BERLET SPOTLIGHT: OFF TO OBSCURITY FOR PARISE AND SUTER

BY: Bruce Berlet, Special To Howlings

This Fourth of July is time for a major celebration for the Minnesota Wild.

And 13 proved to be a lucky number on Wednesday for the 11-year-old franchise that has dramatically enhanced its position in the National Hockey League.

The Wild signed the top two free agents, New Jersey Devils wing Zach Parise and Nashville Predators defenseman Ryan Suter, to 13-year, $98 million contracts, locking up the duo through the 2024-25 season and carrying a salary cap hit of $7.538 million per season. The New York Rangers were one of several teams interested in the services of Parise, who helped the Devils eliminate the Blueshirts in the Eastern Conference finals. But the finalists for Parise were the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks, while Suter decided against the Predators and Red Wings. 

“We’ve been trying to put the best team on the ice for the last few years,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “We’ve obviously been trying to build aggressively through the draft in the last three years and build up a foundation of talent that we could get to a point where players could look at us and say ‘they have a bright future ahead of them.’ From a drafting and developing standpoint, we have been working hard at this for a while, and yet we have been trying to win. There was an opportunity this summer, with our cap space and a commitment from (owner Craig Leopold) to try to go out and be aggressive in free agency and we did that.

“This is a great day in the history of the Minnesota Wild. We are extremely excited to add the collective skill, experience and character of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to an already promising roster. We view this as a rare opportunity for us to transform our franchise by adding two marquee players, who are both in the prime of their careers, at the same time. I am grateful to Zach and Ryan and I am also thankful for the substantial commitment and support of Craig Leipold throughout this process. This is a huge step forward in our quest to bring a Stanley Cup to the deserving fans of the State of Hockey.”

Since free agency began Sunday, Parise and Suter, friends from their days in the U.S. National Team Development Program, continued to chat about possibly playing together, and the Wild became the beneficiary as one of the few teams that could afford both of them.

“Ryan and I have talked throughout the year,” Parise said. “You always say to each other ‘wouldn’t it be great to play with each other and to play on the same team. Was it realistic all the time?’ I don’t know. With different teams, you have to have the availability.”

Suter was thrilled about him and Parise realizing a longtime goal.

“I know how great a player Ryan is,” Suter said. “I played with him on different teams at several tournaments. To have the opportunity to play with a guy of that caliber is a great opportunity. We kept in touch throughout this process. You have to do what is best for you. We decided that for both of us the best fit would be Minnesota and we are excited that it worked out.”

Devils GM Lou Lamoriella was hardly doing cartwheels.

“He was our captain. He was our leader,” Lamoriello said on a conference call. “He was a prototype Devil player the way he played. He was a great example for younger players. It’s a loss, without question, besides the points he put up. … There is no question we’re disappointed. It’s a very unfortunate thing when you have a player of his stature that has come right through the ranks and at this given time a decision is made to go elsewhere. Right now there is nothing we can do about that and we’ll just go forward. Our offer was competitive and we did not at any time have a phone call that we needed to change it or it had to go up. So, it was competitive.”

With Parise making his decision, competition should increase for Columbus Blue Jackets captain and All-Star wing Rick Nash. The Rangers have been a major player in those sweepstakes, but Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson had continued to want untouchables such as Chris Kreider, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto. With the Devils, Red Wings and Penguins having been spurned by Parise, they could join the battle to land Nash that includes about half of the NHL.

Parise was the Devils’ captain and has played in New Jersey for his entire seven-year career after being the 17th overall pick in the 2003 NHL Draft. He has 194 goals and 216 assists in 502 games, including 31 goals and 38 assists in 82 games last season in helping the Devils reach the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 2003, losing in six games to the Los Angeles Kings.

But Parise couldn’t resist the temptation to go home to play for the Wild. Not only is he from Minneapolis, his parents, including former NHL player J.P. Parise, still live there and Parise has a home in the Twin Cities area. Parise, who turns 28 on July 28, also plans to get married this summer. His fiancée, Alisha Woods, is from North Dakota.

“It was a very big part of it,” Parise said. “The opportunity to play at home meant a lot to me and it meant a lot to my family. My parents were so excited when they knew I was considering coming back home. They were very excited. When we made the decision, they were really excited. That played a big part in it. I grew up playing here and I love coming back in the summers. I just thought that we enjoy it here so much, it would be great to be here year round.”

Parise played four seasons of high school hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn., where his father worked in the program when he was there. He went on to play two seasons at the University of North Dakota, where he met Alisha.

