Jason Zucker

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The Buzzer: Zucker walks the walk for Wild; Goalies come up big

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Three Stars

1. Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

Mike Smith and the Oilers goaltending received (well-earned) attention with this post, but Hellebuyck Jets won the duel of shutouts via a shootout.

Hellebuyck collected 28 saves, including 10 combined from Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and James Neal. Hellebuyck also stopped both of the attempts he faced during the shootout, turning aside McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

After Smith made a save after a strong move by Mark Scheifele, Hellebuyck didn’t blink against McDavid during this blistering overtime exchange:

2. Jason Zucker, Minnesota Wild

Quite a week for a Wild forward who also had quite the offseason, where he was almost-traded.

Zucker included Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau’s name while pointing to how everyone on the team could get better following a loss. With controversy swirling over that comment, Zucker apologized to Boudreau.

One could picture Boudreau saying “Just make it up to me on the ice,” and Zucker did just that on Sunday. The strong two-way player scored the game’s opening goal on the power play, and sent a fantastic pass to Zach Parise for the game-winner.

He also had another attempt that could have easily counted as a second goal, but Keith Kinkaid made the save that will be featured later in this post …

3. Jacob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks

Sunday was a night of rest for NHL offenses, as few players really lit up the scoreboard.

You can boil some of that down to strong netminding. Above, you have Hellebuyck, who was nearly met by Smith in that game. Braden Holtby made 41 saves for a win, and Cam Talbot had a nice night for Calgary, stopping 29 of 30 shots.

Markstrom gets the slight edge over those goalies – plus his opponent Henrik Lundqvist, who made 40 saves, but allowed three goals – by generating 38 saves while allowing two goals in Vancouver’s tight win against the Rangers. Read this for more about the start for Markstrom and Thatcher Demko.

Highlight of the Night

Here’s that Kinkaid stop on Zucker:

Factoids

  • Every game was either decided by one goal, or one goal plus an empty-netter. NHL PR notes that about 53 percent (68 of 128) games this season have been that close.
  • The Jets note that Paul Maurice became the seventh coach in NHL history to reach 700 wins. In case you’re wondering, Maurice got there in 1,539 games, which gets complicated thanks to the way the NHL handled ties and shootouts over the years. Dude’s been able to keep jobs over the years to a remarkable degree, whichever way you slice it.
  • John Carlson really slacked on Sunday, only getting an assist. He’s at 18 points, becoming one of only three defensemen to manage that many through 10 games, joining Paul Coffey (20[!] in 1988-89) and Bobby Orr (who did it twice), according to NHL PR. Carlson’s 18 points stands alone as the top mark in the NHL so far, as Connor McDavid remained parked at 17.
  • NHL PR points out that the Wild are 7-0-0 in their last seven home games against the Canadiens, and Montreal hasn’t even earned a pity point during that stretch, going 0-7-0.

Scores

VAN 3 – NYR 2
MIN 4 – MTL 3
WSH 5 – CHI 3
WPG 1 – EDM 0 (SO)
CGY 2 – ANA 1

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Wild’s Jason Zucker apologizes to Bruce Boudreau for post-game comment

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The Minnesota Wild are off to an absolutely brutal start to the 2019-20 season having won just one of their first seven games.

Following their most recent defeat, a shutout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday, Jason Zucker vented some frustration and said that everyone on the team needed to be better. Not exactly an earth-shattering comment for a 1-6 team, but what made it into a story was that he specifically mentioned coach Bruce Boudreau by name.

The exact comment: “I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Anytime one of the top player’s on a team mentions the coach by name as someone that needs to be better — especially one that is seemingly already on the hot seat — it is going to get some attention. In Zucker’s case, it got a little more attention than he wanted, and after apologizing to Boudreau on the team plane after the game on Thursday, publicly apologized on Saturday.

“I’ll start by first apologizing to Bruce,” Zucker told Wild reporters on Saturday, via Michael Russo of The Athletic. “There was no reason for me to use his name in that quote in any way. That’s completely on me. My intention with the quote was to state that everybody needs to be better and needs to do more and pull more weight, and 99.9 percent of that is on the players.”

He went on to call it a poor choice of words on his part and again reiterated the fact that everyone needs to be better.

Zucker has two goals for the Wild through the first seven games of the season.

He has been one of the Wild’s best players for a few years now but still found himself as the centerpiece in two different trades that fell through by former general manager Paul Fenton.

