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Should Jason Zucker Play on the Wild's Second Line?

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A radical compromise to settle the Nino-Coyle debate.

Would it be a good idea to put Jason Zucker on the Wild's second line?
Would it be a good idea to put Jason Zucker on the Wild's second line?
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

It's a battle that's lasted about 6-7 months as old as time, this Great Nino Niederreiter vs. Charlie Coyle Debate. It arose in ancient times, when Niederreiter toiled on the Wild's third line while Coyle ascended to play on Mt. Olympus with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Eons of unrest ensued as warring factions pledged their support for Nino and Coyle. "Look at Nino's numbers! They're clearly to superior to Coyle!", Nino's forces would shout while dismembering the corpses of their enemies. "Coyle is better suited to his role!" Coyle's armies would cry as they ran into battle. "His play down the stretch and in the playoffs were a display of dominance yet to come!"

This continued for ages, and scribes would take note of in epic poems using dactylic hexameter. Through the millenia, the status has remained quo. #TeamCoyle, led by Minnesota Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo seems to remain dominant over the insurgent #TeamNino, which means Wild fans are on track for yet another year of Nino-Coyle warring.

Unless...

A young man rises from the desert, determined to bring peace to the Wild fan base, so that even the most ardent supporters of Nino and Coyle can break bread at the same table, and restore tranquility to the fabled land of Minnesota.

(Whew, that was exhausting.)

What if that second-line winger spot that we assume will go to Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter went to another player? A player like Jason Zucker?

It's well-documented that Jason Zucker had a lost season last year. He had an opportunity to win a roster spot, but landed in Yeo's doghouse in the preseason, being passed over for Coyle, Niederreiter, and Mikael Granlund. Things did not get better, as Zucker bounced between Iowa and Minnesota all season, struggling to find NHL playing time, and AHL production. This eventually ended with a knee surgery that ended his season.

A major reason that was given when Zucker was sent down to start last season was his lacking defensive play. It may have been dismissed as a lame excuse by some fans, but that criticism was validated by the fact that he was by far and away the worst Wild regular in preventing scoring chances. It was clear that if Zucker was to make the Wild out of camp this year, he would have to show that he worked on and improved his defensive game.

All indications thus far are that he's done what was asked of him. Yeo said of Zucker after last night's game "He's playing hard. He's just showing he wants to be here... he's buying into it and doing a good job." Michael Russo of the Star Tribune noted that Zucker impressed playing on the Penalty Kill, and earlier noted his willingness to initiate contact.

If Zucker's improvement in camp translates to better defense in regular-season games, then he can make a case to join the Minnesota Wild's Top-6, which currently has a RW opening on the second line. Curiously, Zucker was played at Right Wing last night. What Zucker would bring to that second line (which is currently Thomas Vanek, Mikko Koivu, and Player X) would be a crazy amount of speed, which would complement Vanek and Koivu, who aren't the most fleet of foot.

More intriguing is Zucker's propensity to shoot. One of my favorite stats from last season was that, even as mightily as Zucker struggled, he still managed to generate more shots per minute than anyone on the team. And the season before, he was second to Parise. With Koivu more inclined to rack up assists, and Vanek thriving as a net-front presence, Zucker could (in theory) do well receiving passes from Koivu, and generating rebounds for Vanek to put past the goalie.

The concern for putting Zucker in this role would be in terms of defense/possession. Fortunately, Koivu's as well-suited as anyone in hockey to significantly elevate the possession numbers of any winger he plays with. Let's look at how well he's improved even mediocre possession wingers in the last two seasons.

Mikko Koivu CF% WOWY (2012-14)

Player

With Koivu

Koivu Apart

Player Apart

Zach Parise

57.2%

52.8%

50.3%

Charlie Coyle

58.2%

54.0%

41.6%

Jason Pominville

58.1%

55.5%

49.0%

Dany Heatley

52.3%

56.8%

43.8%

Nino Niederreiter

60.6%

55.4%

47.7%

Zucker was the worst on the team with a 42.3 CF% last season, but the year before, he was at 46.4% while skating with Devin Setoguchi and Matt Cullen, who were average possession players. Particularly if Zucker's defensive game has improved, Zucker should be within range to take advantage of the Mikko Koivu Bump.

As for Niederreiter and Coyle? Don't cry for them, they'd be just fine. While Zucker playing on the second line would bump them down to the third-line, it wouldn't be what we normally associate with the phrase "third-line". Erik Haula's emergence means that the Wild's third-line has the potential to be deployed offensively or defensively. Putting Coyle and Niederreiter on Haula's wing would be immensely entertaining, allowing their line to be effective while attacking or defending, and containing a great mix of size, speed, and skill.

Is this idea a bit of a reach? Perhaps. Zucker has yet to prove that he can be a full-time NHL player, so putting him in the Top-6 on this team may be a risky move. But it would solve the Nino-Coyle debate once and for all, and, if nothing else, it certainly beats absurd roster moves like Stu Bickel, fourth-line winger.