One just signed a brand spanking new contract for 13 years, $98M, and a $7.5+M cap hit.
The other has 13 years and $88M remaining attached to a $6.6+M cap hit.
One notched 80+ pts twice in his career, during a time where he had exceptional chemistry with his linemates.
The other has notched 80+ pts in 6 of the last 8 seasons playing with an assortment of linemates, never failing to score fewer than 30 goals during that span.
One is reputed to be a "clutch" scorer and notched a respectable 15 pts in 24 playoff games.
The other led his team in playoff scoring with 19 pts in 23 games, earning a well-deserved primary assist on two overtime winners, all while visibly hobbled by a bad back.
"The other", of course, is Ilya Kovalchuk and the "One" is Zach Parise. Many will blame Kovalchuk for Parise's departure from the New Jersey Devils. People will say that Parise wanted to be alpha dog all on his own. Others will say his north-south game didn't mesh well with the Russian's east-west style. And most will put at least part of the blame on the Devils' financial situation, presumably exacerbated by Kovalchuk's monster contract.
All of that blame is misguided. Parise said he wanted to play on a contender, but the Devils would never have gotten within sniffing distance of the Stanley Cup if not for Kovalchuk. And Kovalchuk was paid just $6M for each of the first two years of his contract, but the Devils gained far more in revenue by getting far in the playoffs and even simply by having his electric skills on display for casual fans.
So the fact is, Zach Parise would probably have left the New Jersey Devils to play for his hometown Wild regardless. And I'd hate to imagine what dire straits this team would be in without at least Kovalchuk to drive the offensive bus.
The real issue is that Zach Parise is lauded as one of the top two-way players in the game, and that his value isn't measured in mere point totals. There's no doubt Parise has had some outstanding seasons by advanced metrics like Corsi and Fenwick, and makes his teammates better when you examine the WOWY statistics. Kovalchuk's commitment to defense, on the other hand, has been questioned in the past and he's been among the league leaders in turnovers committed.
You've got to score - a LOT - at this level
But as much as advanced statistics have made some inroads into the thinking of fans as well as managers around the league, the bottom line of point production remains the standard by which many of the top paid forwards in the league are judged. In fact, outside of Parise, you'd have to go down to the 17th highest-paid forward in the league, Anze Kopitar, to find a forward that is frequently lauded for his defensive play (this isn't to say that players like Crosby and Iginla aren't also good defensively, but you won't likely find anyone outside of the overexuberant fan suggesting that they be a Selke candidate).
Zach Parise is a great player and we Devils fans will miss him dearly, but he is not a dominant-enough offensive force to warrant the amount of money he is being paid. He notched 94 and 82 pts at age 24 and 25 while playing with Travis Zajac and Jamie Langenbrunner - two players he had exceptional chemistry with. The fact is that he has likely already reached his peak in point production, as has Kovalchuk. The difference is that Kovalchuk's point production has been more consistent over a longer period of time. The following graphs illustrate Kovalchuk's remarkable consistency in goal, point, and shot production (The gaps occur due to the lockout for Kovalchuk and Parise's injury year).
The above graphs are in no way intended to suggest that Parise's production will decline soon. But is Parise, at the present time, the point-per-game player Minnesota is paying him to be? He might be, if he can generate better than 4 shots per game, but the more likely answer is that Parise is far more likely to fall in the 3.0-3.5 shots per game range, and therefore notch 0.4 goals and 0.8-0.9 points per game. This works out to around 30 goals and 65-70 points over the course of a full, healthy season.
There were 21 players to notch better than 70 points this past season, and Zach Parise narrowly missed being one of them. Only 9 of those 21, however, scored better than 80 pts, roughly a point per game. Yet Parise is now the 7th highest paid forward in the league, to say nothing of his monster lockout-protected signing bonus. In terms of cap hit, he sits in the company of players like Rick Nash, Vincent Lecavalier, Dany Heatley, Marian Gaborik, Steven Stamkos, Scott Gomez, and Thomas Vanek in the $7-8M club. His company is even more exclusive, however, when you consider that only 3 players with significantly front-loaded contracts have a higher cap hit than $6.67M: Parise, Lecavalier, and Crosby's newest contract extension.
Kovalchuk, in contrast, has the 22nd highest cap hit among forwards but was 5th in the scoring race.
Ultimately, the question for the Wild will boil down to: if Zach Parise continues to score just shy of 70 pts per season, in the neighborhood of the 20th to 30th ranked scorer in the league, will he justify the extra $1M he is making over players with similar production? The answer to that is probably yes. But what if he scores just 60 pts per season, ranking 50th-60th in scoring? Can he justify having a cap hit $2.5M more than comparable scoring forwards? And what of the twilight of his career?
There's no doubt the loss of Zach Parise hurts. There's no doubt the Devils are not as good a team today as they were a month ago, and there's no doubt the Minnesota Wild are a better team today than they were yesterday. All else equal, I'd rather have Parise than Kovalchuk on my team.
But as John pointed out, there is such a thing as too much for even a player like Zach Parise, and a $7.5M cap hit until age 40 is way too much. The idea behind these lifetime contracts is supposed to be that the cap hit is a relative bargain while the player is in his prime years and a tolerable nuisance on the back nine. I would say that Parise's cap hit is what he is worth right now, but his lack of point production will be a tolerable nuisance in 3 years time and more of a Drury-like "we love you but please just retire" nightmare by age 35. And this is the best-case scenario, in which Parise stays healthy despite the toll his style of play must take on his body, and only loses a little of the quick feet and explosive acceleration, which are his most notable physical attributes.
So farewell, Zach, and thanks for 5 of your best years.