Is there a more popular player in the Wild's organization than Jason Zucker? It would be hard to argue that any player has earned the love and admiration from the fans in the State of Hockey more than Zucker has. The only possible exception would be the man Zucker has been modeling his game after, Minnesota's own Zach Parise. So what does Zucker mean to the Wild's future? What role can he or will he fill? What have we learned this season and what questions still need answers? Let's find out.
Zucker's game can be summed up pretty easily with one word: speed. The man can just fly on the ice and his game-breaking speed gives opposing defenses nightmares. Skating ability, however, does not solely define what Zucker brings every time he steps on the ice. As mentioned above Zucker models his game after teammate Zach Parise, so what does that mean? Zucker is listed at 5'11 188lbs but he plays so much bigger than his size. He is a volume shooter, tenacious, and has a goal-scorer's mentality. Maybe the most important piece of Parise's game that Zucker has picked up on is his play in the defensive zone. He even earned extra ice time as a penalty killer this season. Zucker doesn't have the vision of a Mikael Granlund, the flash of a Nino Niederreiter, or the brute strength of a Charlie Coyle but what he does have is a drive and instinct to put the puck in the back of the net.
This season, after struggling to secure a permanent spot on the Wild roster for his first three professional seasons, Jason Zucker established himself as a top-6 forward in the NHL. He did this by scoring 21 goals in 51 games for the Wild and finding consistency in his game. The Zucker of years past could be best described as streaky. He would look like the most dangerous forward on the ice for a few games and then disappear for 10. The effort just wasn't there on consistent basis, not only on the offensive side of things, but especially defensively. He had to learn to play a 200ft game and this season Zucker finally committed himself to that goal. Right now Zucker's role remains a top-6 forward for the Wild and one of the few true goal scorers on the roster. As it currently sits Zucker is the No. 2 LW behind Parise and for the first time in his career there will be no questions about whether or not he will have a spot on the roster when training camp opens for next season.
Zucker's future in this organization is really limitless. Had he played a full 82 games this season I don't think there is much question that No. 16 would have hit the 30 goal mark, a feat which only a handful of Wild players (Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston, Jason Pominville, and Parise) have ever accomplished. The ideal progression for Zucker would be to become a consistent 25-30 goal scorer and develop into a first-line winger eventually replacing his mentor Zach Parise in that role. Additionally, as Zucker rounds out his game with added NHL experience hopefully he will become an every situation player. A guy that is as dangerous on the power play as the penalty kill and a player that you want on the ice when the game is on the line.
What We Learned this Season
1. Zucker can score at the NHL level and do it on a regular basis. He probably won't ever be a Dany Heatley 50 in '07 type of sniper, but he certainly has the ability to pot 25-30 goals a year without being a liability in his own end of the ice or relying on the power play as the primary source of his production.
2. The big stage doesn't scare him. When Zucker finally came back from that collarbone injury in April, the Wild had three games remaining in the regular season and needed to beat some tough teams to clinch. Even though he hadn't played since February, Zucker came back and made an instant impact scoring the game-winner in a victory over Chicago and then scoring twice in a 4-2 win against the Predators. Then there was Game One of the first round series against the Blues where he scored the opening goal en route to a crucial 4-2 road win. This is a guy that has shown the ability to thrive in the big moments.
3. He's not afraid to get his nose dirty. It's no secret that the Western Conference is extremely physical, especially in the Central Division, so shying away from contact isn't really option. You have be willing to go after pucks in the corners, attack pucks in the blue paint, and be willing to mix it up in the crease once in awhile for your trouble. Zucker has shown he is willing to pay that price to score goals and create chances.
Question Left Unanswered
1. Durability: For as talented a player as Zucker is the one thing that holds him back seemingly every year is his tendency to get hurt and miss games. Obviously, injuries happen. Hockey is a physically punishing sport and players get hurt, however, Zucker has found himself out of action for extended periods of time a lot so far in his NHL career. While getting hurt is in no way his fault, it is really hard for an organization to invest in a player long-term that can't stay healthy. In order to get a true indication of what sort of numbers Zucker is capable of putting up, we have to see him play a full season or at least close. There's a laundry list of very talented Wild players who never reached their full potential or held the team back from reach it's full potential for that very reason. Players like Marian Gaborik, Guillame Latendresse, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and some might even put the captain Mikko Koivu in that category. Bottom line, Zucker has to show that he can stay healthy and be relied on for a full season before he takes that next step.
2. Adjustments: As has been noted several times, this season was really Zucker's first extended stay in the NHL and he did exceedingly well. The message has been sent loud and clear that Zucker can score goals. Now the question going into next season is how Zucker will preform when opponents are keying on him. Can he produce on offense at the same rate playing against the other teams top defensive players and when opponents are game-planning against him to take away his chances? This is the toughest adjustment any young player goes through. The term "sophomore slump" is commonly used in reference to this. NHL teams, coaches, and players are way too good at what they do to allow a one-trick pony to continually beat them. Zucker will need to prove that his game is adaptable in order to have continued success at this level.
3. Game-breaker: If you watched the Minnesota in the playoffs this season, especially during the Chicago series, the one thing that was noticeably absent from the Wild was that killer instinct. The Blackhawks swept the Wild in that series for a lot of reasons, but the one that sticks out the most was their ability to make us pay for giving their top players even the slightest glimpse of a scoring chance. Patrick Kane is the master of this. Nearly every opportunity Kane got in that series he buried. It just didn't matter how the Wild tried to defend him because any mistake with him on the ice was in the back of the net before there was even time to react. Obviously Kane is a world-class talent and hoping Zucker can reach that level of skill is delusional. However, Zucker has the skill set and mentality to be that type of player for the Wild. A guy that can make something out of nothing with his skating, shot, and instinct. A player that can make other teams pay for any slip-up when he's on the ice. Unfortunately, Zucker wasn't apart of the 2013-2014 playoff run because of injuries. He didn't gain that vital playoff experience that many of the other young guys on the roster did when the Wild upset Colorado in seven games and then took the Hawks to six games in round two. This year's playoff run was really the first taste of what it takes to reach that top echelon of the Western Conference and NHL for Zucker. Now moving forward we will see if Zucker can be the Wild's game-breaker.
What other questions remain in Zucker's game? Is there more Zucker showed this season? Do you have a different vision of his future? Leave a comment and tell me what you think.