Saddled with a microphone and the attention of more than 300 high-school hockey captains and coaches, winger Jason Zucker shared advice and anecdotes from his upbringing and career Tuesday inside the St. Paul RiverCentre alongside his wife Carly, former Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway and Greenway’s wife, Jenni, during the Wild Leadership Summit.
Later this week, Zucker will be at Lake Mille Lacs participating in the team’s bass fishing tournament.
Despite being unsigned and mired in trade speculation, the restricted free agent continues to actively be involved with the Wild — a decision that underscores his desire to remain with the organization.
“I want to be here,” Zucker said. “I don’t want to sit in the weeds and pretend that because a trade talk happened that all of a sudden I’m gone and I’m not a part of this community. I feel a very big part of this community, and Carly does as well and we take a lot of pride in that and especially with our space at Masonic.
“I’ll say this: To this point, I’m still a part of the Minnesota Wild. So until that changes, I will make sure I’m involved in the community.”
Although the Wild has fine-tuned its roster this offseason, making a slew of signings when free agency opened July 1, it has yet to reach a resolution with Zucker and fellow restricted free agent and defenseman Matt Dumba.
In late June, the team issued qualifying offers and last week, Zucker and Dumba filed for salary arbitration — a move that ensures an outcome, as both sides can continue negotiating before a potential ruling. Zucker’s hearing is set for July 28, while Dumba’s is scheduled for July 23.
Talks were quiet at the outset of the summer, Zucker said, but they intensified around the draft last month. Zucker’s agent Eustace King has kept Zucker in the loop, updating him “on information good or bad.” While Zucker had an introductory chat with General Manager Paul Fenton on the phone, the two don’t discuss negotiations.
The Wild said there was no update on the process.
“I think [King’s] in a lot of dialogue with the team, but I don’t know how that’s going necessarily,” Zucker said. “Obviously, we filed for arbitration, and we’re hoping we don’t have to get there. For me, we’re excited that we’re still a part of this organization right now, and we’re looking forward to getting a contract done and put that in the past.”
After establishing career-highs in goals (33), assists (31) and points (64), Zucker is poised for a raise from his previous two-year, $4 million contract. He declined to specify the term and dollar amount he’s coveting but acknowledged the fact he’s just a season removed from being an unrestricted free agent able to choose his destination as irrelevant.
“For me, I want to be here. I’ll say that,” the 26-year-old said. “I want to be in Minnesota. I love Minnesota. My family roots are now here. This is a second home to us, and I want to be here. We have a great team. We have a lot of really good things going for us.”
This is the first offseason Zucker has spent more time in the Twin Cities than his hometown of Las Vegas, and he’s working out occasionally at Xcel Energy Center — which was inundated with prospects Tuesday for the start of the team’s annual development camp.
And although he’s coming off his best season to date and is a pillar in the community amid fundraising efforts to build the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, Zucker’s been mentioned as a potential candidate for a trade that could help spur the Wild past the first round of the playoffs.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” Zucker said. “It’s one of those things that even when I do think about it, it’s just part of the business. It’s the way it goes. If I get traded, it is what it is and I’ll look forward to a fresh start. Obviously like I said, I would love to be here and this is where I want to be. That is Option A, and the rest is out of my control.”
What Zucker is focusing on is evolving as a player, and he’s confident he can improve.
Although he went pointless in the Wild’s five playoff games against the Jets, Zucker has reflected on the positives from last season. He called his postseason showing a small sample size and once the Wild makes a longer run, he believes he’ll have a larger body of work to evaluate.
“I’m not satisfied with scoring 33,” Zucker said. “I want to keep getting better, and I want to improve my game. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m guaranteeing 40 goals. That just means I’m going to guarantee that I’m going to be a better player next season.”
And it’s clear where Zucker would like to showcase that progress.
“If it was my choice,” he said, “I’d be here playing here for the Minnesota Wild next season.”