In Minnesota, Independence Day isn't just a celebration of the United States, nor is it merely a movie that chronicles the valiant thwarting of an alien race by Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum.
July 4th, 2012 was a declaration of independence for the Minnesota Wild, as Wild GM Chuck Fletcher boldly set to overthrow the tyrannical yoke of mediocrity cast upon the Wild by years of mis-management from former Wild GM Doug Risebrough. The Wild memorably emerged from the highly contested Ryan Suter / Zach Parise derby with both players under contract, shocking the NHL, and making them a relevant team overnight. Both players were integral parts of a team that snapped a four-year playoff drought with a two-year playoff streak. Not only that, that same team that is giving the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks a fight, and are two wins away from making the Conference Finals for the second time in franchise history.
A day after the Wild fell behind in their Semifinal series 3-2 by losing Game 5 to the Chicago Blackhawks, Deadspin published an article by Ryan Lambert titled "The Minnesota Wild Are Learning the Hard Way: You Can't Buy A Cup". In it, he argues that the Parise and Suter deals elevated the Wild from utter irrelevance to a fine, but ultimately mediocre team. A mediocre team that granted, has some good young players, but has a lot of money tied into these two players for a very long time.
It probably goes without saying that this article drew a lot of attention (and ire) from Minnesota Wild fans, and in fairness to Wild fans, they have played pretty well against Chicago, and are two games away from a Conference Final appearance. But despite what your opinion of Lambert is (I'm fine with him), or the quality of the article (I wasn't incensed), it does bring up questions that should be investigated. So let's do that right now.
Where Lambert Was Indisputably Right
When you jump into the Unrestricted Free Agency, you are indeed playing with fire. He cites Brad Richards as a prominent example in the East, where his deal looked bad enough that he was a buy-out candidate. You need not look further than Minnesota's net for another example in this, Ilya Bryzgalov's deal quickly became a laughingstock. Even in this new era of term limits, free agent deals can quickly go bad, as evidenced by Toronto's signing of David Clarkson.
It's also true that conversely, the best way to build a team is through the draft. You get young, cheap players that even if they do become star players, can often be retained below market value. For example, this article points out that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews make a combined 2.4 million less against the cap than Suter and Parise. Both were extended after the completion of their entry-level deals, when they didn't have nearly the leverage they could have commanded were they UFAs at the time.
Can You Really Not Buy A Cup?
So, yes, it's well-known that Free Agency is a much tougher way to try and contend for a Cup than building (i.e., tanking for Top-3 picks) through the draft. You really can't buy a Cup, though? I find that difficult to believe.
Lambert's own article cites the two biggest UFA success stories in the Salary Cap Era. These are Zdeno Chara, who Boston signed for 5 years in 2006, and then extended for 7 more in 2010. The gigantic defenseman won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins in 2011, and has been a frequent Norris candidate. An indisputable victory for Boston, even if his contract lasts until he's 41. Lambert also concedes that Marian Hossa, whose 12-year deal signed in 2009 locks him up to the age of 42, was a great move. As the Blackhawks have won two Cups since, and have a good shot at a third this season, this is impossible to dispute.
But are these the only teams that have found success due to UFA signings? Hardly. Out of the lockout, the Edmonton Oilers signed Chris Pronger to a 5-year deal at 6.25 million per year. Remember- the salary cap at that time was only 39 million dollars, so 6.25 million represented 16% of the Oilers spending capability, as opposed to the 12% seen by the Suter or Parise deal. Edmonton finished the 05-06 season one game away from winning the Stanley Cup, losing in Game 7 to Carolina.
This represents significantly less term than most of these deals, but Scott Niedermayer was signed in Free Agency by the Anaheim Ducks after the lockout (4 years, 6.75 per). That, combined with the Ducks acquiring Chris Pronger's big deal, gave the Ducks the Stanley Cup in 2007.
The deal could not have been more of an anomaly, but the Detroit Red Wings managed to sign Marian Hossa to a one-year deal (7.45 million) in 2008, and the Red Wings took the Penguins to Game 7 of the 08-09 Stanley Cup Final.
Perhaps you would like to see examples that are more recent and involve more term? How about the 09-10 Philadelphia Flyers, who signed Chris Pronger to a 7-year deal that payed out 29.4 million dollars in the first four years? The Flyers were rewarded with their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 13 years, losing to Marian Hossa's Blackhawks in 6 games.
As for the most absurdly cap-circumvent-y deal in the history of the NHL, Ilya Kovalchuk's 15-year pact with New Jersey? There's a compelling argument that it is responsible for New Jersey's current plight. It arguably ruined the cash-strapped Devils chances at signing Zach Parise. It's the reason that New Jersey will be picking 30th and not the top half of the first round this season. Not to mention that Kovalchuk's departure means the already goal-starved Devils don't have the super-star they signed, and have to pay $250,000 until 2025. But is that a fair price to pay for the Devils making their 5th Cup Final? I'd say so.
These were not free agency acquisitions, but the Los Angeles Kings acquired Mike Richards in a 2011 offseason trade from the Philadelphia Flyers. This may get shot down as an example of a team "buying a Cup", but obtaining a player with 9 years left on a deal that has a cap hit of 5.75 million (and takes him to his age-35 season) bears a strong resemblance to a UFA signing. Same goes for Jeff Carter, whom the Kings acquired at the 11-12 trade deadline with 10 years (lasting until he's 37) at a 5.25 cap hit remaining on his deal. The Kings won the Stanley Cup that season, defeating Kovalchuk's Devils in 6 games.