The Wild were always thought to be strong contenders for Parise because of his ties to the area, though they have not made the playoffs since finishing third in the Western Conference in 2008. After a promising start last season, the Wild finished 12th in the Western Conference with 81 points. Wild coach Mike Yeo also knows Parise well from coaching against him from 2005 to 2010 as an assistant with the Penguins.

The Wild needed Parise to boost an offense that was last in the NHL last season with 2.02 goals per game and 27th on the power play at 15.1 percent. Parise has scored at least 30 goals in five of his six full seasons (he missed 69 games of the 2010-11 season with a knee injury). Parise had 45 goals and 94 points in 2008-09.

Parise joins a forward group that includes Mikko Koivu, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi and former Rangers center Matt Cullen. Mikael Granlund is considered one of the Wild’s top prospects that could make the team this season.

Suter, the seventh overall pick in 2003, had seven goals and 46 points for the Predators last season, forming arguably the NHL’s top defensive pairing with Shea Weber and the backbone of a Stanley Cup contender along with goalie Pekka Rinne, a finalist for the Vezina Trophy with the Rangers Henrik Lundqvist and runner-up Jonathan Quick of the Kings, a Hamden native and former standout at Hamden High, Avon Old Farms and UMass.

A native of Madison, Wisc., Suter averaged 26:30 of ice time last season, a career high and third most in the NHL. He will be 28 in January and has had at least 37 points in each of the past four seasons.

While Weber has been a Norris Trophy finalist the past two seasons, Suter is also considered one of the NHL’s top defensemen. Moving to Minnesota could give him a chance to earn more recognition but also means there will be more pressure to perform away from Weber.

Suter spent two seasons with the U.S. developmental program in Ann Arbor, Mich., before returning home to play at the University of Wisconsin for one year. After spending the 2004-05 work stoppage with the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals, Suter joined the Predators at the start of the 2005-06 season.

Suter has averaged at least 23:59 of ice time in each of the past four seasons and also had four assists for the United States at the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Rinne signed a seven-year, $49 million contract with the Predators in November, and general manager David Poile hoped to lock up his two elite defensemen to long-term pacts as well. Weber is a restricted free agent and can become an unrestricted free agent after next season.

“Ryan has told me in every conversation that money was the not the most important criteria,” Poile said in a teleconference with reporters. “He told me today that our offer was substantial. He told me it was not about the money when it came to the final decision. As I said to him, and this was all the things that we had talked about, I said, ‘I don’t know why you are not signing with us,’ and he told me it was for family reasons. I guess that is where the disappointment comes in. I know family is important in all this. I can’t fight that or argue with that. The disappointing part is that is not what we talked about all year long. I think we met Ryan’s desires and criteria on every front and so today is very, very disappointing.”

Poile made three trades before the deadline in February, hoping to bolster the Predators for a Stanley Cup run with the additions of Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad. He also welcomed back enigmatic wing Alexnander Radulov, who left the team despite being under contract to play at home in the Kontinental Hockey League before the 2008-09 season, near the end of the regular season.

The Predators eliminated the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, but Radulov and Kostitsyn were suspended for a game in the second round for breaking curfew, and Nashville lost to Phoenix in five games. Radulov returned to the KHL this week.

“As far as the future, we have to move on,” Poile said. “We would like to get a (defenseman) to replace Ryan and we could do that in many ways. It could come as a free agent and it could come as a trade. I want to get the right player and the right fit. Secondly, more importantly, our focus turns to our captain, Shea Weber. He’s a player that we want to build our team around. He’s at the top of his game and is a Norris Trophy finalist. He knows what we think of him and we want him to be in Nashville for years to come.”

Suter joins a Wild defense that has several young skilled players but lacked an anchor, a guy who can play more than 25 minutes in all situations. Obviously, the Wild expect Suter to be that guy.

Minnesota welcomed the Wild into the NHL for the 2000-01 season, but in one day the 2012-13 edition has become the most talented roster in club history. The Wild have made the playoffs only three times and advanced past the first round only once, but they could be among the top contenders in the Western Conference with the additions of Parise and Suter, as well as the arrival of a couple elite prospects in the near future.

JETS SIGN FORMER WOLF PACK GOALIE MONTOYA

After a rather successful couple of seasons with the Islanders, former Wolf Pack goalie Al Montoya signed a one-year, $601,000 contract with the Winnipeg Jets.

