Some athletes crumble under the weight of increased expectations. Jason Zucker, on the other hand, welcomes the presumption that he should take a big step forward after scoring 21 goals in his first full NHL season.
“I enjoy that,’’ the Wild winger said Tuesday, after a practice at Xcel Energy Center. “I really like knowing that people have high expectations for me, and I’m looking forward to trying to get better.’’
Formerly known as a frequent traveler between the Twin Cities and the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa, Zucker grabbed hold of a fourth-line role in training camp last year and worked his way up to a place among the Wild’s top six forwards. Despite a broken clavicle that ripped a hole in his season, he finished as the team’s third-leading goal scorer, adding more consistency and polish to a game built on blazing speed.
That only made him hungrier. With a secure place on the roster for the first time in his NHL career, Zucker still approached camp with an eager youngster’s attitude. When the Wild begins the season Thursday at Colorado, he will be playing on a line with captain Mikko Koivu and right winger Nino Niederreiter, hoping to deliver on those great expectations.
“My goal this year is to improve on everything,’’ said Zucker, 23. “I thought last year went well, though I didn’t play as many games as I would have liked. But you can’t be 
satisfied. You have to keep growing in your game.’’
Wild coach Mike Yeo has raved about the Zucker-Koivu-Niederreiter line, noting how strong it looked even in Tuesday’s practice. Zucker and Koivu have built familiarity over the past couple of seasons with frequent stints on the same line, and Niederreiter has turned out to be a complementary fit.
In three games, Zucker has two goals and three assists, while Niederreiter has three goals and three assists in four games. Zucker also has been part of the second power-play unit, which will afford him more ice time and scoring chances.
Yeo declined to set numerical goals for Zucker this season. But he said the winger has been “on top of his game right from the start’’ of training camp, and he expects to see him continue his upward trajectory. 
“It’s pretty simple,’’ Yeo said. “He’s really started to understand what his identity is and what he needs to do to be successful night after night. It’s just a matter of continuing to do those things and finding a way to take another step as a player.’’
That identity is not built solely on speed. Last season, Zucker molded himself into a reliable two-way player, and he said that committing himself to playing solid defense helped his offense. He also benefited from playing with a wide cast of teammates, trying to learn something from each one to incorporate into his own game.
Zucker missed 27 games after breaking his clavicle in February. But he continued to study the game even while sidelined and contributed immediately when he returned, with three goals in the final three regular-season games. He finished with career highs in eight categories — including points (26) and game-winning goals (three) — and was one of the most efficient scorers in the NHL with 21 goals in 51 games.
“He’s getting better and better,’’ Niederreiter said. “He’s started to figure out what his strengths are and what makes him a dangerous player, which is using his speed and making smart, simple plays. That’s exactly what he’s doing, and that’s why he’s successful.’’
This season, Zucker wants to prove he can sustain that over the course of 82 games. He has lost considerable time to injuries in each of his past two seasons, including knee surgery that ended his season early in 2013-14. He also is in the final year of a two-year contract and could earn a big payday if he can build on past success.
“I’m looking at this year the same way I always do,’’ he said. “I want to be a better player, and I want to help our team have a good season and go farther than we did last year. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.’’