Zach Parise has had an excellent career by just about any standards. He’s played 13 seasons, garnering votes for several major awards including the Selke Trophy (Defensive Forward), Lady Bing Memorial Trophy (Sportsmanship), and the Hart Trophy (MVP) throughout. Though Parise has never taken any of these awards home, not every player gets that kind of recognition across the board. He has even been to a Stanley Cup Final (2011-12), though his New Jersey Devils succumbed to the Los Angeles Kings in six games.
Zach Parise: The American Dream
Parise has also played on one All-Star team (2009 while a member of the New Jersey Devils), and has represented the USA multiple times. From U18 (first ever IIHF Men’s Under 18 World Championship Gold Medal 2002), National Junior in 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2008 (first ever IIHF World Junior Championship Gold Medal in 2004 as well as tournament MVP), and two Olympic Games (2010 Gold, 2014 4th).
He was twice nominated (and the only freshman considered in 2002-03) for the Hobey Baker Award while at the University of North Dakota (2002-04). Parise was also the first UND freshman ever to be considered for the award while earning the teams top rookie and co-MVP that season.
For most hockey players, even those lucky enough to make it to the NHL, Parise’s list of achievements is the stuff of dreams, and this is just a sampling of his career highlights. But, for Parise, it lacks one thing.
A Stanley Cup.
And that is probably the one reason Parise continues to battle season after season in spite of a slew of injuries.
Sure, there is the love of the game, but at some point, even that love isn’t enough. However, the motivation to win a Stanley Cup for many hockey players is just enough fuel in the tank.
And as long as the Wild looks like a real contender, Parise will probably try to run on those vapors. But the reality for Minnesota is that the promising young talent in the pipeline hasn’t developed fast enough, the veterans get another year older with each season, and whatever hocus-pocus Devan Dubnyk has can only carry the team so far.
Parise’s window of opportunity is closing fast, and there may not be much the Wild as a team can do about that in part because of some big contracts they have on the books (including Parise’s).
I don't understand how #mnwild fans don't understand that there is no fixing this team until the Parise/Suter deals are over.
— Tyler not Taylor (@tylerakageorge) April 30, 2018
In thirteen seasons, Parise has only played 75 or more games in a season six times. None of those seasons have come since he’s pulled a Minnesota Wild Sweater over his head.
Parise returned to his home state of Minnesota with the highest of expectations. Expectations in part because of the high price tag of $98,000,000 over 13 seasons along with fellow Team USA teammate defenseman Ryan Suter (with a matching contract) at the start of the 2012-13 season. Both contracts were handed out prior to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and are susceptible to cap recapture penalties should either player retire ahead of the 2024-25 season.
Spoiler Alert: they almost certainly will.
Cap Recapture is a minefield. But, it’s important to note, at the time these contracts were signed, they were completely legal. A loophole that allowed teams to ‘back-dive’ a contract spreading big money out over a long period (up to 15 years, though the New Jersey Devils, attempted and failed to get a 17-year blood oath for Ilya Kovalchuk past the NHL). The salary would also decrease as the player aged with an expectation that these players would never make it to the end of said contract (note the date on the tweet below).
Parise and Suter are essentially 10 year deals. They won't play last 3 years averaging around $1.3 million/year. Will likely retire at 37.
— Jason Gregor (@JasonGregor) July 4, 2012
Leave it to the league to find a way to punish them retroactively in spite of that fact that this was a loophole they failed to recognize until the Devils took it to the absurd (see above) and they had no choice but to perma-seal that crack in the foundation. In fact, you can thank former Devils (and now former Toronto Maple Leafs) GM Lou Lamoriello for shining a spotlight on this loophole. This is why we can no longer have our cake and eat it too.
Having said that, these are the rules all teams must abide by now, and Minnesota is far from the only team that will likely have to tread through the mess cap recapture creates. Pittsburgh (Sidney Crosby), Chicago (Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa who spent 2017-18 on long-term injured reserve fall under cap recapture should the league not allow him to remain on LTIR going forward), Nashville (Shea Weber), Vancouver (Roberto Luongo), Detroit (Henrik Zetterberg) all come to mind and the list doesn’t stop there.
Under the current CBA, contracts are limited to eight years (seven in the case of players signing to a new team via free agency). They can drop no more than thirty-five percent from year to year, and they must never fall below half of the contracts maximum salary in any one season.
These rules have two purposes, first to keep teams from continuing these practices, and second to slap the General Managers who had the audacity to work a flawed system. It’s kind of like calling the cops after you invite the burglar into your house and show him where all your valuables are, but okay Mr. Bettman.
So how does it work and what will it mean for the Wild you ask?