Montoya, the Rangers’ first-round pick (sixth overall) in 2003, was 9-11-5 with a 3.11 goals-against average and .893 save percentage last season for the last-place Islanders. He missed much of the second half of the season due to a concussion sustained when he was run over by Jets forward Evander Kane in a game in mid-December, and with the Islanders having veteran goalies Rick DiPietro and Evgeni Nabokov and youngsters Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson, who matured with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers and saw some action with the parent club, Montoya became expendable.

The 27-year-old native of Chicago figures to back up Ondrej Pavelec, who signed a five-year, $19.5 million contract with the Jets last week.

After signing a three-year, entry-level contract with the Rangers in the summer of 2005, Montoya made his pro debut with the Wolf Pack and was 66-34-4 in the regular season and 5-5 in the playoffs in three seasons before being trade to the Phoenix Coyotes with wing Marcel Hossa for goalie David LeNeveu and wings Fredrik Sjostrom and Josh Gratton on Feb. 26, 2008.

After re-signing with the Coyotes on July 2, 2008, Montoya started the 2008-09 season with the San Antonio Rampage, the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate. Late that season, Montoya made his NHL debut with the Coyotes, recording a shutout in a 3-0 victory over the Colorado Avalanche on April 1, 2009. He was 3-1 in five games and then named to the United States roster for the World Championships in Switzerland, where he started one game, a 6-2 victory over France.

On Feb. 9, 2011, Montoya was traded to the Islanders for a sixth-round pick in 2011. With goalies DiPietro and Poulin sidelined with injuries, Montoya was given a chance to play regularly in the NHL for the first time, responding with a 9-5-5 record, 2.39 GAA, .921 save percentage and one shutout in 21 games. On March 29, the Islanders signed Montoya to a one-year contract extension and he was 9-11-5 with a .310 GAA and .893 save percentage in 31 games last season. He is 21-17-10 with 2.76 GAA and .906 save percentage in 57 NHL games with the Islanders and Coyotes.

COYOTES INK SULLIVAN; MCLEAN HAS CARDIAC EMERGENCY

The Coyotes signed wing Steve Sullivan to a one-year, $1.85 million contract on Wednesday.

Sullivan, who turns 38 on Friday, had 17 goals and 48 points for Pittsburgh last season after signing a one-year deal to play with the Penguins. There had been reports the Penguins had interest in retaining Sullivan, but they were still waiting for Parise to make his decision.

“We had to move on at some point. Can’t wait forever,” Stephen Bartlett, Sullivan’s agent, told Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Sullivan, who has 283 goals and 457 assists in 969 NHL games, will help replace veteran wing Ray Whitney, who left Phoenix for the Dallas Stars on Sunday.

At the other end of the spectrum, Coyotes forward Brett MacLean suffered a cardiac emergency Monday.

“Brett was playing hockey (Sunday) night in Owen Sound, Ontario, when he suffered a medical emergency,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said in a statement. “Brett received CPR on site and was taken to a local hospital by ambulance, where he was treated. He was then transported via an air ambulance to Knight University Hospital in London, Ont., where he was admitted to the cardiac ICU.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Brett and his family. We request that everyone please respect their privacy at this time. We will provide an update on Brett’s status when information is available.”

Well, there was good news Wednesday night. Though the cause of the collapse was still undetermined, it was disclosed MacLean was awake and coherent and hoped to move out of intensive care soon.

The 23-year-old MacLean, the Coyotes’ second-round pick in 2007, spent most of last season with the team’s top affiliate, the Portland Pirates, after being claimed on waivers from the Jets. He has two goals and three assists in 18 NHL games with the Coyotes and Jets but is a four-time 20-goal scorer in the AHL.

McGILL BACK AMONG THE EMPLOYED

Former Wolf Pack coach Ryan McGill came full cycle Wednesday when he was rehired by the Kootenay Ice in the Western Hockey League. McGill worked six years as an assistant and head coach of the Edmonton Ice/Kootenay Ice before being hired by the Rangers to coach the Wolf Pack. He was the AHL’s winningest coach in three seasons in Hartford (127-63-24-16 in 2002-05) before being fired, ironically because of what Rangers management felt was an inability to work with young players. He was replaced by Rangers assistant GM/assistant coach/Whale GM Jim Schoenfeld and became head coach of the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights and Quad City Flames, the AHL affiliate of the Calgary Flames, for four seasons (2005-09), missing the playoffs three times and losing in the first round in 2007. He was then elevated to a Calgary assistant coach for two seasons (2009-11) before being let go and sitting out last season. McGill, 43, a second-round pick of the Blackhawks in 1987, played 151 NHL games with Chicago, Philadelphia and Edmonton before an eye injury ended his career.

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