May 5, 2013; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker (16) celebrates his goal against Chicago Blackhawks in overtime in game three of the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs at Xcel Energy Center The Wild defeated the Blackhawks 3-2 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota's 2013 Playoff Hero Jason Zucker Faces A Difficult Return


It wasn’t a long time ago that left winger Jason Zucker was considered one of the Minnesota Wild’s top prospects. And not just one of the team’s top offensive prospects. I mean prospects period. His overtime heroics in Game Three of Minnesota’s 2013 Stanley Cup Western Conference Quarterfinals series with the Chicago Blackhawks seemed to cement that in the minds of most citizens of the State of Hockey.

After hitting the crossbar in overtime of Game One, Zucker and line mate Matt Cullen combined for one of the most amazing goals ever scored at the Xcel Energy Center. Zucker fired a shot that was blocked by the Chicago defense, collected the puck along the left wing boards and passed it to Cullen behind the net. Cully passed it to Pierre-Marc Bouchard in the right wing corner, who quickly passed it back to the Wild center. Cullen is then tripped by a Blackhawks defender, but this is when it gets really good. From his belly, Cullen sweeps the puck out to Zucker with a one-handed pass from behind the net. Zucker fires a hard angle shot behind Chicago goalie Corey Crawford into the back of the net. It made the first home playoff game  in five years more than just a little sweeter.

This year, there were a lot of expectations on the Wild young gun, and things haven’t been made any easier for him. With the arrival of Nino Niederreiter, it looked like the one remaining roster spot was down to just Zucker and Mikael Granlund after Charlie Coyle appeared to lock up another after a breakout training camp. In addition, rookie Erik Haula had made a good showing, but needed more time and seasoning in Des Moines. Zucker then missed some preseason and training camp time with a minor injury, and Granlund just kept plugging away, earning the final spot even though it was originally thought the talented Finn was on the outside looking in after a difficult first season in North America.

It took just two regular season games for things to unravel. Coyle struggled early, and then fell to injury in the season’s second game. As such, Granlund was the guy called upon to center Minnesota’s second line. The Finnish Phenom took to the role with gusto, scoring eight goals and 33 assists for 41 points and a negative-3 rating. Not only did he play a key role in helping line mate Jason Pominville become only the third player in franchise history to score 30 goals or more in a season, but he also spent significant time as No. 1 pivot when team captain Mikko Koivu missed a considerable amount of time with a broken ankle. His level of play just keeps soaring after a tremendous Olympic tournament and, so far, a very impressive playoff performance four games into Minnesota’s best-of-seven series with the Colorado Avalanche.

Coyle and Niederreiter have also had quality seasons and–barring anything drastic–have seen the last of the American Hockey League. Perhaps the biggest road block standing in Zucker’s way is now Haula. Having played with the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Hockey Day Minnesota 2013, Haula scored his first career NHL goal on Hockey Day 2014, this time with the Wild. A true rookie, the Pori, Finland native has excelled in every role he’s been given. Second line scorer, third line grinder or fourth line energy guy, Haula hasn’t strayed from his play whatsoever. That’s a good thing, because his style of play works no matter what line he’s on.

Haula broke onto the pro hockey scene earlier this season with the AHL’s Iowa Wild, scoring a very impressive 14 goals and 13 assists for 27 points and a plus-2 rating in 31 games. Even after a solid NCAA career with the Gophers, he was still just a seventh round pick–there wasn’t a lot of pressure on him to come in and blow the doors down with a break out performance. Fortunately, it’s exactly what he did in St. Paul this season, scoring six goals and nine assists for 14 points and a plus-14 rating in 46 games. While his offensive numbers don’t look like much, it’s his play on the other side of the puck that has been so impressive. He’s fast, a quick learner and is very aware and responsible defensively. He hardly ever makes mistakes with the puck.

Even more important, with Matt Cooke suspended and typical third line center Kyle Brodziak struggling defensively, Haula, Niederreiter and fellow rookie Justin Fontaine have been given the task of shutting down Colorado’s top line of Paul Stastny, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s a task they’ve performed nearly flawlessly. As things currently stand, there’s just no way Haula doesn’t make this team fulltime next season.

If Haula has been outstanding defensively, Zucker has been the exact opposite this season. In 22 games with Iowa, Zucker scored eight goals and five assists for 13 points, 55 penalty minutes and a negative-8 rating. This coming after scoring at nearly a point-per-game pace last season when they had been the Houston Aeros. He wasn’t much better in 21 games with Minnesota, scoring four goals and an assist for five points and a plus-2 rating. Then the injury bug bit again, as Zucker would injure his knee while blocking a shot. He has yet to play since the Olympic break after undergoing what was originally supposed to be a minor surgery. He then re-aggravated the wound while training for a return and is out for the rest of the season.

Injuries are never good for a young, up-and-coming player, especially when other prospects within the organization start surpassing you left and right.  Right now, that’s what Zucker is facing. That said, this offseason, and the upcoming training camp and preseason, have never been more important for his career. Granlund isn’t going anywhere. Haula isn’t going anywhere. Coyle and Niederreiter aren’t going anywhere. Where is Zucker going to go? If he’s not careful, it’ll be outside the organization. Unfortunately, that may be the best option if he wants to receive regular playing time in the best hockey league on the planet.

 

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