For every year Parise’s salary is higher than his annual average salary (AAV), the difference accumulates against the team. The only way to avoid having to pay for that difference is for Parise to play through every season that his AAV dips below that base salary to the end of his contract (seven more seasons) when he will be 40. By the end of the contract, the accumulated difference will zero out.
However, if Parise retires early, then the difference that has accumulated gets divided by the number of seasons left on the table and charged against that team’s cap for those seasons that he will not participate in. Just in case you were thinking, well they could trade him…they can, but they get to keep the cap recapture penalty. Which makes sense since it is designed to punish the team that made the deal in the first place.
So, here’s the bad news and I’m going to be generous and say Parise plays another season and a half in this scenario. If Parise were to retire after the 2020 season, the Wild would be saddled with a $3.938 million salary cap penalty in each of the next five seasons. Keep in mind the Wild finished this season with less than $200,000 in spare cap, so that’s going to sting a bit.
And if you think that’s bad, if Suter were to follow a season later, the Wild would be saddled with another $5.038 million in cap penalties in each of the next four seasons. And that’s if they retire relatively soon, that accumulated difference rises every year they play until their salary is lower than their AAV and the number that it gets divided by gets smaller.
The math is not friendly.
Are you horrified yet? If you’re a Wild fan (or any other team staring down the barrel of cap recapture penalties), you should be.
Unfortunately, cap recapture wasn’t a concern at the time Parise was signed, but it is a reality that the Wild and their fans cannot escape with just six of those 13 years on the books. And in those six years, Parise has compiled a list of injuries almost as long as his list of accomplishments over the course of his hockey career.
The cap recapture scenario is a problem if Parise or Suter retire early, but given that both players are already 33, it is highly likely that at some point both of these contracts could become anchors around the collective neck of this team and the State of Hockey.
In some ways, they already are because the pair eats up significant cap ($15,076,924 annually) which isn’t unusual throughout the league, but it is painful when one or both of those players underperform and/or spend significant time sidelined due to injuries.
Unfortunately, Parise has been extraordinarily unlucky in the injury department. Having suffered concussions, knee injuries, a back injury that could have potentially been a career ender in and of itself, and in the playoffs this spring he suffered a fractured sternum.
So, the question is, how much longer can Parise’s body hold up, and how much longer will he choose to keep putting his career above his long-term health?
Hockey Over Health?
As a fan of hockey, and a fan of Parise himself it is difficult not to consider both sides of the equation here.
Parise when healthy is a dynamic forward who can still provide a lot of offense to this team (he is only two seasons removed from a three hat trick 53 point season) and the Wild are obviously a better team with him on the ice than without. As of two seasons ago, this was still a team many considered to be a solid contender with Dubnyk in net and a slew of young players on the rise. With Parise and Suter healthy, perhaps they could eek out another year or two of playoff hockey, but could they really contend?
The only way to answer that question is for it to happen but, my magic eight ball says the outlook is not so good.
On the other side of this coin, it is hard not to consider the ramifications every injury will have on Parise once he hangs up his skates, which is likely not too far into the future.
Fans often don’t consider what a players future looks like after hockey, in fact, many players aren’t thinking about it too much either.
If they did, they wouldn’t be so game to continue playing on broken bones or torn muscles in the heat of a playoff race. They don’t consider it until there’s an injury big enough and scary enough that it can’t be classified by the NHL’s favored terms, upper or lower body injury.
When the team comes out mid-playoff run and owns an injury without those vagueries, that’s when life after hockey starts to come into focus.
For a hockey player, a back injury is just that type of injury.
With a lifetime of hockey in my family and among my circle of friends I can tell you back injuries have ended many a young career well before they get off the ground, and one later in the career of an NHL player is no joke. The fact that Parise came back at all is a testament to the toughness of hockey players and Parise in particular, but the continued beating his body has taken since is more than a little worrisome.
Parise has a wife and kids who have undoubtedly enjoyed watching his career and would love to see him raise the Stanley Cup. But, as the Wild face uncertainty with very limited cap space, a search for a new General Manager, and a decline as a whole on the ice, retirement has to be under consideration.
At some stage in his career, the thirst for a Stanley Cup may no longer be enough to risk body and mind, and Parise will not be the first player who is forced from the game too early because of injury, nor will he be the last.
Of course, there is always the chance that Parise could wind up on the LTIR as Hossa and Chris Pronger did with chronic career ending ailments or injuries, but knowing Bettman and the NHL’s penchant for retroactive punishment, inconsistent enforcement, and changing the rules mid-stride there is no guarantee that it will be the magic solution the fans are hoping it could be.
Either way, if you are a fan of Parise and the Minnesota Wild, enjoy every game, because there may not be a year-long retirement tour like Vancouver’s Daniel and Henrik Sedin just had as their contracts expired.
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