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Zulgad: Clean break: Zach Parise and the Wild both have to know it’s time to part

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Colorado Avalanche goaltender Philipp Grubauer (31) and Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise (11) in the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Divorces are rarely easy — or so I’ve been told. They are difficult emotionally, frequently expensive and from the outside it often appears it might be easier for the parties involved to remain together. The issue is that those on the outside don’t have a full understanding of the situation and why at least one of the partners (if not both) feel it necessary to go in a new direction.

It’s the latter sentence in the above paragraph that is the reason the Minnesota Wild and Zach Parise almost certainly are headed for an offseason seperation. Yes, Parise played in the Wild’s final four playoff games and finished tied for the team lead with two goals and three points in a seven-game loss to Vegas in the opening round of the playoffs. But the winger also was a healthy scratch in three of the final four regular-season games and then the first three playoff games. He only got in because Marcus Johansson broke his arm in Game 3.

That completed what had been a mostly miserable season for the 36-year-old Parise in which he was scratched for only the second time in his career (and first with the Wild) after over-extending a shift in March, spent time on the COVID-19 list and then saw his minutes and role diminished until he was playing on the fourth line. This came a season after then first-year general manager Bill Guerin got Parise to waive his no-move clause and nearly had a deal completed with the New York Islanders.

Guerin has spent two seasons sending Parise a pretty clear message — I’d prefer you weren’t here. Coach Dean Evason joined right in this season. That’s their right. The Fourth of July will mark the nine-year anniversary of when Parise (and Ryan Suter) signed a $98 million, 13-year contract with the Wild. That was three GMs ago. Any hope that Parise and Suter could play key roles in delivering a Stanley Cup or three to Minnesota — and that was the goal — is long gone.

After the Wild was ousted by Vancouver in the bubble playoffs last summer, Guerin had no problem telling longtime captain Mikko Koivu that he wouldn’t be back. That was made easy because Koivu’s contract had expired and signing him to a new deal would have made little sense.

Parise, who had seven goals and 11 assists in 45 games this season, still has four years remaining on his contract and while his base salary will fall from $6 million next season to $2 million in 2022-23 and then $1 million in each of the final two years, the salary cap hit remains at $7.538 million for each year in a league in which the cap is expected to remain flat for several seasons because of lost revenue from the pandemic.

So what’s the solution? The Wild could look to trade Parise — there’s little doubt he would waive his no-move clause — but almost certainly would have to take on part of the cap hit and it’s likely Guerin would be asked to attach an asset to Parise to make the trade more desirable for his new team. In other words, the Wild would have to give up more than it got to trade Parise. There also would be the problem of the recapture penalties that would penalize the Wild if Parise retired early.

There is the potential of a buyout but that also would be an expensive end to the divorce. The Wild would owe Parise only $6.7 million over the next eight years, but the cap hit would be $26.8 million during that time.

Michael Russo, who covers the Wild for The Athletic, wrote that it wouldn’t surprise him if Guerin had a heart-to-heart with Parise to try to get him to accept a third- or fourth-line role. If the Wild really wanted that to happen, it’s likely Guerin and Evason would have been far more diplomatic about how they handled Parise’s situation in the playoffs.

Should they have done a better job in that area? Perhaps. But Guerin and Evason have spent the last year-plus working to reshape a roster and locker room that Parise and Suter played a huge role in running for several years. The desired results were never achieved. Eric Staal, even the slowed down version, likely would have been the Wild’s second-best center this season behind Joel Eriksson Ek, but Guerin traded him as fast as he possibly could last offseason because he had no interest in maintaining the status quo.

Guerin attempted to trade Parise to the Islanders during a season in which he led the Wild with 25 goals. The GM’s desire to make a break from as much of the past as he possibly could was clear then and it’s even more clear now. The Wild not only want to be faster on the ice, they want different leadership off of it. That’s a big part of the reason Nick Bonino and Ian Cole — who each have two Stanley Cups on their resume — were acquired and became an important part of the team.

It’s one thing for Guerin and Parise to have a heart-to-heart discussion in the calm of the offseason and get Parise to agree to a lesser role. It’s another thing during the intensity of the season, if Parise is playing well, to continue to remind him he’s now a role player. Guys who sign 13-year, $98 million contracts don’t exactly go quietly when told they are now a small piece of the plan.

Guerin isn’t dumb. He won two Stanley Cups as a player and two more as an executive with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He knows that Parise was embarrassed by how the Wild handled him this season and that he’s a guy with immense pride. Parise kept quiet during the playoffs because 1) It would have looked selfish to speak out and 2) Having all media access via Zoom enables teams the luxury of controlling players.

If reporters had been allowed in the Wild’s locker room, the normally candid Parise likely would have struggled to not share his feelings. One thing should be made clear when it comes to Parise. This isn’t and has never been about his work ethic. He long combined his relentless hustle with an impressive skill set to put himself in the star category. But because he never took a shift off and took a pounding in the corners and in front of the net, Parise has broken down over time.

The Wild held him out of the first three games against the Golden Knights because they feared his lack of speed would be an issue. That break actually helped Parise to look fresh when he got back in.  The same thing had happened when Parise returned from the COVID-19 list. He had four goals and six points in his first six games back and then had no points in his next nine games before the decision was made to sit him.

The issue with Parise growing frustrated with his limited role — if he even accepted it — isn’t that he would take shifts off, it would be that he likely would be miserable and there is no good way to hide that. For a team that has worked hard to change its culture, having an unhappy Parise trying to insist he could do more would be something with which Evason doesn’t need to deal.

Parise and Guerin know this. They also know the only way to deal with the situation is to start the divorce proceedings and hope it’s as painless as possible.