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Season preview: Zuccarello eager for new beginning in Minnesota

Veteran forward gives Wild another potent offensive option in an already deep lineup

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

The following article is the cover story in October's edition of Wild Magazine


When the Wild signed Mats Zuccarello on July 1, it knew what it was getting in its diminutive right wing.

Sure, he's not the biggest player, but at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, it was investing in one of the NHL's top playmaking wingers.

The hope is that Zuccarello's ability to help generate offense will be a boon to a Wild club that missed the postseason for the first time in seven years in 2018-19, a team that believes its window for contention is still very much open.
 

And it better be. Not only did the Wild sign Zuccarello to a five-year contract, but Minnesota has six years remaining on the landmark Zach Parise and Ryan Suter contracts and two years left with veteran centerman Eric Staal.

Those four, along with captain Mikko Koivu and goaltender Devan Dubnyk, form the Wild's veteran core, and big seasons from several of them will likely decide whether or not the team's playoff drought ends at one year.

The only newcomer of that group, however, is Zuccarello, who signed his contract when the team was still being run by former Wild GM Paul Fenton. Zuccarello never met Fenton, but he's eager to get to work for his new boss, Bill Guerin.

"It's been good to get started and you're eager to get going. It's been a long summer for all of us," Zuccarello said. "It's good to be in it now."

Zuccarello played the first 8 1/2 years of his NHL career with the New York Rangers before being traded to the Dallas Stars at last season's NHL Trade Deadline.

It was quite an adjustment going from one team to another for the first time, but this year's training camp and the start of this season marks the first time Zuccarello has begun a campaign somewhere other than the Big Apple.

"New York was like home for me," Zuccarello said. "I was there for a long time, but now this is my home and I'm excited to make this my new home and a part of my life."

Zuccarello's signing gives the Wild an additional option up front while also adding some punch and a new weapon on the power play.


Forwards

Zuccarello has skated almost exclusively with Parise during training camp, and the two will likely be tied at the hip this season, at least from the beginning.

Zuccarello has 241 assists amongst his 355 career points in the NHL and his playmaking ability is well known. That makes Parise a potentially good match. He led the Wild with 28 goals last season, and likely would have reached 30 for a seventh time in his career had a lower-body injury not hobbled him down the stretch.

Both Staal and Ryan Donato as well as Luke Kunin have seen time as the center between those two, and offer another viable shooting option at center. Expect Staal, who signed a two-year contract extension with the Wild in February, to start the season with Parise and Zuccarello. He scored 22 goals a year ago but is just one season removed from a 42-goal campaign.

Koivu's return from knee surgery will be a major storyline to follow. The only full-time captain in Wild history, Koivu will likely surpass the 1,000-game plateau before the holidays, becoming the first player to do so entirely in a Wild sweater. While it's unlikely Koivu puts up huge offensive numbers, Minnesota desperately missed his shut-down defensive ability after his injury.

Luke Kunin was also a beneficiary of minutes after Koivu's injury. He started training camp at the wing, but is likely to begin the regular season at center. His position flexibility brings major value. A big-time scorer in college at the University of Wisconsin, Kunin has a heavy shot and is now more than a year removed from ACL surgery.

Joel Eriksson Ek and Victor Rask round out the Wild's center depth. Eriksson Ek was granted an uptick in minutes after Koivu's injury and gained experience but the club wants to see more offense from its 22-year-old pivot. 

Rask was injured from the start of training camp last year and was simply unable to get on track, even after being acquired from the Carolina Hurricanes. He did score 21 goals as recently as 2015-16, however, so there is some upside to be had.

Beyond Parise at left wing, Jason Zucker, who had a "down" season despite 21 goals a year ago. He also hit more than a dozen posts and had several other close calls in a season where he shot just 9.8%, more than 5% lower than the year prior when he scored 33 goals. With Guerin heading hockey operations, the belief is that Zucker's name won't circulate in the trade rumor mill, and a return to his 30-goal form could be possible.

Donato's run at center didn't last long. He's been moved back to the wing, where he showed a lot of promise after being acquired from the Boston Bruins last February, scoring four goals and 16 points in 22 games with the Wild.

Jordan Greenway will embark on his second full season in the NHL after getting his most extensive season of work in a year ago. Between the Traverse City tournament, preseason, the regular season and the postseason for the Iowa Wild, Greenway skated in more than 100 hockey games last season, double his previous career high. Minnesota believes Greenway could take a big step forward from his 12-goal, 24-point rookie season.

Marcus Foligno has carved out a reliable niche on the fourth line and has been very good at it going back to the last month of the 2017-18 season. He played in all 82 games a year ago for the first time in his career and became one of the Wild's most trusted penalty killers. He should settle somewhere in the seven to 10 goal range as well.

