PITTSBURGH – To say Zach Parise has evolved is an understatement.
The Wild winger used to be a big proponent of the dump-and-chase game, reminding critics during a classic rant last year that all teams dump the puck, including the Pittsburgh Penguins when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009, and all four conference finalists the previous year, including the New Jersey Devils he captained.
“We went to the Finals dumping and chasing. We did it more than anybody. And we scored a lot,” Parise said in February 2013.
But as the Wild has transitioned to becoming a better puck possession team, Parise has changed his tune dramatically.
“I read a study this summer that showed shots generated off carrying the puck in as opposed to dumping it in, and it’s like 4-to-1. It’s not even close,” said Parise, who is set to make his preseason debut with linemates Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville against the Penguins on Thursday night. “I just found it so interesting because everyone’s like, ‘Forecheck, forecheck, forecheck.’
“I get it, but you dump the puck, you have to get it back. All you’re doing is giving the puck away. I mean, it’s so hard to get it, why would you give it away?”
The Wild tried to skate the puck into the offensive zone more last season and should be better at it this season if speedsters Erik Haula and Jason Zucker are on the roster full-time and if others gain further confidence.
“I just got kind of, not brainwashed, but my last couple years in New Jersey we were so adamant about dumping the puck in,” Parise said. “But you lose a lot of your creativity and you lose a lot of good touches. I mean, if a ‘D’s in your face, you’ve got no other options and you have to.
“But dump it just to dump it, I’m not a believer anymore in getting rid of the puck when it’s so hard to get. That’s the way we played in New Jersey. We always had a plan: Forwards dumped it in, we knew where it was going and that’s how we got it back. But the more I thought about it, possession is just so much better than dumping it in. Dumping it should be, I don’t want to say your last option, but your second or third option.”
The Wild got good at it during last season’s playoff series against Colorado. It’s a small sample size, but by the end of Round 1, all the analytics sites had the Wild as the top puck-possession team in the NHL. It was especially successful in Game 7.
The chief example was Nino Niederreiter’s 2-on-1 goal to win the game in overtime; but in the third period, Niederreiter also scored a tying goal after linemate Kyle Brodziak skated with speed through center ice on an initial 2-on-4.
A year or two earlier, Brodziak said he “absolutely” would have dumped the puck. This time, he turned the play into a 3-on-3 by recognizing the defensemen were backing up. He carried the puck over the blue line before dishing to Niederreiter, something that could not have occurred without a great exit pass, without Brodziak skating with speed and without Niederreiter supporting the puck carrier.
“It’s a confidence thing,” Brodziak said. “The more you practice it, the more you skate through the middle of the ice with the puck, the more you’re comfortable doing it. It can be intimidating if you don’t do it often, but we do it often in practice.”
Parise believes there’s a time and place to dump the puck. If you’re skating through the neutral zone and directly into numbers, dumping the puck is a necessity because you’ll turn it over if you don’t.
There’s also a game within the game, coach Mike Yeo says, and he actually doesn’t mind early in games for the Wild to set a physical tone by dumping the puck and pounding defensemen.
“You get a couple pucks in deep behind their ‘D’ early in a game, you run them through the boards, they get a little more tired, they start to cheat back a little more and it makes entries easier as the game goes on,” Yeo said. “This season, we want to attack with more speed, enter as much as possible, but if it’s not there, we have to be smart, too, because I don’t want to turn the puck over either.”
But Yeo also wants to increase scoring from last season’s 2.43 goals per game, so every day in training camp, “if you watch our practices, every day has had an offensive focus to it.”
“It’s so frustrating when you play a team that’s good at controlling the puck,” Parise said. “Look at the Red Wings when they had [Nicklas] Lidstrom and [Brian] Rafalski. They had the puck all game. You could go two periods feeling like you never even touched the puck.
“That’s the hardest thing to play again. Plus, think of the wear and tear. Have the puck, oh my gosh, it’s less hits. You’re not hitting someone and you’re not getting ran trying to get the puck back. Physically it’s easier and so much more happens. I really think we’ll be a fast, good transition team this year.”
• Brodziak (back) practiced Wednesday but didn’t travel to Pittsburgh. Right winger Justin Fontaine (groin) did.
• The Wild signed Ryan Walters, 23, to an AHL contract. Walters, from Rosemount, was a standout forward at Nebraska-Omaha last season.