The Wild are back in action at home on Sunday against Canadiens before playing seven of their next 10 games on the road.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Things are so bad for Wild, even Bruce Boudreau’s getting called out

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The Minnesota Wild suffered through a miserable and embarrassing offseason, and things really haven’t gotten much better through the first two weeks of 2019-20.

Thursday presented a buffet table of badness for the Wild:

  • They fell 4-0 to the Montreal Canadiens, and didn’t muster much of a fight. Carey Price only needed to make 17 saves for the shutout. You’d think there would have been more of a pushback being that Montreal went up 3-0 during the first period, yet the Habs generated an 18-11 SOG advantage through the final 40 minutes despite holding a chunky lead.
  • Minnesota is now 1-6-0. The Wild’s only win was a 2-0 snoozer against the lowly Ottawa Senators.
  • The Athletic’s Michael Russo reports that the Wild held a 10-minute players-only meeting, often a telltale sign that tensions are mounting.
  • In a truly rare and juicy moment, Russo points out Jason Zucker is asking more from everyone … including head coach Bruce Boudreau.

“I think more than (a meeting’s) going to have to jumpstart us, to be honest with you,” Zucker said. “It’s going to be each individual guy from Bruce on down. Bruce has got to be better. We’ve got to be better. Everybody’s got to be better. That’s it.”

Walking off the ledge in a few ways

So, yeah, the Wild are pretty miserable right now. In falling to 1-6-0, the Wild have been outscored by 15 goals through this young season.

But it is early. The Wild have 74 games remaining on their regular season schedule. They’re not even really alone in the Central Division, either, as the Dallas Stars came into 2019-20 with bigger expectations (and more dollars spent) and find themselves sputtering to a 1-6-1 start.

There’s also the matter of it possibly being better, in the long-term, for the Wild to be really bad in the short-term.

You can also consider context. The Wild have played six of their first seven games on the road, and while they beat a bad team for their lone win, Minnesota’s faced stiff competition overall. Five of their sixth losses came against teams that made the playoffs in 2018-19, and the Canadiens weren’t that far from doing the same.

Those excuses might not do much for a team with frayed emotions. Boudreau and his players would probably roll their eyes at such comments.

Yet, for a team who would probably need some luck to be more than a bubble team, factors like quality of opponents and tough road trips could really make the difference. Especially when you stagger into the season after a bewildering and humiliating summer, and didn’t exactly gain a lot of confidence in the way 2018-19 ended, either.

Things are bleak for the Wild, and it’s possible that they stay that way.

It’s also early, though, so this is a good time for the Wild to gather themselves, and maybe get back on track.

There also still could be a lot of nights like these, although you won’t see Boudreau’s name mentioned like this very often — assuming he can survive the peaks and valleys of this season as Wild head coach, in general. In other words, feel free to break out your cringe-inducing puns about this being a “wild” ride.

MORE:
• Pro Hockey Talk’s Stanley Cup picks.
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Do Wild have short-term path back to playoffs?

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Before the 2018-19 season went sideways, the Minnesota Wild had a five-year run where they were a mostly outstanding and consistently underrated hockey team.

They had three 100-point seasons in a four-year stretch and even though they had limited success once they made the playoffs, they were at least always there.

All of that disappeared this past season when the team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011-12 and finished with one of the worst records in franchise history (the .506 points percentage was fourth-worst in their 18-year existence). A lot of things went wrong and resulted in the shocking decision to fire general manager Paul Fenton after just 14 months on the job.

Unfortunately for the Wild, they are still stuck in a brutally competitive division with Nashville, Colorado, Winnipeg, Dallas, and a (potentially) improved Chicago team ahead of them. On top of that they were seven points back of a playoff spot last year in what was one of the weakest Western Conference playoff races ever, are relying heavily on big-money players in their mid-30s this season, still do not have a general manager to call the shots, and could probably use a rebuild that the owner does not seem to want to fully commit to.

Not exactly a great set of circumstances.

So is there a path back to the playoffs this season? Let’s take a look at three key factors that might help.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions | X-Factors]

Better Health

While injuries were not a huge factor in the Wild’s regression, they did have a couple of significant ones with the loss of Mikko Koivu (48 games) and defender Mathew Dumba (only 32 games).

Koivu is one of the many mid-30 players on the roster and is not the same player offensively that he was a few years ago, but he’s still an excellent two-way player and key part of their forwards.

Dumba, on the other hand, was the big one. Losing him was a significant blow to the team’s blue line, especially since he was in the middle of a breakout season offensively at the time of his injury. Getting a 23-minute, potential 50-point blue-liner back in the lineup would be significant.

