The Minnesota Wild are currently outside of the Western conference playoff spots with an 8-7-2 record through 17 games. This is not the position that many fans expected to find their Wild in after the big summer free agent signings of Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, though it should be noted that Minnesota are only a single point adrift of sixth place in the West.
Still, a stumbling up and down start has largely been due to an offense that just cannot seem to find any rhythm. Mike Yeo’s team ranks 29th in the NHL scoring just 2.06 goals per game. Yeo has tried just about every combination among his forward group to try and generate some semblance of consistent offensive output, but no player on this roster has been able to achieve that. It feels like most of this team’s better offensive players have yet to make an appearance in the shortened 2013 NHL season.
To his credit General Manager Chuck Fletcher hasn’t stood pat during Minnesota’s dry spell. He has turned to the Wild’s AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, calling up some of the organization’s brightest young offensive talent in an attempt to bring more balance, depth or just some sort of spark to the line-up. The results have been mixed so far in terms of immediate impact. However, short stints from Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle have confirmed that this is a franchise with a deep and exciting talent pool worthy of its top ranking position in Hockey Future’s latest team rankings.
Zucker enjoyed a sparkling NCAA career with the University of Denver where he established himself as one of the better scorers in college, a strong two-way player and a leader. He got a chance to skate in six NHL games at the end of the 2011-12 season after the college hockey season ended where he registered two assists [See also: Jason Zucker: From WCHA to the State of Hockey].
Still, the 21-year old was often overlooked during the offseason as he joined the professional ranks at the same time as some of the most exciting offensive prospects in the history of the Minnesota Wild franchise including: Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Zack Phillips.
He had to be patient and earn his next NHL call-up leading the Houston Aeros with 19 goals and 41 points in 47 games. He finally got the call ahead of a home game against Detroit on February 17. Jason Zucker would not disappoint. Midway through the second period he battled a puck loose in the defensive end and then showed off his fantastic skating speed out-skating the Red Wings’ defense in an end to end rush, which he capped off with his first career NHL goal.
Zucker has played in the two games since that memorable season debut registering a shot in each, but failing to make his mark on the scoreboard. There’s little doubt that he has added to his skating speed and he looks capable of competing physically in the NHL at this point. His defensive game in terms of smarts and positioning is probably the best of all the young Minnesota forwards.
There’s little doubt that Jason Zucker is NHL ready and could easily spend most of the rest of the season skating on any of the team’s four lines for Yeo. However, he isn’t likely to contribute consistent offense. He still doesn’t use his shot or drive to the net in quite the same fashion as he has done at other standards, and might not quite have the skill set to be a top end scorer in the NHL even when he hits his prime.
Coyle is now in his second stint with Minnesota this season. He played in a stretch of five games for the Wild between Feb 4 – Feb 12. During that spell he spent some time playing alongside Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise on the team’s top line. He was returned to the AHL, but made his way back into Mike Yeo’s starting line-up for Saturday night’s game against Calgary where he scored his first goal.
Charlie Coyle was the first of the franchise’s promising young offensive players to sign an entry level contract last Spring [See also: Charlie Coyle Inks Entry Level Deal, Are Granlund and Zucker Next?]. He was perhaps the slowest to adapt to professional hockey though scoring just 14 goals and 25 points in 47 games with Houston.
However, Coyle is a player with a tantalizingly promising combination of size, skating ability and raw offensive talent. He has been impressive in his short spells with the NHL club so far. He uses his size to his advantage offensively and hasn’t looked afraid to play in the dirty areas.
The experiment to spark some offense with the insertion of Charlie Coyle into the line-up has arguably failed. After all he has just one goal in six games. It’s pretty clear that the 20-year old will need to spend a little more time in the AHL. He still needs to add a little aggression and edge to his game and he hasn’t used his shot anywhere near enough. Coyle is a player who will be most effective when he has confidence to rip his wrist shot off when he is in the prime scoring areas. He still isn’t doing that at NHL level yet.
Zucker and Coyle are not the saviors of Minnesota’s offense, though attempting to use them as sparks isn’t a bad idea, but they have shown that they are players who could figure strongly in a Wild offensive that is much better in the quite near future.
Seb has been writing about the NHL and ice hockey online for over a decade. A long-time passionate Bruins fan, it’s a dream of his to be writing about this team, but don’t expect him to hold back from telling some hard truths when necessary. Follow him on twitter @seberead