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Playing the System: Zucker's Defense

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Jason Zucker made a play against the Avalanche on Saturday that perfectly illustrated the massive strides his defensive game has made over the past few seasons.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

We've heard over and over throughout the course of the season how Jason Zucker has become a more complete player. His improvement in the defensive zone has given Mike Yeo the confidence to play him in a top 6 role on a consistent basis. The possession numbers out there support the claimed improvements in Zucker's all-around game, but what has actually changed? Well, it can be difficult to find visual evidence of improvements because often times it's simply a matter of a player being a few feet this way or that to cut off certain passing or shooting lanes.

I don't believe Zucker had a magical epiphany over the summer which showed him the way of the defense, or that he decided to just commit to defense and all of a sudden he figured it out. Instead, I believe Zucker, like many young players in the NHL has just needed time to develop an understanding of how the pro game operates. The game looks completely different from ice level for these guys than it does from the stands or on TV for fans. The game is faster than ever and space is incredibly difficult to find. That is why it's so important for these players to be near perfect in their positioning. The learning curve from junior leagues to the pros is steep, and one not easily conquered. It's difficult to play a sound positional game when you constantly have to think about where you're supposed to be on the ice. I liken this to performing music. The notes may all be the same, but if you have the piece memorized, it is easier to focus on the finer points to achieve a peak musicality.

Zucker's now been playing for the same coach in the same system for multiple years, and it's clear that he now instinctively is finding himself in the proper positions on the ice, allowing him to use his impressive speed to make plays. Against the Colorado Avalanche, Zucker made a play in his defensive end that I can all but guarantee he wouldn't have made in prior years.

Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin were defending two Avalanche players below the goal line. The puck was moved from the corner to behind the net where Matt Duchene found some room and made a pass to uncovered Wild-killer Jarome Iginla. Zucker, who was in good position between the puck and the defenseman on his side of the ice, sees Iginla alone in front and immediately collapses down and lifts his stick to foil the chance.

The great part about this play wasn't just that Zucker diagnosed the breakdown of coverage, but that his instincts allowed him to react instantly to spoil the chance. Only a few seconds later, Mikko Koivu gathered the puck in the defensive slot and made an incredibly talented lob pass to Zucker who had completely toasted the Avs defenseman. The result is a breakaway chance and a penalty on the Avs.

As Zucker's understanding of the pro game evolves, it's inevitable that his overall play will improve. Combined with a natural ability to create offense, a sound defensive game raises Zucker's ceiling as a player to heights that even his most optimistic observers may never have imagined.