On Thursday, Minnesota Wild head coach moved Jason Zucker to a 4th line role against the Chicago Blackhawks, where he collected three shots in 9:26, his second lowest amount of ice time of the season. And then on Saturday against San Jose? He was scratched in favor of Mike Rupp.
That was just another incident where Jason Zucker has been passed over in favor of another player. He didn't make the team out of training camp, being passed over in favor of Justin Fontaine and Mikael Granlund. Since then, he has bounced up and down from the NHL, being sent down to Iowa four times since his initial assignment to Iowa at the start of the season.
Most times Zucker has been sent down, his defensive play has been cited as a reason, leading many to believe he is in Wild head coach Mike Yeo's doghouse. The amount of times Zucker has been passed over has led Wild fans to believe if Zucker is permanently out of favor in Minnesota.
A lot of fans really like Jason Zucker, and there's a lot to like about him. He's extremely fast, which is something the Wild don't have a lot of in their forward corps. He likes to shoot a ton, and only Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, and Mikko Koivu have registered more shots per game than Zucker. And on a per minute basis? No one on the Wild attempts more shots. Many of us also have some sentimental attachment to his GW playoff overtime goal. But is he really getting that bad of a deal?
Yes, he gets passed over for fourth-liners like Mike Rupp and Stephane Veilleux. But, those are fourth-line guys doing fourth-line roles. While you can argue the viability of a traditional fourth line (and I'll be right there with you should you choose to argue against it), when you think of a traditional fourth-liner in the NHL, it's usually a guy with experience. And both Rupp and Veilleux have had a lot of experience in those roles, so it's easy to see why Yeo would trust those guys.
Yes, he gets passed over for fellow youngsters Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula. But, while they couldn't come out and say it, and I would never say he didn't earn his spot, Fontaine made the roster in small part due to the fact that the Wild would risk losing him to waivers had they sent him back to Iowa. Since then, Fontaine has definitely proven that he belongs, scoring 12 goals, and playing effectively with Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke. And Erik Haula has only played two more games than Zucker. Both of them see less playing time per game than Zucker, though Fontaine's playing time has increased as the season has gone on. Most importantly, Zucker has primarily been reserved for Top-6 time, while Fontaine and Haula have mostly been on the lower lines.
Yes, he gets passed over for a top-6 role by Dany Heatley. But, you knew this was going to happen. Heatley is a veteran, and veterans tend to get the benefit of the doubt in the league. Though he's been in decline, Heatley is still a reasonable NHL player, and the coaching staff doesn't seem excited at the possibility of benching a $7.5 million dollar veteran.
To me, the most obvious comparison in recent Wild memory is Mikael Granlund in the 20
12-13 season. Not only did people assume that Granlund would break camp with the Wild at the beginning of the season, he was penciled into a Top-6 role. Granlund struggled out the gate, and was sent back to Iowa 3 times over the course of the season, partially working on defensive play. Granlund didn't even get any minutes in the playoff series. Mike Yeo seemed to have determine that Granlund's development was not to come at a risk to the fortunes of the Wild. And what happened there?
Granlund entered camp looking like an odd man out, and ended up beating out none other than Jason Zucker for a spot with his improved play. Despite his struggles to stick in the NHL last season, he's not out-of-favor, in the doghouse, or a trade candidate. I think it will be a similar situation with Zucker. He may continue to struggle to find his spot in the lineup for the rest of the season, but I don't see any reason why he won't be able to earn a spot on next year's roster.
Being a young player in the NHL can be frustrating, and I'm fairly confident that what Zucker is going through is just a normal part of trying to break into the league. There are going to be times where your coach wants to defer to veterans. There are going to be times where your playing time is scarce, or erratic. And with a team as stocked with young talented forwards as the Wild are, it's not unreasonable that a player like Zucker would have a hard time finding a roster spot.
Like I said, it's frustrating to watch your favorite team struggle to find playing time for a talented young player, but it's all in the game, Wilderness. It's all in the game. But you'll see, Zucker will get another shot in Minnesota.