Let's be honest here, folks: the Parise-to-Wild rumors have practically been circulating since before he suited up with the Devils for his first NHL game. But lately, it's felt a bit different. Actual media sources have been picking up on it, including ESPN, SB Nation, The Hockey News, the Pioneer Press, the Star Tribune, and the ever-reliable Mike Russo, in appearances (among other places) on KFAN radio. And outside the media, here in Fan-land? The buzz, from both Wild fans and outside observers, is reaching a fever pitch––and it's only February.
Yes, I know that every single big-name player draws their share of rumors, based on wishful thinking and not much more, from every single fanbase's corner of the Internet. But this one seems to carry a bit more legitimacy to it than your typical "Selanne is a lock to sign with the Leafs," or the annual "Vancouver will sign Suter and Weber, salary cap be damned" post. Why?
He actually fills a need for the Wild. The Wild have been looking for improvement on scoring for, conservatively, three or four years running now. They brought in Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, and while both (especially Heater) have put up respectable numbers relative to the rest of the team, they haven't exactly rocketed the team up the goal scoring charts, with Minnesota tied for 28th in the league. But Parise carries a distinct advantage. People claim––possibly fairly, possibly not––that Minnesota's focus on solid, responsible, team-first defense stifles the potential of goal scorers like Heatley. But Parise managed to pot 38 goals in a season under Jacques Lemaire. (Yes, that Jacques Lemaire, accused of breaking so many supposed snipers here in St. Paul.) He's an elite talent who has proven his ability to score bucketloads of goals while playing responsible defense in a system not designed to showcase offensive talents.
The Wild are actually in a position to pursue him. The Wild will enter the off-season with potentially as much as $20 million in cap space. Fletcher would actually, somewhat uncharacteristically, be in a position to outbid other teams. And this is with big contracts like Backstrom's $6M, Pierre-Marc Bouchard's $4M, Matt Cullen's $3.5M, and Marek Zidlicky's $4M on the books, all of which (a collective $17.5M) will be expiring at the close of what would be Parise's first season here. Not only can Fletch spend with the big boys, but he can do so without handcuffing the team for years to come.
He will probably be available as a free agent. Before the season, Parise and the Devils were unable to come to terms on a long-term contract, and ended up with a one-year deal after arbitration. That's not exactly the way deals get done between players and teams that they want to stay with. If Parise's intention had been for the biggest contract of his career––the one he's going to sign with someone this summer––to come from the Devils, why wouldn't he have done it last year and avoided all these rumors?
But it gets better. Lou Lamoriello is on record as saying that the Devils will not deal Parise before the trade deadline. That means Fletcher doesn't have to worry about another team swooping in and picking the New Jersey captain's rights up for the rest of the year, then locking him up to a long-term deal––and that means Fletch doesn't have to deal any of his beloved stable of top-end prospects to outbid teams at the end of the month.
And even if negotiations between Parise and Lamoriello somehow reached a détente, the Devils are in grave financial trouble, needing financial assistance from the League just to meet payroll and rent this month, according to Mr. Bettman himself, speaking at the All-Star Game. New Jersey simply isn't in any position to be matching, let alone outbidding, the wads of cash teams will be throwing at Zach in a July 1st bidding war.
He's actually interested in playing here. No, Minnesota hasn't exactly been a prime free agent destination since well before Norm ran off with the boys in green and yellow. But Parise has good reason to come here. Apart from a team that's trending sharply upward with the impending infusion of some of hockey's top young talent, he has actually expressed interest in the market. When given the chance to let us fans down easy, he has repeatedly, skillfully, and coyly dodged questions about whether he'd consider signing here––while being careful to emphasize how gratifying he thinks it can be to play for your hometown. It probably doesn't hurt that he'll be settling into a shiny new house he recently bought on Lake Minnetonka this off-season, either.
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But here's the really big one:
He would mean everything to this franchise. He would represent the Wild's first-ever major free-agent signing in its twelve year history. His deal would indicate a major change in attitudes, both of a traditionally conservative, UFA-averse organization, and of a players market wary of signing in the State of Hockey.
He would represent the biggest step towards contention since the playoff drought began. And bringing in a player of his calibre would indicate to the fans that not only is the organization done scraping for a low-seed berth, but its sights are set on the top prize. The attitude, cultivated in recent years, that the Wild are a "happy to be here" team in the playoffs would be shattered.
And he would bring an air of legitimacy to the organization. The Wild is in an awkward transition phase between being an expansion novelty and being a competitive team with history and tradition. The Wild have been here in Minnesota for nearly half as long as the North Stars were, but it sure feels like they're still the new kids on the block. Locking up a new face for the franchise, who would easily number in the top two or three most talented players ever to pull on the Iron Range Red, would definitively mark the beginning of the Second Era of Wild hockey. It would signal the end of Fletcher's "rebuild on the fly" and the start of an established team that expects results now. It would signal that the Wild are a permanent fixture in the fabric of the NHL and the Minnesota Sports Scene, ready and willing to survive the ups and downs of the cycles of professional sports fortunes.
Fletcher and Parise have a chance to drastically brighten this team's future, and maybe even move the Wild out of its status among the NHL's forgettable redheaded bastard stepchildren. I, for one, sure hope it happens.