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Judd Zulgad

Mission: Possible

In his debut column for MHM, Judd Zulgad examines Wild GM Bill Guerin’s culture-changing moves

If a new era of Wild hockey began on July 4, 2012, when Zach Parise and Ryan Suter signed matching 13-year, $98 million free agent contracts, then a more recent July date could serve as the necessary transition to a new era that looks as if it should be more fruitful.

Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise (MHM Photos, Rick Olson)

It was on July 13 that Bill Guerin decided that no matter how much star power Parise and Suter might have brought to the Wild upon arrival, the general manager had seen enough to know he wanted a team molded in his image and that meant completing the turnover that had been started by his predecessor, Paul Fenton.

There were plenty who questioned Guerin’s decision to buy out both players. The move on the 37-year-old Parise was expected, given the winger’s decline in play and ice time during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The decision to jettison the 36-year-old Suter was a shocker. He remained a productive and steady defenseman. Buying out the final four years of both contracts will result in significant salary cap hits from 2022-23 through 2024-25, but Guerin did not have any doubt when he held a press conference to discuss the moves.

We now know why.

Guerin has four Stanley Cup rings — two as a player and two as an executive with the Pittsburgh Penguins — for a reason. He wasn’t just hoping for better luck when he told longtime captain Mikko Koivu he wouldn’t be returning and traded popular goalie Devan Dubnyk to San Jose after the Wild was bounced from the qualifying round of the return-to-play postseason in 2019. He also began making his case to owner Craig Leipold about why he needed to jettison Parise and Suter months before he did it.

Wild coach Dean Evason (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

What Guerin has built isn’t just a better team, but also a collection of players who play like a team. The lack of lip service and amount of production is a 180 from what Wild followers had grown used to hearing and seeing. It was no accident that coach Dean Evason and many of his players spent the early portion of the season talking about how important everyone’s voice (young and old) is in the locker room.

This simply wasn’t the case with the old Wild. Parise and Suter have to take some of the blame but there was plenty to go around. Koivu was the captain, the coaches (Mike Yeo and Bruce Boudreau, especially), general manager Chuck Fletcher and a few others need to take responsibility. Of course, winning would have solved those issues and that’s what the Wild didn’t do nearly enough during the nine seasons Parise and Suter spent in Minnesota.

The Wild made eight playoff appearances, if you count the qualifying round berth in 2020, and won only two series (the last in 2015) and went 19-36.

It remains to be seen how the new Wild fares in the playoffs, but there is definitely a different feel around the team. The presence of a true superstar in winger Kirill Kaprivoz, a fifth-round pick by Fletcher in 2015, makes a huge difference. So does the work of Evason, who was hired on an interim basis to replace Boudreau in February 2020, was named the permanent coach before the return-to-play that summer and now is in line for a significant pay increase after this season when his contract is set to expire.

Evason had been coach of the Nashville Predators’ AHL affiliate, the Milwaukee Admirals, when Fenton hired him to be on Boudreau’s coaching staff in June 2018. Evason appeared to be head coach in waiting with Fenton running the show but his dismissal in July 2019 changed things and Guerin was expected to bring in his own people. But Guerin saw something in Evason that he liked.

It has worked to near perfection. The Wild’s eight-game winning streak ended with a 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday night but Minnesota leads the Central Division with 39 points. That point total is near the top of the NHL and the Wild’s 102 goals put them second in the league to Colorado (106 goals) entering Sunday’s game in Vegas.

Kaprizov got off to a slow start but has been brilliant since and, with apologies to Marian Gaborik, has established himself as the most-dynamic player in the Wild’s 20-plus seasons. Kaprizov’s stats are impressive enough but watch the moves, the speed, his ability to work on his edges and you have a special player. There is another thing about Kaprizov’s game. That’s the non-stop motor he often shows. He’s a star who embraces backchecking as much as he does getting into the offensive zone.

Kirill Kaprizov (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

That’s a credit to Kaprizov’s work ethic as well as the tone that Evason has helped set from behind the bench. The Wild locker room should have a sign above its door that says, “Nonsense will not be tolerated.” In that room, of course, nonsense is necessary. It’s a long season and fun on and off the ice is a big part of success. But so is complete buy in and dedication from everyone the moment the puck is dropped. Evason insists on it and what helps is so does his leadership group. It might be a cliché but it’s no accident that Evason often talks about what’s expected of any player who wears the Wild jersey.

Watch Marcus Foligno play a shift and then tell me one of his teammates can get away with taking their shift off. Evason’s willingness to scratch Parise last season — especially after he made the mistake of extending a shift in the regular season against the Golden Knights — sent an important message. The days of anyone getting preferential treatment were over and, if a player thought running to the owner or GM would solve the issue, they were sadly mistaken. No player was going to run the show, no matter how much he was being paid.

Guerin, who served as captain of the Islanders at one point during his 18-year NHL career, informed the Wild just how different expectations would be on the opening day of training camp. In addressing the players in a clip that was shown on a team-produced show, Guerin asked captain Jared Spurgeon what the season was all about. “Hard work and having fun?” Spurgeon says.

“No, (expletive) that,” Guerin shot back. “This is about (expletive) winning.”

Well-placed sources say there was nothing set up about the moment. Spurgeon gave an honest answer and Guerin’s response was exactly what you would expect from a guy with four Stanley Cup rings. At the moment, the exchange was a breath of fresh air. In retrospect, it might signify the moment the Wild went from being a franchise with big expectations, but no idea of how to achieve them, to having a mission that means the days of playing favorites are a thing of the past.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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