Calder Corner: Parise searching for consistency

By Ryan Garner

Each month, Hockey’s Future will examine a Calder Trophy hopeful. This month features New Jersey Devil Zach Parise.

Zach Parise, son of former NHL player J.P. Parise, has followed an abnormally linear path to the NHL. Most prospects must learn patience during the infancy of their careers, enduring call-ups and demotions, training camp cuts and roster spot battles before they’re able to secure regular minutes in the NHL. That wasn’t the case for Parise. After four years at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep School he played two full seasons at the University of North Dakota, followed by a year with Albany of the AHL during the lockout. Drafted 17th overall by the New Jersey Devils in 2003, he’s managed to make a smooth transition during each stage of his development, immediately stepping into a scoring role and putting up solid numbers. Parise has developed a reputation for seamlessly adapting to new systems or linemates, while maintaining a high level of consistency. Fans of the Devils were eagerly anticipating his NHL debut and the youngster’s popularity was evident when he received a standing ovation after being introduced prior to a preseason game.

Parise enjoyed an NHL debut every rookie dreams of. Centering a line with veterans Brian Gionta and Viktor Kozlov, he registered a goal and an assist in the New Jersey Devils 6-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on opening night. To say his first NHL game was a success would be a drastic understatement. The 21-year-old center saw nearly 16 minutes of ice time — over six minutes coming on the power play — and scored the game-winning goal in front of a capacity crowd at home. The performance prompted the Continental Airlines Arena faithful to begin an impromptu “Parise’s better” chant, voicing their opinion in a comparison between Parise and fellow rookie Sidney Crosby. The game not only cemented the youngster’s status as a fan favorite, it also gave him the early lead in rookie scoring and eliminated any doubt about his ability to compete at the NHL level.

But Parise has struggled adapting. His performance has dropped off dramatically since opening the season with three points in his first three games and the Minneapolis native has only two points in the last 11 games, while his minutes have gradually decreased. Parise has had only one game where he’s seen over 14 minutes of play and more than three minutes of power play time since his stellar debut. A fiery competitor who thrives on pressure situations, he’s rarely seen after the second intermission and Devils coach Larry Robinson doesn’t call his number in key situations. There are even rumblings around the Devils organization that he might not be ready for regular minutes on a scoring line. Needless to say, comparisons to Crosby have come to an abrupt halt.

After the first five games of the season, Gionta was replaced by veteran winger Alexander Mogilny on the line. Mogilny and Kozlov were able to produce, scoring 13 and 10 points respectively through the first 14 games, but Parise couldn’t find the scoresheet and their playing styles didn’t mesh well. Undersized at 5’11, 185 pounds, the youngster is a natural playmaker and excellent passer, making him better suited to playing a perimeter game. Playing alongside Mogilny and Kozlov on the second line, he was forced to crash the net and battle in high-traffic areas to create scoring chances, a style of play that often neutralized his offensive abilities.

Despite his recent struggles, the future looks very bright for the speedy pivot. Parise is expected to fill the large shoes of veteran centers like Mike Modano and Doug Weight representing the United States at international tournaments. He played a major role helping the United States capture gold at the 2004 World Junior Championships, and suited up for the red, white and blue at the 2005 World Championships. The United States squad will have a new look at the 2006 Olympics, where Parise is expected to make his Olympic debut and contribute to the American squad’s quest for gold.

A very talented youngster, Parise has great offensive skills but also benefits from solid defensive play. He possesses excellent speed and can usually be seen battling down low in his own end or pressuring the puck. This enables him to fit in well with the Devils system that puts an emphasis on defensive responsibility and versatility. His intensity and work ethic are infectious and he’s a very mature player for his age. However, he does need to improve his efficiency in the faceoff circle and should bulk up to battle through checks.

Parise has five points through 14 games this season and the learning curve is taking a little longer than some expected coming into the year, but if he can gain some confidence and improve his consistency he should begin to produce regularly for the Devils.

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