When Zucker played his first game with the Wild after the conclusion of the Denver Pioneer's season in the spring of 2012, it seemed he would easily make the team every subsequent year. But with the Wild signing Parise that summer, Zucker has been pushed to the side, struggling to prove his usefulness to a team that has too many guys ahead of him on the depth chart.
Fans feel passionate about Zucker in a way that they don't for most prospects. The love is from more than just the overtime playoff game winner. Another reason for all the Zucker love is his explosive speed and his tendency to actually shoot--both of which make him more interesting to watch than many of two-way players that the Wild tend to value. Zucker's speed is his biggest strength.
Last season, when he was being yo-yoed between Iowa and Minnesota, he did show that he can respond to adversity. When he got sent down last November, his first game back with Iowa he had a two goal game, so it's clear that he's willing to put in the effort wherever he is utilized. In fact, at times he seems to care too much, so much that it gets in the way of performing the way he would need to stay on the NHL roster.
It's not hard to love watching goals like this.
If this is truly Jason Zucker's last season to prove that he can be an effective NHL player for the Wild, then it should be fine if the Wild keep him on the NHL roster even if he is only playing limited minutes. If Fletcher and company decide that they are going to trade him if they can't find a place for him this year, then his improvement as a hockey player shouldn't matter. Zucker is beyond needing development in Iowa because playing against AHL opponents won't give him the opportunity to improve his defensive skills for NHL play. He can only improve to the NHL level by playing against NHL opponents--the kind of improvement that Spurgeon and Scandella got playing with the Wild from 2010 to 2012. The difficult thing for Zucker is that winning matters to the Wild a lot more than it did when Spurgeon and Scandella were beginning to mature in the NHL. For instance, if Zucker makes a mistake that costs the team a win, it's a lot bigger deal than when Scandella first played heavy minutes in 2011-12. The club's expectations are different which means that Zucker struggles under the weight of the clubs playoff expectations.
Jason Zucker will be a regular NHL player for some team. If the Wild can't find space and a role for him, another NHL team would be willing to pay for his speed and explosiveness. This season will be crucial in determining if he will wield his speed for the Wild or for someone else. His contract will be one-way in 2015-16, so he will be playing in the NHL for the Wild or for someone else; there will be no more sending him down to Iowa when there's not room for him on the roster.
That said, I don't see a way for Zucker to be a regular with Minnesota as the 2014-15 season starts unless someone gets injured in training camp or unless they are willing to play him on the fourth line. Parise and Vanek are going to be the left wings on the top two lines. Putting Zucker on a defense focused third line would not be putting him in a position to succeed, but if the third line was utilized as an additional scoring line, I would love to see him there. Since the Wild are a team that traditionally has difficulty scoring it would be nice to see them try some untraditional methods to increase scoring. I want Zucker to make the team find a role for him because he is fun to watch.