The Odd Couple
During the summer of 2012, it was clear that the Minnesota Wild was targeting a pair of players in hopes of returning to the playoffs. The team wasted no time to sign Torrey Mitchell and Zenon Konopka on the first day of free agency.
Oh, and the club also targeted and landed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter as well. And, much like the more-heralded duo of the Wild’s 2012 free agent class, Mitchell and Konopka seem destined to be mentioned in the same breath as each other, whether they like it or not. But they don’t seem to mind.
“He’s a really good player,” Konopka said about Mitchell. “When he was with San Jose he was playing against some of the top lines for years. Great guy to play with.”
But the transition to the Wild hasn’t been as smooth as hoped. Joining a new team presents its own challenges, but a lockout-shortened training camp, if you can even call it that, sure didn’t help.
“Last year seemed like half the team was new guys,” Mitchell said.
It’s certainly a good reminder that, with expectations at an all-time high given its high-profile additions, the Wild still hasn’t had a full season to learn how to play together. But after last season ended too early for Minnesota’s taste, a summer to consider some system tweaks, a full training camp, and the natural acclimation process have each contributed to the Wild’s strong start this season.
And after a sometimes-challenging first year for the winger, the Wild and its fans are starting to see more of what Mitchell can bring to the table. Just 18 games in, his next assist will match last season’s total.
“I felt like I had a good training camp,” he said. “I think it played a role in getting off to a good start [this year] and finding my role on the team. It’s easier to build chemistry that way.”
He’s certainly benefitted from his relationship with Konopka, one that has developed through the continuity of playing on the same line in addition to the way their personalities and playing styles complement each other.
“I’ve been [linemates] with Konopper pretty much all last year and this year,” Mitchell said. “He’s a great guy, a great teammate, and he’s easy to play with because you feel like you’re 300 pounds out there because I can do or say anything to anyone. You know he’s going to have my back.”
That could explain why Konopka finished fourth in the league in penalty minutes last year.
But this is not a one-sided relationship. When Konopka scored his first goal in 81 games, and his first in a Wild sweater, it was Mitchell who flew into the zone, drew two defenders and slipped a perfect pass to the center’s tape on Nov. 5 against the Calgary Flames.
Mitchell’s speed is typically mentioned as his greatest attribute, but head coach Mike Yeo is quick to point out his ability to help the team in a variety of ways.
“He is a team-first guy and will do whatever it takes for his teammates,” Yeo said. “It’s hard to put into words how valuable that is.”
“Obviously my main role on the team to be a shut-down guy and a penalty kill guy and I pride myself on that,” Mitchell said. “But also if guys go down during the game I can fill in different roles. I just love coming to the rink.”
A simple joy for the game of hockey and an overall appreciation for life is perhaps the most obvious trait Mitchell and Konopka share. Barely a minute into conversation, Konopka shared, unsolicited, “We’re pretty blessed to be in this life.”
Mitchell later offered his own impressive bit of perspective, showing the 28-year-old’s unique maturity: “I’m not going to be able to do this forever, and who knows when it’s going to end. But I just love the atmosphere, I love having fun doing what I love to do, and that’s play hockey.”
Konopka is impressed with how his linemate carries himself, both in his maturity and his constancy.
“He’s a good example to the young guys,” he said about Mitchell, “Always being professional, always having a good attitude.”
Mitchell, in turn, appreciates the fact that Konopka is no simple brute.
“He’s a smart guy,” Mitchell says. “You can’t script this life he has, you know? It’s pretty interesting.”
Perhaps Mitchell is referring to Konopka’s entrepreneurial pursuits into winemaking, or his charity pursuits, or perhaps something else entirely.
“He has a bunny.” A bunny? “Yeah, he’s got a bunny. He’s pretty much a big goofball.”
“We’re both guys who just like having a good time,” Konopka added.
“There’s nothing not to smile about, pretty much all day,” Mitchell said. “It’s ridiculous. A young group of guys having a good time doing what we love to do, it doesn’t get much better than that. That’s pretty much how I look at it.”