Gordie Howe, Chris Chelios and Jaromir Jagr; all of them are legendary hall of fame-level players who not only excelled but made us all marvel at their tremendous longevity to play the game at such a high level for such a long time. Each player demonstrated they could still play at a high level well into their 40’s. As a person who is closer to 40 than I wish to be I can fully appreciate how remarkable that is especially as people love to say in sports how younger players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before.
Beyond longevity, the reason those players stand out is that it is an unusual occurrence. For most, the body just simply does not cooperate or injuries compel you to cut your career short. Cam Neely, Bobby Orr and Eric Lindros come to mind as players who had their careers shortened due to injuries and have kept us wondering what could’ve been ever since. Yet sometimes its not all that mysterious or even tragic. Its just a natural progression. And for Minnesota Wild fans, its time they come to grips with the fact this is the new normal for its beloved alternate captain, Zach Parise.
It may sound as though I’m making a giant deal out of the play of Parise who has just 4 goals (1 of the goals was an empty netter), 9 points and is a -1 through 15 games this season. So for any Wild fans who are wanting to strangle me for daring to imply that Parise’s game has taken a significant step backwards I would recommend taking a step back, close your eyes, breathe deeply and then try to examine his game with some objectivity.
His current point totals are not anything to get excited over, but he’s gone through dry patches before right? But his current (goals in 26% of his games played thus far if you include the empty net tally, 20% if you don’t) pace is for about somewhere around 16-22 goals this season which would be his lowest total since his rookie season when he had 14 in 2005-06 of seasons played in a non-lockout year. Even in the lockout shortened season in 2012-13 he had 18 goals, for the pop-gun attack Minnesota Wild no less!
So what about possession numbers? They’re not getting better either. His Corsi for and Fenwick numbers are down (and had been declining steadily) by 5 points 2012-13. The big shift this season has been his zone starts where he’s starting in the offensive zone just 50% of the time compared to 61.7% a year ago. That is huge and certainly could factor in his production. Yet its also could be a sign of his role diminishing slightly with the team as he’s not being used as much in critical situations where the team needs a goal. We’ll see if that ratio holds out for the rest of the season but the early sample shows a pretty significant shift.
Still don’t think there has been a change? Let’s look at shot attempts and shooting percentage. In 2015-16 Parise was averaging about 3.3 shots per game, this season he’s averaging about 3.2 shots per game. It may not sound alarming but its continuing a downward trend. It was 3.7 shots per game 4 years ago. When you consider he’s spending time farther away from the crease his shooting percentage is most likely going to decrease. Currently Parise’s converting at about an 8.3% rate and he’s been at least in double digits in every nearly every season he’s played in the NHL.
However, just thinking and watching Parise’s play. Isn’t it kind of noticeable that he’s changed his approach? Parise isn’t going into the corners with the same reckless abandon he used to, he’s not camping out near the front of the crease and enduring all kinds of cross checks to the back as he waits to pounce on a loose puck. He isn’t throwing that finishing his check when he can’t quite make it to he puck. Parise is spending more time on the perimeter, he’s looking to cherry pick more frequently and seems hesitant to crash the crease like he used to.
A significant injury to one’s back will make one want to consider changing their game. I am not calling into question Parise’s fortitude or his character at all. Yet, if Parise is not going into those high traffic, high punishment areas he really becomes a shadow of himself. I think the lack of production is a reflection of that change in style of play. It is only logical conclude the injury prompted the change, like a living version of an intervention.
The question is, can he be as productive changing his game to being more of a perimeter player? I think most of us know that Parise has been mostly productive as what you’d call a goal mouth sniper sort of similar to Mark Parrish but blessed with better wheels. If you watch the YouTube clip below of all of Parise’s goal from the 2015-16 season you do see a few snipes on the perimeter, but most of his goal-scoring damage is done within a few feet of the crease. And let’s face it, its the relentless style that he seemed to bring most nights that Wild fans have reveled in since he got here, until now.
Whether its fair or not, when you consider the team is paying him $7.538 million a season to be one of this club’s offensive leaders. If Parise ends up with around 20 goals (or less) is that the appropriate production for a player making elite-level salary? He is 32 years old, did this franchise expect the decline to happen so soon? I doubt it, and considering his contract doesn’t expire until the end of the 2024-25 season you can see why this downward trend is more than a little troubling.
Beyond Ryan Suter and Eric Staal, the team’s group of 30 and older players like Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville are all off to slow starts. Adam Stafki at Hockey Wilderness wrote a pretty good article about the Wild’s captain. While you can try to just say that its just a slump, it also could be a sign of older group starting to show their age. Yet Parise seemed to be the catalyst on past Wild clubs as the team had to rally in the 2nd half of the season to make the post-season. If he’s going to be that catalyst again I can’t imagine him being able to do so as a player who primarily hangs out on the perimeter.
Parise wouldn’t be the first player who was forced to sort of reinvent themselves as they got older. I don’t think Parise will be as productive from the perimeter and the question is how much production can the Wild expect from him if he’s going to avoid the more physically punishing parts of the ice? I think a prideful player like Parise will try to make up for that drop by taking his chances to shoot more but still its a little out of his comfort zone to be taking his chances from around the circles than near the blue paint.
Will that reduce his average by 5-6 goals per season? If so, that’s a 20% drop in goal scoring production and for a team where goals always seem to be at a premium that is the kind of drop that can mean the difference between a few points in the standings. The Wild are not exactly vaulting themselves to the post-season, its having to scratch and claw its way there and a few points are often all the difference between reaching the playoffs and being an also ran.
Count Wild Head Coach Bruce Boudreau into the camp that is wondering what is going on with Zach Parise as he told reporters after Minnesota’s most recent loss to Calgary, asking he’s wondering if he should ask the trainer what’s wrong with him because of how sluggish he played that night. If he knows Zach’s just fine those are some serious daggers he’s thrown at the Wild’s alternate captain. Yet at the same time, watching the game I agree as he seemed to be laboring up and down the ice and managed to generate a single shot on goal and was mostly invisible making just a token appearance in 3-on-3 overtime. That in itself gives you an idea of how far he’s declined in regards to whether the Wild think he’s an impactful player anymore.
While I think most Wild fans hope Parise’s underwhelming start is just an aberration it won’t be much longer before the heat starts to turn up on the highly paid winger. If last year is any indication, he doesn’t handle criticism too well. To that I say get used to it, or find a way to raise your game. The ‘one of us’ crowd will give Parise the benefit of the doubt, but if the slump continues for another 20-30 games even they will start to turn on their beloved hometown star.