New Jersey Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello enters this offseason with a laundry list of things to do.
His team, for the first time since the 1995-96 season, missed the playoffs. His interim coach Jacques Lemaire, who led the team back from last place to a near playoff berth, decided to retire once again. The defense has holes and the team still lacks a true second-line center. Martin Brodeur is entering the final year of his contract, necessitating the need to find a viable successor for him if and when he retires.
Despite all those pressing issues, one remains the largest of all - the re-signing of Zach Parise. The young left-winger enters this offseason a restricted free agent and one of the most coveted players on the market. Lamoriello watched in years past as his best free agents left the team, and he plugged those holes admirably. But failing to re-sign Parise would be a momentous failure. Therefore, the need to re-sign Parise should be priority number one this offseason.
Since the Devils won the 2003 Stanley Cup, they've experienced a roster overhaul. Gone are defensive stalwarts Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko, who both retired. Scott Niedermayer retired, but then decided to un-retire to play in Anaheim with his brother Rob. Brian Rafalski, a seven-year mainstay, left for Detroit after the 2006-07 season. Those four, the main core of three championships (although Rafalski only won two), left a gaping hole the team still struggles to fill. They've watched capable replacements leave, most notably Paul Martin, who signed with the rival Pittsburgh Penguins last season. The inability to keep homegrown talent has significantly weakened the defensive corps from seasons past.
The same trend holds true for the forward lines. The most notable departures have been Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta, who both play for the Canadiens. Gomez left during the peak of his career, leaving his effective pairing with Gionta to waste. While Gionta never approached his 48 goal output from the 2005-06 season, he provided a solid second option. Those two losses have been lessened by the play of Travis Zajac and Parise, but a team that doesn't score many goals can't afford to lose another scorer.
Signing Parise is important on two fronts - his on-ice production and his off-ice value. There's no doubting Parise's abilities as a goal scorer. Over a four year period, from the 2006-07 season until the 2009-2010 season, the left-winger averaged 36 goals and played no less than 81 games. He also did well on the powerplay, averaging no less than 20 points with the man advantage in those four seasons. He served as assistant captain, showing the leadership he gained in the locker room.
Clearly, the on-ice product warrants a lengthy extension. The Devils sunk a ton of money into Ilya Kovalchuk, but they can't depend on one player for offensive production. They already had flashes of brilliance this season while both were on the ice. For a team that doesn't score, holding onto a player like Parise should be important.
The off-ice marketing value Parise brings to the organization is tremendous. He's already the most well-liked Devil, and Parise jerseys are one of the most popular among fans. For a team whose biggest icon wears a mask every game, it's good to have a face fans can instantly recognize. Parise recently shot a commercial for Easton as well, showing his potential as a nationally-marketable player. He'll never match the star power of Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin, but he can be a great marketing tool for the Devils. For a team struggling to gain any recognition in the greater Tri-State Area, having that type of player goes a long way.
Lamoriello has already let this situation run it's course. The general manager's unwillingness to discuss an extension in-season left Parise in the dark and not confident in their ability to get a deal done.
"I really have no idea," Parise told Tom Gulitti of The Bergen Record about a potential deal. "That's about the amount it's been talked about. I have no idea."
Both his on-ice abilities and off-ice marketing necessitate a Parise extension. The situation goes deeper, as Lamoriello still faces cap restrictions next year. Kovalchuk averages $6 million a season, and I'm sure Parise's agents will demand that much during negotiations. The projected cap hit of those two players alone makes for a nightmare of epic proportions. But despite that drawback, Lamoriello needs to work around it.
Everyone who follows the Devils knows the feeling of those free agents who jumped ship. But none of them, not even Gomez, could match Parise's importance to the organization. If Lamoriello fails to sign him, it's a momentous failure to an organization in search of good news.