The wing position in the NHL isn’t exactly held in the same regard as the center position, as many general managers, pundits, and fans view skilled centers with higher regard than their linemates.
There is some validity to that belief. Matt Pfeffer (who now consults for the Montreal Canadiens) found that center is a more difficult position to play than wing, and most right/left wings who transition to center struggle, while centers who transition to the wing often thrive.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t players who can have a tremendous impact on puck possession and production while playing on the wing. You’ve seen Montreal’s Max Pacioretty dominate at left wing since 2013, essentially carrying his centers (usually David Desharnais) en route to a 51.8 percent Corsi For percentage and a 5.4 percent relative Corsi For percentage over the past three seasons.
The Canadiens also have Brendan Gallagher, doing some heavy lifting of his own over the past few seasons, posting a 53.1 percent Corsi For percentage and a 7.1 percent relative Corsi For percentage in the same time span. When you consider that Montreal lacks an elite two-way center, it’s been the wings carrying play over the past couple of seasons, helping the team’s top lines come out positive in terms of puck possession.
There are other examples of wings who can have a tremendous impact on puck possession, such as Marian Hossa, Brad Marchand, Zach Parise, and Jakub Voracek. There are, of course, many more.
One player who is emerging as a two-way threat is the Minnesota Wild’s Jason Zucker, as he is putting together another impressive season. At the age of 23, is only going to improve as he continues to develop.
Zucker was selected in the second round of the 2010 NHL Draft (59th overall), and spent two seasons at the University of Denver (where he totaled 91 points in 78 games) before turning pro. He split time between the NHL and the AHL from 2012-2014, but made Minnesota’s roster for good in 2014-15. The California native posted 21 goals and five assists for 26 points in 51 games, and was a strong possession player in his first full NHL season.
This season, Zucker has picked up right where he left off, continuing to be one of the best possession forwards in the NHL. His score adjusted Corsi For percentage is an impressive 55.3 percent, and of forwards with more than 250 minutes played at 5-on-5, Zucker is sixth with a 7.7 relative Corsi For percentage. That places him ahead of notable players such as Mark Stone, Nicklas Backstrom and Brad Marchand.
Zucker is also massively out-performing his usage, as he’s posted some of the best delta Corsi numbers in the entire league. While being deployed as a second line forward, he has a dCorsi/60 of 12.83, which is ninth among forwards who have played at least 20 games. The tremendous impact that the 5’11” left wing has on puck possession has made him one of Minnesota’s most valuable players this season, and is a big reason that the Wild have had managed to stay in a playoff spot in the stacked Central Division.
The reason why Zucker hasn’t racked up more points this year is due to his individual points percentage sitting at a mere 60 percent. The average for forwards is closer to 70 percent, so you can expect the 23-year-old to pick up more points than he has of late, especially if he keeps controlling play like he has.
It’s not hard to see where Zucker’s impressive possession impact comes from, as he excels at creating shot attempts for himself. He currently is 20th among forwards in shot attempts per 60 minutes of ice time. This is stellar on its own, but Zucker doesn’t just excel at getting shots off; he excels at getting close to the net and creating plenty of scoring chances for himself.
He’s seventh in the league in individual scoring chances per 60 minutes, ahead of Taylor Hall, Brad Marchand, and Vladimir Tarasenko. He’s also fifth in high danger scoring chances per 60 minutes, ahead of Joe Pavelski, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza. Zucker’s incredible skill for creating scoring opportunities for himself have paid off over the past two seasons, as he’s fourth in the league in goals per 60 minutes over that timespan.
Only Rick Nash, Mike Hoffman, and Vladimir Tarasenko have been more effective 5-on-5 goal scorers than Jason Zucker over the past two seasons, which is simply incredible for a player who doesn’t really get the recognition he deserves.
Overall, Jason Zucker is an elite, possession driving, goal scoring wing who is currently making $900,250 and unlikely to sign a big money contract when his current one expires. That type of value is going to help the Wild win hockey games. As Zucker improves, he should begin to get the recognition he deserves as one of the league’s best wings.
(All statistics taken from war-on-ice.com and are score adjusted unless mentioned otherwise).