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Jason Zucker’s road to Wild stardom capped off with 30-goal milestone

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NHL: St. Louis Blues at Minnesota Wild Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Zucker is only 26 years old, but in his 7 seasons with the Minnesota Wild, he’s had enough ups and downs in his season to fill an entire career. He’s scored big goals, he’s been healthy scratched, he’s had time on the top line, he’s been on the bottom of the depth chart, clawing for minutes, coaches fell in and out of love with him. But at the end of it, Zucker has emerged as one of the Wild’s best offensive weapons, culminating with him scoring his 30th goal this weekend.

That road started with the first six games of his career, where he finished the season with a Wild team missing the playoffs for the 4th consecutive season. He managed two assists in those games. But that’s not what everyone noticed about his game. It was his blazing speed. He could accelerate in a flash and leave defenders chasing him as he broke in alone on goaltenders.

He’d be forced to play 55 games with the Wild’s AHL affiliate Houston Aeros during the lock-out the following season, but racked up points with 24 goals and 26 assists. He’d eventually play in 20 games that season once play resumed in mid-January.

Zucker was a scorer, even in a lessened role, seeing on average, 11 minutes per night. He’d even be the hero that scored to win the single game for an over-matched Wild club against the Chicago Blackhawks. The hope was to see him improve and become a staple in the Wild’s offense the following season.

Unfortunately, head coach Mike Yeo had issues with his defensive game. Always looking to fly out of the zone at the moment a turnover happened, Zucker’s offense-first mindset and defensive irresponsibility wore thin on Yeo. Zucker bounced back and forth from the Iowa Wild and St. Paul, playing in just 21 games at the NHL level. It didn’t help that he wasn’t producing the goals. Sure, he got breakaways, but there the finish wasn’t there as he’d often skate himself too deep and unable to make a move past the goaltender.

To steal basketball vernacular, Jason had an ability that few, if any, Wild players possessed - an ability to create his own shot. But other than that? He was a one-trick pony. Granted, that’s a good trick to have, but if you can’t notch assists or play well in your own end, that lessens the value of that special ability.

The 2014-15 season was by far his best up to that point as he was on pace for nearly 30 goals before taking a hit that broke his collarbone. When healthy, he became a factor in the Wild’s Stanley Cup Playoff First Round defeat of the Blues that season. That was until he blocked a shot with his hand and was playing out the rest with a broken thumb going into the Western Conference semifinal series with the Blackhawks.

With so much anticipation for the kid to breakout, his numbers and overall production fell way off. So much so that when Yeo was fired, interim head coach John Torchetti was bothered by the speedster’s two-way game. He was healthy scratched a lot in that March. Zucker felt he was playing well, but that experience of falling out of favor with his coaches had to be humbling for him.

To make matters worse, that disappointing season happened just as Zucker became a Restricted Free Agent. While general manager Chuck Fletcher had locked players like Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, and Jared Spurgeon into long-term deals, Fletcher was not willing to give Zucker the same kind of security. Zucker would sign just a 2-year deal worth $4 million.

Zucker had the talent to make much more. He just had to prove it.

The following season was a chance to get a fresh start with new head coach Bruce Boudreau. He started out the season playing in third and fourth line roles, trying to work his way up the lineup. And once he got his chance, the disappointing Zucker was history.

Zucker was placed on a line with captain Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund on Thanksgiving that he showed what he could be. He scored 22 goals by using his speed and being a target for the Wild’s best playmaker in Granlund.

Not only did that line thrive, but it was deployed in the defensive zone more often than any other line in hockey. Zucker has improved on the defensive side of things so much that he became a vital member of one the best lines in hockey and helped Mikko Koivu rise to Selke finalist.

And Zucker’s not only good at 5-on-5 play, he’s seen a good amount of time on the penalty kill, where his speed is harnessed to take time and space away from the opposition. This season, he’s allowed just 4 goals on the penalty kill, while the Wild has scored 3. He took a major deficiency in his game and work on it until it became a positive.

Speaking of turning weaknesses into strengths, he’s also become much more of a playmaker. As a Denver Pioneer he often had nearly as many assists as goals, but at the NHL level, his passing wasn’t up to snuff initially. Here’s his assist numbers over his NHL career:

  • 2012-13 - 1
  • 2013-14 - 1
  • 2014-15 - 5
  • 2015-16 - 10
  • 2016-17 - 25
  • 2017-18 - 29 and still counting.

It took until last year for that part of his game to shine through at the NHL. When I said that he, “made things happen,” on the ice, take a look at this. Zucker is no 2nd assist wunderkind. As his time on ice improved, his goals picked up, and when he added the playmaking aspect to his game, Zucker has produced 52 assists this year and last with 33 of those being of the first assist variety. It’s truly been a maturation and development into a complete player.

Jason Zucker’s speed isn’t just something he uses to create his own shot, but he creates shots for his teammates, as well as shutdown the opposition.

For the Las Vegas native, 30 is quite the milestone and one that has happened on this franchise a little more than a handful of times and only by a few players.

  • Marian Gaborik (5 times)
  • Brian Rolston (3 times)
  • Jason Pominville (2013-14)
  • Zach Parise (2014-15)
  • Eric Staal (2017-18)

And now you can add Jason Zucker’s name to the history books. It’s been a long, winding road for the Minnesota Wild forward, but reaching that milestone and fortifying his position on this Wild team should be all that much sweeter for it.

Stats and info courtesy of Corsica.Hockey, Hockey-Reference.com