There were games two seasons ago, Wild winger Jason Zucker would score a couple goals and chip in an assist, productivity that stoked the best output of his career, but he felt awful on the ice.
“And then this year, you play the best game in your life and you are minus-three and no points,” Zucker said. “So it’s funny how it works that way sometimes.”
Zucker wasn’t the only Wild veteran to experience a drop-off that helped fuel the team’s offensive struggles, woes that flared when the team was shut out in its final two games to end the season mired in a scoreless skid of 124 minutes, 49 seconds.
Management plans to tackle the problem and while the attempted fix — whether via trade or free agency — is likely to determine how successful this offseason is for the Wild, an internal boost is also a possibility that could pave the way for a bounce-back performance in 2019-20.
“It’s just about making sure that we, as individuals, take the summer to be better players and come back ready to go,” Zucker said.
Bringing in outside help looks like the easiest way to jump-start the Wild offense after it accumulated the fifth-fewest goals in the NHL (210) and boasted only five players who eclipsed 10 goals. One was defenseman Matt Dumba, who didn’t play since mid-December after he suffered a torn pectoral muscle.
The NHL-leading Tampa Bay Lightning had 11 players score at least 10, while the Colorado Avalanche — which secured the final playoff berth in the Western Conference — had 10.
“It’s hard to sit here and say nothing needs to change when you miss the playoffs and when you’re almost 30th in the league in scoring,” winger Zach Parise said. “I’d sound like an idiot standing up here saying that nothing needs to change. I’m sure everyone’s got their opinions on what that is and what direction that needs to go. But we can’t continue the way things ended this year.”
Still, a spike from the usual go-to forwards would help. And the Wild’s offensive leaders believe an increase is doable.
“Anything less than [30 goals] for me is a down year and a disappointment,” Zucker said.
With 21, Zucker fell short of that target — and finished 12 goals shy of the career-high 33 that he registered in 2017-18.
Zucker will focus on the details that help him execute this summer, but it’s unclear if he will try for a better encore with the Wild since he looks like a bona fide trade candidate after almost getting moved during the season.
“The more that you’ve worked on those things in the summer, the better off you’re going to be and the more chances you’re going to have to score goals,” Zucker said.
No player on the Wild experienced a larger decline in 2018-19 than veteran center Eric Staal, who finished with 22 goals after scoring 42 the previous campaign.
Staal, 34, feels somewhere in the middle of the two numbers would be encouraging, and Wild coach Bruce Boudreau anticipates Staal returning with “a vengeance” after signing a two-year, $6.5 million extension in February.
“Confidence and goal-scoring wise, it wasn’t at the level or as high as it was the year before and that can happen,” Staal said.
“I still know that I can produce and score. … We’ll just try and make sure everyone’s engaged and ready to go next year, and I’ll try and be one of those guys, too.”
Parise paced the team with 28 goals despite missing eight games because of leg injuries, and he is also sure he can beat that mark.
“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Parise said.
How much progress the entire team, which was shut out 11 times, accomplishes will be key, particularly when it comes to the standings.
“You hope that it’s not going to be something where it’s a few years of taking it on the chin and missing playoffs,” Parise said. “You hope that we can rebound right away and be a competitive team to get back in the playoffs.”