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The Next Generation

Zucker, Niederreiter, Granlund push each other for team's goal-scoring lead

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

ST. PAUL -- In what has been a season chock full of storylines, perhaps the most important one to the current and future fortunes of the Wild has been the development of its young core.

Among them are Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund, who of late have developed a friendly rivalry atop the team's goal-scoring charts. 

While the hallmark of Minnesota's breakout campaign in the offensive end of the rink has been balanced scoring with all four lines contributing at various points of the season, the battle emerging between Zucker, Granlund and Niederreiter for the goal-scoring lead will be a fun one to keep an eye on down the stretch.

All three have crossed the 20-goal plateau already; they now have their sights set on reaching 25 or even 30, although with only a month left in the regular season, 30 may be a stretch.

"We're definitely all pushing each other to be better and obviously, the more goals you score, the better it is for our team," Niederreiter said. "It's been fun. We're all in the 20s now. You want to hit the 20s. It's just a relief, a kind of a mark which is great to break. 

"The next one is 30, which would be great to break and hopefully we can achieve that one day. I'll try my best to get as many or as close as possible this year."

All three have already surpassed their career highs in points and assists. Niederreiter has now reached at least 20 goals in each of the past three seasons, with his best year coming in 2014-15, when he tallied 24. 

Zucker had 21 that same season, a total that came in just 51 games. While it's taken him a few more games to get there this season, he's also smashed his previous career high in helpers and is among the NHL leaders in plus-minus.

His linemate, Granlund, is having one of the best offensive seasons in team history, and by the time the season is over, he could very well be the standard bearer in that regard.

"It's good that they're all scoring. That's one of the things about this team and guys who cover it recognize, our balance has been pretty good all year," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "It's surprising that we're second in the League now in goals for, or what have you, but it's all because of the balance and everybody chips in. It's why you don't have long losing streaks."

Zucker and Granlund have joined with captain Mikko Koivu to form one of the NHL's most formidable two-way lines. It's a group that has been together for nearly four months and doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon.

Niederreiter has managed to post good numbers despite moving around with different linemates. It's an aspect of his game that he takes pride in.

"It's something which I've been used to since I got here," Niederreiter said. "I feel like my first year, I'm a guy kind of jumping around everywhere. Sometimes, it may be a plus to be in a position to be able to do that."

Boudreau said he'd love to find Niederreiter a permanent home, like Granlund and Zucker have found, but circumstance this season simply hasn't allowed for it.

"Some nights it's going, some nights it's not," Boudreau said. "You have to find the guys that are going and put them together on those certain occasions, then you come back to it the next day."

All three players were selected in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, with Granlund (first round, ninth overall) and Zucker (second round, 59th overall) picked by Minnesota. Niederreiter (first round, fifth overall) was selected by the Islanders and traded to the Wild in 2013 in exchange for Cal Clutterbuck.

Those three, along with Charlie Coyle, another 2010 draftee (first round, 28th overall by the Sharks) have become good friends off the ice. It makes it easy for them to cheer for each other when good things happen for them on the ice.

While they're all competing for the Wild's goal-scoring crown, each would gladly pass on the individual numbers for continued team success.

"I think we're all genuinely happy for each other, I mean every guy," Zucker said. "The more guys we have that score goals, the better off we're going to be. [Granlund] has been unbelievable, Nino's been unreal, I mean, we've got tons of guys that are right there with us, too, so it's been fun."

On a team with leadership dripping from its dressing room doors, with current or former team captains in Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Eric Staal and Jason Pominville, among its forward group, it's allowed the Wild's next generation of young scorers time to develop. 

Now, they're flourishing. 

"I think it's great, considering we have [Joel] Eriksson Ek and [Jordan] Greenway and [Luke] Kunin, [Kirill] Kaprizov, down the road coming along, and you have [these] guys here [and Alex Tuch]," Boudreau said. "Those guys are gonna be the nucleus of our team in years to come."

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