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Trending Upward: Zucker's Comfort Level Paying Off

Speedy goal scorer has formed deadly combo with Granlund, Koivu

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

VANCOUVER -- Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker isn't a rookie anymore. And while no player in the NHL ever wants to be "comfortable" with where he's at, Zucker has reached a point where he knows what's expected of him game in and game out.

"Comfortable" in that sense can have a negative connotation. Perhaps "comfortable in his own skin" might be more appropriate.

"You're never comfortable," Zucker said. "But it's one of those things where you know what to expect on a nightly basis. It's something you want to work towards, to know that and to expect that, not only from your teammates and the rest of the League but from yourself. 

"Once you get to that point where you know what to expect from yourself and where you need to be, then other things fall into place."

Getting to that point has been a process for Zucker, who made several round trips between St. Paul and Des Moines early in his pro career. A 21-goal campaign in 2014-15 raised expectations.

But after seeing his goals and points numbers slip last year despite playing 20 more games than the year before, Zucker entered the season fighting for regular playing time. With a new coaching staff, he didn't have much equity.

A fourth-line player early in the year, Zucker quickly earned himself a promotion via quality play. In 50 games this season, Zucker already has more goals (16) than he had last season and has surpassed his career bests in assists (20) and points (36). His plus-30 rating is the best of any forward in the NHL, nine better any other forward in the League who isn't a linemate of his.

Those two -- Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu -- are each a plus-26. Six of the top eight plus-minus players in the NHL wear a Wild sweater.

Since settling in with Granlund and Koivu just after Thanksgiving, the trio has consistently been Minnesota's best offensive group, posting a combined 88 points and leading the Wild to a 23-5-3 record in those games.

Zucker has scored 14 goals (his total from all of last season) and is a plus-21 during that stretch, while also chipping in with 14 assists. 

"For us, it's about building our game and not being satisfied with where we are at," Zucker said. "We feel we can have an effect on games in a very positive way and we want to continue that every night."

Lately, it seems as though Zucker and his linemates are accomplishing just that. It's even benefitted them when they aren't all together.

On Tuesday in Edmonton, Zucker's forecheck forced a turnover to Granlund in the offensive zone. Granlund worked a perfect give-and-go with Tyler Graovac for a goal.

Later in the game, Zucker earned an assist on a 2-on-1 with Chris Stewart after Minnesota killed a penalty. Stewart used him as a decoy, allowing Zucker to use his speed to get into the play and fooling the goaltender.

No matter who is on the ice, Zucker and Granlund have had the ability to be game-changers. Together, they've been almost impossible to stop.

"It's been fun, for sure," Granlund said. "For us, I think it all starts with how we defend. We really want to be good with that stuff. If we do that, we're going to get our chances. We believe that."

It's a tough concept for some young players to buy into early in their careers. Zucker, who just turned 25 last month, and Granlund, who turns 25 later this month, are reaping the rewards of it now as they've matured.

It certainly helps having Koivu guide the way. Long appreciated as one of the better two-way centermen in the game, Koivu's defensive presence allows Zucker and Granlund to use their creativity in the offensive zone to keep other teams off balance.

Their skill sets mesh perfectly; Zucker's speed keeps opponents back on their heels, allowing Granlund and Koivu more ice to work with and slowing other teams' momentum when they do get the puck.

The play of their line, and that of the team, has made coming to the rink every day fun, Zucker says.

"That's the best part, and that's the way we want it to be," Zucker said. "That's the way you draw it up. So if you can have that success as a line, as individuals, then everyone is happy."

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