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Is Parise's return too little too late?

by David Kalan
With nine games remaining in New Jersey's season and nine points separating the Devils from the last playoff spot in the East, it seems their brilliant run at a postseason berth, valiant as it was, is likely to come to an end soon and there will be no souls or fiddles made of gold to console them.

The Devils' remaining schedule -- only two of their remaining opponents would not be in the playoffs if the season ended today -- is hardly favorable even if New Jersey plays five of its final seven at home. Those last two weeks are likely to serve merely as a curtain call to what was an incredible 2011 after a decidedly unincredible 2010. But while the sobering reality of New Jersey's first early spring in 15 years starts to set in, there is some good news coming out of the Garden State this morning.

According to Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger, GM Lou Lamoriello announced today that young star forward Zach Parise will play again this season "unless there is something unforeseen that happens."

When one looks at New Jersey's incredible second-half, in which the team went from a very un-Devil-like 27 points out of the postseason to as close as six points earlier this month, one has to marvel that not only did the Devils embark on one of the most impressive runs at the playoffs ever -- New Jersey shave 21 points off the gap, the largest deficit overcome to make the playoffs is 12 -- but they did so without, arguably, their best player for the vast majority of the season.

Parise went down with a torn meniscus in Los Angeles on Oct. 30, just 12 games into the season. It was a huge blow to lose a player whom, after consecutive 80-plus point seasons, appeared to be on the verge of superstardom -- something not easily achieved for an offensive star in New Jersey's defense first system.

Given that the Devils didn't really take off until after Jacques Lemaire replaced John MacLean as head coach, Parise's absence was obviously not the only problem, but to assume this team couldn't have done better with the four-time 30-goal scorer in the lineup is silly.

Lamoriello declined to say if Parise would be practicing with the team today, but given the dramatic nature of his injury and the stunningly high odds against the Devils making the postseason, one has to wonder if bringing him back at all makes sense. Parise has skated on his own for weeks and, according to Lamoriello, is "on a time frame", but it seems unlikely Parise's return could provide the boost New Jersey will run the table and get the help required to close the gap by April 10.

Of course, there may be much more at play than a run at the playoffs. Parise is a restricted free agent after this season and will likely be given an offer sheet that leaves the Devils hard-pressed to retain their franchise cornerstone given the hefty contract of Ilya Kovalchuk. Despite his eye for talent and maintaining a system, Lamoriello is yet to prove himself a master at making the math work in the salary cap era like Detroit's Ken Holland, but he is certainly savvy enough to find a way if he feels Parise is worth the investment -- and if he plays like he did before his injury, Parise certainly is.

As a result, this may be more of a glorified tryout to see how Parise has recovered before the looming monetary decisions come, and with several large contracts coming off the Devils books over the next few seasons -- Patrik Elias, Dainius Zubrus, Bryce Salvador, Colin White and Martin Brodeur to name a few -- there certainly should be a way to squeeze Parise in for the long term even if it means a cap crunch could make 2011-12 difficult.

But what impact it could have on the current campaign seems minimal at best barring a miracle. That's not to say the Devils don't have a penchant for comebacks. New Jersey's comeback from a 3 games to 1 deficit in the 2000 Eastern Conference Final is the stuff of legend for Devils fans and the less-heralded rally to take the 2006 Atlantic Division title by winning the final 11 games of the season might be even more impressive. One more incredible comeback will probably not happen this time given the daunting task that still remains, however.

And the return of the best homegrown forward in franchise history is unlikely to change that.
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