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Parise is Wild's leader on and off the ice

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- In a season of injury, illness and inconsistency, Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise has been the one veteran constant.

Statistically, Parise is off to his best start since signing with Minnesota in the summer of 2012. He has 23 points in 24 games entering Minnesota's Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the Chicago Blackhawks (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN). If he keeps up that pace for the remainder of the season, he would be on track for his best offensive numbers since he scored 82 points in 81 games with the New Jersey Devils in 2009-10.

But while Parise has held up his end of the bargain as a veteran leader on a team with plenty of youth, it's been hard for the Wild to find a consistent groove this season.

Injuries have played a part. Parise missed nearly two weeks with a concussion. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon missed a handful of games with a shoulder injury. Forward Matt Cooke has been out since before Halloween with a hip injury.

Illness has also hampered Minnesota. At least five players -- all defensemen -- have missed games because of a mumps outbreak that has hit the Wild harder than any other team in the NHL. It's prevented Minnesota from playing with all of its top four defensemen, save for a handful of games at the beginning of the season; a stretch in which the Wild was playing some of their best hockey.

"That's what's hurt us a lot," Parise said. "You never make an excuse because you have to play the games. But one of our strengths is our top-four [defensemen]. You can probably count the number of times on one hand how often they've each been in the lineup together."

The Wild have also had trouble getting everyone on the same page up front. Their big summer acquisition in free agency, forward Thomas Vanek, has underachieved until recently, when he was put on a line with Parise for the first time this season. Mikael Granlund has been unable to build on a breakout sophomore season. Jason Pominville, who scored 30 goals last season, has struggled to put the puck in net.

While players like Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter have continued their progression, youngsters Granlund, Erik Haula and Charlie Coyle have struggled.

"It'd be unfair to expect all of them to come in and have great seasons," Parise said. "Regardless of how last year went, it's not an easy league. Things snowball. But everyone will get through it and everyone will get better."

That belief is not just lip service from Parise. It's a consistent message he has tried to share with all of his younger teammates. It's a message he remembers hearing from veterans like Jamie Langenbrunner and John Madden when he was a young player in New Jersey.

"It's a big reason why he's such a great leader on this team, and has been on every team he's been on," Zucker said. "It's no secret as to why he was a captain for Team USA [in the 2014 Sochi Olympics]. It's a great thing to watch and really learn from."

Of all the young players expected to contribute with Minnesota this season, it's been the emergence of Zucker that has been the most pleasant surprise. His 11 goals have more than doubled his previous career high (four), as have his four assists (two).

He's also bought in on improving his play in the defensive zone and has become a valuable penalty-killer.

Zucker said having a veteran like Parise, a piranha on the puck in his own zone and a talented penalty-killer in his own right, to look up to has been a big help in his development.

"It's huge. He's a very good player and a great leader in this room, so it's always nice to have a guy like that if you need to ask questions, get their opinions on things and help you along the way," Zucker said. "It's not an easy League to play in and it's a battle every single night, so you have to make sure you're on top of your game and he's a guy that can help you out with that."

Zach Parise
Left Wing - MIN
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 23
SOG: 94 | +/-: 7
For guys like Haula and Coyle, who sit to Parise's immediate right in the Wild dressing room, he's been an invaluable leader. But Parise said he tries not to go out of his way to make a point.

"It's a hard thing. Sometimes people don't want to talk about it," Parise said. "I feel like I'm a friendly guy, an approachable guy. I hope they would feel comfortable coming up and talking if they want to.

"I've been in their situation. I know what they're going through and I know how it goes."

Perhaps even more valuable than his open-door policy is his play on the ice. Haula said Parise is a master when it comes to picking his spots to lead vocally, but few question his ability to lead by example. Some doubted the Wild when they signed him to a 13-year, $98 million contract on July 4, 2012. There are few, if any, doubters now.

"When your best players are your hardest workers, what it does say to the rest of the group is, you better keep up," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "That's the way he plays the game. Every time he steps over the boards, the eyes go to him. Our players are looking at him and that's what you want from your leaders.

"He's just relentless."

Disappointed with the Wild's inconsistency, Yeo lit into the group prior to a practice last Friday in Arizona. It was the same message that Parise had been trumpeting to the media for the past couple of weeks.

"The way we've been competing, it just hasn't been good enough regardless of who's in the lineup," Parise said. "We have to play a lot better. The way we are playing is not even close to good enough. We all know that. It was long overdue, so I don't think anybody was surprised by it."

Only time will tell if the message got through, but for Parise, it won't change much.

"I don't think that speech had anything to do with him playing any different, to be honest. He plays that way every game," Zucker said. "So whether coach is yelling at some guys, or praising guys, Zach is going to play the same way. That's just something we've kind of grown accustomed to, knowing that he's a guy who can step up at any time."

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