Now that we've seen positive examples of free agents (or in LA's case, the acquisition of long-term, big-money deals) that have either earned their teams a Stanley Cup, or a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, let's investigate whether the same can happen to Minnesota.
Do the Suter and Parise Deals Hinder the Wild's Cup Chances?
The old CBA rules were both blessing and curse to the Minnesota Wild. Without the old rules, signing Suter and Parise may never have happened. But having the ability to sign a player to a front-loaded 13-year deal means the Wild took a pretty significant gamble long-term.
First, the Wild bet Parise and Suter can reasonably retain their skills deep into their contracts. Both are pretty good skaters who have good hockey IQs, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if either of them aged well. But who knows what can happen in 5 years? If injuries pile up, or a steep decline happens with either of them, it'll be a nightmare situation for the Wild.
The next gamble is that the cap will continue to go up. The two star players cap hits have already produced some need to make transactions to comply with the cap. Tom Gilbert was bought out, the Wild weren't able to retain Matt Cullen, and traded Devin Setoguchi and Cal Clutterbuck to make room for Matt Cooke and Nino Niederreiter. Granted, all of those moves ended up working out, but there were questions whether the Wild were an improved team going into the season.
If the cap doesn't continue to go up, it's not going to be as likely that the Wild will be able to do as well operating under the cap. Eventually, the Wild are going to have to figure out how to retain their young players like Jonas Brodin, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, and Niederreiter. If they live up to their potential, they could command enough to force the Wild to make difficult decisions. Being forced to give up any of these players for cap reasons would limit the Wild's ability to compete for a Cup.
And then, perhaps scariest of all is the threat of cap recapture penalties. As a way to limit the advantage that front-loaded contracts provided, the NHL imposed rules that apply a portion of a player's cap hit to his team's salary cap, should he choose to retire before the completion of his front-loaded contract. If Parise and Suter were each to retire before their Age-38 seasons, the penalty that would count against the cap for the Wild would be just shy of a combined 12.5 million. Per season. For three seasons. 12.5 million of completely dead money.
So, basically, 10 years from now, the Wild had better hope that A) The NHL gives some kind of bail-out to teams with these long, front-loaded deals (similar to the bail-out the NHL gave New Jersey for the penalties they incurred with the Kovalchuk deal), or B) Parise and Suter happen to be the next Selanne and Lidstrom. Good luck.
Does Not Winning the Stanley Cup Mean the Suter and Parise Deals Failed?
I think it bears mentioning that the Stanley Cup is extremely hard to win. The odds are stacked against you, with 29 other teams competing for the Cup along with you. In a given year, several great teams will fail to win Lord Stanley's Cup.
Teams can even be great for long stretches of time and never get a sniff at the Cup. St. Louis has been one of the top teams in the league over the last few years, and they haven't even advanced to the Conference Finals. The San Jose Sharks have been in the playoffs for 10 straight seasons, often with great teams. In that stretch, they've been to the Conference Finals three times, winning just four games in those series. Maybe the Sharks have failed during the Patrick Marleau/Joe Thornton era because they haven't won the Cup, you can definitely look at it that way. But when you consider the fact that they Sharks have made the playoffs so consistently, winning 10 series in that stretch, while making 3 deep playoff runs, it's about as nice of a "failure" as you could hope for.
While winning a Stanley Cup should be the ultimate goal with any team, I think any realistic person could look at a sustained run of success in a positive light, and I think if the Parise/Suter era can provide a decent stretch of success/relevance/Cup contention, I'd be fairly happy with those deals.
Where Does This All Leave the Wild?
As I see it, the Wild's best chance to compete for a Stanley Cup is going to be the sweet spot of the Wild's veteran core (Parise, Suter, Mikko Koivu, and Jason Pominville) still being healthy and productive, and getting key contributions from their young players (Brodin, Coyle, Granlund, Niederreiter, and Dumba) while they're young and relatively inexpensive. That's probably going to be the next 2-4 years.
Lambert is right to suggest that the Wild are a team that probably doesn't have everything it needs to be a true contender as of yet. The young players are still developing, and we don't know how much better they'll be. They'll need to work out their volatile goalie situation, solidify the bottom-pairing (whether from within or free agency), and if they could add another talented forward and enable them to roll three scoring lines, even better.
Maybe Lambert is right in saying the Wild need to add a "legitimate superstar" in order to get over the hump and into legitimate playoff contention. If that's so, he's wrong in saying that kind of player can only be added through the draft. Two weeks ago, I wrote an article with many examples from the Wild's own division that showed teams can acquire young star-caliber players through trades or mid-first-round selections.
Maybe the Wild did downgrade their ability to become perennial contenders in order to move their window up significantly when they signed Parise and Suter instead of blowing the team up and tanking for draft picks. I'm still fine with it. The Wild saw a chance to swing for the fences and be aggressive, and they took the opportunity. If their young players are as good as they thought, they could be able to get a legitimate contention window out of those deals. It beats tanking for years, with no guarantee that you'll get the franchise player lottery teams hope for.
And again, the Wild are two games away from winning their series against the Blackhawks. Let's see how that plays out. Maybe they'll surprise everyone, and end up buying their way to the Western Conference finals. It's a lot better than what we're accustomed to here in the State of Hockey.