There aren't too many black clouds hanging over the New Jersey Devils these days. The team easily dispatched of the Philadelphia Flyers, beating them in five games to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 2003.
One, however, continues to linger. It's in the background, diminished by the playoff success of this year's team. It's an ever present black cloud, however, and on it sits a number nine. That is the number of Zach Parise, the Devils 27-year old captain. He's helped lead the team to their deepest playoff run in years, and it seems like the organization finally installed a coach who brought the right system to match his skills.
His production matched that in the regular season. Parise recorded 69 points (31g, 38a), and slotted in on the top line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Adam Henrique. He's been just as valuable in the playoffs, collecting eight points (4g, 4a) and dolling out an impressive 30 hits. With each game the Devils win, Parise's value increases by the millions, and he's one of the biggest names on the free agent market this season.
Devils fans are used to watching some of their stars leave. Scott Gomez bolted for the New York Rangers, Brian Gionta left for the Montreal Canadiens and Brian Rafalski signed with his hometown Detroit Red Wings. None of those losses would compare to a departure of Parise, who has become a fan favorite and one of the most important players in the locker room.
"I think he's going to be an important part of this organization moving forward," goalie Martin Brodeur told Dave Caldwell of the New York Times back on April 14.
That sentiment, which rang true then, couldn't be more true today.
In his first season as captain, the team rallied around Parise. As a restricted free agent this past summer, Parise signed a one-year contract. The organization, probably in good faith, gave him the captain as a sign that they're willing to work on getting a contract extension signed. The response in the locker room has been a unanimous following, and several players quickly followed his example.
"He's someone on the ice who works hard every shift, a guy who never gives up," right wing David Clarkson told Caldwell. "When he's on the ice and you're the next to go, you want to work as hard as he did because he's your captain."
The deep playoff run might have made that black cloud shrink just a little bit. ESPN's Craig Custance spoke with Wade Arnott, Parise's agent, who had this to say:
"I don't know," he said. "Does the fact that they're showing well and taking a longer run and becoming more competitive, is it the right fit? I don't know the answer to that."
But it's got to help the cause, right?
"It probably bodes decently for the Devils," Arnott said.
Parise and the Devils are making an unexpected run, and the team looks like a Stanley Cup contender. But the question about Parise's future continues to linger, making these playoffs an important time for the organization. Winning will prove Parise's future is bright in New Jersey, but losing could muddy the picture.