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Zucker-Koivu-Granlund Line Back and Looking for More

Trio was Minnesota's best grouping in both ends of rink for large portion of last season

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

ST. PAUL -- Before the start of training camp, Wild forward Jason Zucker was hoping coach Bruce Boudreau would pencil his name on the line chart next to Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu. The trio spent a bulk of last season together, with Zucker and Granlund posting career seasons and Koivu having his best campaign since 2010-11.

After a slowdown in March and with new faces amongst the forward group, it wasn't certain if the line would be back together. Thankfully, Zucker didn't even need to ask. When players hit the ice for the first time on Friday, there they were, all in red jerseys in Group B.

"I don't know if petitions would've worked," Zucker said. "We have no control over that at all. That's something that I definitely wanted."

Zucker tallied his second 20-goal season while playing on the line last year, and his 47 points were 24 more than the previous season (21 better than his career high). His plus-34 was tied with teammate Ryan Suter for best in the NHL. Washington's T.J. Oshie, at plus-28, was the next closest forward.

All three players on the line finished the season among the top 16 in the NHL in plus/minus. As the summer faded and Boudreau began scratching out his lines for the start of training camp, keeping Zucker, Granlund and Koivu together made for an easy decision.

"They were great last year," Boudreau said. "We played them against every top line in the league up until March and they dominated them. I think all three of them, at the end of February, were in the plus-30s area. That's pretty good."

While every other forward line has seen some change or a new face inserted, Boudreau is hoping the line he kept together can use that familiarity and start building off of it for this season. 

Now in Boudreau's second year as coach, players have arrived with a strong grasp of the system, his expectations and his personality, removing one of the most difficult barriers they experienced last year at this time.

"We played together quite a lot last season, and I think it's going to come pretty fast," Granlund said. "It's good to be back. It's good to be with those guys."

Video: Zucker-Koivu-Granlund Chemistry

Granlund translated his career year into a new three-year contract with Minnesota over the summer, something Zucker, a pending restricted free agent, hopes to do with another solid campaign ahead. 

Koivu is also set to be an unrestricted free agent.

Zucker said the group was able to pull the best out of each other last year and that each member brings a little something to the line that's unique.

Granlund, a center for most of his NHL career until last season, flourished as a playmaking winger without the strict defensive responsibilities he had as a pivot. Zucker has the potential to be a big-time goal scorer in the NHL, and showed it last season. Koivu is the veteran presence, the calming influence and the guy Zucker said put it all together for them.  

"I think we all play different games and we all mesh together really well," Zucker said. "[Granlund] can make unbelievable plays all the time, Mikko is kind of our safety valve and that voice on the bench that can keep us calm and get us up. And for me, I just try to skate as fast as I can, really. We have good complements for each other and I think that's why it works so well."

After seeing the group at its best last season, Boudreau said the goal now is to raise the bar and find a new "best." 

"There's always more to give. We never reach the ceiling of greatness or as good as we can be," Boudreau said. "Now that they've played a year together, it took them two months, don't forget, before they really became a solid group together. Zucker, the first 12 games, was fourth line. I think maybe, hopefully, the start, playing together so much will be a little bit better for them."


Parise improving

Wild forward Zach Parise has been missing from the first two days of on-ice work with an upper-body ailment. While an exact date for a return isn't yet known, Boudreau said Parise's condition is improving.

"I haven't talked to [Wild trainer] John [Worley] yet, but I did talk to Zach, and he said it felt better today," Boudreau said. "I'll find out more by the end of the day."


Malone off to good start

One of the feel-good stories to follow during training camp will be the saga of longtime NHL forward Ryan Malone, who came to camp on a professional tryout.

Out of the League since he played six games for the New York Rangers in 2014-15, and out of hockey since he retired after playing 24 games with the American Hockey League's Hartford Wolf Pack that same season, Malone returned to the game late in the summer after playing in Da Beauty League.

Upon the announcement that NHLers would not be allowed to play at the Olympics, Malone, a U.S. Olympian in 2010, wanted to give pro hockey one more try in an effort to potentially represent Team USA in PyeongChang in February.

While he originally aimed for a one-way contract in the AHL, which would make him eligible to participate in the Olympics, that quickly morphed into attempting one final time to reach the NHL.

Through two days of on-ice work and a grueling conditioning test Friday, Malone has impressed.

"I'm very surprised -- pleasantly, by the way. Here's a guy that's been out of hockey a couple years now, and he's come back. What I've liked, his enthusiasm for a 37-year-old, I mean, he's smiling, laughing," Boudreau said. "It's something, when you take something away, you don't realize how much you miss it. And he looks like he's missed hockey and wants to become a player. He's doing everything he can to get back to where he was."

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