There’s no internal competition, all three swear, but there’s also no denying Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker are “pushing each other” during what has turned into an exciting crusade to finish as the Wild’s goal-scoring leader this season.
“We’re all genuinely happy for each other, I mean every guy,” said Zucker, 25, who has combined for 61 goals with his fellow 2010 draft picks. “The more guys we have that score goals, the better off we’re going to be, right?
“Granny has been unbelievable, Nino’s been unreal. We’ve got tons of guys that are right there with us, too, so it’s been fun.”
Granlund, 25, leads the way with 21 goals, and Zucker and Niederreiter have 20 apiece for a Wild team that has scored the most goals in the Western Conference.
“It’s good that they’re all scoring,” coach Bruce Boudreau said of the goal-scoring competition. “That’s one of the things about this team. Our balance has been pretty good all year. It’s surprising that we’re second in the league now in goals for, or what have you, but it’s all because of the balance and everybody chips in.
“It’s why you don’t have long losing streaks.”
Granlund, the Wild’s leading scorer with 59 points, has five goals in the past six games and nine in the past 12. Zucker has four goals in the past five, including clutch tying and winning goals. Niederreiter, 24, has five goals in the past 11 games and has hit the 20-goal mark for a third straight season.
“We’re definitely all pushing each other to be better, and obviously, the more goals you score, the better it is for our team and everybody wants that success,” Niederreiter said. “It’s been fun. We’re all in the 20s now. You want to hit the 20s. It’s just a relief, kind of a mark which is great to break.
“The next one is 30, which would be great to break and hopefully we can achieve that one day. I’ll try my best to get as many or as close as possible this year.”
Granlund and Zucker have been fortunate to be on the Wild’s only unbreakable line since Nov. 25 as Mikko Koivu’s wingers. That has created exceptional chemistry between the two.
Niederreiter hasn’t been so lucky. He has bounced from Eric Staal’s line to Erik Haula’s line to even Charlie Coyle’s line when he was playing center.
And, when it’s all said and done, like maybe when Zach Parise returns to the lineup, Boudreau said Niederreiter will probably see time with Martin Hanzal.
“We move those two lines around a lot,” Boudreau said. “We’ve only got one line that’s really stayed together. It’s unfortunate, but that’s the way it’s gone this year.”
Boudreau feels Niederreiter’s overall game has been inconsistent.
“There’s games where he’s not as involved as you’d like him to be,” Boudreau said. “For him to be successful, he’s got to get a lot of touches. And there’s just some games out there where he’s not getting the puck.”
Niederreiter would love to find a home with two consistent linemates.
“It’s something I’ve been used to since I got here,” said Niederreiter, acquired from the Islanders for Cal Clutterbuck and a draft pick in 2013. “Jumping around everywhere, sometimes it’s maybe a plus to be in a position to be able to do that, But at the other end, it would be nice to stick with some guys over and over so you know them.
“But it’s something which is probably one of my strengths, to be able to just play with everyone. I’m used to it.”
Assistant GM Brent Flahr, largely responsible for drafting Granlund and Zucker and recommending Niederreiter and Coyle in trades, is happy to see their success. Even though there have been ups and downs with the youngsters the past few years, Flahr never doubted they’d become impactful NHLers.
“The one thing we probably did is rush a couple of them into the league. But we had to,” Flahr said. “But at the same time, I think we all had seen those guys enough to know they’d make it. They were elite players in their draft year in the world outside of the NHL.
“It takes time. We knew they’d get there eventually, but it’s hard to keep everybody patient. Those guys will all be a big part of our future.”
And what makes Boudreau excited is others are coming down the pike, too.
“We have [Joel] Eriksson Ek and [Jordan] Greenway and [Luke] Kunin, [Kirill] Kaprizov down the road coming along, [Alex] Tuch,” Boudreau said. “Those guys are going to be the nucleus of our team in years to come.”