(Ed. Note: Welcome to the Puck Daddy 2013 summer project, the National Hockey League of Nations. We’ve recruited 30 writers/blogs to identify the best player in their favorite team’s history for each major nationality that creates the fabric of our beloved NHL: Canada, USA, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Sweden, Finland and The Rest of The World. It’s their criteria, as long as they can justify it. Read, debate and enjoy! If you want to do so on Twitter, it’s #NHLoN.)
By Mike Berg, Jared Mason and Nick Henry of Hitting The Post
You have to understand the mentality of Wild fans.
We are, frankly, a fragile bunch. We love the game of hockey and we think we know it better than any other Americans (and at least 52 percent of Canucks fans). But we are also basically Atlanta-North when it comes to holding onto teams.
The Wild organization, typically very marketing-savvy, attempts to bolster our self-confidence with the whole State of Hockey thing, which alternately stokes the embers of pride or serves as a mocking tribute to our struggles with self-doubt.
So exercises like this are tricky for us. Because, if we are being honest, it is a little embarrassing to peruse our all-time roster. It’s a visit from the Ghost of North Stars Past, a reminder that they had to move to Texas to win the Cup, which means there’s no Worsley, Goldsworthy, Meloche or Ciccarelli available.
It’s also a visit from the Ghost of Risebrough Past, and the string of schlubs that Lemaire’s coaching system and brilliance allowed Doug to get by with signing to one-way contracts during his reign of apathy. With all due respect to Lubomir Sekeras…you’re Lubomir Sekeras.
And it’s also a slap in the face with the cold, dead fish of reality that, although we love the game like no other Americans, we do not have a very good track record of producing people who can play the game at its highest levels.
Minnesota….well Minnesota produces grinders. The Sons of Minnesota are like the Shoveler in Mystery Men: we shovel very well. For every Parise we have a murder of Brotens, a passel Christians, a Wyatt Smith. Here a Mark Parrish, there a Darby Hendrickson. No, we are not a flashy lot.
Yes, the history of the Minnesota Wild is relatively unremarkable, in pretty much all facets. Heck, many of the “best” players we’ve managed to stuff into a Wild uniform tend to have one thing in common: they peaked before they got to St. Paul (e.g. Heatley).
But they are all we have. So here is our list.
Canada: Andrew Brunette
A veteran of not one, not two, but three expansion franchises, Andrew Brunette sits behind only Marian Gaborik in goals scored in a Wild sweater, and fourth overall in assists and points. While fellow Canadian Pierre-Marc Bouchard can tie goalies in knots (Bonjour, Monsieur Khabibulin), his history of injuries and inability to produce in the post-season (9 career post-season points in 21 games) easily yields to Brunette’s Wild playoff prowess, the cherry on the top of which is of course the goal that ended the career of Patrick Roy, and other similar play. While Brunette was not known for his skating, size, or overwhelming skill, he does stand out in his consistent play over his career and his ability to make those around him better.
Honorable Mentions: Bouchard, Wes Walz
Finland : Niklas Backstrom
Finland obviously comes down to Mikko Koivu or Backstrom. It’s especially tough to choose since they’ve been with the team for the pretty much the same amount of time (Koivu’s got one more year). The Org has made the Wild Koivu’s team but it could rather easily be argued that Backstrom has been more valuable to the team during their careers. He came in and has consistently been number one ever since; Koivu had to build his game and rep to get to where he is today.
For Koivu, the most common argument against him is whether or not his game today is worthy of how much he’s asked and paid to do. There are fewer questions about Backstrom’s game, and though his last contract had a rather lofty cap hit, he came out of it with a new hit that’s remarkably lower because he wants to play in Minnesota.
With that kind of gesture, who cares where a guy comes from?
Backstrom is a high second-tier NHL starting goalie. Koivu might be a second line center being asked to play on the top line.
Honorable Mention: Antti Miettinen… Oh, and Mikko Koivu
USA: Ryan Suter
It was tempting to talk about Zach Parise or Brian Rolston, but the ’13 season showed that Ryan Suter was the real prize when Chuck Fletcher won the Parise/Suter Lottery on July 4, 2012. Suter spent more time on the ice this year than Mike’s Uncle Scoop, who’s spent decades of winters looking trying to land Sneaky Pete, the monster Northern, out on Lake Waconia. And believe me, he looks a lot better, too. After a shaky start to the season (-7 in the first 10 games) learning to play with someone not named Shea Weber, Suter settled in and found his game.
Adding to his value is how well Jonas Brodin established himself in a Wild sweater. Acting as a mentor and a stabilizing factor for the young Swede, Suter played himself into a Norris nomination and his partner almost into a Calder nomination.
As much as we like Parise and Rolston, neither can put that on his resume.
Honorable Mentions: Parise, Rolston
Sweden: Jonas Brodin
This one is a stretch, and we will cop to that straight away.
But considering that the only serious contention comes from Rickard Wallin and Kim Johnsson, we’re sticking with our story. Brodin was drafted in 2011, and arrived in North America a year later, ready to play in Houston. An injury slowed his development and later, injuries paved the way to try his hand in the NHL.
He never looked back. He led all rookies in ice time and didn’t look out of place next to Ryan Suter. Granted, we think that Ryan Suter could make Martin Skoula look like an NHL defenseman, but we’ll still take a guy who can move the puck out of harm’s way over the guy who trips on the Blue Line on a nightly basis. Brodin’s skating is remarkable and his vision is what hockey wet dreams are made of.
Honorable Mentions: Wallin, Johnsson
Russia: Andrei Zyuzin
The pickings are pretty slim here. Exactly four Russians have donned a Wild uniform, and the others are … not remarkable. Frankly, the only thing that sets Zyuzin apart here is that his name isn’t Sergei Krivokrasov, Maxim Sushinski, or Andrei Nazarov.
Honorable Mention: I don’t know, um, Vladimir Putin?
Slovakia: Marian Gaborik
Maybe the player with the most outright talent to ever grace the home locker room of the Xcel Energy Center, Marian Gaborik provided scores of Oohs and Aahs among Wild fans. The only thing that kept Gaborik from scoring was a hacky-sack. That said, his speed was, and still is, a real sight. When you see him move up the ice, you wonder how a human being can move that fast on the ice without the aid of an Acme Ice Rocket.
Also, not many players can release the puck from their stick and beat a goalie cleanly better than Gaborik. When paired with buddy and fellow Slovak Pavol Demitra, Gaborik was the best player on the ice most nights. Over 125 games in two seasons with Demitra, Gaborik potted 72 goals and garnered 68 assists.
Honorable Mention: Demitra
Czech Republic: Martin Havlat
At 0.77 points per game in two seasons, Havlat trumps Filip Kuba and Marek Zidlicky in production for the Wild. Havlat’s skating, stickhandling and on-ice vision made him a big part of the Wild for the two seasons he spent here. However, his greatest value came in being the piece that brought Dany Heatley to the Wild.
Honorable Mentions: Kuba, Zidlicky
REST OF THE WORLD CATEGORY
Latvia: Sergei Zholtok
In the early years, Zholtok was one of the Wild’s most-reliable scorers. During Zholtok’s three seasons with the Wild, he finished 4th, 5th, and 4th in scoring, respectively from 2001-2002 to 2003-2004. And he finished 4th in 2003-’04 despite getting traded at the deadline. Keep in mind: finishing top 5 in scoring on those Wild teams was something akin to discovering the wheel, such were the offensive struggles of those expansion-era Wild teams.
Zholtok really personified the crazy, surprising, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid run to the Western Conference Finals in ’03: scrappy, hard-working, unassuming…. Zholtok went home to Latvia to play out the lockout, where his life would sadly end. Fittingly at home, but due to heart complications – a fate that was hard for most people who knew or rooted for him to reconcile.
Honorable Mention: Richard Park (South Korea), Owen Nolan (Ireland)
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