The Wild has a knack for becoming stale at the wrong time, and its lack of playoff success over the past few years led to the arrival of a fresh face behind the controls at the outset of the offseason.
After taking stock of the inventory, however, new Wild General Manager Paul Fenton didn’t make many changes.
Instead, the roster that is set to reconvene in September for training camp is very similar to the product that expired after five playoff games in April. Fenton believes the team already has the ingredients to improve, an assessment that was underscored Wednesday when the Wild essentially capped off its summer makeover by bringing back restricted free agent Jason Zucker on a five-year, $27.5 million contract.
“There’s certainly an onus on the players that they’ve got to continue to push the envelope, and I think that’s where we are,” Fenton said. “There’s been a couple guys that didn’t necessarily play up to their potential last year, and there’s been some guys who have played better. So if we can get everybody on [the same] page, then we certainly have a better chance of reaching the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.”
Zucker is among those who impressed last season, a performance that netted him a hefty raise from his previous two-year, $4 million contract.
The 26-year-old winger recorded career highs in goals (33), assists (31) and points (64), scored seven game-winners and had an dynamic stretch in November in which he scored six consecutive team goals. Through 330 NHL games, he has 97 goals and 172 points after getting drafted in the second round (59th overall) in 2010.
“I know that I have the talent and ability and skill and grit to play in this league at a high level,” said Zucker, who struggled to translate his regular-season prowess to the playoffs since he went pointless in the first round against the Jets. “It’s just about doing it consistently every night.”
His new deal will pay him $5 million in 2018-19, $6.25 million in 2019-20, $4.8 million in 2020-21, $6.25 million in 2021-22 and $5.2 million in 2022-23 for a $5.5 million average annual value.
After Zucker filed for arbitration earlier in July, he and the Wild were scheduled to have a hearing Saturday in Toronto but a face-to-face meeting with Zucker’s agent, Eustace King, on Tuesday in the Twin Cities helped the two sides reach a resolution.
“We had a good, long discussion and finally just put everything on the table and when we were able to do that, it made sense for both of us,” Fenton said.
A five-year commitment made sense for Zucker, who wanted to keep his family in Minnesota. He and his wife, Carly, have been raising funds to build the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, and Zucker was a finalist for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy this year for humanitarian contributions to the community.
“We couldn’t be happier,” said Zucker, who was with his family in Las Vegas when the contract was finalized.
But the term also worked for the Wild since it wanted to solidify its look with a proven goal scorer.
“He generates so many chances based off his speed and his skill level,” Fenton said.
Considering those attributes, it wasn’t unusual for Zucker to be mentioned as a trade candidate this offseason, but the Wild hasn’t executed any deals.
Aside from locking up Zucker, it re-signed defensemen Matt Dumba and Nick Seeler and added free agents Eric Fehr, Matt Hendricks, J.T. Brown, Greg Pateryn and Andrew Hammond — moves that leave the Wild with less than $2 million in salary-cap space.
Other Wild players with average annual value contracts of $5 million or more are Zach Parise and Ryan Suter ($7.54 million each), Dumba ($6 million), Mikael Granlund ($5.75 million), Mikko Koivu ($5.5 million), Nino Niederreiter ($5.25 million) and Jared Spurgeon ($5.2 million).
Fenton expects competition at camp for jobs, and it’s still possible he tweaks the group after watching it on the ice.
“Until you see it every day and you get to see what the mood is and what the character of this team is,” he said, “you can’t really make a fair assessment.”
What Fenton is convinced of so far, though, is that the current roster has the potential to accomplish what previous iterations have failed to do.
“Right now,” he said, “I’m very comfortable with the lineup we have.”