Minnesota Wild

Parise’s encouraging start fueling Wild

22 OCT 2016: Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise (11) during the game between the New Jersey Devils and the Minnesota Wild played at the Prudential Center in Newark,NJ.. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sortswire)
Rich Graessle/Icon Sortswire

A quick glance at Zach Parise’s contract can reveal a number of troubling details. Now 32 years old, the American forward is signed through 2024-25, his age-40 season, and while his base salary takes a big dip in 2022-23, his cap hit will be $7,528,462 per year until he reaches unrestricted free agency. 

That deal, along with Ryan Suter’s identical pact, will surely create headaches for the Wild at some point down the line. For now, though, Parise is performing at a high level, and new coach Bruce Boudreau is off to a strong start.

Parise has tallied five points (2G, 3A) in seven games thus far in 2016-17, helping the Wild to a 4-2-1 record — good for first place in the Central Division.

His first goal of the season was the 300th of his career, making him the third Minnesotan and, incredibly, the fifth member of the 2003 draft class, to reach that milestone.

Fully adapting from Yeo’s safe brand of hockey to an offensive-minded style of play will take more time, of course. On Monday, Boudreau acknowledged there have been growing pains, adding that some players have been slipping into old habits. Suter said he is gaining comfort in the new system but admitted “we all have that extra half-second of thinking that we’ll eventually get rid of.”

Nevertheless, the early returns are promising.  

“It’s been a great transition. It’s been a lot of fun around the rink, around the room,” Parise told ESPN. “As a team, there’s still a lot we need to get better at, but we’re seeing it in spurts throughout games.

“The closer we can get to doing it more consistently, and more often throughout a game, it’s going to translate into more wins for us. It takes work, and we’ve got to continue to get better and keep learning. But, in the long run, it’s going to make us a better team.”

Parise and the Wild may be at the top of the totem pole, but like he said, there’s a lot of improvements his team needs to make. Minnesota’s possession stats are middling, it has converted on just three of 26 power play opportunities, and poor first periods, during which it has been heavily out-shot, are cause for concern.

18 OCT 2016: Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise (11) and center Eric Staal (12) celebrate with center Charlie Coyle (3) after Coyle scored in the 2nd period during the Western Conference match up between the Los Angeles Kings and the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire)

18 OCT 2016: Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise (11) and center Eric Staal (12) celebrate with center Charlie Coyle (3) after he scored. (Photo by David Berding/Icon Sportswire)

That’s the bad news. The good news is the Wild have a coach in Boudreau who not only knows how to win, but knows how to make the kind of in-season adjustments needed to fix these kinds of issues.

Just look at what he did last year in Anaheim, where his Ducks went from 12-15-6 to the Pacific Division champions thanks to his willingness to change his club’s approach. 

One such adjustment has already been made. While Parise began the year on Eric Staal’s wing, Boudreau recently shifted him to a new line with Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund. In just a pair of games with those two at 5-on-5 — a microscopic sample size — Parise has scored both of his goals and, on Sunday, fired 10 pucks on net. Granlund and Koivu each tallied a primary assist on those goals.

“Mikko is good in our zone, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there. He was good at draws,” Parise told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “Granlund, he put probably four or five on a tee for me (Sunday). He’s a really good set-up guy. We’ve played well together before. They’re both really good players.”

That trio looked like “superstars” against the Islanders, according to Boudreau, and while it remains to be seen if it’s a long-term solution — the line struggled Tuesday in Boston — Boudreau can untap Parise’s offensive potential in ways none of his prior coaches have done.

So it’s easy to be optimistic about the Minneapolis native’s short-term outlook. Part of that confidence stems from his sustainable output: unlike Richard Panik and others riding high, early-season shooting percentages, Parise has converted on a modest 7.7 percent of shots on net.

What’s more, his team is shooting at a 9.26 percent clip when he’s on the ice at even strength, his relative shot differential is in the black and two of his three assists have been primary points.

After a campaign in which he dealt with a debilitating back injury and Yeo’s mid-season ouster, a healthy Parise looks a lot like his former self. And as he continues to rewire his brain to play the kind of up-tempo hockey Boudreau demands, it wouldn’t be surprising if he keeps trending upward. 

“We’ve been forechecking a certain way for four and a half years, some guys more than that. Now our forecheck is different. Me personally, there have been certain plays where I’m so used to being more passive on the wall that I find myself crossed up,” Parise said.  

“I still find myself sometimes reminding myself halfway up the ice that I’ve got to start to skate, I’ve got to get up there. I can’t throw on the brakes. And that’s a big difference. There are other smaller adjustments that are different all over the ice.”

The Wild have a long way to go in 2016-17, and dealing with Parise’s contract down the road won’t be easy. But for now, the former All-Star — along with his new coach — is fueling a hot streak that might prove to be critical in a tough Central Division.

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