ONLY IN AMNEWYORK
There were some amused eyebrow-raising at the New York Islanders practice facility on the morning of Jan. 12 ahead of their game against the Minnesota Wild.
Zach Parise took his option for morning skate.
“I don’t think that’s ever happened,” All-Star center Brock Nelson joked.
An optional morning skate in the NHL is exactly what it sounds like: A voluntary opportunity for a player to get a last bit of practice in before a game, which is often later that same day. It’s rarely news when a player takes that option unless an injury crops up — and one can’t blame a skater or goalie for taking it amidst the rigors of an 82-game NHL season.
Yet it was something to almost marvel at when Parise, now 38 years old, took it.
The oldest current member of the Islanders certainly doesn’t act his age. He has a frenetic, ceaseless work ethic regardless of whether or not his time on the ice is in-game or practice. It makes him one of his team’s better skaters and most invaluable pieces of its proverbial swiss army knife.
Not only has Parise played on each of the Islanders’ top three lines this season, but he’s also one of their top penalty killers, a member of the power play, and ranks third on the team with 16 goals.
“He plays like he’s on his first shift every night,” team captain Anders Lee said. “I skated with him all summer, I know how hard he works, and the time he puts in and how focused he is on his game and always trying to find little things to be better, it’s phenomenal.
“So it’s no surprise to me that he’s playing like this at his age. But he doesn’t play his age by any means.”
With it has come adaptation. The oft-third-liner and spark plug with the Islanders was once one of the top American forwards on the planet with the New Jersey Devils, scoring 45 goals in his fourth season back in 2008-09. From his age 22 season in 2006-07 to his age 27 campaign in 2011-12, he eclipsed the 30-goal mark in five out of six seasons.
He potted 28 goals as recent as the 2018-19 season at the age of 34, his seventh with the Minnesota Wild after signing a 13-year, $98 million pact with his hometown team in 2012. Things went sour in the “State of Hockey,” shortly after, and the final four years of his deal were bought out by the Wild after injuries limited him to a 45-game season in which he scored just seven goals in 2020-21.
Over his first 16 seasons, Parise accrued over 80 minutes on the penalty kill just once. Over the last two seasons with the Islanders, he’s averaged 122 penalty-kill minutes per year.
“I’m a realist,” Parise told amNewYork. “I understand where I’m at in my career and you’re always trying to broaden your game and get better in different areas. I’m not oblivious to the fact that I don’t produce offensively as much as I used to.
“That being said, I feel like they’ve moved me around to wherever in the lineup, and whether that’s playing with [Nelson’s] line, which is more of an offensive line, or [Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s third line] which is more of a checking line — wherever you are, you just do your job.
“That’s something that as you get older, you realize that wherever they slid you, you just do that and do it the best you can. Same with the penalty kill. Just embrace the opportunity in every spot and have fun and that’s the biggest thing.”
He’s undoubtedly earned the trust of head coach Lane Lambert, who is the man responsible for deploying Parise in the litany of roles that Islanders fans are seeing this year. According to Hockey Reference, he is one of just 17 forwards that have played at least 50 games this season and average at least 1:50 of power-play and 1:50 of penalty-kill time per game.
“Just his professionalism and the way he takes care of himself and the way he approaches the game is the reason he’s doing it today,” Lambert said. “I can’t say enough about him and can’t give him enough credit for the way he handles himself.”
“There’s a reason why he’s played this long and has had success throughout all those years,” Lee added. “You don’t just show up. He puts in his best foot every day. That’s an easy thing to follow and someone you want to be like and admire.”
There’s nothing, at least for now, to suggest that Parise is slowing down. He’s played in all 65 games this season for the Islanders and was the only member of the team amidst an injury-ravaged and COVID-riddled 2021-22 campaign to appear in all 82 games.
Granted, his first season with the Islanders featured a goal drought that saw him find the back of the net just once in his first 33 games. He had 10 through 33 games this year — continuing to reward the franchise that his father J.P. played for from 1975-78 and took a chance on him 33 years later when the Wild wrote him off.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that I could do that so that wasn’t an issue,” Parise said. “Considering how difficult the last few years were [in Minnesota], this spot here, right now, it’s meant a ton to me being here. It’s one of those spots where I’m so excited to get to the rink every day and be around everybody. I’m so excited to compete with these guys. So I’m just glad to be in this spot.”
For now, Parise and his Islanders are focused on cementing a playoff spot in the final month of the 2022-23 campaign. But there is some uncertainty that lay ahead. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and whether or not he’ll suit up for the Islanders — or any other team in the NHL, for that matter, next season with retirement a realistic option — remains to be seen
“I think that’s something that I will just evaluate at the end of the year,” Parise said. “Right now, I’m just consumed with where we are right now. It’s tough to think beyond that.”