A red mark ran from Zach Parise’s mouth toward his right ear after Friday’s game, the result of a collision with the stick of Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich.
The Devils’ captain had already recorded his second career hat trick when he was forced to the locker room for a league-mandated concussion evaluation in the second period. He was soon cleared and returned for a shift in the third as the Devils ended a four-game skid with a 5-0 victory over the Capitals at Verizon Center.
“You tell me,” Parise said when queried about the injury. “It doesn’t look normal. It hurts to open my mouth.”
For once, Parise talked about the present and not whether the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent would be with the team past this season. Questions surrounding Parise’s future, the possible retirement of goalie Martin Brodeur and the team’s financial viability have loomed larger this season than whether the Devils will return to the playoffs — where New Jersey had landed 14 seasons in a row before last season’s absence.
“It’s been pretty easy,” Brodeur said when asked by FOXSports.com about blocking out the distractions. “We have our own expectations of what we want to do. What a guy feels and their circumstances are dealt with differently by each player. The lack of success last year raised a lot different questions. It’s normal for people to judge players and their situations when you don’t make the playoffs. The expectations are high in New Jersey.”
Maybe they were too high after the Devils signed free agent Ilya Kovalchuk before the 2010-11 season. (A 17-year deal was initially rejected by the NHL and resulted in a $3 million fine and loss of a third-round draft pick.) Kovalchuk eventually agreed to a 15-season, $100 million deal.
Troubles mounted early that season as the Devils stumbled. Parise suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee that November and coach John MacLean was fired in December after a 9-22-2 start to the season.
“We’re battling for a playoff spot now and having fun,” said Brodeur, who had Friday off as he watched his backup, Johan Hedberg, earn a shutout. “Last year, we had our coach fired by December and all hell broke loose. That’s pretty unusual for a team that made the playoffs (so many) years in a row.”
The Devils (36-23-5) ended a 0-3-1 skid with their victory against Washington and ended Friday in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
“We’re playing a different style now and we’ve adjusted,” said Kovalchuk, who already has more points (62) than he had all of last season. “There are a lot of new faces. We’re a little younger and have more energy. Things have worked out so far.”
The Devils have bought into Peter DeBoer’s system, so that means we won’t see Jacques Lemaire’s fourth or general manager Lou Lamoriello’s third stint behind the New Jersey bench.
“In this business, you can’t look beyond (the current) year,” said DeBoer, who previously coached the Florida Panthers. “They came back motivated and ready to do whatever it takes and you’re seeing that.”
It’s the kind of stability the Devils haven’t had in regards to their financials. The team had to take an advance from the NHL to continue to operate this season, the New York Post reported in January. The Devils reportedly will lose as much as $20 million this season.
The team’s financial woes certainly won’t help the Parise negotiations. He avoided arbitration last offseason and signed a one-year, $6 million deal. Parise, 27, could command $8 million or more per season and a contract length that will likely exceed 10 years.
“He’s the heartbeat of this team, a key piece,” DeBoer said.
Brodeur appears to be leaning toward returning, although he hasn’t officially decided. He’s played his entire NHL career in New Jersey and led the Devils to three Stanley Cup titles. Brodeur said he has had conversations with Parise about also starting and finishing his career with the team.
“Everybody is different,” Brodeur said. “Zach has character, drive and he’s a loyal person. I hope they’ll be able to get themselves together and make a deal. He’s our franchise. I know we signed Kovi and kind of tagged him as the franchise player, but every team has a couple of them. In my era, we had myself (Scott) Niedermayer and (Scott) Stevens. There can be more than one. I think he sees the opportunity to play with Kovi for a lot of years. I expect him to be back with us.”
It’s too soon to tell whether these final weeks of the regular season and a possible postseason run could be the last hurrah for the Devils as they’re currently assembled. Still, it might not be a bad idea to enjoy Parise — with an unsightly stick wound and all — along with Brodeur just in case.