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Updated: July 9th, 2012 5:37pm
Zulgad's Roundup: Wild coach downplays fact pressure has increased

Zulgad's Roundup: Wild coach downplays fact pressure has increased

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. - Mike Yeo isn't about to acknowledge the pressure he's under to win immediately has increased dramatically, even if that became the reality five days ago when the Minnesota Wild signed winger Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to matching 13-year contracts that will pay them $98 million apiece.

"Nobody puts more pressure on me than myself, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure that I'm working and doing everything that I need to do to prepare the team," Yeo said Monday after the introductory press conference was held for Parise and Suter in the lobby of Xcel Energy Center. "This is not about pressure, this is about an opportunity. Now we have opportunity here.

"For me, I don't coach to try to keep my job. I coach to try to win a Stanley Cup. You add a couple of players like this and all it does is enhance those chances. So to me this is not about pressure, this is about excitement, this is about opportunity."

The Wild and Yeo do have a great opportunity here, but make no mistake about it: Owner Craig Leipold and general manager Chuck Fletcher did not secure the services of the top two free agents on the market so they could see a gradual turnaround.

The Wild has missed the playoffs the past four seasons and Leipold's patience is running thin. Last season, the Wild was 20-7-3 in early December and sitting in first place in the NHL but ended up tumbling to 12th in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs.

Given the number of young players who were expected to crack the Wild roster in 2012-13, the general thought process among many before the Fourth of July was that Yeo's team should contend for a playoff spot in his second season as coach.

Now, the Wild will enter the season - assuming there is a new collective bargaining agreement in place after Sept. 15 - rated among the top teams in the conference.

Leipold is spending this type of money both as a fan and a businessman and he almost certainly won't be satisfied with anything but a playoff run come next spring.

Asked how close the Wild is to being a serious contender, Yeo said: "When we were playing at the start of the year last year, we thought that we were already getting there. We knew that we had a lot of areas we still had to improve on, but this is way too early for us to start talking about a contender for the Cup.

"We believe that we are winners around here and we do things that winners do day in and day out. We play the game a certain way and it is real tough to play against. Now, adding these guys in, our expectations for ourselves are going to change greatly.

"Zach said it best, you look at L.A. this year, they had to fight tooth-and-nail just to get to the playoffs and they win the Stanley Cup. It's tough to make the playoffs. So our goal right now -- we like to look at things a little bit more (in the) short term -- is to make sure that we have a great training camp. From (there), we're going to take that into a great start to the season."

Yeo, like many of us, long ago read and heard the talk that Parise and Suter might make themselves a package deal in Minnesota. But there is a big difference between speculation and reality.

"During the course of the season, we're concentrating on our own guys," Yeo said, "and then once the season ends, you start to have your meetings and you start to talk about the areas that you need to address. All you do is look at the free-agent list and say, 'Oh, there it is.' You look at these two guys and problem solved, problem solved.

"It was amazing the amount of time that we spent working on Plan B, C and D and all the other areas. But then you just keep going back to those two guys and none are even nearly as attractive as those two. We spent a lot of time talking about areas that we need to improve and what these guys could mean for us."

A nice surprise

The Wild has sold approximately 2,000 season tickets since the Parise and Suter signings were announced and replica jerseys for both players have been flying out the door as fast as the team can make them.

This was what Leipold hoped would happen, but even he admits to being surprised by how big the fan reaction has been to date.

"(I'm) much more than a little bit (surprised)," he said. "And I'm talking about everybody here, too. We were going out on a limb saying, 'I hate to ruin eight people's July 4th but come on in (to take ticket orders on the day of the signings) and if it gets slow you can go back out.' It was like ... we can't even describe it.

"As soon as somebody would put their phone down, the phone would ring again and they'd have to pick it back up. We were going out and getting ice cream sodas, pizzas for all these people because they weren't prepared to come in. ... We were not expecting this. We knew that there would be a great reaction, we just didn't know it could ever reach this size."

In fact, the demand to buy Wild season tickets was so great on the 4th of July that the Wild started the day with eight operators on duty and ended up having 25 people taking orders.

Given how passionate of a fan Leipold is of the Wild, he said it is tough to say if he is more excited about these signings as a fan or as a businessman who suddenly has a hot product.

"I don't know the answer to that," Leipold said. "As a fan, I'm euphoric. As an owner, I see this as a way to turn this business around. This is investment spending, is what it is. This is investment spending on a business that has the ability to be gigantic and big again and in the last couple of years has been going down. So, you have a business like that, you've got to make the bold move and we think this will turn our business around."

As ticket sales decreased in recent years and the Xcel Energy Center became a place with more empty seats, Leipold realized something needed to be done. He also wasn't making any money from playoff appearances.

But Leipold said there was no one event that led to him making the drastic moves he has by adding two top-flight players.

"I don't think there was ever that kind of defining moment, but clearly that's one of the reasons that we spent a lot of time going after both of these players," he said. "We felt like it's time now. We had a taste of winning in the first half of last year and then a bad taste of losing. We didn't want to have that taste of losing anymore. We knew the fans felt the same way. That's the reason why we went out to do what we did."

