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Zulgad: In trying season, Zach Parise seems to be accepting a lesser role with Wild

Coyotes Wild Hockey
Arizona Coyotes center Christian Dvorak, left, tries to knock the puck away from Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. The Wild won 5-2. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)

A year after Wild general manager Bill Guerin nearly dealt Zach Parise to the Islanders at the trade deadline, there was zero scuttlebutt that the veteran winger might be on the move this season. This wasn’t a good thing.

Parise’s play this season didn’t cause contending teams to express much interest in him, so even if Guerin wanted to move him and the remaining five years on his 13-year, $98 million contract, it wasn’t going to happen. The Wild and Parise were stuck with each other and neither side likely was thrilled about it.

However, it appears both parties might have come to the conclusion they should make the most of it. That might explain why Parise had perhaps his best game of the season on Wednesday afternoon in the Wild’ 5-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes at Xcel Energy Center. That ended a two-game losing streak for Minnesota.

Parise had a goal and an assist and was a plus-2 in playing 11 minutes, 31 seconds that included no time on the power play or penalty kill. That might have been an ordinary game for the 36-year-old Parise at one point in his career, but these days that’s a standout effort. It’s also the reality for a guy who was once considered an elite player in the NHL.

Parise, who led the Wild with 25 goals in 69 games last season, has seen his stock tumble this season in what might be the most trying season of his 16-year career.

Parise had only three goals and nine points in 19 games when he decided to extend his shift late in a March 1 game at Vegas to try to help teammate Marcus Foligno get an empty-net goal to complete a hat trick. Instead, Foligno went for a change and Parise was still on the ice when Vegas scored to tie the game. The Wild lost in overtime and Parise was a healthy scratch two nights later against the Golden Knights. It was the first time in his nine years with the Wild that Parise had been a healthy scratch and only the second time in his career.

The decision by coach Dean Evason was a surprise only because scratching a healthy Parise would have been unthinkable for much of his time in Minnesota. But making an example of Parise — if he can be scratched, anyone can — is easier when a veteran’s play begins to decline.

That’s what makes Parise’s play of late encouraging. Following a seven-game absence while on the COVID-19 protocol list, Parise returned playing left wing on the fourth line. Not exactly the norm for a guy making $8 million. But Parise seems to have made the most of the role and it shows in his performances. He had an assist in the Wild’s 8-3 victory over Colorado on April 7 and has two goals in the past three games. On Wednesday, he skated on a line with center Nico Sturm and right winger Nick Bonino.

Parise scored in the second period to break a 1-1 tie by beating Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta after taking a pass from Bonino. Parise’s performance also went beyond the scoresheet. He drew a third-period holding penalty on Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun. Mats Zuccarello followed with his second power-play goal of the game to give the Wild a 4-1 lead. Parise then made a perfect pass from the near boards to set up Jared Spurgeon for a tip-in goal to make it 5-1 at 5:50 of the third.

“Everything, starting attitude-wise,” Evason said when asked what he likes about Parise’s play of late. “His pace, getting to the net, where Zach has success. (He) gets around the net, pucks get there, you know he’s going to have opportunities to produce.”

Parise now has five goals and 16 points in 33 games and is averaging 15:14 of ice time, his lowest since his rookie season with New Jersey in 2005-06. While his production doesn’t come close to matching his paycheck, the Wild certainly will take what Parise has given them of late as the playoffs near. So how does Parise feel about this role?

He wasn’t made available to comment after Wednesday’s game, but odds are he would like to be more of a contributor. That’s one thing about this Wild team that is so different from previous versions. It appears the focus is now on the entire team and not on individuals. As far as Parise goes, there never has been a question about how hard he will work. In fact, what made him so good in his prime was his willingness to work like a grinder, while having the skill set of a first-line player.

“There’s never a doubt on Zach Parise’s work ethic,” Evason said. “You’ve watched him over the years in practice and obviously in games and he competes his butt off and he’s going to do that each and every night. That clearly has allowed him to have not only success as of late but throughout his entire career.”

At this point there is uncertainty about where that career might end, but right now the Wild are benefitting from a former standout who appears to be accepting his role.