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Zulgad: End of an error? Did Wild make the right move by signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter?

Ryan Suter, Zach Parise
FILE – In this July 9, 2012, file photo, Minnesota Wild NHL hockey players Ryan Suter, left, and Zach Parise are introduced during a news conference in St. Paul, Minn. After signing with Minnesota together, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are being bought out together. The Wild announced Tuesday, July 13, 2021, that the team is buying out the final four years of each player’s contract, a stunning move early in the NHL offseason. (AP Photo/Jim Mone, File)

The Wild had missed the playoffs for a fourth consecutive season and were becoming a stale franchise that no longer was sure to fill the Xcel Energy Center when owner Craig Leipold and general manager Chuck Fletcher decided a drastic move was needed. The solution: Sign the top forward, Zach Parise, and top defenseman, Ryan Suter, on the free agent market. The pair said yes to matching 13-year, $98 million deals on July 4, 2012, putting Minnesota sports fans on top of the free agent world for one day.

The Wild suddenly was considered a Stanley Cup contender and more than 1,500 season tickets orders had arrived before the announcement was even a week old. Fans and media packed the front lobby of the Xcel Energy Center during the introductory press conference as Parise and Suter smiled alongside Wild executives in what was expected to be the first of many celebrations.

“As a fan, I’m euphoric. As an owner, I see this as a way to turn this business around,” Leipold said at the time. “This is investment spending, on a business that has the opportunity to be gigantic again, and in the last few years has been going down. When you have a business like that, you have to make a bold move, and we think this will turn that around.”

Almost exactly nine years later, Leipold, the businessman, likely would do it all over again because of the interest (and sold out crowds) the signings generated for his team. As a hockey fan? That’s a tricky question — especially after current general manager Bill Guerin decided, with Leipold’s blessing, to buy out Parise and Suter’s contracts on Tuesday morning.

Guerin sees an opportunity to pursue a Stanley Cup without Parise and Suter — the move creates long-term salary cap issues but frees up $10.33 million for this season. Fletcher, of course, thought signing the duo would mean the Stanley Cup would have made an appearance or two in Minnesota by now. There were six consecutive postseason appearances and seven legitimate playoff berths in nine years, but the Wild made it as far as the second round only twice.

Is this all on Parise and Suter? Of course not. But much like with Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, whom the team paid big money in free agency, there are expectations that come with significant investments and failure to deliver playoff success is going to be held against you.

What’s interesting is that Guerin decided to jettison both Parise and Suter. Parise, who will turn 37 on July 28, has played a physical and aggressive game his entire career and it has clearly taken its toll on his body. He was a healthy scratch late in the regular season and in the first three games of the Wild’s opening round playoff loss to Vegas. It was clear, even after Parise returned to the lineup beginning in Game 4, that his relationship with Guerin and coach Dean Evason had reached a breaking point.

Suter, 36, eats up big minutes on the ice and brings a steady presence to the blue line with a much different approach to the game than Parise. He is no longer at the top of his craft, but likely has a few more very effective seasons left. Yet, Guerin decided to pull the plug on him as well.

Why?

This will make it easier for the Wild to protect the players they really want to keep in the July 21 expansion draft with Seattle. Parise and Suter both would have had to be protected because they had no-move clauses in their contracts. The Wild also will have more room to pursue a center, likely in a trade, to pair with wingers Kirill Kaprizov or Kevin Fiala next season. But the key reason is that Guerin has gone to great lengths to change the personality of the Wild and the players in the locker room and having a disgruntled Parise or Suter influencing the younger players had to be a concern. If Suter’s ice time was going to decrease substantially next season, that would have been an issue.

There is a reason why Guerin has continued what his predecessor, Paul Fenton, started by jettisoning many fan favorites. Guerin has said goodbye to Jason Zucker, Eric Staal, Devan Dubnyk and longtime captain Mikko Koivu.

“We have to continue to change, this team has to evolve,” Guerin said. “I know that there was great affection for a lot of the players that we’ve parted ways with the last couple of years. For good reason. There’s been some good years here but times change, players get older, new players come in, so we have to keep changing, we have to keep evolving and this is part of it. It’s not a fun part but this is part of it.”

Just as Fletcher deserved credit for signing Parise and Suter, Guerin deserves credit for having the intestinal fortitude to cut them both loose at the same time and not look back. The question now will be what is Guerin able to do with the extra money he has for a short time — could Arizona center Christian Dvorak, signed through 2024-25 with an annual cap hit of $4.45 million, be an option? — and how does he manage the cap starting in 2022-23, when Parise and Suter’s buyouts will eat up $12.744 million, before that increases to $14.744 million for the next two seasons.

“We really didn’t have enough cap space to field a full team,” Guerin said of where things stood for this coming season before he bought out Parise and Suter. “The cap space will definitely help. This doesn’t mean that there’s just oodles of cap space to spend carelessly and we’re going to get whoever we want to get. That’s not the case. We need to try to retain some of the players that we have and we’re going to have to hit the free agent market and try to fill in that way.”

Guerin is banking on his draft picks and other young players developing — the Wild had four picks in the first three rounds last year and have five in the first three rounds this year — and also has a star player to build around in winger Kirill Kaprizov. The issue is getting Kaprizov signed to a long-term deal, while also trying to lock up winger Kevin Fiala. The Wild also have high hopes for center Marco Rossi, the team’s first-round pick in 2020. Rossi missed most of last season after he was diagnosed with myocarditis after having COVID-19.

“I have very high hopes for a lot of the guys, some of the younger players, some of the guys who were in Iowa (of the AHL), some of the guys that were drafted last year,” Guerin said. ” … We’re starting to accumulate some prospects and guys that we really think are going to help impact our team in years to come. We’ve got high hopes.”

The Wild, of course, had the highest of hopes that Parise and Suter would one day carry the Stanley Cup around the ice at Xcel Energy Center. Parise, who played seven seasons with New Jersey before signing with the Wild, had his best season in Minnesota in 2014-15. He scored 33 goals and had 62 points in 74 games. Parise had 20 or more goals five times in nine seasons with the Wild. He will depart with 199 goals, including 69 on the power play, and 400 points in 558 regular-season games.

Suter scored a career-high nine goals in 2016-17 and had 51 points twice (2015-16, 2017-18). He played in 656 games over nine seasons, scoring 55 goals with 314 assists. Twenty-one of his goals were on the power play and 117 assists came with the Wild holding the man advantage.

“I felt this was the cleanest way,” to do it, Guerin said of buying out the two. “This way it gives them more of an opportunity to go out and do what they can do. I know that they both have game left and they are going to help another team. But for us, right now, where we are, we went through it. You saw what happened with Zach this year. We weren’t going to be able to give him the opportunity that maybe we thought we were and this will be better for him.”

If you had told Parise, Suter or anyone else involved with the Wild nine years ago that this is how it would end, they would have dismissed your prognostication and had you escorted out of Xcel Energy Center. Parise and Suter were going to bring fans back to the X and hockey deep into the springtime was going to become a regular occurrence. The former was accomplished; the latter didn’t come close to happening.

Were the signings a mistake? Heck, no. They were worth a shot. But Guerin also can’t be blamed for deciding it was time to pull the plug.