For Jason Zucker
to be successful, he can't be in neutral. Zucker knows to be effective he has to take the wheel.
"The number one thing is speed. For me, it's all about skating," Zucker said. "If I'm playing well, I'm skating. If I'm playing bad, it's because I'm standing still, trying to make plays."
When it came to making plays, Zucker found success last year, scoring a career-high 21 goals in a career-high 51 games, in a season that was a major step in his development.
"Coming into training camp this year was a lot different knowing that I'd been with the guys for a full year, and been able to have that experience with them," Zucker said. "It's all a learning experience, and you just keep building off all the experiences that you have."
Zucker said his success was largely due to paying attention to details.
"I just tried to commit to the small parts of the game come training camp last year," Zucker said. "For me, the two years before, I didn't commit to a lot of the things that I probably should have earlier. That's being young, and—I knew what coaches wanted, but me doing it wasn't exactly what I was doing."
It led to a season in which Zucker was one of the most effective even-strength goal scorers in the League. Zucker didn't spend much time on the power play—he played 667 minutes last season at 5-on-5 compared to 43 on the power play—but excelled at evens.
Goals scored per 60 minutes (g/60) is a rate statistic that measures how frequently players score based on how much even-strength time they play. Last season, Zucker was second in the League in g/60, only behind Rick Nash of the New York Rangers. Rounding out the top five was Mike Hoffman, Corey Perry, and Vladimir Tarasenko.
"I just need to make sure that I'm skating, and when I get the opportunity, I'm going to shoot the puck as well," Zucker said. "Those are my two things."
Now Zucker is being put into a scenario to get quality scoring chances. He's been added to the half-wall on the second power-play unit, a new challenge for the 23-year-old who turned pro in 2012.
"It should be great, but I'm not going to take that for granted," Zucker said. "We have a lot of guys that can be on the power play, so I want to make sure that I'm using those opportunities to my advantage and capitalizing on them when I can."
Zucker is also playing on a line with right wing Nino Niederreiter and center Mikko Koivu. Zucker primarily played with Koivu last season, and has played with Niederreieter in the past, but never consistently with both players on a line. Zucker said the trio should be good at buying space for one another.
"Inside the zone that's a huge key when teams are so good defensively now," he said. "Any time you can get an extra foot or two feet by picking a guy, you're going to get a shot on net and good chance from it."
Time and space aren't luxuries afforded to 20-goal scorers in the NHL. Between Zucker, Niederreiter, and Koivu, the offensive potential is there, and opposing teams will likely take notice.
"Any chance you get to watch video of other defensemen, or watch videos of other teams and how they play, and pick apart little gaps that they have, those are things I'm going to start looking at," Zucker said. "Whether I'm getting extra attention or whatever you want to call it, those are things I definitely need to do to make sure I'm learning and growing my game."
Playing with an all-star left wing in Zach Parise has been a factor in that growth, according to Zucker.
"He's an unbelievable guy to learn from, and he knows the game just as well as anybody that I've ever met," Zucker said. "He does help me out—I try to puck his brain whenever I can—I try to learn things from him, and mimic the way that he plays."
Parise is coming off a 33-goal season, his highest total in Minnesota. Zucker reached the 20-goal plateau last season for the first time, and said he isn't thinking about scoring 30 this year.
"I try not to get numbers in my head," Zucker said. "I just want to make sure that I'm playing well every game, and helping this team any way I can. I have goals in my own head that I want to hit, and that has nothing to do with numbers."