Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher was discussing his team's draft preparation last week when the reporter's question came about the Zach Parise sweepstakes this summer's NHL free agent period has shaped up to become.
"It's been a runaway train, that's for sure, in the media and not just here," Fletcher said, refusing to further comment on the team's interest in the not-yet-28-year-old star of the Stanley Cup runner-up New Jersey Devils. "I think it just speaks to the parity of the league and how much competition there is, and frankly it's a year when a lot of teams have money to spend. I think my only statement would be it's a good year to be a free agent."
The Wild are poised for an aggressive approach when the market opens on Sunday, but the question is whether their sales pitch will be strong enough to persuade top prizes Parise or Ryan Suter or both to join a team that has missed the playoffs for four straight years. The Wild are more than $19 million under the salary cap that was set this week for the 2012-13 season at $70.2 million, so they'll be able to offer more money than some of the other teams competing in what's considered a high-quality, low-quantity pool of unrestricted free agents.
They also have local connections they can use with Parise, who grew up in the Twin Cities and Suter, who is from Wisconsin. But Fletcher, without speaking specifically about any available player, made it clear the Wild are trying to sell what they believe is a legitimate contender, not just a nice, familiar place to live and a top-dollar contract.
"We're not far away. I say that all the time. You can't have the stretch that we did last season and call it a fluke," Fletcher said.
The Wild led the league at the 30-game mark before faltering.
They'll likely have to replace one of their top-six forwards, Guillaume Latendresse, an unrestricted free agent who said on Twitter Thursday he's decided not to re-sign with Minnesota so he can be closer to his 4-year-old son in his native Montreal. Latendresse tweeted he'll "see what the market has to offer."
But the Wild are counting on an upgrade from a healthy-again Pierre-Marc Bouchard, whose concussion problem popped up again last year, and an influx of well-regarded prospects led by 2010 first-round draft pick Mikael Granlund.
"We're getting better. It's happening," Fletcher said.
Parise, whose father J.P. once played for the Minnesota North Stars, would be a ticket-sales smash, not to mention an instant star for a team that needs a lot of offence. Suter is coming off a career-high 46 points in his seventh season with the Nashville Predators.
The Wild took what was viewed by some as a pre-emptive step to sign Suter last winter when they acquired defenceman Tom Gilbert in a trade with Edmonton. Gilbert grew up in the same Twin Cities suburb, Bloomington, as Suter's wife, and he was a college teammate of Suter's at Wisconsin.
Parise was in Minnesota last week for a charity event, and plenty of Wild fans offered him advice on where to sign. He declined to divulge any of his thinking, other than to acknowledge a bit of anxiety.
"As a player it's something that you work hard to try and take advantage of, and at the same time I think it might get a little stressful," Parise said.
The Wild would love to ease his mind with a long-term contract.