Youth movement underway

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2012 - 1:31 AM

University of Denver star Jason Zucker could be one of many fresh faces in the Wild lineup next season.

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New Wild forward Jason Zucker played for Team USA in the World Junior hockey championship earlier this season.

Photo: RANDY FIEDLER, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Jason Zucker might spend all summer training on a roller rink built into the backyard of his parent's Sin City home, but there's no doubt the Nevada-produced hockey player has mastered the game on ice, too.

During the Wild's final six games, the high-energy, high-speed forward hopes to give fans an early glimpse of the type of game he hopes to someday bring consistently at the NHL level. That will start Thursday night against the Florida Panthers when the California-born, Nevada-raised forward makes his NHL debut alongside Erik Christensen and Nick Johnson.

Zucker, who left the University of Denver to sign with the team that traded two draft picks to make him its third second-round pick of the 2010 draft, practiced for the first time Wednesday. He absorbed some tips from a few teammates and sat in a stall next to veteran forward/part-time comic Dany Heatley.

"I can tell he's going to be a great mentor for me," Zucker, 20, said of Heatley, the former 50-goal scorer. "They've all been in my position at one point in time. They're helping me through this. It's a big culture change for me. It's obviously the best league in the world. It's going to be a big change, ... but I think I've prepared myself pretty well so far."

Zucker, who didn't sleep Tuesday night and didn't envision sleeping Wednesday night, made the decision to leave DU on Monday night while talking to his parents, Natalie and Scott.

His agent negotiated the straightforward contract with the Wild on Tuesday, and in that time, Zucker packed his stuff, called Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky to inform of his decision to leave school and made it to Minnesota in time for the third period of the Wild's loss to the Rangers.

Zucker said he left on good terms with Gwozdecky and felt "it was the right time for me to move on."

"As of right now, I have no expectations," said Zucker, who will have his parents and brothers and sister, Evan, Adam, Kimberly and Cameron, in attendance Thursday. "I'm going to go in with an open mind and see what I can do."

Zucker is entering the NHL at a juncture when things are its most ramped up. He'll face six playoff contenders, so he's looking at the next nine days as a gauge as to what he needs to do this summer to give himself the best chance to make next year's Wild roster.

It'll also help Zucker that he'll get to familiarize himself with teammates, systems and coach Mike Yeo's drills. This should give him a head start in the fall. Yeo will give him every chance to strut his stuff.

"It's not fair to judge him too much," Yeo said. "We'll go in with an open mind. It's tough because you've heard a lot of things. Obviously, ... skate, shoot and work. But I don't want to pigeonhole him into anything right now as far as what we expect from him. I want to give him the opportunity to come here and do that on his own. But I do want to see him right from get-go start to grasp our game."

Born in Newport Beach, Calif., Zucker moved to Las Vegas at two months old. He played roller hockey until age 6 but learned to love ice hockey while playing with his brothers. He moved to California at age 10 to play for the L.A. Hockey Club. After two years, he returned home to play for the Las Vegas Outlaws AAA team before moving to Detroit at age 15 to play for Compuware.

He's been highly decorated with Team USA in international tournaments and starred at DU.

Zucker's arrival gives fans a reason to pay attention to the Wild playing out the string. In October, it got a sneak peek at fellow 2010 second-rounder Brett Bulmer.

Now, it'll get to see Zucker.

Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Johan Larsson, Zack Phillips, Zucker, Bulmer and perhaps even the Wild's 2012 first-round pick will all compete for roster spots in the fall.

"The direction of our team, our best days are ahead of us," Yeo said. "It's a lot closer now."

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