Perhaps the biggest stereotype with hockey players is that they're tough. A well-earned reputation, for sure. One doesn't need to look much farther than the Minnesota Wild to see that stereotype manifest itself. Zach Parise is a relentless physical presence, Ryan Suter endures a workload that no other player in the NHL dares to try, Nino Niederreiter thrives on going hard to the net and mixing it up in the "dirty areas", Charlie Coyle played portions of last year's playoffs with two separated shoulders.
This toughness is quite appealing to fans, as these examples display exactly what we want to see in athletes: A willingness to "pay the price" that comes from the desire to win. Even people who aren't reverential to "intangibles" (e.g., me) can appreciate that desire.
Of all Wild players, nobody denies Zach Parise's toughness. It's rare to see such a skilled player in the NHL praised so lavishly for his grit, tenacity, and determination. Those praises are usually reserved for the likes of a third-line grinder. And that praise is 100% deserved. Parise lives around the net, he's tough along the boards, and he's sneaky dirty. As fast and skilled as Parise is, it's hard to imagine him being as successful as he is playing a less girtty style.
The downside to Parise's toughness is that it can lead to a greater amount of injuries than an average NHL player. Unfortunately, this was the case last night, as Parise left last night's 4-1 loss against Pittsburgh due to an "Upper-Body Injury". What is that exactly? At the time of this writing, it is not known, the only things we know as of now is that the injury likely occurred on one of two hits, and that the Wild are hoping "It's not serious."
It could be a shoulder issue. It could be a head injury. If Parise's issue is something that removes him from the lineup (It precluded him from practicing with the team this morning), it will obviously be a blow to the Wild. Parise is arguably the Minnesota Wild's best player, a two-way player that is elite at throwing shots on net. On top of this, he's capable of logging 20 minutes of ice time, and tends to make those around him better.
There simply is no replacement for a Zach Parise, no one player on the Wild will bring everything that Parise brings to the table. Due to that irreplaceability, it could be tempting to get Parise back in the lineup at all costs. This certainly was the case last season.
On November 25th, Zach Parise took a shot from Alexander Steen off of his foot, leaving a contusion. Bad news for the Wild, as they were competing for playoff positioning in a tough Western Conference. The initial timetable for his return was 2-3 weeks.
Parise, being the tough guy that he is, returned after missing only one game. A great example of a tough player gutting it out to help his team!
Except it turned out Parise's return didn't help the team at all. Parise was obviously hampered by the contusion, scoring 4 goals and 1 assist in 12 games (Parise scored 25 goals and 51 points in the remaining 55 games). The Wild limped to a 5-6-1 record in those games, and by the time Parise re-aggravated his injury against the New York Rangers, the Wild's playoff odds had dropped to only 21%.
Parise then missed a month due to injury. During that month, the Wild were dangerously close to falling out of the playoff race, getting their coach fired, and only managed to claw back into the playoff picture due to Darcy Kuemper's extraordinary goaltending at the time.
To review: Parise's willingness to play and the Wild's determination to have their best player in the lineup, regardless of health, almost led to catastrophe. First, Parise wasn't able to produce. Then he had to miss time- more so than he was projected to miss had he properly healed his foot to begin with. Parise and the Wild were very fortunate that Parise's expedited return didn't cost them dearly.
There's a valuable lesson to learn from this ordeal: Getting a player healthy is much more important than forcing him back into the lineup too soon. Have the Wild learned it?
The encouraging news on that front is the way they dealt with Erik Haula after he got a John Moore Elbow to the head. Haula was held out of practices and games in order to make 100% sure that he didn't sustain a concussion. But that's easy to do when the player is a third-line center, with a ready replacement in Kyle Brodziak. Can the Wild show that same patience with their best player?
Without knowing the nature, type, and severity of Parise's injury, I hope that Parise isn't rushed back into the lineup too soon. With the Wild's improved depth, especially for scoring forwards, the Wild are better equipped to go without Parise than they were last season. Parise's a player crucial to the Wild's success, and there's no doubt Parise will want back in the lineup as soon as he possibly can. But last season made it clear that the Wild are best served making sure he's healthy before he returns, even if it hurts the Wild in the short term.