Jason Zucker was left for dead by most of the Wild fan base prior to the season. In the rare occasions that his name was brought up it was in regards to whether the newly minted Vegas franchise would be tempted to take him rather than one of Minnesota’s talented young defensemen that they’d be forced to expose in the expansion draft. In the eyes of many he was the Wild’s most expendable asset.
Fast forward a few months and the conversation surrounding Zucker is less about the Vegas native being expansion draft bait and more of how do the Wild keep the 24-year-old long-term.
What changed in that short period of time? Zucker found his groove.
In 39 games, he has tallied 25 points – 9 goals, 16 assists – which eclipsed his previous seasons total of 23 and is a point shy tying his career best of 26 points in 2014-15.
At 5-v-5, which is where 94% of his ice time has come from, he is averaging 2.98 points per 60 minutes. That number not only puts him atop the Wild leaderboard, but it places him fourth in the entire NHL above the likes of Connor McDavid, Evgeni Malkin and Vladimir Tarasenko for fourth place in the league.
Zucker isn’t a stranger to putting up gaudy numbers. In 2014-15 he finished second in the NHL in goals per 60 minutes at 5-v-5 (1.59) and 51st in points per 60 minutes (2.06).
The history of success is there, but there is something very different between that 2014-15 season and the current campaign. Zucker’s 2014-15 success hinged upon his goal scoring prowess. That hasn’t exactly been the case in 2016-17, as he is posting an average of 0.96 goals per 60 minutes at 5-v-5. Instead, Zucker’s current success is buoyed by something he has never excelled at: passing.
Prior to the 2016-17 season Zucker had accumulated 15 assists at even strength in 169 games. His best year, excluding 2011-12 where he played just 6 games, came in 2014-15 when he posted 0.47 assists per 60 minutes at 5-v-5. In 2013-14 he didn’t manage a single assist at even strength in 247 minutes of playing time.
As I said, passing has never been a part of Zucker’s arsenal. At least until now.
In the span of 39 games he has tallied 17 assists at 5-v-5, more than doubling his career total of 15. 11 of those assists are of the primary variety, which is just one shy of tying his career mark of 12. But perhaps his most impressive stat is the 2.03 helpers he averages per 60 minutes at even strength, a number that puts him atop of the NHL in the category.
The first reaction to finding out this information is to look for the cause of the growth, and there are plenty in Zucker’s case. The Wild in general are scoring at a higher clip which means there are plenty of points to go around. Zucker is also spending the bulk of his ice time with Mikael Granlund, who is also producing at a career clip, and Mikko Koivu which has freed up his game thru the neutral zone where he can move around and create havoc for the opposition.
The list could go on and on but what tends to get lost in the search is what Jason Zucker the hockey player has done to create the boost in his distribution numbers. All of the outside factors have a part to play, but in reality it’s been Zucker’s growth as a hockey player that has led him to this point.
When talking about that growth there is one thing that stands out amongst the others; vision.
Wes Walz has done a fantastic job on Fox Sports North of highlighting how Zucker is starting to pick his head up more frequently while shielding the puck.
As you can see in the GIF Zucker is being kept along the boards by the Blues defensemen. In previous seasons we’d either see Zucker attempt to cycle the puck behind the net to Granlund or continue to carry the puck back towards the blue line in hopes of creating some space between him and the defensemen. But 2016-17 Zucker continues to shield the puck while simultaneously looking for the open lanes and teammates. In this case he finds Koivu in prime real estate, hitting him in stride for the goal ahead goal.
This is something that Zucker has done on a consistent basis.
It feels like a game doesn’t pass by where Zucker isn’t finding someone in the danger zone for a one-timer.
He can even do it in the open ice.
This is the kind of vision and awareness we’ve come to expect from guys like Granlund and Koivu. Distributors who have developed and nurtured their skills throughout their playing career. To see it come from Jason Zucker, a man whose value derived from his goals and nothing more, is unbelievable.
That development is a testament to Zucker as a player. With his back against the wall he has morphed himself into a completely different player. All of his previous traits are still there, but he has found a way to mold them to become something better. Something well rounded.
It’s hard to imagine Zucker keeping this pace for an entire 82-game season. Chances are he’ll be overtaken by one of the premier passers in the NHL, but that’s okay. He has already shown the Wild that is more than just a goal scorer. He is a playmaker, and that is something Minnesota will always need.
Stats courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com