For Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker
, this week's Development Camp is his third in the Forest Green and Iron Range Red. But, it is the first time he enters camp with a chance to earn a roster spot in the fall.
Following two excellent years at the University of Denver, 5-foot-11 and 180-pound forward left the Pioneers in March, in time to play six games with the Wild at the end of last season. During those contests, there were certainly moments in which Zucker showed he has a bright future as a National Hockey League winger.
The 20-year-old said he hopes that future begins in October, but knows the journey begins this week at Xcel Energy Center. Despite his experience at the tail end of last season, Zucker said his approach to this week wouldn’t be much different than in years past.
"I'm still here to learn, I'm still here to become a better player," Zucker said. "I think the only difference now is I'm trying to be a leader and help the younger guys coming in because I know my first year, I didn't know anything."
Following the season, coaches sat down with the Wild’s 2010 second-round pick in an exit interview to go over an offseason plan, and map out a path to becoming a better player. That has been his focus so far.
"I need to improve my defensive zone. That will make me a better player and will help the team," Zucker said. "I also need to get stronger and faster. Those areas are where I have worked hard this summer."
Zucker's path to the big-league roster was made more difficult last week when the Wild signed Zach Parise, a fellow Western Collegiate Hockey Association alum who also plays left wing. Parise will likely find himself on the Wild's top line, which pushes everyone else down on the depth chart.
Despite the extra roadblock in Zucker's quest for a NHL roster spot for this winter, he – like everyone else in the organization – was thrilled when news of the signing came out.
"I love it. I think it's great that they got [Parise and Suter]. It's only going to make this organization better," Zucker said. "I accept it as a challenge. It does cover up another spot, so it makes it a little bit harder. But at the same time, it should be fun."
The forward, who honed his game in Las Vegas, is turning pro at a special time in the Wild organization. Not only did the team get a boost from the signings of Parise and fellow all-star Ryan Suter last week, but years of diligent scouting and drafting are all coming to fruition this offseason, as a number of highly thought of prospects look to be turning pro this fall.
Included in that bunch are Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Zack Phillips, Jonas Brodin, Brett Bulmer and Johan Larsson. All under contract with Minnesota and at Development Camp, bonding off-ice and developing chemistry on it.
That's important, Zucker says.
"They're all great players and they're all trying to make the team," Zucker said. "We can push each other to become better players. I know that's something I enjoy and something they enjoy too."
The process of forming that chemistry can, at least, be planted this week in St. Paul. It will be nurtured this fall when players return for training camp in September before growing into something the Wild hope, eventually, can be quite beautiful on the ice.