Zach Parise’s style of play as a hockey player invites punishment. He fights and scratches and claws for every inch on the ice.
Parise treats each shift like his house is on fire and he’s trying to save valuable possessions. He parks himself in front of the net, jabbing at loose pucks, a worker bee who refuses to stop until someone grabs him in a headlock.
Ever recall Parise taking a lazy shift in five seasons wearing a Wild uniform? His currency comes in the form of hustle.
But now he has a back injury, his second one in two years. The first back injury kept him out of the 2016 playoffs. This latest one will prevent him from opening the 2017 season with his team in Detroit on Thursday night.
In a perfect world, this will prove to be a minor hiccup that causes no major disruption to his season. But back injuries are tricky because flare-ups can be unpredictable. And Parise now has had two issues in two years.
That sets off alarms because Parise remains the Wild’s sparkplug, one of its best players, a face of the franchise and a guy with eight years and $45 million remaining on his mega-contract. And he’s 33 years old.
The Wild’s window for winning a championship with its veteran nucleus isn’t limitless. The bar on expectations already has been established and the Wild will be judged on postseason success. Owner Craig Leipold raised the ante recently by stating that “anything short of winning the Stanley Cup would be a disappointment.”
So pardon us for feeling a touch uneasy about news that Parise missed most of training camp and won’t play the first few games of the season — at minimum — because of back problems.
“We just have to make sure we do the right thing here,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “Let’s be smart.”
That’s the right decision, of course. NHL seasons are long grinds so no sense in rushing Parise onto the ice until he’s ready. His absence will leave a significant void if extended beyond a few games.
Parise makes the Wild stronger in numerous ways. He might not possess All-World individual skill like other stars, but his energy and relentless effort are pronounced when missing from the lineup.
“He’s the kind of guy that it doesn’t matter if he’s scoring goals or getting points or not,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said. “The things that he does and things that he creates out there are big intangibles for us. He’s missed every time he’s not on the ice.”
Fletcher tried to allay concerns about Parise’s absence this week. He said Parise “feels great” but not quite 100 percent. His pain has decreased, but he still needs to improve his strength and range of motion before he’s ready to return.
“It doesn’t make sense to start him at 80 percent,” Fletcher said.
Left unsaid — and likely unknown — is whether Parise’s back will return to 100 percent, or whether recurring problems will become his new normal. Fletcher has no way of knowing that, so he understandably refused to spend much time discussing publicly worst-case scenarios.
But one wonders if team officials aren’t privately on pins and needles. Parise’s contract reflects his importance to the organization this season and beyond.
Fletcher repeatedly expressed optimism that Parise will make full recovery, but he also acknowledged, “There’s no guarantees for anybody.”
If his back problems linger, the question becomes, can Parise adjust his style of play to reduce the amount of punishment he endures? He can’t change who he is completely, can’t reinvent himself. But can he avoid some of the physical toll by altering facets of his game?
“Zach is wired a certain way,” Fletcher said. “He plays the game in the dirty areas. There’s no reason to believe he won’t get back and be 100 percent again. The key is, let’s do the right thing so he can maximize the number of games he plays this year.”
That’s best case. Anything less becomes awfully concerning.