Part of coach Mike Yeo’s strategy toward improving the Wild’s 27th-ranked penalty kill from a year ago was to find forwards who could walk out of the arena and feel personal pride if the team didn’t give up a power-play goal.
In other words, “own” the penalty kill.
The chief example is Jason Zucker. Once an electrifying winger at the University of Denver, Zucker has the skill to perhaps help the power play. But in order to crack the lineup, Yeo impressed upon Zucker the necessity of embracing the penalty kill.
Zucker made the team on the fourth line, but has slowly bitten off more responsibility to the point he led all Wild forwards in ice time during a recent win at Dallas. He has been one of the Wild’s most consistent forwards all year yet hasn’t griped that he has seen just nine minutes on the power play. Instead, along with forwards like Erik Haula, Ryan Carter, Kyle Brodziak and Mikko Koivu, Zucker has tried his darndest to aid a penalty kill that continually has helped the Wild win this season.
“For me it’s ice time, it’s being out there doing what I can to help the team any way. I’m just excited to be out there and be playing,” said Zucker, who scored twice in the Wild’s 4-2 victory Monday at Florida and was a key cog on the Wild’s 3-for-3 penalty kill. “It was definitely a role when I looked over the summer that I figured I could step into and do a good job and have an effect on.”
As bad as the Wild’s 28th-ranked power play has been, Zucker knows it’s hard to unseat the mainstays on that unit. So he has concentrated on the penalty kill. The Wild has only given up eight goals in 20 games for the NHL’s fifth-best penalty kill (87.5 percent). In 31 minutes, 32 seconds of shorthanded ice time (1:34 per game, fourth-most among Wild forwards), Zucker has been on for four power-play goals, one of which was an empty-netter.
The success of Wild penalty killers has an added bonus, since Yeo doesn’t have to use Zach Parise.
Parise is considered one of the NHL’s best defensive forwards and was long a penalty-kill stud for New Jersey, topping two minutes a game. But before this season, Yeo met with Parise to let him know he would likely not get regular penalty-kill shifts this season. In his first season with the Wild, Parise averaged 1:27 of shorthanded time a game. Last season, it was 62 seconds per game.
Through 20 games this season, he has logged 6:46 on the kill, or 27 seconds per game.
There are two big reasons: First, Parise broke his foot last year on the penalty kill and the Wild would like to avoid Parise having to sacrifice his body in shooting lanes, something so essential on the penalty kill; and second, it keeps him fresher for 5-on-5 play.
Just look at Monday. After each of the Wild’s three penalty kills, the team regained momentum because Yeo was able to toss his first line of Parise-Granlund-Pominville over the boards the next shift.
“I was totally fine with not playing the PK,” Parise said. “That conversation with Mike was easy. I was all for it. I’d rather conserve my energy for 5-on-5 and power play. I can’t tell you how many times you get stuck in the zone on a PK and it takes you two or three shifts to recover.”
The penalty kill wasn’t foreign to Zucker. He killed penalties at Denver, but “in college, you’re told to go score a goal on the PK. In the NHL, it’s a different mentality.”
Zucker has scored one shorthanded goal and is second to Parise with seven even-strength goals. This is a guy who was often in and out of Yeo’s doghouse the past two seasons for his defensive play. This year, Yeo routinely commends Zucker, yet always with a caveat: “We’ll keep pushing him, but …”
But … Zucker keeps impressing with his improved physicality, engagement in traffic and hustle, like the way he routinely speeds down the ice to nullify icings so tired players can get off the ice and the team can avoid defensive-zone faceoffs.
Koivu, the Wild’s biggest proponent of not cheating offensively if it means neglecting defense, praised Zucker’s overall play after Monday’s victory.
“It’s a big improvement for him and I think if he stays honest with it and keeps working both ends of the ice, he’s going to help our team a lot,” Koivu said. “I think he knows that, too. He wants to get better. You can see that, so that’s great to see.”
WILD VS. LOS ANGELES
7 p.m. Wednesday • Xcel Energy Center • TV: FSN (100.3-FM)