20-year old former University of Denver star Jason Zucker made his debut last night in a 3-2 overtime win against the Florida Panthers. He skated on a line with Erik Christensen and Nick Johnson playing 10:55 minutes of ice time and actually having a couple of decent chances for his first NHL goal. Zucker decided to leave university early in order to join Minnesota for the last six games of the season. The season may be all but lost for the Wild overall, but a prospect like Zucker should give fans a reason to watch and look forward to training camp in September 2012.
Zucker is a player that this franchise has chased after from the day he was drafted. Chuck Fletcher traded two draft picks in order to make Zucker his second round pick in 2010. He has now been given the excellent opportunity to get a taste of the NHL before embarking on his summer workout. It is clear that the Wild hope he competes hard for a line-up place next Fall.
Fans can expect Zucker to develop into a hard-working, gritty, two-way player with leadership attributes. He probably won’t develop into a big scorer, but could turn into that type of player that every team craves.
The silver lining for this franchise in a season that has been frustrating and downright heartbreaking is that better times do appear to be on their way in Minnesota. Fans got a taste of a young player fighting hard for a roster spot when former second round pick Brett Bulmer put together a superb training camp last October. Bulmer was sent back to the juniors after a nine game stint with the NHL club, but he should return to compete for a roster spot again in the 2012-13 season.
A huge range of players could compete for roster spots in training camp this Fall. Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Johan Larsson, Zucker, Bulmer and possibly the 2012 first round pick should all be competing for places next season. It isn’t clear whether Fletcher will deliberately leave spaces open, or whether he will seek high profile players to improve this team via free agency or even trade this offseason.
This is quite possibly the deepest group of prospects in franchise history, and the most encouraging part of the prospect base is the amount of offensive talent. This is a franchise that became famous for its defensive-minded stifling style of play under Jacques Lemaire. Of course, that was very much the style that the expansion franchise needed to play to enjoy any sort of success when it first joined the league. However, that negativity seems to have gripped the team ever since. Todd Richards was completely ineffective at changing the culture in Minnesota and ultimately paid for it when he was fired last season. New coach Mike Yeo certainly emphasises a defensive approach, but his game plan also has another fast break, skating aspect of it that should benefit the likes of Granlund and Coyle.
Make no mistake, Granlund and Coyle have the potential to be high-scoring forwards and both will compete hard for roster places next season and definitely the season following that. It isn’t just the offense that could be set to get a boost from an influx of youth. Jonas Brodin has been progressing very nicely as a prospect in the Swedish Elite League. Brodin has the potential to be a top pair shutdown defenseman with some offensive upside and could challenge for a spot soon after playing two seasons at senior level in Sweden. All of this doesn’t even take into account improvements from young players already on the roster like Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Matt Hackett. It crucial to note that prospect acquisition has also been successful in acquiring players with strong character and intangibles like Zucker.
Minnesota is a hockey city and this hockey city has been made to wait too long for sustained success. However, this is a franchise that could genuinely be building towards being a consistent winner, and while it might only be small, watching Zucker play six games could be one of the first steps in that direction.