Beyond Zuccarello on the right side, the Wild is looking for big things from Kevin Fiala. The Swiss-born winger was a late restricted free agent signing after being acquired last February from Nashville. He had a down season a year ago, but his career was trending upward prior to that. He has 30-goal, 60-point potential.

Besides Zuccarello, the only other major addition to the club this summer was Ryan Hartman, who signed in Minnesota after being non-tendered by Dallas. Hartman adds a much-needed right-handed shot, some physicality as well as some offensive upside. A first-round draft pick of Chicago in 2013, he scored 19 goals in his first full NHL season in 2016-17.

Among those that will be in the mix for roster spots throughout the season will be Nico Sturm and Gerry Mayhew, as well as Kyle Rau and J.T. Brown.

Sturm looked the part in a two-game cup of coffee in Minnesota after signing as an undrafted college free agent last spring. Mayhew earned an NHL deal after a 27-goal, 60-point season in Iowa a year ago. Rau has position flexibility and plays with a ton of speed. Brown skated in 56 games with the Wild a year ago and brings added snarl.


Defensemen

Perhaps the biggest addition (or re-addition) to the Wild will come in the form of a familiar face, as Matt Dumba returns from shoulder surgery that cost him the final 3 1/2 months of the 2018-19 season.

Dumba was off to the best start of his career-and arguably of any defenseman in the NHL-when he scored 12 goals through the early part of December. But a freak injury during a fight against the Calgary Flames resulted in a ruptured right pectoral muscle.

Minnesota's power play-and it's season-went off the rails after that as the Wild was unable to recover. His return brings tremendous promise.

Speaking of returns, the Wild made sure it was keeping one of its own around when it signed Jared Spurgeon to a new seven-year contract extension. While he will play out the final year of his old deal this season, Spurgeon will become the highest-paid player in franchise history (on a per season basis) when he extension kicks in next fall.

Spurgeon is one of the NHL's most reliable players, let alone defensemen, and securing his future in Minnesota was the top priority of Guerin when he was hired in August.

Suter is already in a far better place then when he was a year ago at this time, when he was just getting back from a devastating foot injury he sustained in March of 2018.
Despite being nearly unable to walk for much of the first half of last season, Suter still played in all 82 games (for the seventh time in his career and third time in his last four years) and posted seven goals 47 points. Physically, he is 100 percent back to his old self, and another All-Star-caliber season is certainly possible.

Jonas Brodin played in all 82 games for the first time in his career last season and was as steady and consistent as ever. He'll likely never be a big point producer, but the Wild doesn't need him to be. If he can post 20-plus points and get back above water in the plus/minus category, the Wild would be thrilled and likely headed back to the playoffs.

Nick Seeler skated in 71 games in his first full NHL season a year ago, scoring two goals and seven points. But like Brodin, offense isn't his forte. He adds a physical element to the lineup that few others can boast. He's relied upon to keep the area in front of the Wild goal clear and to defense a teammate when necessary.

Greg Pateryn played in 80 games a year ago and got better and more consistent as the year went along, but will miss the first month and a half of this season following bilateral core muscle repair surgery on Tuesday.

Brad Hunt was a solid mid-season addition after a nondescript trade with the Vegas Golden Knights. Hunt scored three goals and five points in 29 games with the Wild, with four of those points coming with the man advantage. Hunt's booming shot could match well with Dumba on the power play, as the two never had a chance to play together last season. 

Pateryn's injury opened the door for defenseman Carson Soucy to make the Opening Night roster. The former University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldog didn't play in the NHL last season but played in four playoff games for the Wild two seasons ago. He brings needed size (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) to Minnesota's back end and he should see plenty of action over the first several weeks of the season, at least.

Should the Wild need more reinforcements along the way, Louie Belpedio -- who like Soucy, had a very strong training camp -- as well as Hunter Warner and Matt Bartkowski could step in. 


Goaltenders

Much of the Wild getting back to the playoffs could rest on the shoulders of Dubnyk, who has been among the NHL's best goaltenders since being acquired by the Wild in January of 2015.

Dubnyk tied career highs in both games played (67) and starts (66) last season, but saw his goals-against average, his save percentage and his shutout numbers dip to his lowest levels since his arrival in Minnesota.

Still, the pedigree is there. 

Dubnyk has been to three NHL All-Star Games in a Wild sweater, and the 33-year-old netminder is motivated to get back to his normal production.

South St. Paul native Alex Stalock signed a three-year contract extension with the Wild during last season and has been a solid backup in his three years since joining the organization.

The more Stalock plays, the better his numbers over that stretch. With the Wild playing a ton of road games early in the season, don't be surprised if Stalock gets a few extra starts to spell Dubnyk during the first couple of months.

Kaapo Kahkonen, an AHL All-Star last season, and former Golden Gopher Mat Robson are waiting in the wings in Iowa. 


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