ST. PAUL -- Now more than halfway through the monumental 13-year, $98 million contract he signed with his hometown team on July 4, 2012, forward Zach Parise has learned much about his own on-ice mortality.
Over the past 18 months, Parise has returned from a back injury that was so painful, he had to eat standing up. He's come back from a cracked sternum that forced him to miss the final two games of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
This season, his 28 goals and 61 points led the Wild -- Parise's best individual season since 2014-15, when he scored 33 goals and had 62 points. But even that wasn't enough to get the Wild back to the postseason.
Parise will turn 35 this summer, and although he has contractual security, he knows he's closer to the end of his hockey career than he is the beginning.
"It's a hard thing when you're a younger player. You don't understand -- we've all been there -- [but] you don't understand how fast it goes by and really how hard it is, not only to make the playoffs, but go far in the playoffs and how many things have to go right for you," Parise said. "You think, 'Oh, we'll get 'em next year,' and all of a sudden eight years later, you're still saying the same thing, and who knows how many good years you've got left to play?
"I guess looking at it selfishly, you only have so many opportunities. I guess at my age, where I'm at in the career, you don't want to be going through a rebuild right now. So we'll see what happens in the offseason and the direction. As far as whether it's going to be labeled a rebuild, I don't really know how things are going to shape out.
"That being said, it goes by pretty quickly, and all of a sudden you play for a while, and I've only had one real chance to win [a Stanley Cup]. And that's how quick things go by, and that's how hard it is, so you hope that it's not going to be something where it's a few years of taking it on the chin and missing playoffs. You hope that we can rebound right away and be a competitive team to get back in the playoffs."
Video: Locker clean out: Parise
Parise was on track to reach 30 goals for the seventh time in his career until he was slowed by knee and foot injuries late in the season.
In one instance, he blocked a shot that hurt his foot.
In the other, he was the victim of a questionable low hit by Washington's Tom Wilson late in the season. He didn't miss a shift and actually dished out an assist on the game-winning goal his next time over the boards, but it put his status in question for every game the rest of the season.
In fact, he played in just one more game after that, scoring twice in a win over Winnipeg 11 days after sustaining the original injury.
By then, the Wild's slim playoff hopes had essentially evaporated.
"We've got a lot of work to do. You can't sugarcoat it right now," said Parise, whose lone Stanley Cup Final appearance came with the New Jersey Devils in 2012. "You look at how many times we got shut out in the year, the lack of scoring that we had at the end of the season. To just think a flip is going to switch and we're going to come back and start putting four or five in a game, I don't know how realistic that is. We have some work.
"As individuals, we need a lot of improvement. And as a group, there's just a lot of work to be done."
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Considering the end to his 2017-18 season, in which Parise scored 12 goals in his final 18 games following a slow start after a return from his back injury, his individual performance this year has to be encouraging.
Parise looked much like his old self, scoring goals in many of the ways he's been known to over the years.
Unfortunately for Parise, his strong season couldn't help the Wild to a seventh consecutive postseason berth. Still, he feels there is more he can give in 2019-20 in hopes that Minnesota can return to the postseason next spring.
"I feel like there's a lot more. I said it all year, it was, for the most part until the end, refreshing to have had a good summer of training and working on individual skills and then feeling like that during the season," Parise said. "I still think there's a lot of room for improvement, so there's a lot of excitement about that, and I'm looking forward to it."