Parise not tipping hand as free agency nears

MINNEAPOLIS – It’s hard to believe everything Zach Parise says these days.

Surround him with fans of his current team, the New Jersey Devils, and he’ll tell them there’s no way he’s going to sign with the rival New York Rangers, as he did last week.

Put him behind an autograph table at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis, and he’ll tell a Wild fan he’s coming to the Twin Cities. Everyone knows it’s a joke, that there’s so little Parise can say, yet the questions keep coming. He was put on the spot about the Rangers, he said, just as he chose to dodge question after question from Wild fans Wednesday night.

That’s just reality for the 27-year-old left wing, who has 10 days left in exclusive negotiations with the Devils before he would become a free agent on July 1. After a playoff run in which his team made the Stanley Cup Finals and Parise scored eight goals, he’s become one of the hottest potential free agents on the market, and the rumors are especially prevalent in his hometown of Minneapolis.

“It’s been a runaway train, for sure, in the media everywhere and not just here,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said of the rumors that started spreading June 14 at his pre-draft press conference. “I think it just speaks to the parity in the league and how much competition there is. … There’s a lot of teams with a lot of money to spend. So I think my only statement would be, ‘It’s probably a good year to be a free agent.'”

Parise said he treats his impending free agency as something he can take advantage of, but it would seem that balancing his sanity with the desire to get the most out of this summer is something he’s grappling with daily. Talk to Parise for five minutes and who knows how many times he’ll say he wants to minimize the stress of the process. However, coming home to Minneapolis this offseason, though a natural move, is unlikely to mitigate the constant scrutiny.

Parise grew up in Bloomington, Minn. His father, J.P., played for the North Stars, and Parise still keeps a house in the Twin Cities, which he returned to last Friday from New Jersey. That’s why he made an appearance Wednesday at the Defending the Blue Line game on the University of Minnesota campus, where he signed autographs and watched from the bench. As an unsigned player, Parise did not compete with the local hockey stars who took the ice. Instead, he subjected himself to the barrage of questions he’s mostly unable to answer.

“We’ve kept everything pretty quiet, and we’re going to do the same thing for however long it takes,” Parise said of his contract negotiations.

Parise said that right now, he’s focused on working things out with the Devils. That’s his No. 1 priority, and he said he wants the negotiations to work out without becoming too stressful. But even while claiming such a singular focus, Parise admitted that what other teams could offer is always lurking in the back of his mind.

It doesn’t help that everyone seems to have an opinion on where the winger should sign. That’s made even more complicated by the Wild’s struggles at the end of last season and their need for a scorer like Parise, who would be one of the highest-scoring wings on the free agent market.

“It is hard,” Parise said. “You’ve got everyone who has their opinion, and rightfully so. A lot of people are fans, and they support a team, and it’s great. That’s what makes the game great. Ultimately, we just have to do what’s best for me and my family.”

And though Fletcher wouldn’t comment on the rumors swirling about his team’s pursuit of Parise, Wild defenseman Nate Prosser didn’t hesitate to discuss the free agent and what he brings to a team.

“Everyone saw him in the playoffs, just saw the kind of character and leadership that he brings each and every night, and every game he’s a hard worker,” Prosser said. “Any team would love to have a guy like that, obviously.”

It’s flattering to have that reputation, but as Parise has learned since his season ended earlier this month, it can also be daunting. The questions are unlikely to abate anytime soon, just as the winger won’t be spilling his true thoughts on where he’d like to play. Eventually, the silence will end, but until then, Parise isn’t making any promises.

Not to Devils fans, not to Wild fans, not to anyone.

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