Wild fans have dubbed the 235-mile stretch between Des Moines and Minneapolis the “Zucker Expressway,” “I-35Z,” and “I-16.”
Even Jason Zucker, who wears No. 16, gets a kick out of that. But the young forward doesn’t mince words either.
Every time Zucker has been called into coach Mike Yeo’s office or pulled aside by General Manager Chuck Fletcher after a plane ride with the news that he’s heading back to Iowa, “I’m ticked off.”
“It’s always disappointing. If it’s not disappointing, then there’s a problem,” Zucker said. “I’m ticked off … always, every time, doesn’t matter. It’s got to fuel you. It’s got to help you, it’s got to make you want to get better down there because ultimately, this is where I want to be.”
So far, five’s a charm.
Zucker has been recalled five times this season, including four times between Nov. 20 and Jan. 1. In eight games since the most recent drive up Zucker Expressway, the 22-year-old has four goals, including a game-winner against Washington, and the fastest goal to start a period (eight seconds into the third) Thursday against Edmonton.
In Saturday night’s Hockey Day Minnesota meeting with the Dallas Stars, Zucker again will be on a surging line with Charlie Coyle and Dany Heatley. In the past four games, the trio has five goals and 12 points.
Iowa Wild GM Jim Mill, who goes back and forth himself, gets to see Zucker on both sides of his I-16 shuffle, both when he’s told he’s being sent down and after he arrives in Iowa.
“I’m there the next day with [Iowa coach] Kurt [Kleinendorst] to prop him back up again,” Mill said. “He does not pout, this kid. He shows anger. But he doesn’t feel sorry for himself. A lot of guys historically get sent down, pout for a week and feel bad for themselves, like, ‘It’s them, not me.’
“Jason’s not that way. He’s angry, he’s disappointed in himself, angry at the situation, not always understanding of the process, but he is always, every single time, determined to prove he should be in the NHL and to work his way back.”
All-around skills wanted
Zucker has great speed and scoring ability. But the Wild has made clear to him that unless he gets harder on the puck, buys into the system and plays well defensively, he won’t be able to succeed in the NHL.
Zucker has worked at those aspects of his game. As impressive as his four goals since his most recent trip up I-35Z is his play away from the puck. He has read plays better, been more aware in the neutral zone, created turnovers and often been first in on the forecheck.
“I know — and I’ve had many talks with Coach Yeo — that unless I’m playing a complete game, I’m not going to be here,” Zucker said. “I want to buy into that fact. I want to be here, so I’ll do whatever it takes.
“The thing I always tell myself is I’m not the only guy that’s ever been sent down five times in a year. I’m not. You just have to battle through and work hard.”
And that is the truth. Most teams want their young 20-somethings developing in the minors, to, as Yeo likes to say, “pay your dues.”
“When you’re dealing with young players, certainly some guys come and they stay, but the majority of them, go up and down a few times and it’s all part of the development process,” Yeo said. “Every time they’re here, there’s some things to take from it and things to work on. All of our meetings have been mostly positive and some constructive. Ultimately, it’s up to the player, how he takes what you tell him and how he applies it, and that’s where I give Zuck a lot of credit.
“You want them to be ticked off. You want them to be motivated to get back up and handle it the right way and he’s done a great job of that.”
Zucker has played well. But guess what?
He hasn’t secured a roster spot. At some point, Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu will return to the lineup. And if there’s not a top-6 role for Zucker, there’s a chance he will again take that trip down Zucker Expressway.
And you can guarantee he’ll be ticked.
“[Yeo] is very direct with Jason and lets him know what he needs to do in his game to get better so he can stay here,” Mill said. “It’s a process. But we’re still in the middle of the process. He’s got to prove it every day.”