Parise finally working wonders with Wild
It's game day and even though the formal part of the Minnesota Wild morning skate ritual has come and gone, Zach Parise is at one end of the ice, deftly stick-handling through a series of pucks spaced out in front of him.
A small thing, perhaps, something Parise will later say he likes to do as part of his own routine.
"I like to work on my game," he explained. "I like doing my thing. It makes me feel better."
He's not there to prove a point or to somehow justify his 13-year, $98 million contract. But what's interesting is that he's not alone on the ice. Lots of other players are working on shots or other elements of their game.
Parise is the kind of player, like most of the game's bona fide leaders, whose importance to a team is never summed up adequately by the stats sheet. He kills penalties, blocks shots (he leads the Wild forwards in that category), and those are the kinds of things that, if a team is at all intuitive, resonates throughout the lineup.
"He's a great example for our young players," GM Chuck Fletcher said.
Although Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, who signed an identical deal on the same day last summer, have generated a significant buzz around a team that was long on fan support but short on buzz, the team's real strength lies in its future, players such as Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker, all of whom are 21, and defenseman Jonas Brodin, who is 19.
"For those kids, to see how hard guys like Parise and Koivu play," Fletcher said, referencing Parise's regular linemate and Wild captain Mikko Koivu, "it's like having two extra coaches on the ice."
Mike Rupp, recently acquired by the Wild from the New York Rangers, played with Parise in New Jersey for four years and was part of what they used to call the "shot club," a group of players led by Parise who would work on various elements of shooting outside the normal practice routine.
Rupp, who won a Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh in 2009 and scored the Cup-winning goal for the Devils in 2003, said the great players, players like Martin Brodeur and Sidney Crosby, share certain traits, including a dedication to preparation. And Parise is one of those players.
"I would hope the young guys here are soaking that up," Rupp said.
Parise and Suter were the key pieces of a dramatic offseason makeover by the Wild as owner Craig Leipold opened up the vault to the tune of almost $200 million in contracts for the two stars.
Still, the transition for both players and indeed the transition for the team has taken some time. But as the NHL moves into the second half of its truncated 48-game schedule, the Wild are looking like a team that is finally coming together.
With wins over Nashville and Vancouver on the weekend, the Wild moved into first place in the Northwest Division for the first time since December 2011, when they were actually leading the entire Western Conference and were tops in the NHL before a precipitous collapse saw them miss the playoffs entirely.
"We're seeing signs that the group is coming together," Fletcher said.
Longtime NHL analyst and former NHL netminder John Garrett said he isn't surprised by Suter's contributions, even playing with the youngster Brodin. But he thought the evolving chemistry between Parise and Koivu has been a key factor in the Wild's recent resurgence. He pointed to the first goal of the game between the Wild and the Canucks on Sunday as evidence of that.
Garrett also pointed to the play of veteran netminder Niklas Backstrom as important, not just to the Wild's play thus far but for their ability to sustain their position as a playoff team in the second half of the season.
Can the Wild keep the pressure up on the Canucks, winners of the Presidents' Trophy for the past two seasons? "I think so," Garrett told ESPN.com Tuesday. "With those two additions [Suter and Parise] to start the season, it was just a matter of time before one of those [other] teams got better in the Northwest."
Another top talent evaluator wondered whether the Wild's acquisitions, including the arrival of much-heralded rookie Granlund (who was sent back to the team's AHL affiliate) had the team thinking it would be better than it has been offensively. But recently those acquisitions responded with better efforts in game and that has helped them better establish their identity, the source told ESPN.com. Coyle and Zucker give the team more size and speed to go with good puck-moving defense and solid goaltending, he added. "They look like a playoff team," the source said.
Tuesday night provides another test for a Wild team that has missed the playoffs four straight times and is approaching the 10-year anniversary of the only playoff appearance that yielded a series victory (the Wild actually won two rounds, falling in the 2003 Western Conference finals) as they host the red-hot Anaheim Ducks.
The Ducks are in hot pursuit of the seemingly invincible Chicago Blackhawks atop the Western Conference standings and have won three straight.
Statement game? When you're trying to change the culture, there are a lot of statement games, but Fletcher said trends give rise to optimism and those trends generally lead back to Parise and Suter and speaks to their growing comfort in their new environs.
"It's a big change leaving organizations that they'd been drafted by and spent their whole careers with," Fletcher said of his two star acquisitions.
New teammates, new homes, new systems, new routes to the rink -- heck, new rinks -- new dressing rooms, new dressing room staff.
"It's been hard," Parise told ESPN.com.
He might not have played with center Travis Zajac the entire time he was in New Jersey but the two pretty much grew up together with the Devils. Now Parise is looking to establish chemistry with Koivu, working from scratch.
"We're talking all the time," Parise said. "But you want it to happen from Day One."
Given the attention and the expectations that accompanied the Parise-Suter signings, there is also the delicate balance of bringing more leadership without annoying people. Which is why the personalities of both players seem perfectly matched for this team and their expected roles. Parise said he remembers being the young player who wanted to learn and hang out with the older players in New Jersey working on their shots.
Now he's that guy for the youngsters in Minnesota.
Suter leads the league in average ice time per game and has been paired most recently with 19-year-old Brodin, the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft. Talk about a transition, having played with two-time Norris Trophy nominee Shea Weber almost exclusively for his entire time in Nashville, and even before that in the American Hockey League.
Still, Fletcher sees Suter's impact in the fact that the team is giving up four to five shots fewer a game than a year ago.
Fewer shots against generally means opposing teams have the puck less in the Wild's end of the ice, and that's so because Suter has been adept at moving the puck out of harm's way.
Overall, as of Tuesday morning the Wild rank seventh in goals allowed per game and are fourth on the penalty kill.
Offensively, the team has struggled, but again Fletcher feels the team is showing signs of starting to click more regularly. The Wild have improved to 20th on the power play and rank 26th in goals scored per game.
"But if you look at the West, it's a struggle to score goals on that side of it for most teams," Fletcher said.
He's right. Five of the six lowest-scoring teams in the NHL are from the Western Conference.
Parise leads the team with 11 goals and is also the team leader with five power-play markers. Suter should help that unit as time progresses as well.
His former coach Barry Trotz talked recently about the evolution of Suter's game, how he worked on improving his shot and how he learned to use his skating ability to join the attack.
"He was one of the best at coming off the wall and into the middle and using deception. It's stuff like that really opens some lanes up for the different guys," Trotz said.
With Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi picking up the pace offensively, Fletcher is optimistic that the all-important depth scoring might help ease the burden on his two new acquisitions and keep his team in the playoff conversation.
Stay On Your Skates
By The Numbers
• Bobby Ryan (ANA): 7-game point streak (3 G, 5 A)
• Ducks: 27.8 percent on power play (lead NHL)
• Ryan Suter (MIN): leads NHL in time on ice per game at 27:29
• Niklas Backstrom (MIN): 7-2-1, 2.05 GAA at home (4-4-1, 2.59 GAA on road)
• Wild: 4th-best penalty kill in NHL at 86.5 percent