While the belle of the free agency ball was certainly the twin signings of Parise and Suter, the savviest signings of all may have been that of gritty tough guys Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell. The duo, along with former Philadelphia Flyer Darroll Powe, forms a formidable fourth line for the Minnesota Wild that Coach Yeo has got to love having at his disposal.
Last season, Minnesota’s fourth line consisted of a combination of Powe, Stephane Veilleux, Matt Kassian and a variety of AHL call-ups. Not really a true NHL fourth line. Wild GM Chuck Fletcher knew this and, with Koivu, Heatley, Granlund and (at the time) hopefully Parise and Suter in Minnesota’s lineup, aggressively looked for a hired gun or two as added protection. He certainly got all he asked for and more. Not only is Konopka the NHL’s active leader in penalty minutes since 2009-10, he’s also a top faceoff man, and Mitchell is a guy that takes control of the play and is a driving force into the offensive zone. They fit in perfectly with Powe, another guy that can keep the motor running.
The thing about these three gentlemen is that they’re very unselfish players. Just look at the way Konopka played on Saturday. He wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves with Cody McLeod to liven up the fans and his teammates, and then, after breaking his nose from an Avalanche high stick later in the game, he kept on with his shift for another ten seconds while his nose bled like a faucet. Thirty stitches, and a picture with a bunny later, he was back out on the ice against the Stars the next night ready to do what he needed to do to help his team.
Not a single one of these guys are in the NHL for the goals they score or the points they accumulate. They’re role players that coaches can throw out on the ice and be confident that they’ll play a smart, aggressive game and will do anything to help out their team. The simple reasoning behind that is they love their team. They love their teammates and don’t like to see them getting pushed around. So, a quick line change, a grinding shift and a few rough hits or thrown fists quickly let the other team know that they’ve overstepped their bounds. It’s play like this that gives the team’s more talented lines room to breathe and, when they have room to breathe, look out.
The best part is the fourth line combinations that are available to Coach Yeo at this time. Powe, Konopka and Mitchell aren’t the only energy players that will wear Iron Range Red this season. Another tough guy in Kassian is waiting in the press box and Minnesota’s forward depth has pushed two quality NHL fourth liners in Veilleux and Jake Dowell down to Minnesota’s farm team in Houston. Almost every Stanley Cup-winning team has had a tough, gritty fourth line that has been a major contributing factor to their team’s success. Minnesota is no different.
Yes, the additions of Parise, Suter and Granlund have been and are huge factors, however, when these players fall to injuries, Minnesota’s overall organizational depth will save the day unlike last season when there was no depth. Not only does Minnesota have legitimate top six fill ins they can call up from Houston when Koivu, Heatley or Parise go down, but that plethora of bottom six depth only helps bolster the team, as well. It’s only when the season is over, the grind of the playoffs is finished and the Cup is won that role players truly get recognized as key assets to their team’s playoff run. Then the NHL’s unsung heroes will finally receive their due praise and it’ll make every bruise, every stitch and every blocked shot more than worth it.