Right away he knew something was wrong.
After taking a hard hit from Vancouver defenseman Luca Sbisa, Jason Zucker got to his feet and made his way off the ice and down the tunnel to the underbelly of Xcel Energy Center.
Though the Wild went on to win the Feb. 9 matchup, 5-3, continuing its march towards the postseason, Zucker was suddenly sidelined with a broken clavicle. With a recovery timetable of eight to 12 weeks, his sights shifted from the playoffs to the summer.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be playing at all this year,” Zucker said. “I was thinking about summer plans — what I was going to do for training and rehab.
“With how well the team had been doing to that point even, it was tough. You want to be a part of that; you want to be a part of a playoff push. The guys played so great and that definitely helped with a lot of it. It definitely eases your mind knowing the guys are playing really well, playing hard.”
For the second-consecutive season, it looked like Zucker’s year arrived at an early end. Almost exactly a year earlier, on Feb. 6, 3014, the 23-year-old took a shot to the leg in Nashville and eventually underwent season-ending surgery.
Like the rest of the fans in the State of Hockey, he watched the Wild’s 2014 playoff run as a spectator.
“It was definitely really tough,” Zucker said. “But that’s the way it goes. It’s a part of the business.”
The circumstance only seemed to underscore the forward’s year, which fell short of expectations.
After showing his potential with the Wild in the 2012-13 season — particularly in the playoffs, where he netted a sharp-angled goal against the Chicago Blackhawks Corey Crawford in overtime on May 5, 2013 to give Minnesota its first playoff win since 2008 — the hope was that he’d continue to build on the foundation he created.
Once again he started the 2013-14 season in the American Hockey League, with Iowa, but was quickly back in the NHL as Minnesota’s first call-up, on Oct. 5. Four days later he was back in Des Moines. In one instance, a trend of shuttling between the show and the minors was set.
On Nov. 20 he was recalled and week later was reassigned. A day later, on Nov. 28 he was back in Minnesota and on Dec. 1 he was sent to Iowa. Once again on Dec. 10 he was in the NHL and on Dec. 13 he was back in the AHL. Quickly, it became a running quip that I-35 was the Zucker Expressway.
Finally, on Jan. 1 he was back, seemingly for good — at least, before his season-ending injury on Feb. 6.
This year, his fortunes changed in more ways than one.
In the limited time he’s played this season — 51 regular season games — the 2010 second-round draft pick has served as a solid, reliable presence for the Wild. Largely playing alongside Mikko Koivu, Zucker broke through his struggles from previous seasons, proving his potential more than an empty promise.
With 21 goals, Zucker finished the regular season tied for third on the team with Thomas Vanek. According to Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo, there are two main reasons for the consistency in Zucker’s game.
“The first is his detailing and play with the puck,” Yeo said. “First and foremost, it gives him more opportunity to get onto the ice. We’re not trying to hide him; we’re not trying to keep him away from certain matchups. We have confidence putting him out there against any player of any team. The second part of it is, his competitive level has risen quite a bit. You look at how he’s first on pucks and how he’s able to go into a corner and come out with the puck now. That’s a big difference from his first couple years.”
Zucker also credits his mentors: Pominville, and in particular, Koivu. The captain and the wing’s chemistry boiled all season long on the ice. But the guidance Koivu provides off it, along with Pominville and the other leaders in the locker room, has helped the youngster excel.
“Mikko and Pominville, they’ve been around the league for awhile now obviously,” Zucker said. “They’re very accomplished players at this level and they’ve shown they belong in this league for numerous years and numerous reasons. To be able to get some knowledge from those guys and have them teach you things is something that you can’t put into words. Once you learn those things it opens up a whole new world for you. That’s what they’ve done for me this year.”
With his game trending in the right direction, the injury felt like a huge blow both to the Wild and Zucker’s continued development. While Minnesota showed its depth and weathered that storm, the Las Vegas native underwent surgery to repair the broken bone. He returned to action ahead of schedule — helping the Wild clinch a playoff spot in his first game back on April 7 at Chicago, scoring the game-winning goal.
Two nights later, he tallied a pair of goals, one an empty-netter, at Nashville. He was back and in a big way, seemingly gliding right back into the fold as if those 27 games off were nothing more than a missed shift.
Yeo believes the timing of the injury helped him find his game with such ease. At the time of his injury, he was already well conditioned and putting together a consistent effort, having skated in 48 games. That foundation, combined with his speed, helped Zucker quickly transition back into the lineup.
“A player with speed comes back a little bit quicker,” Yeo said. “For a player who doesn’t have as much speed, the game seems to be happening awful quick for them. Where I think it took him about a period for him to settle into it. He got caught up very quickly. And there’s a big difference when you get hurt like that later in the year, when you’ve got a frame under you from what you’ve done over the course of the year, where it’s a little easier to come back.”
With his shoulder in good health, he is now enjoying what he missed a year ago: the postseason.
“A couple of years ago it was really great getting the experience, but I’m really excited to get back out there this year, playing with these guys,” Zucker said. “Especially after last year, not being able to play, you see how well the guys did. You look at this team this year and it’s exciting. You always want to better yourself and the team always wants to better itself, but we’re just excited to be here this year.”