On May 5th, Jason Zucker scored a goal. In overtime. Against the Chicago Blackhawks in the playoffs. You may have heard about it. When Zucker fired a loose puck from a sharp angle and put it past Corey Crawford, it gave the Minnesota Wild their first playoff victory since 2008. The goal would be the only bright spot to a very frustrating quarterfinal against the Blackhawks, which saw the Wild eliminated in 5 games.
Zucker was on top of the world, setting a high bar for himself in the coming year, where he would have the chance to earn a full-time role.
Things have not gone according to plan, as the Wild left-winger has suffered setback after setback this season, which was announced to be mercifully ending today, as Zucker re-aggravated his injured knee.
What went wrong?
When Matt Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard were allowed to walk, and Devin Setoguchi was traded to Winnipeg, the Wild sent a clear message: There would be opportunities for the team's young forwards to take on important roles for the team.
Going into camp, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Dany Heatley, and Jason Pominville were veteran forwards that were expected to be in a Top-6 role. That left two spots open for the Wild's youngsters. By virtue of his strong rookie season the year previous, Charlie Coyle looked to be a lock to make the roster, leaving Mikael Granlund and Zucker to compete for the final Top-6 slot. Granlund's struggles and Zucker's playoff heroics led many to believe, even those most plugged in with the organization, that Zucker had the inside track.
It did not work that way. Zucker injured his groin in camp, and Granlund turned in a strong performance, while Zucker (whether because of the injury or not) lagged behind not only Granlund, but Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine. He was then sent to Iowa, being given the message: "Be ready."
Like Mike Yeo hinted at, Zucker did indeed receive opportunities, being recalled from Iowa five times over the course of the season. But Zucker was never able to take advantage, scoring only 4 goals and 1 assist over the course of 21 games before injuring his knee. During this time, the Wild kept suggesting that Zucker also shore up his defensive game. His defensive play continued to be a talking point throughout the season, as Zucker kept getting recalled to Iowa, and passed over in favor of guys like Stephane Veilleux and Erik Haula.
And then, before the Olympic Break, Zucker injured his knee. It wasn't expected to be a major injury. But, as has been the case for his entire season, Zucker couldn't catch a break, and he re-injured his knee. And just like that, his miserable season is over.
So, where does he go from here?
What definitely works out in Zucker's favor, in terms of finding a place with this organization long-term, is that Zucker has a skill-set unique among the Wild's young forwards. Other than maybe Erik Haula, who is not expected to be a top-6 forward in the NHL, none of the young forwards in the system can boast the speed that Zucker possesses. And while 5 points in 21 games looks very underwhelming, Zucker was better at creating offense than you think. In 5-on-5 situations, only Zach Parise (with 9.5 shots per 60 minutes) shot with greater frequency than Zucker (who had 9.2 S/60). Despite limited ice time and opportunity, Zucker was still better at shooting the puck than just about any other Wild player.
With Dany Heatley poised to leave, Cody McCormick having an expiring contract, and Kyle Brodziak perhaps being on the trading block in the offseason, there will likely be room once again for young players to step up and take roles for the Wild. With Koivu, Parise, Pominville, Granlund, Coyle, and Niederreiter on the team already, not to mention the real possibility that the Wild will sign a Thomas Vanek or Matt Moulson, Top-6 spots are going to be hard to come by next training camp. In all likelihood, this means Zucker will be competing for a bottom-6 role come next training camp.
Zucker would do well to shore up his play in his own zone, in that case. Next year, Brett Bulmer, Tyler Graovac, Raphael Bussieres, and Kurtis Gabriel will be given shots to prove that they also belong in the NHL. All four of them possess something the Wild desperately want in at the bottom of their lineup- size and toughness. In order to not be left behind again next season, Zucker is going to need to impress Mike Yeo and the Wild brass on both sides of the ice.