Jason Zucker is still there

Zucker was nearly traded on two separate occasions over the past year and it is probably fortunate for the Wild that both deals fell apart before they could be completed. He is still one of the best all-around players on the team and seems to be a prime bounce-back candidate. He was still a great possession-driver for the Wild last year (they had a 53 percent shot attempt share when he was on the ice) and finished with one of the lowest shooting percentages of his career. The return of a healthy Koivu and Dumba, as well as a bounce-back from Zucker, would help a lot.

Some new faces

Zuccarello is a long-term risk because of his age, but he is still an outstanding playmaker and will upgrade the roster that ended the regular season in Minnesota.

Then you have the young players acquired by former general manager Fenton at the deadline, specifically Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala. There are a lot of reasons to question the direction Fenton sent the team in at the trade deadline, but now that they trades are done all the Wild can do is hope for the best. While there seems to be little hope the Nino Niederreiter trade can produce positive results for them, Donato and Fiala do at least have the potential to become useful.

There is absolutely something that can be salvaged there.

Donato looked promising after the trade from Boston, while Fiala is just one year removed from a 23-goal, 48-point season, is still only 23 years old, and is coming off of a tough shooting percentage and PDO (on ice shooting percentage plus save percentage) year while also posting strong possession numbers. There is potential for a bounce-back there.

More consistent performance from Devan Dubnyk

This might be the most important potential development.

From the moment he arrived in Minnesota during the 2013-14 season Dubnyk has been one of the best, most productive goalies in the league and finished with two top-five finishes in the Vezina Trophy voting. But the 2018-19 season was far from his best as he struggled with consistency, went through one of the worst slumps of his career, and faced yet another heavy workload.

If he is able to return to his previous Minnesota form that is a season-changer for the Wild.

That is a lot of “ifs,” and even if they all go perfectly it still probably will not be enough to make them a Stanley Cup contender. It could, however, get them back in the playoffs.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Wild need to hope Parise, Staal are capable of another big season

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Minnesota Wild. 

When you look at the top returning scorers for the Minnesota Wild there is a pretty common theme among almost all of them.

Almost all of them are in their mid-30s.

The group of Zach Parise, Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jason Zucker, and Mikko Koivu (the top-six returning scorers from last year’s team) will have an average opening night age of 33, while Spurgeon and Zucker are the only ones that will be under 30 (and even Spurgeon will turn 30 in November).

Add new free agent signing Mats Zuccarello (turning 33 this season) into that mix and it is just one more significant, big-money player on the other side of 30.

That is the bulk of their salary cap space and the players they will be relying on most to carry the offense. That could be a problem because eventually every player in the league slows down and has age take a bite out of their production.

[MORE: 2018-19 review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

The big X-factor for the Wild this season will be how much their veterans have remaining in their tanks. Especially when it comes to Parise and Staal.

The 2018-19 season was a huge bounce-back for Parise as he rebounded across the board in almost every major offensive category. He generated more shots, scored more goals, was a better possession driver than he had been in previous seasons and put together what was his best season in three years.

Staal, meanwhile, had his third consecutive strong season with the Wild and continued what has been a career rebirth after looking to be finished as a top-line player at the end of the 2015-16 season. Since joining the Wild he has been one of the top-25 goal-scorers in the entire league and one of the primary drivers of the team’s offense.

But how much longer can they keep going at the rate they produced at last season? It’s an important question because unless a young player or two like a Ryan Donato, Kevin Fiala, Luke Kunin, or Jordan Greenway takes a big step forward the Wild are again going to be relying on players in their mid-30s to be the top offensive players on the team. That is a problem because players in their mid-30s don’t typically produce at a great level.

There were only 16 forwards in the NHL a season age 35 or older. Out of that group only one of them (Justin Williams) scored at least 20 goals, while only two (Williams and Joe Thornton) topped 50 points.

Over the past five seasons there have only been nine forwards (out of 63) age 35 or older that scored at least 20 goals and at least 50 points in the same season.

Staal barely topped those two numbers (22 goals, 52 points) a year ago at age 34, while Parise managed to do so for the first time in three years. There is no guarantee either one of them can do it again.

Any regression or decline from one (or both) could be even more costly because some of the younger, core players that have been top producers in recent years and helped keep the Wild competitive are now playing for different teams (Nino Niederreiter is in Carolina; Mikael Granlund is in Nashville; Charlie Coyle is in Boston).

If the Wild can not get their young players to take a step forward and become top-line players, or if veterans players like Parise, Staal, and Zuccarello do not continue to defy aging curves their offense could be in a lot of trouble this season.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.