ST. PAUL — The Wild on Tuesday, Jan. 2, finally played a game with Zach Parise on the ice, and there is no doubt he'll make them a better team. Yet how much Minnesota improves in the second half of the season won't be about Parise.
At nearly the midpoint of the season, the entire team must decide whether hovering around a playoff spot is good enough, whether barely finishing among the top 16 teams in a 30-team league is a worthwhile accomplishment.
The guys actually playing 82 games might come to believe that by April. No one else will.
Parise will play smart. He'll dig pucks out of the corners and throw them on net. The effort will be there. And if he's able to play most of the final 42 games of the regular-season — he had surgery to remove a herniated disc on Oct. 24 — he'll score about 15 goals and assist on 15 others.
That will make a difference, but it won't be the difference for a team whose competence has rarely been in doubt since it entered the league as an expansion team in 2001. Without Parise all season — and without other key players for stretches short and long — the Wild entered Tuesday's game ninth in the Western Conference, one point out of a playoff spot.
You know, about where they generally are at this point in the season.
Last year was a little different. Under first-year coach Bruce Boudreau, the Wild rocketed to the top of the West in December and stayed there before collapsing in March, flipping the script on the team's past few iterations until another early playoff exit. The final act remained true, this time with a 4-1 series loss to St. Louis in Round 1.
The Wild played out of their minds in a couple of those games and lost anyway. Parise had two goals and an assist in a tight series. That's the way it often works in the NHL playoffs; one team plays great, the winning team plays a little greater.
But that isn't what's ailing the 2017-18 Minnesota Wild, who have won one more game than they've lost (20-16-3) despite playing like a team inexplicably time-leaped to St. Paul, Minnesota, in the year 2018. They're hockey players, so they know how to skate backward and start a break-out, yet they remain overwhelmed by the Internet and confused by the red-line rules.
There have been injuries to contend with — key contributors Jared Spurgeon, Devan Dubnyk, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter have missed considerable time this season — but that doesn't satisfactorily explain the fog under which this team has played. Parise can't fix that, but the Wild should use his return to reset on a disappointing season.
There is plenty of time left in the season, time enough, even, to accomplish something that would result in some sort of pennant in the Xcel Energy Center rafters.
"Coaches worry that people will think, 'OK, Zach's back; we're going to leave it all up to him,' " Boudreau said after Tuesday's morning skate.
Coaches? What coaches? Oh ...
"We're happy (Parise is) here, happy he's playing," Boudreau continued, "but we've got to do our job, as well."
That's an interesting pronoun, "we." One assumes it refers to the team that played in the first 39 games. It's the same team that played with Parise on Tuesday night, but Boudreau seems to hope it's not exactly the same team.
Something has to change, and it has to be more than adding 30 points from Parise.
With Parise back Tuesday, and Niederreiter on pace to return from lower-body injury as soon as Thursday against Buffalo, the Wild are close to finally icing the full roster that general manager Chuck Fletcher envisioned playing with this season.
He didn't envision them playing like this.