Number 16 for the Minnesota Wild; Number 1 in the heart of many Wild Fans. After an underachieving season, Paul Fenton is potentially looking to move on from Jason Zucker and that is a mistake.
On February 20th, 2019, Jason Zucker saw his best man and one of the last remaining pieces of an old core, Charlie Coyle, get traded to Boston for 23-year old Ryan Donato. He saw his pass proficient linemate who helped him surpass 30 goals in the 2017-2018 season, Mikael Granlund, get moved to division rival Nashville for 22-year old Kevin Fiala. Just a month earlier, he witnessed Nino Niederreiter depart Minnesota, headed to the Carolina Hurricanes.
Fenton almost completed the cycle, nearly trading the last remaining piece of the Mike Yeo/Chuck Fletcher Core for the Calgary Flames’ Michael Frolik and a draft pick. For whatever reason, the deal fell through on deadline day. Internally, when Mikko Koivu tore his ACL and missed the second half of the season, 22-year old Joel Eriksson Ek and 21-year old Luke Kunin both saw jumps in ice time. And the entire organization anxiously awaits for the 22-year old Russian, Kiril Kaprizov, whenever that is.
Through trades and his end of the season exit interview, Paul Fenton made the vision clear. Get Younger and Get Faster.
But why move your fastest skater who is in the prime aged years of his career? If Fenton moves Zucker because he has a 10 team-No Trade Clause kicks in July 1st, that is embarrassing. Furthermore, Fenton gave him this contract. If he didn’t believe in Zucker’s potential, why give him 5 years at $27.5M? At the time of the signing, many were celebrating the deal as the Minnesota Wild’s best contract. Moving Zucker is completely contrary to the message being sent throughout the organization and to the Wild Faithful.
In a recent interview with KFAN Radio’s Paul Allen, Michael Russo seemed to indicate that he believes Fenton has been shopping Zucker so heavily because of how low he sold Nino, Charlie, and Mikael, which left Jason as is his last big negotiating chip. Defendants of Paul Fenton’s moves will say he created cap space, but criticizers say he didn’t get fair value. He traded known quantities for mostly unknown ones, which has caused the Wild to shift from a Retool to a Rebuild. Unacceptable from the General Manager of a professional team.
On May 21, The Athletic’s Michael Russo wrote that Jason Zucker could be one of the players the Wild moved to acquire an elite scorer or create additional cap space for free agent signings and two days later, The Athletic’s Josh Yohe (Pittsburgh’s Beat Writer) reported that the Wild and Pens were discussing a deal involving Jason Zucker and Phil Kessel. Receiving Phil Kessel would be exciting: he’s a former Gopher, he’s reportedly close with Ryan Suter (both being from Madison, Wisconsin and from international play on Team USA), and he can score goals. But he comes with some warts too. He isn’t better defensively, he isn’t faster, and he’s older than Zucker (Phil is 31, Jason 27).
He’s also got a track record of irritating coaching staffs and front offices in each of his previous three stops with NHL teams. I have a tough time seeing Bruce and Phil being any better. Alas, that deal seems dead in the water. TSN’s Pierre LeBrun has reported that, as of now, Kessel nixed waiving his No Trade Clause for Minnesota, but that doesn’t stop Fenton from trading Zucker elsewhere. He has reportedly shopped him to Vancouver, Arizona, Vegas, and circled back to Calgary.
Until the beginning of the most recent season, the Las Vegas native has spent much of his professional career unsure of where he would be playing hockey. After being drafted in the 2nd round in 2010 and beginning his professional career at the tail end of the 2011-2012 season, he spent two seasons bouncing between the AHL and the NHL. The I-35 Warrior was consistently on the periphery of making the pro squad full-time. Then in 2014, in 51 games, he scored 21 goals and tallied 5 assists.
He cemented to Chuck Fletcher and Mike Yeo he was a necessity to the team. Still, in the eyes of former GM Chuck Fletcher, he hadn’t earned a central place on the franchise, giving him two, two-year long “bridge contracts”, before current GM Paul Fenton gave him the 5-year deal. At the time of the signing, Jason Zucker was tied for 13th in the league in primary points (goals+assists) over the past two seasons, with names like Connor McDavid, David Pasternak, and Sidney Crosby to keep him company. He utilizes his speed, vision, and underrated passing ability to create chances for himself and his teammates:
For all the flashiness, grit, and emotion he shows on the ice, Jason Zucker is one of the kindest and most philanthropic players in the league, and currently is a King Clancy Trophy Finalist, which is awarded “to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.”
The combination of his intoxicatingly exciting play, commitments to the community, and his connections to the Twin Cities, which are as deep as his marriage to Carly Aplin Zucker or as simple as his frequent appearances on the popular 100.3 KFAN “Powertrip Morning Show” radio program, has made him an adopted son of the area. I loved Nino Niederreiter while he was with the team because he had a unique name and also was pretty good at hockey, but deep down, Jason Zucker was my true #1. He plays with heart and a drive that is the epitome of the maxim “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” and it shows. Anytime he scores a goal, it’s like he has just scored the first of his career. Jason Zucker is a Minnesotan treasure and has the potential to be a future captain and face of the franchise, but Paul Fenton seems to believe otherwise.
If you do get traded, Thank You, Jason Zucker. It has been a blast. Hope to see you play for the State of Hockey again.