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Minnesota Wild face suddenly lofty standards

Ben Goessling, Pioneer Press, St. Paul –

After the biggest day of his tenure as the Wild’s general manager, Chuck Fletcher awoke on Thursday, July 5, with more radio interviews to do than moves to make for the 2012-13 season.

Fletcher crossed the airwaves locally and nationally, talking about the $196 million the Wild committed to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter the day before. The Wild finished a deal with restricted free agent Justin Falk on Thursday, avoiding arbitration by signing the defenseman to a one-year, $825,000 deal, but there were few other urgent matters on a day when the rest of the NHL scrambled to catch up after the Wild snagged the two biggest prizes on the free-agent market for themselves.

“I don’t know how much we’re going to have to do,” Fletcher said.

“We have 16, 17, 18 NHL-quality forwards, depth in goal, good defensemen. I don’t know that we’re looking to add a whole bunch. We don’t pretend that we don’t have work to do, but I think it might be prudent to allow this team to come together.”

This is the new normal for the Wild: more stability. Heightened interest. And loftier expectations.

Assuming the NHL season starts on time, the Wild could have three former all-stars (Parise, Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley) on their first line. They could put all those players on a power-play unit with Suter (another all-star) and bring highly touted rookie Mikael Granlund into the league on a line with two forwards (Devin Setoguchi and Pierre-Marc Bouchard) who lost significant time to injuries

last season. Their depth should be better, their young prospects will have to fight to make the team, rather than be awarded a place on it, and they’ll have Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding in goal. Fans will expect a playoff run, and for the first time in several seasons, the Wild will have to live up to a lofty standard.

“Anything less than the playoffs next year would be a major disappointment,” NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire said. “They’ve got budding young stars, and (signing Parise and Suter) takes the pressure off (guys like) Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon. Mikael Granlund is a major beneficiary of this. They don’t have to rush Johan Larsson and Charlie Coyle. They don’t have to rush (Jonas) Brodin. They’ve got the infrastructure built.”

But what constitutes a realistic expectation for the upcoming season is still unclear.

The Wild will still need their young defensemen to be more consistent. They have to hope Bouchard, who is still working his way back from concussion symptoms, returns healthy, and they need more production from Setoguchi and Heatley in their second years with the team. They have to stay healthier than they did last year, and they have to keep their own expectations in check — especially when the top teams in the Western Conference (Los Angeles, Vancouver, St. Louis and Chicago) return virtually intact.

Both McGuire and NHL Network analyst Craig Button said the Wild could project as a playoff team in the bottom half of the Western Conference bracket, but that’s without knowing what Detroit and Nashville will do after missing out on Suter, and how Phoenix’s roster will look after a surprise run to the Western Conference finals. At this point, both said the Wild need to focus on incremental steps, and on Wednesday, Parise cautioned against looking too far ahead.

“I’ve been on teams that looked great on paper that didn’t make the playoffs,” Parise said. “The league is so even right now you can’t predict anything. You can speculate all you want. But Ryan and I talked about this. We like what they’re doing here in Minnesota. That came into our decision. We like the young players they’ve drafted and the goaltending. They’ve got some pieces. Our hope is we can come in and help.”

The way Parise and Suter might help most is by taking some of the attention off Koivu, Heatley and Setoguchi, who struggled as a unit at times last season when opposing defenses had little to worry about other than shutting down their line. If Parise ends up on Koivu’s wing with Heatley on the other side, Button predicts a resurgent season for Heatley, who posted his lowest point total for a full NHL season while playing with a rotating cast of centers with Koivu injured.

“Mikko Koivu hunts the puck down and makes plays. Parise is the same way,” said Button, who also worked in the North Stars’ front office. “Heatley is stealth-like. He moves into spots. He’s got two great shots. He hasn’t lost anything in his scoring ability or his release. As a player, when you hit 30, sometimes you need a little more help. But I expect Dany Heatley to be much-improved.”

Fletcher said the Wild are done with any major free-agent signings, though they still have about $1.3 million of cap space left if they need to add another piece at some point. Fletcher said, though, that a veteran defenseman might not add that much more to the roster than the team could get from its young players developing.

In most scenarios, they know how their roster will look heading into next season. They’ll have to guard against assuming they’re assured of anything else.

“We can’t expect to throw our skates and sticks on the ice and win. There’s going to be work,” Fletcher said. “We’ll have to react to some things we can’t foresee at this point. That’s the challenge. We’ll take it head-on.”

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