After tweaking his groin during his first shift of preseason action last Tuesday, Jason Zucker found himself sitting out the second and third periods. Minnesota would fall 3-1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, but not before fellow top prospects Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter combined for a beautiful power play goal. In the two preseason games following, Coyle would add two goals, Granlund would add another assist, former Gophers standout Erik Haula would add an apple, Justin Fontaine added a goal and even 2012 7th overall pick Mathew Dumba would chip in a goal from the blue line. However, Dumba is a defenseman and has no bearing on where Zucker lands this fall.
With Zucker fighting for either the No. 2 left wing or No. 3 right wing, there’s a good chance a guy like Niederreiter, Granlund or even Fontaine has possibly surpassed him on the depth chart thanks to a strong camp or preseason. In addition, Torrey Mitchell appears to have locked up the third line right wing spot, making for a fast and physical line with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. That said, it appears it’s No. 2 left wing or bust for the 2010 second round pick.
There may possibly be a spot on the fourth line for Zucker, it’s not in the best interest of his development into “Zach Parise Jr.”. In fact, the spot may not even be open as Haula and Fontaine have proven to be very good two-way players that could conceivably step into that spot and succeed alongside Mike Rupp and Zenon Konopka. If he doesn’t make the team, Zucker will get top minutes in Iowa, and a call-up or two later in the season. However, that’s not his goal. His goal is to step back onto Minnesota’s second line with all his speed and goal-scoring ability and make an even bigger impact than he did last year–kind of hard to do after scoring a legendary overtime goal in the playoffs last spring.
With that it mind, expect Zucker to finish out the preseason with a strong showing. Tonight, while there is Niederreiter, there is no Coyle, no Granlund–this is Jason’s time to shine. He better do so quickly, because Coyle has seemingly locked up No. 2 center, meaning the competition for second line left wing has just kicked up a notch with the addition of Granlund to the mix. The good thing is that Zucker waited until he knew he was fully healthy before throwing himself back into contention. “I have to look out for myself,” Zucker said. “There’s no point for me coming back early and not being at my best. … If I wasn’t 100 percent, that would just make me look even worse.”
While there’s no doubt Zucker is going to have a good, possibly even great, NHL career, a strong game tonight may be what it takes to bring that career just a little bit closer on the timeline. He’s got the speed, the hands and the vision of a great hockey player; it’s only a matter of time before he’s giving NHL goaltenders nightmares on a nightly basis. It starts tonight.
Follow Dakota Case at Twitter.com/Dakota_case