anaheim was positive. “Every time I looked up, he was on the ice,” he said. “I don’t how many minutes today, but it had to be close to 30.” Actually, it was 27:48, to lead all players on both teams. The closest anyone got was one second behind, Jared Spurgeon of the Wild, but after him, it was Luca Sbisa of Anaheim with 22 minutes even.

Jared Spurgeon? Yeah, I’ve never heard of him either. He was drafted by the Isles in 2008, sixth round, and signed by Minnesota in 2010 as a free agent. He has since played 134 games, with them, his only NHL experience. He has 8 goals, so about the same pace as Suter. Last year, he played 70 games and got 6 penalty minutes. A very, very good boy, this kid.

But back to our dynamic duo. Of Parise, Boudreau said, “I just faced Zach so often, in Jersey. He beat us all the time. I just love the way he plays, and the way he works, and the way he goes at things.”

In short, those are “two major players who make that team a lot better . . . compared to where they ended up the year last year.” He said that he remembers playing the Wild the second game he was in Anaheim, and they were at that point in first place. He didn’t follow them closely after, but “for whatever reason, they faded a little bit. But they’re going to be a tough team.”

Maybe, though the Wild didn’t get it done against Anaheim. So maybe a good way to understand Parise and Suter’s contribution is to contextualize their play into that of their team, and their opposition, the Ducks.

Anaheim came out early with not as much pressure as they have been giving in prior games. But before five minutes were gone, they had the lead, as mentioned. They scored again halfway through the period. They outshot the Wild 12-8 in the frame. Getzlaf after the game said that good starts are what his team needed, but he cracked up the room when he was asked to explain them. “Oh, I’ve gotta explain the good starts now? A while ago, you guys were asking me to explain the bad starts we were having,” he said. It’s easy to laugh when you win.

For the Wild, one team strategy which was a mistake against Anaheim was to collapse five players down when defending. The Ducks have a mobile defense, and they don’t hesitate to rush in, often leaving a forward guarding the blueline. It’s risky at times, but easy when there’s no opposition player within ten feet of the line.

Period two saw the Wild much more on their game. They had only one guy entering the Ducks’ zone with speed in period one. In period two, they were going to the net and when they did set up in the zone, they had two guys right on the edge of the crease crashing Hiller.

The Wild were also all over Anaheim when the Ducks had the man advantage. They had one dangerous chance and saw the puck lying in front of Hiller unguarded after it. On a subsequent chance, Hiller made a low leg save. Indeed, while period two ended 3-0 for Anaheim, it could have been 3-2, and it should have been 3-1 for sure. The Wild had come on, a lot, in shots, ending the period with 23 after outshooting the Ducks 15-6 in the frame. Only Hiller made the difference.

The third period was more of the same, only this time, the puck was getting past Hiller. The first Minnesota goal went in at 29 seconds. After the game, Coach Boudreau said that “in the third period, we were vastly outplayed. And in the second period, frankly. But we just hung on, and did enough to win.” He told his players between periods one and two that the Wild did not have the feel of a team that was tired. “They were coming on, and I told them they’re not going to quit tonight. It’s very important that we don’t relax.”

He told them between the second and third that all they had to do was get through the first six or seven minutes. But then Wild nearly spoiled that by scoring so early. “They believed that they could come back . . . but Hilly made some great saves to keep us in the game, or we would have been in trouble.”

Players also commented on the letdown. Goalie Hiller said, “It almost started in the second. Kind of after that third goal, they [Ducks] stopped playing the way we were in the first period. We kind of gave them a chance to come back, and they did in the third.” He added later, “We had some proof in the third that you can’t let up a little bit, because the game can turn pretty quickly.”

But he indicated that a good team can afford this, because even “when the team’s not playing the best hockey, we still find a way to win.”

Ryan Getzlaf made an interesting comment because he revealed how the Ducks overall are seeing themselves. “Good teams find ways to win even when they shouldn’t.” This isn’t the usual “we played well,” but a full-fledged admission that the Ducks see themselves as contenders. This does not mean that he wanted to talk about the good start. “Those are just stats,” he said. Beleskey later added a similar comment. Their focus is more narrow than to be thinking about either stats or history.

Daryl Sutter of LA says all the time that it’s a 3-2 league. On this night, it was. And the Wild went home on the short end. So some nights, it just ain’t going to go your way, no matter how much money you spend.

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