ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Relegated to the fourth line down the stretch of the Minnesota Wild's season and left off the ice for the beginning of the playoffs, Zach Parise was not pleased with his diminished role.
The people responsible understood his frustration as well as anyone.
Wild general manager Bill Guerin and coach Dean Evason, with their combined 31 years in the NHL, fully realized Parise would be upset.
"Look, Dean and I both played. We get it. We both grew old, too," Guerin said. "These guys are all human beings. They all have emotions. They all feel."
The week after the Wild were eliminated from the playoffs by the Vegas Golden Knights in a tight first-round series that went the full seven games, Guerin and the rest of the staff have shifted focus toward a tricky summer.
Kirill Kaprizov, Kevin Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek, the team's three top scorers, are all up for new contracts. There's an expansion draft to navigate. Then there is the dilemma the Wild have found themselves in with Parise, who has four years left on his deal with an annual salary cap hit of more than $7.5 million. He will turn 37 next month, the same day free agency is expected to begin.
Parise was left out of the lineup for the first three games of the playoffs, after a handful of humbling healthy scratches during the regular season. When Marcus Johansson broke his arm, Parise was put back in and responded with two goals and an assist over the final four games. He was excluded from the power-play units, one of his strengths as a gritty, around-the-net forward with a knack for scoring.
"There's never been any doubt in my mind that I can play the game and be productive and contribute to this team and help this team win," Parise said.
The 16-year veteran said he doesn't want to play elsewhere. Parise spoke carefully on a videoconference call when asked about his relationship with the team, declining to elaborate about his season-ending conversation with Evason and the coaches.
"I'm a pretty low-maintenance guy, I think. Just playing and helping the team win and being a part of the team and contributing. I think that's all that any player asks for," Parise said.
At a wrap-up news conference at team headquarters Thursday, Guerin expressed no hesitation about bringing Parise back if his playing time is going to continue to be limited. Even if Parise were to waive his contractual right to refuse a trade, the Wild would almost certainly have to eat salary to satisfy an acquiring team. Buying him out would come with some salary-cap pain, too.
Parise signed for 13 years and a $98 million contract on July 4, 2012, alongside an identical deal for defenseman Ryan Suter. Since the Parise-Suter era began, the Wild have made eight postseason appearances in nine years, but they are only 2-8 in series and 19-36 in games and have yet to advance past the second round.
The expansion draft looms next month for the Seattle Kraken, and the Wild can protect only seven forwards and three defensemen or a total of eight skaters. Players who have no-move clauses in their contracts preventing them from being traded or sent to the minors without consent must be included on the protected list unless they waive those rights, meaning spots are already reserved for Parise, Suter, forward Mats Zuccarello, and defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin.
Parise had seven goals and 11 assists in 45 games this season, by far his lowest points-per-game average as a pro while playing the fewest minutes -- an average of 13.57 per game -- since he was a rookie with the New Jersey Devils in 2005-06.
"It's definitely a different role for Zach, but he's been great all year. We've talked to him a number of times, and he understands," Guerin said, adding: "I don't think it was a sideshow. I've been around this league a long time, and I've seen a lot worse. And that's a credit to Zach, because he didn't allow it to become a sideshow. He didn't become a distraction."