Pressure reduced

Several of the Wild's top prospects will be in attendance this week at a camp that will run through Sunday and feature open scrimmages at 7 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. Sunday at Xcel Energy Center.

But guys such as Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson, Jason Zucker, Zack Phillips and others suddenly have had the pressure dialed down on them. Instead of being counted upon to make an immediate impact, Yeo and his coaching staff have far more luxury to bring these players along slowly now that Parise and Suter are signed.

"When you're in the perfect situation, everybody has the best chance to succeed and you're not throwing somebody into a situation where they are not ready or maybe they're not best suited for," Yeo said. "That goes for the young kids coming in. The pressure is not on these guys now to come in and play in a real high roll for us and (having us) relying on these guys in those (crucial) situations.

"Now, if they earn it, they earn it and that's great. But we're not going to force anybody into anything, and we're going to give them the best chance to succeed. That goes with the rest of our lineup as well.

"You insert these guys in and, again, it's going to help a Mikko Koivu or a Dany Heatley, if they're playing with Zach Parise. And likewise with a Jared Spurgeon, if he's playing with Ryan Suter. But it's also going to help other guys who are maybe moving down a line and getting different matchups or playing in a role that better suits them as well."

Next up: A practice facility?

Leipold said that Parise and Suter both expressed concerns about the fact the Wild does not have a dedicated practice facility and instead has to hold practice sessions at St. Thomas Academy when the Xcel Energy Center is booked.

"You can ask both of them," Leipold said. "Their agents came to us, they wanted to know ... they had heard that sometimes we have to go downstairs, the players put their equipment on, they take their skates and sticks and drive over to St. Thomas to practice. They wanted to know, 'How often did that happen?

"They are concerned about it. We went through the whole list and it looked like it would happen maybe 14 times (this coming season). That was more than we ... we (thought we had) better tell them the truth.

"We told them and we also told them we're working very hard with (St. Paul) Mayor (Chris) Coleman to get a practice facility, not just a practice facility, but a sheet over there for the public to have. We're going to keep working on that. We gave them that commitment that we'd work on it."

Leipold said the desire is to build the practice facility on the lot that sits between the arena and a parking ramp and is across West 7th Street from the X.

The Wild thought it was close to getting a pratice faciilty a few years back but Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed funding after the Legislature had passed it.

Suter requested meeting

There has been much made of the fact the Wild and Detroit Red Wings traveled to Madison, Wis., last Tuesday in order to meet face-to-face with Suter.

It turns out, that meeting was requested by the Suter camp and wasn't held at Suter's farmhouse near Madison but rather at an office building.

"We didn't want to do that," Suter said. "We didn't want to draw all of this attention, but we felt it was very important to meet face-to-face with some teams. ... They wanted to come on July 1 (when free agency opened), and we said, 'Just give us some time.' Then we decided to have them both come in."

The Nashville Predators also were in the mix to retain Suter, but he did not request their presence in part because general manager David Poile had gone to see Suter a month before free agency opened.

Poile did not hide his feelings about seeing Suter leave the Predators.

"It would be an understatement to say that the Nashville Predators are disappointed at this time," Poile said after Suter signed in Minnesota. "Actually, not disappointed, but very surprised."

Poile also told the Tennessean in Nashville that he looked at his notes, "and Ryan had said, when we had a meeting in November with [agent] Neil Sheehy, he said at the time that he's not going anywhere else. He's signing with the Nashville Predators. It's a quote.

"... He told me [leaving] was for family reasons. I guess that's where the disappointment comes in. I know family is important to all of us, but I know he and his wife like Nashville. It's not very far from Wisconsin or Minneapolis."

Suter's wife is from Bloomington, Minn.

Asked about Poile's comments, Suter said: "I've heard. I haven't seen or read anything. I have heard that he's disappointed or upset. Obviously, he's disappointed. But I've been straightforward with him from day one, and he's such a nice guy and he's done so much for me that I can't thank him enough."

Lucky number?

Leipold said the Wild and Parise and Suter all settled on 13-year contracts for a reason.

"The number 13 was the number that we thought (because) both of these players have the ability to play until they are 40 years old," Leipold said. "We want to tie them up for the rest of their hockey careers. And so that's how we came up with the 13. They are both 27, they'll be 40 years old (when the contracts expire) and we think it was the right number for us. It was a number they liked when they saw it and that was it."

So does giving players that long of term, and that much money, worry Leipold?

"It always worries me," he said. "Every season, every player, every contract worries me. This one probably worries me a little bit more."

End game

The 2,000 season tickets the Wild has sold since the signings of Parise and Suter is a number the club has arrived at by combining a mix of full and partial packages that add up to the equivalent of 2,000 new season tickets.

Kevin Smith, executive director of public affairs for the Twins, said that Target Field looked "remarkably good" on Monday, a day after the venue hosted the Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw concert. It was the first concert at the stadium. The Twins will return home to play host to Oakland on Friday after the All-Star break. "I only see a couple of spots on the third base side in foul territory where it looks like there was some footings there for one of the big steel riggings," Smith said. "It's a little bit brown. But remarkably good from just kind of the layman's eye that I'm looking at right now."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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