Mats Zuccarello was one of the last players to leave the ice at a recent Wild practice. After ditching his helmet and sitting at his stall in the almost empty locker room, Zuccarello began to discuss the Wild.
He explained the effect shedding a recent seven-game losing streak had on the team, how the mood had improved and how everyone was smiling.
"That helps a lot for team spirit," he said.
But the question that got Zuccarello talking wasn't about the Wild; he was asked about himself.
Zuccarello, after all, is the Wild's leading scorer. He had a 10-game point streak that ended Thursday, and his eight-game assist streak was one shy of matching the franchise record. The winger has factored into multiple goals in as many games (six) as he's gone pointless.
This season is on track to be the most productive of Zuccarello's NHL career.
Finally, at the end of his response, he addressed himself — and he didn't even say, "I."
Instead: "You feel good, for sure," is how he put it.
Then eventually, "I don't really need you to write anything about me. I'm OK with coming to the rink, having fun and winning games. Other than that, I like the other young guys and good guys to get the attention."
Zuccarello isn't always singled out. He's Kirill Kaprizov's wingman, one-third of the Wild's top line and a segment of the Wild's veteran core, including one of three to sign a contract extension before the season.
But his unique consistency helped the team win four in a row after John Hynes took over as coach when Dean Evason was fired.
"I don't think [Zuccarello] knows how much influence he has on our team," Marcus Foligno said. "He is a very big engine for us."
Better with age
That Zuccarello is headlining the Wild's comeback tour shouldn't come as a surprise.
He arrived as a playmaker when he was the team's prized free-agent pickup in 2019, and that's still his M.O. four years later; his 167 assists are tops on the team since his debut, and he has already cracked the top 10 in franchise history.
Two seasons ago, Zuccarello set career highs in assists (55) and points (79) and his 45 assists and 67 points last season were also better than any of his NHL totals from his 20s. If he maintains the 6-21-27 pace he is at through 25 games, which included three goals and 11 assists during his point streak, Zuccarello will shatter his previous bests as a 36-year-old.
Zuccarello's last assist on Tuesday in the 5-2 victory at Calgary was his 600th career point.
"Like a wine," said rookie Marco Rossi, who's centering Zuccarello and Kaprizov.
Back when he was with the Rangers, Zuccarello played like a New Yorker, his hustle and tireless work ethic to make it in the Big Apple endearing him to fans.
"That's part of Zucc's DNA," said former Rangers teammate Derek Stepan, who's retired and scouting for the Wild. "That's why Rangers fans loved him so much.
"What he learned in New York was how to play in the NHL, and he's carried it over and then as you get older, you get more confident with the plays that you're making."
With the Wild, Zuccarello has the perks borne from that determination: the pedigree and the paycheck but also the poise.
“I don't really need you to write anything about me. I'm OK with coming to the rink, having fun and winning games. Other than that, I like the other young guys and good guys to get the attention.”
The 5-foot-8, 181-pound native of Oslo, Norway, is the NHL's all-time leader in games played, goals, assists and points by a Norwegian-born player. After going undrafted, Zuccarello is up to 192 goals and 408 assists in 791 games for the Rangers, Stars and Wild.
"I still feel young in my head," Zuccarello said. "My body feels good. You're smarter the older you get and probably see more of the ice and stop thinking too much, worrying too much. You just know the game a little bit better."
Defense, then offense
Zuccarello actually attributes his playmaking style to a teammate being open for a pass.
Not his instincts, his vision or his execution.
Kaprizov wants the puck and gets in a scoring position, and that makes setting him up easy for Zuccarello.
"You're just trying to read and react," said Zuccarello, who was split up from Kaprizov and demoted from the first power play unit earlier in the season when the Wild struggled. "When you have him that's always open, it makes me look good. I just make the simple play, and he scores."
That is what usually happens.
Of the 122 goals Kaprizov has scored in the NHL, Zuccarello has had a hand in almost half (60). This season, the duo has combined on the same goal 17 times; only four sets of teammates league-wide have done that more often.
But to create offense, the Wild have to have the puck. That's also a strength of Zuccarello's.
His knack for coming back into Wild territory to help the team regain possession has repeatedly elicited praise from Hynes, who was excited to have a chance to coach Zuccarello.
"He understands the harder you work in that area, the more the 'D' can hold their gaps, the more we can get turnovers and a guy like that can go back on offense," Hynes said.
During his point streak, which overlapped with the team's seven-game losing streak, eight of the 11 goals scored when Zuccarello was on the ice at 5-on-5 belonged to the Wild, according to Natural Stat Trick.
"His backcheck I think is fastest in the league," Kaprizov said. "I ask him, 'Why you can't go in the offensive zone like this when we have puck?' Backcheck is so fast. Then we go offensive, he's slower than his backcheck."
Fun and games
But Zuccarello is more to the Wild than a defensive specialist and offensive guru. He's also a valued teammate.
Kaprizov, 26, likes to stay at the rink after practice rather than go sit at home. So, he and Zuccarello linger on the ice long after many of their teammates have exited, or they'll play ping pong.
"I don't like losing, and he knows this," said Kaprizov, who had one of those marathon sessions with Zuccarello at that recent practice and was still at his stall after Zuccarello left the Wild locker room. "When he beat me, he's like especially, 'I won. I won.' I'm grumpier and same with me and him and if I won, he's, 'Oh, I just wanted you to smile.'"
As Kaprizov was talking, Zuccarello popped his head around the corner and Kaprizov asked him, "Who won more in ping pong?"
"I think me," Zuccarello said.
"Don't lie, please," Kaprizov told him.
"You get grumpy all the time," Zuccarello said. "I let him win."
Zuccarello needs to have fun. Before he recited the starting lineup last week at Nashville, Zuccarello motioned for a "We Will Rock You" clap among his teammates. On Tuesday in Calgary, the beat arrived right after Zuccarello was handed the lineup to read.
"That's him," Foligno said. "That's just Zuccy. Guys gravitate toward him. You want to be liked by Zuccy. You want to be around him. You want to be in his corner."
Reputation over résumé
The Wild have kept Zuccarello in their corner.
His five-year, $30 million deal expires after the season, and then he'll begin a two-year, $8.25 million contract he signed during training camp, when the team also re-upped Foligno and Ryan Hartman.
Minnesota has become home for Zuccarello; his daughter was born here, and he mentioned this being "where you want to finish your career." When he does retire, Zuccarello will take more pride in people complimenting him as a teammate than as a player.
"Hockey, sometimes you go through really good spells," Zuccarello said. "Sometimes you go through really hard spells. It can go into your mind, but I think it's more important to try and be a good teammate even if you do well or do bad. That's your goal.
"Obviously, we'd like to win and do well as a team. But I think the most important thing is to be a good teammate."
If he keeps playing like this, Zuccarello will be known for much more than that.
"I still think I got a little bit better in me hopefully, just to create a little more for Kirill and help out a little bit more," he said. "But I think it's gotten better and better, for sure. It started out not good.
"When the team does better, everyone does better. As long as you win games, you're happy."