In its past two games, back-to-back affairs at Toronto and Montreal, the Wild has scored five goals — and all of them were scored by wing Jason Zucker.
That gives Zucker a team-high eight for the season in 15 games. That makes this a particularly dangerous time to do any sort of long-term extrapolation of Zucker’s stats, but I’m going to do it anyway with some context added.
See, if we would have tallied up Zucker’s pace before these two games, when he had three goals in 13 contests, he would have been on pace for just shy of 20 goals this season. After his outburst, he’s on pace for more than 40. The truth often lies somewhere in the middle of the extremes, so let’s split the difference and ask this question: Is Zucker this season going to become just the fifth different Wild player in history to score 30 goals or more in a season?
Admittedly, that’s not an extraordinarily high bar. But this is Wild history, after all — a stretch of time that has generally trended toward offensive challenges and defensive schemes.
Marian Gaborik reached that 30-goal benchmark five times with the Wild and has the two best single seasons — including his 42-goal season in 2007-08, the only time a Wild scorer has topped 40. The underrated Brian Rolston had 30 goals or more three times for Minnesota. Zach Parise and Jason Pominville did it once each. And that’s it.
In the NHL last season, 26 different players had at least 30 goals. None played for the Wild, though a few Minnesota players were close: Eric Staal (28), Mikael Granlund (26) and Nino Niederreiter (25). Zucker was fourth on the team with 22. Why should this year be any different?
Well, there are three factors that could boost Zucker to new levels.
*First, he’s flat-out getting more ice time. He averaged just over 15 minutes per game last season. This year, he’s up to 18 minutes, 23 seconds per game — third among all Wild forwards and most among wings.
Part of that is based on merit, given that Zucker had a career-high 22 goals last season. Part of it is that is because of all the injuries the Wild have suffered. Zach Parise has yet to play. Charlie Coyle has missed a lot of time. Niederreiter missed six games, while Granlund missed five. Zucker has taken an elevated role and excelled.
*Second, which goes hand-in-hand the first point: A lot of his increased opportunities have come on the power play — where, of course, scoring a goal becomes more likely. Zucker was not a power play regular last year, averaging just 15 seconds per game on the man advantage. This year, it’s 2:38 per game — accounting for most of his overall ice time increase. He had just one power play goal last season, meaning he had 21 other goals. Staal (24) was the only Wild player to score more often in non-power play situations last year.
Zucker has three power play goals already this season — the same number he had in his entire career coming into the season. If he keeps scoring on the power play, he should keep getting those opportunities even when everyone’s healthy.
*Third, Zucker is still just 25 (almost 26) and should be entering the prime of his career. He’s in that sweet spot where he has young legs to go with experience. There’s no reason not to expect big things from him.
Given those factors, if Zucker stays healthy this season I’d expect him to lead the Wild in goals and to crack 30. He might even have a shot at 35 if things break right.