CALGARY – His salary escalated, and the future became clearer.
But signing a five-year, $27.5 million contract last July also changed how winger Jason Zucker perceived his role on the Wild.
“You’re now a $5 million guy, and people talk about it that way — ‘You’re a $5 million guy,’ ” Zucker said. “It’s now expected. It’s no longer, ‘He played well.’ If you don’t, it’s, ‘Why aren’t you?’ ”
He felt pressure to perform before, but never this much — never amid a commitment that positions him as a cornerstone on the roster.
And although this is new terrain for the 26-year-old, he isn’t afraid of it.
Zucker is embracing the challenge because being a go-to scorer is the calling card he’s striving to attach to his career.
“I love it,” he said. “I love it because I want to be a guy that’s relied on. I want to be a guy that the team looks to when they need a goal or when they need a big play. I want to be that guy.”
Lately, that’s exactly the lift Zucker has provided the Wild.
After scoring three times in the past four games, including the game-winner in the slump-busting 3-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday and the tying goal in the third period last Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Zucker boasts nine on the season and is on pace to approach 30 — an attainable plateau in his mind.
“I feel like a 30-goal scorer,” Zucker said.
That target, however, isn’t the only one that fuels him.
While goals might be the most obvious measure of his effectiveness, Zucker can also judge his contributions based off shots and chances. And that’s an area his line with center Eric Staal and winger Mikael Granlund is thriving in recently.
Over the past five games, the Wild has had a whopping 49 scoring chances when those three have been on the ice, according to NaturalStatTrick.com; 22 have been high-danger scoring chances.
Even though it’s not always an accurate barometer of his success, Zucker hopes to put five shots on net every game. He did that only once in that span, but he’s still been around the puck enough to make an impact since he and his linemates have chipped in six goals during that stretch.
“The amount of Grade-As we generate, we consistently play like that and create opportunities, he’s going to score,” Staal said. “It’s just the reality of it. The way Granny’s been dishing right now, we’re getting great looks. You just want to stay with it and confident and keep playing, and he’ll do that.”
After all, delivering that boost to the Wild is the standard Zucker holds himself to every time he plays.
“[Coach] Bruce [Boudreau] can put me on video in front of the whole team and yell at me for five days, and I’m harder on myself than he is,” Zucker said. “I can guarantee you.”
In between games, Zucker studies his shifts over and over.
Even on plays that pass his eye test, he questions his decisionmaking and compares what he did to what “the best players in the world are doing” to determine how he can improve.
“Those are the type of things I’m harsh on myself with, but it’s because I expect that out of my myself, too,” Zucker explained. “It’s not me hoping that I can do that someday. It’s me knowing I can do it, and it’s forcing myself to do it on a shift-by-shift basis.”
How often Zucker is rewarded with goals for this work on his craft is under a microscope. Such is the nature of being one of the highest-paid players on the team under contract for longer than most.
But it’s a process Zucker is glad to be experiencing in Minnesota.
“It’s nice knowing that they feel I’m part of this long-term plan,” Zucker said. “[General Manager] Paul [Fenton] told me right away that he wants me to be a part of this team, and that’s a great feeling. That’s great to hear because that’s what I wanted, too. I wanted to be here. I wanted to be a part of this team. I think we have something special here, and I think it’s a matter of putting it together and finding a way to get it done.”