Jason Zucker's best statistical season coming into the year was 2014-15 when he put up an impressive 21 goals and five primary assists in just 51 games. Unfortunately, his breakout season was cut short by a broken clavicle. And after an extremely disappointing 2015-16 season where Zucker only managed only 11 goals and five primary assists while playing 71 games, it looked like that mini breakout season would be the outlier.
While his style of play has always been entertaining as hell, Zucker would often disappear for long stretches, having minimal impact on games. Much of the inconsistency was probably just a young player trying to figure out how to play in the NHL, but it also couldn't have helped too much to have years of Mike Yeo harping on Zucker's defensive shortcomings instead of focusing on and exploiting his obvious offensive talents.
It's safe to say that coming into the 2016-17 season that most people, myself included, wouldn't have been heartbroken about losing Zucker in the upcoming expansion draft. However, that was before we saw what a coach with an offensive mind could do with a player with Zucker's talent.
Enter, Bruce Boudreau. From the start of the season it was obvious that Zucker would be more comfortable in the Boudreau system that allowed the wingers much more freedom to fly the defensive zone. Boudreau figured out very early that Zucker's best defensive attribute was his speed. Zucker essentially had the green light to fly the defensive zone immediately after any Wild player secured the puck. This forced opposing defenseman to retreat out of the Wild zone earlier, leaving space around the Wild blue line for easier zone exits for the likes of Granlund and Koivu.
It was no accident that that line controlled 63% of scoring chances (thanks corsica.hockey), with Zucker averaging what seemed like at least one breakaway per game. Clearly Boudreau recognized Zucker's ability to create space and offense out of the defensive zone, as Zucker had the fourth most defensive zone starts for Wild forwards. Usually with more defensive zone starts it would be fair to expect a downtick in offensive counting numbers, but that was not the case with Zucker as he ended up leading the Wild in 5-on-5 points for the year. (stats.hockeyanalysis.com)
Which brings us back to expansion. After being on the bubble entering the season, there is no way the Wild can let their leading scorer at even strength go unprotected. In all likelihood, Zucker will be back with the team next year, and that should really excite Wild fans because his game still has so much room to grow. We still don't know what this guy can do on special teams. He's never really played on the power play, and we've only gotten tastes of his ability on the penalty kill. There will be plenty of shorthanded breakaways to be had for a guy with Zucker's speed, which means it might be time to break out a new breakaway move other than “the Koivu". Consider that to be one of the few areas to improve for a guy that had an otherwise fantastic season.