NEWARK—The most famous goal of Zach Parise’s life came in the gold medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and it was the sort of play that would persuade Neil Smith, were he still the Rangers’ general manager, to make signing Parise his primary off-season priority. Playing for the United States, Parise rooted himself in front of Team Canada’s net and tucked a rebound behind goaltender Roberto Luongo. It tied the game at 2. There were 24 seconds left in regulation.
“Clutch is a good word—he is a clutch player,” said Smith, who was the Rangers’ GM in 1994, when they last won the Stanley Cup. “He’s a guy you can count on being there in tough games. He comes through for you in very difficult situations where other skilled players that are great goal-scorers may not come through. With the Rangers, he’d fit in nicely.”
A star winger for the Devils, Parise will be the most coveted prize of the NHL’s off-season as he becomes an unrestricted free agent. His presence in the Eastern Conference Finals hints at a promising scenario for the Rangers that could play out in early July. Here’s Parise, 27 years old and in the prime of his career, delivering two goals and an assist in the Devils’ 4-1 series-tying victory in Monday’s Game 4, and it’s impossible to watch him and not wonder what he might bring to the Rangers if they were to win the bidding battle for him.
Through a spokesman, the Rangers and GM Glen Sather declined to comment on their possible pursuit of Parise. Earlier this season, Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said he would not discuss any conversations he might have with Parise’s agent, Wade Arnott, saying only, “Zach Parise is our captain. He’s our leader. We want him to be here.” Arnott recently confirmed that there have been no formal talks with the Devils regarding Parise’s future, and for his part, Parise said last week that he is focused solely on helping his team beat the Rangers in this series.
“We’ve done a good job of concentrating on what we’re doing and have to do and not allowing these underlying stories to take over what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “You shelter yourself from that stuff.”
Despite what’s presumed to be an uncertain climate for signing free agents—the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15—one development is all but assured, according to several league analysts and former executives: The Rangers will make a play for Parise.
Based on this season’s per-team salary-cap number of $64.3 million, the Rangers would have more than $16 million worth of room under the cap next season, and it’s something of an annual tradition for Sather to chase, and often catch, the biggest name on the market: Chris Drury and Scott Gomez in 2007, Marian Gaborik in 2009, Brad Richards—to the tune of nine years and $60 million—last year.
That the Rangers have struggled, particularly in the playoffs, to generate goals would only increase the likelihood that they’d go after Parise, who has scored at least 31 in five of his seven NHL seasons.
“He would actually be exactly what the Rangers need,” said Gus Katsaros, the scouting director of McKeen’s Hockey, “a nice, sweet injection of offensive ability.”
Assuming they made no other personnel changes, the Rangers by adding Parise would boast one of the deepest groups of forwards in the league: Parise, Richards, Gaborik, Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, and emerging young players in Chris Kreider and Carl Hagelin.
Though he’s a modest 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds, Parise also possesses enough tenacity and defensive conscientiousness that he would adapt quickly to the demanding style of play that Rangers coach John Tortorella favors.
“You don’t have to tell Zach Parise it’s time to practice. You don’t have to tell him it’s time to play and he has to play hard,” said former Devils goaltender Kevin Weekes, who was Parise’s teammate in New Jersey and now covers the league for the NHL Network and “Hockey Night in Canada.” “He’s one of the hardest-working star players in the league—on every possession, on every sequence, certainly every day of practice and in the weight room.”
But then, the very same qualities that would make Parise a desirable acquisition for the Rangers apply to just about every other team in the NHL. And because Parise will have so many potential suitors driving up his price tag, he’ll end up with a handsome deal regardless of where he signs. “This is going to come down to where Zach Parise feels the best place for him to play is,” said Craig Button, former general manager of the Calgary Flames. “It won’t come down to dollars for Zach Parise. It’ll be situation and fit.”
That’s where the speculation about Parise’s destination really gets juicy. The Devils are the only franchise he has known in his NHL career. Would he feel a sense of loyalty to them? He’s a native of Minneapolis. Would he want to return home and sign with the Minnesota Wild?
One intriguing possibility is the Detroit Red Wings. “He is their guy,” former Toronto Maple Leafs GM Gord Stellick said. “[The Red Wings are] never going to go after an unrestricted free agent as hard as they’re going to go after Zach Parise.”
It’s no wonder: Parise said in an interview earlier this season that it was important to him to play for a team with a realistic chance of winning a championship. The Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups over the previous 15 years and have not finished with a losing record since the 1990-91 season, and they built their success around players such as Steve Yzerman and Pavel Datsyuk—elite two-way forwards with impeccable leadership credentials. They could make Parise into their latest incarnation of that tradition.
Of course, Detroit lost in the first round of this year’s playoffs. The Rangers and Devils are still standing, still playing for a shot at the Stanley Cup. So maybe the first thing the Rangers have to do to coax Parise into crossing the Hudson River is send him and his team home for the summer.
Write to Mike Sielski at email@example.com