Coach Mike Yeo knew he was doing the right thing last season, even if it wasn’t popular with Jason Zucker’s legion of loud and loyal admirers. The speedy Wild winger was demoted to the team’s minor league affiliate in Iowa so frequently that the road south became known as Interstate 35Z, sparking howls of protest every time.
Zucker would have preferred to stay in Minnesota, too. But instead of grumbling about his comings and goings, he accepted them as an essential part of his maturation as a player — which is why he no longer needs to keep his suitcase handy. For the first time in his three seasons as a pro, Zucker has spent the entire season with the Wild, and he is second on the team with a career-high 18 goals.
The forward seemed a little embarrassed last year about the Twitter hashtag #freezucker, created by fans who thought he deserved a permanent place in the NHL. Zucker knew he needed to earn his spot by becoming more consistent and more reliable on defense. By quietly doing that work — and by igniting his team with rocket-fueled goals, such as the breakaway beauty he scored in Tuesday’s shutout of Chicago — he’s made Yeo an admirer, too.
“He’s paid his dues,” Yeo said. “We knew there was a level to his game that we needed him to get to, and it’s difficult a lot of times for players to find that here. They need the ice time, the experience. And as much as anything else, I think it’s just appreciating what you have and working for it. And he’s done that.”
Zucker has played 46 games this season — more than twice as many as he played in his first two seasons combined — and has 23 points. After starting out on the fourth line, he has been teamed recently with center Mikko Koivu and right wing Jason Pominville in a potent combination.
His dynamic style quickly won over fans, who were distressed when Zucker split his time last season between the Wild and Iowa. Zucker said he needed that time in the AHL to learn how to handle the rigors of an 82-game season, the constant travel and the ebbs and flows of the game.
With the help of his NHL teammates, Zucker said, he came to understand how to persist on nights when things aren’t optimal, and how to tend to the details that would allow him to put his gifts to their best use. While Yeo lauded his improved defense and consistency, forward Zach Parise said Zucker’s “never quit attitude” when pursuing pucks has impressed, too.
“It’s all part of learning and becoming a better player,” Zucker said. “I tried to use [time in the AHL] to my advantage, and it helped me a lot. It made me realize what I have to do every night.
“It’s definitely nice to get into a bit of a comfort zone where you know what you’re supposed to do every night and the way you’re supposed to play every night. I need to make sure I’m skating and working hard, and if I’m doing that, I’m contributing to the team.”
Yeo said Zucker isn’t skating any faster or handling the puck any better this season. He has simply put in the work to improve what his coaches asked him to improve, which has earned him more responsibility. In Tuesday’s victory over Chicago, Yeo said, he didn’t hesitate to put Zucker on a line that went head-to-head against Blackhawks stars such as Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa.
“It’s not just about skating fast,” Yeo said. “It’s how you stay in the battles, how you go to the hard areas, how strong you are on the stick and on the puck. I feel he’s greatly improved in those areas. A lot of work has been put in, and there’s still a lot more to be done. But he’s definitely playing some good hockey right now.”
• Forward Justin Fontaine, who has missed two games because of a groin injury, has skated alone the past two days and will rejoin practice Friday. Forward Matt Cooke (lower-body injury) has been placed on injured reserve, and Yeo expects an update on his status Friday.
• The Wild is expected to recall goaltender Darcy Kuemper in the coming days, and Yeo said he has not formulated a plan for using his three goalies. In three games during a rehab assignment with Iowa, Kuemper has a goals-against average of 2.64 and save percentage of .918 and shut out Adirondack on Wednesday.