- Katie Strang, ESPN.com
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NEWARK, N.J. -- Zach Parise may still become the most coveted free agent in NHL history should he make it to July 1, but the 27-year-old captain sounds like he wants to remain a New Jersey Devil.
Addressing questions about his future for the first time in months, Parise appears to be interested in re-signing with the team that drafted him back in 2003.
He has spent all seven NHL seasons with the Devils and said “no” when asked if he could ever imagine wearing another jersey.
“I’ve said all along, I love playing here and I’ve always appreciated everything that this organization has done for me,” he said during the team’s locker clean-out day on Wednesday. “My feelings have never changed.”
Parise also said there was a chance a deal could be done before July 1.
“Yeah, absolutely,” he said less than two days after the Devils were defeated in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals by the L.A. Kings. “Absolutely, for sure.”
Parise said he was “excited” about the option of testing the market as a free agent for the first time in his career, but said he may not get that far.
“Hopefully, we can get things worked out here,” he said.
Although that paints an optimistic picture for the Devils, the issue of whether the team can afford to re-sign him remains to be seen.
The Devils are reportedly in a state of financial distress, although NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during the finals that co-owner Jeff VanderBeek was “on track” to refinancing the team’s debt.
Parise said he doesn’t have much insight into the situation and how that may impact his status.
“I don’t really know. I think that’s something we’ll have to find out,” he said. “I don’t know if things have happened. We’ve only been paying attention to what’s been going on on the ice. None of that has affected the team. But I don’t know where that all stands today.”
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello said the team’s financial issues have not affected hockey operations up to this point. He expects the situation to be resolved soon.
“I’m sure what has to be taken care of will be taken care of in the very near future,” he said.
Consistent with team policy, Lamoriello did not elaborate on discussions with Parise’s camp or any timeline between the two sides, but he reiterated that getting a deal done with the team’s franchise player was tops on their offseason to-do list.
“He’s a priority. We’ve said that from day one and that will remain a priority,” Lamoriello said. “Other than that, I don’t have anything else to add.”
Parise said he wasn’t aware of any discussions during the season between his agent and the Devils and was unsure when those will resume.
“We’re 48 hours away from a pretty devastating loss, so I haven’t had time really to sit back and think about that yet, and that’s the truth,” Parise said. “I’m not just giving you lip service. I know what’s ahead and the decision-making, so I guess we’ll have to get the conversations pretty soon.”
After a stunning season in which the sixth-seeded Devils advanced to the Cup finals and exceeded expectations at every turn, Parise’s teammates hope their captain returns.
“I hope that we’ll be able to keep him, because I think he’s the face of the Devils,” said veteran goaltender Martin Brodeur. “He’s a kid that people, really, they see him [and] they see a Devil, they see the type of work ethic he has, and it says a lot for other guys.”
Not to mention how well his first year as captain went, bringing the Devils back after missing the playoffs altogether last season.
“First year as a captain, not too shabby to bring a team like us to the Stanley Cup finals,” Brodeur said. “It’s a big priority for the Devils to get him signed.”
Ilya Kovalchuk, who was signed to a 15-year, $100 million deal in 2010, agreed.
“That’s our first priority this offseason, to sign him. He’s our captain, he’s our leader,” Kovalchuk said. “I’m pretty sure the ownership will figure out how to get things done.”
With free agency only weeks away, the speculation will soon subside when Parise confronts what will likely be the biggest decision of his career. It won’t come down to just money, he assured, but a multitude of factors.
“I like the people here. I like the staff, my teammates. I like the area,” Parise said. “So, there’s a lot of good things about this place.”
97dPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald