Myers: Important roles will be filled by the Wild's 'other' new guys
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A year ago at this time, the Minnesota Wild were solid playoff contenders.
Despite a few losses in a row and some mounting injuries, there were those planning in earnest for playoff games in St. Paul for the first time since Jacques Lemaire left town.
But injuries multiplied as January and February wore on, exposing an absence of depth and a lack of grit on the Wild roster.
Add to those ills a dearth of offense, and by the time the 2011-12 regular season ended, coach Mike Yeo's first team was on the outside, watching 16 other teams head to the postseason.
"When we looked at our club last year, we didn't score a lot of goals," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said recently, as preparations ramped up for the lockout-shortened season that begins on Saturday against Colorado.
"We certainly wanted to improve our talent and improve our ability to score goals. I also felt we needed to become more competitive and tougher to play against."
So, within a few hours of free agency opening on July 1, Fletcher made big moves to correct those shortcomings, spending millions to bring two notable names to St. Paul.
"The joke all summer among my buddies is that I had a good supporting cast coming to Minny with me," said Mitchell after his first real practice with the Wild, making a sly reference to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.
In a normal year, a solid forward such as Mitchell and a bruising enforcer such as Konopka would be headline-grabbing additions to the roster. With Parise and Suter coming to town, hardly anyone has noticed the "other" new guys on the roster.
For Mitchell, Konopka and forward Jake Dowell, that's just fine.
"It was a big splash in the market and that's the way I kind of like it," said Konopka, who has made a career with five other NHL teams out of protecting skill players such as Parise and Suter, often without using a stick or gloves.
"Make sure those guys are taken care of. They're our best players and whatever we have to do to make sure they feel comfortable is my job."
Konopka is a faceoff specialist, a penalty killer and a versatile offensive player with a pet rabbit and his own winery back home in Ontario. But he's best known for those moments where fists fly and the fans spring to their feet.
"I try to be a hard guy to play against. I win key faceoffs and drop the mitts to make sure our skill players feel comfortable on the ice," said Konopka, who made his first trip to the NHL playoffs last spring with the Ottawa Senators.
"And even though I've fought more than anyone the last three years in the NHL, every fight usually has a purpose. The endgame is winning, and that's my contribution."
Mitchell, originally from Montreal, played college hockey at Vermont and spent his first five professional seasons with the San Jose Sharks. He's likely headed to the fourth line to start, but Fletcher liked the fact that, in San Jose, he was moved up and down the lineup to meet whatever offensive needs the Sharks had as injuries became a factor.
"I played with Torrey for four years, and he's a quick guy," Wild forward Devin Setoguchi said. "He gets to pucks quick and is a really good penalty killer. He's going to be a quick forward for us that's going to add a lot of pressure on our forecheck."
A more familiar name for hockey fans in the region is Dowell, who hails from Eau Claire, Wis., and won a NCAA title with the Badgers in 2006. He spent his first four pro seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks and their minor league affiliate before skating in 52 games with the Dallas Stars a year ago.
While striving for a spot in a suddenly deep Wild lineup, Dowell said he's already made it clear that he'll provide some tickets for immediate family, but the rest of his army of friends and relatives in western Wisconsin are on their own.
Perhaps his biggest challenge is being one of a growing University of Wisconsin alumni club (with Suter, Dany Heatley and Tom Gilbert) inside the Wild locker room, which leads to instant ribbing. The day after his favorite NFL team had been bounced from the playoffs, he was hearing about it.
"We're already catching a little heat from the guys," Dowell said. "I try not to get seen talking with just Suter or just Heatley. If I get caught talking one-on-one to them it's immediately, 'Oh, are you guys talking about the Badgers? Or the Packers?' We're catching heat for the Rose Bowl and the Packers game (Saturday) night."
For Fletcher, that good-natured ribbing is a sign that the team is coming together quickly, which is a necessity in a season where everything is condensed.
"Our players know who they are and what they're going to bring to the table," Fletcher said. "They don't all garner the attention that players like Zach and Ryan do, but they're well-respected and appreciated in our room. We have a lot of Badgers on this team, so there's a lot of good verbal jousting going on in the room already.
"It seems like it's already a tight group. They've come together pretty quickly."
Even with the NHL players locked out last month, Wild jerseys with "Parise" and "Suter" on the back were popular holiday gifts. That pair, and rookie Mikael Granlund, are the epicenter of the attention when folks talk about new faces in Minnesota.
That spotlight's focus elsewhere has allowed Mitchell, Konopka and Dowell to slip into town relatively unnoticed, go about their business in training camp and focus on getting used to a new team, with a season that's now just days away.
"It's worked out perfectly," Mitchell said.