COMMENTARY | When the Minnesota Wild won their only game against the Chicago Blackhawks in last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs, it wasn't Zach Parise who scored the goal. It wasn't Jason Pominville, Charlie Coyle, or Mikko Koivu either.
It was Jason Zucker.
Zucker, a 21-year-old rookie at the time, received a pass from a diving Matt Cullen that ricocheted off of defenseman Johnny Oduya and zipped it past Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford at an odd angle. The home crowd roared, as Cullen and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, the two forwards on the ice at the time, embraced Zucker as the rest of the team flocked to him.
Cullen, Zucker's mentor and linemate last season, was not retained and signed with the Nashville Predators. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, a longtime Wild player, joined Cal Clutterbuck on the New York Islanders. Devin Setoguchi, who was often paired with Cullen and Zucker on the second line, was traded to the Winnipeg Jets for a second-round pick.
Just like that, everyone around Zucker disappeared shortly after the team lost to Chicago in the first round.
Zucker is still on the team, but has spent most of the year in the minors this season. It is a surprising development given how much potential the 2010 NHL Draft pick showed last season. At his core, he is a hard-nosed player -- a guy that trains with MMA fighters in his hometown of Las Vegas when he is not on the rink -- but he also displayed a nose for the net and a nice wrist shot as well.
The team felt his absence last season when he missed time due to a concussion sustained from a dirty hit by Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks, but as mentioned earlier, his entire line is gone now. Not only that, but the Wild appear to be settling in with Parise, Koivu, and Coyle on the first line and Jason Pominville, Mikael Granlund, and Nino Niederreiter connecting on the second. This would mean that Zucker would likely be placed on the third line…except that Justin Fontaine, a 26-year-old rookie from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, seems to have taken his spot there.
Zucker isn't doing himself any favors in Iowa either. While he has eight points in the nine games he has played, he was suspended for a hit to the head of Linus Omark, a member of the Edmonton Oilers affiliate in Oklahoma City -- yet another setback for a player that showed so much upside last season.
Although the Wild roster appears to have filled up, at least for the time being, a spot should open up next season assuming that Minnesota does not retain Dany Heatley. The second overall selection in 2000 and two-time 50-goal scorer with the Ottawa Senators has seen his production drop steadily since the 2009-10 season and is no longer the player he once was.
With his $7.5 million cap hit coming off the books next season, Wild fans would love to see the team use that extra money pursue Thomas Vanek, a former Minnesota Gopher and friend of Jason Pominville. But as ESPN1500's Derek Wetmore so elegantly reminds us, there are no guarantees in sports and the Islanders (doesn't that name sound familiar?) traded Matt Moulson, a 2014 first round pick, and a 2015 second round pick to acquire the Austrian winger.
It's hard to believe that Zucker won't find a spot on the roster eventually, given his age and talent level, but it won't be easy regardless of if the Wild bring in Vanek or not in the offseason. For the time being, it looks like he'll be playing in Des Moines, which is a cruel reminder of how quickly things can change in the NHL.
After all, it wasn't that long ago that Zucker scored a game-winner against the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
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