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Goff: What the Wild can do to get Zuccarello and Donato going

The Minnesota Wild may have only played two games, but they have already shown concerning trends. Even with such a small sample size, Minnesota struggled to generate offense, especially from its top line with Eric Staal and Mats Zuccarello specifically having a rough go of it. 

With the Wild off for five days in between games and with just four goals through six periods, head coach Bruce Boudreau is already scrambling line combinations. So let’s take a look at why Staal and Zuccarello have played so poorly and which combos might be a better fit going.

Fixing the top line

Zuccarello was Minnesota’s marquee signing in the offseason, earning a long-term contract after an impressive career with the Rangers (and a brief pit stop with Stars last spring). He averaged 53 points (17 goals and 36 assists per season)  over the past six seasons and one can assume that Zuccarello would essentially replace Mikael Grandlund’s production (15 goals and 37 assists) after he was traded to Nashville at last year’s trade deadline.

So far Zuccarello has spent more time allowing scoring chances than creating them. He and Staal have spent 19:21 of ice time together and during that time frame they have generated a Corsi For percentage of 35% (13 CF vs. 24 CA). In other words, when those two are on the ice, opponents are generating 65% of the total shots on goal.

They have created just one high-danger chance while allowing seven against. They have also scored zero goals and have been on the ice for four of the nine goals scored against the Wild this season.

Even if it’s been just two games, 19:00 of ice time could be interpreted as one regular game of ice time for today’s top line in the NHL. After a performance like that, change would be inevitable.  

Staal had a maintenance day at Tuesday’s practice and is apparently nursing an injury already. If it is indeed just a maintenance day for Staal, Foligno being bumped up probably won’t significantly improve the offense aside from hounding pucks for Staal. Maybe Boudreau is assuming his size and presence – 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds – will open things up but that seems like a flawed system. Foligno is better served on a checking line player where he’s been the majority of his time with the Wild. 

What is the answer? 

If we go back to the 2016-17 season, the best of Zuccarello’s career, his primary linemates were Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan. Stepan was still a credible two-way center then and probably a more defensively sound player than Staal is currently. Kreider was a speedy winger who he fed to create scoring chances. Of the 28 goals Kreider scored that season, 16 of them were assisted by Zuccarello. Luckily, the Wild employ a similar player in Jason Zucker. During the 16-17 season in Minnesota, Zucker and Granlund developed a strong chemistry with Mikko Koivu in the middle. It’s plausible that Zuccarello could fit on the opposite wing of Zucker. 

That is not to suggest that today’s version of Koivu should be elevated to the top line, but instead Zucker’s presence might open things up for Zuccarello and Staal. 

The former Hurricane has spent a good amount of time with Zucker since signing in Minnesota and the two have generated a ton of offense. Since 2016 while on the ice together, Staal and Zucker have created an impressive CF% of 53%, created 58% high-danger scoring chances and have scored 65 goals to 53 against. Even last season, when Staal and Zucker came down to earth from their career seasons in 17-18 – where they scored 42 and 33 goals respectively – both players had CF% of 54% while together. They tilted the ice and drove possession but just couldn’t find as much puck luck as the numbers suggested they should have.

But it appears after Wednesday’s practice, Boudreau paired Zuccarello and Zucker together with Koivu in the middle, according to Dane Mizutani of the Pioneer Press. So regardless of who the center is, maybe Zuccarello can benefit from playing with Zucker.

What about Donato?

Ryan Donato has been shuffled all over the lineup through two games. He initially started with Luke Kunin (14:31 of shared ice time) and Jordan Greenway (13:19 of shared ice time) but before the Colorado game, he was shifted to the top line with Staal and Zuccarello. The former Harvard University standout was inches from a highlight-reel goal but was frozen on a breakaway from Phillip Grubauer but his crucial mistake was the reason Gabriel Landeskog was all alone against Devan Dubnky for the game-winning goal.

That was enough for Boudreau to “demote” Donato to the fourth line with Joel Eriksson Ek and Ryan Hartman. Although, this might be more of a good thing for the shoot-first forward. Last season, Donato played 85 minutes with Eriksson Ek and both players were better for it. With the two youngsters paired together, they produced a CF% of 54.82% and created 56 shots to 40 against. Meanwhile, when the two were apart from one another Donato had a CF% 42.8% with Eriksson Ek having a CF% of 43.75%. 

However, Boudreau can’t treat that line like a traditional fourth line with minimal minutes. Instead he has to give them a longer leash to see if they can actually be beneficial in big situations. Today’s NHL teams don’t just have a top six they rely on, instead, teams are rolling out four lines in a more even fashion. And with the Wild not really having game-breaking forwards, they’ll likely have to rely on four lines to generate scoring. Plus, the Wild’s young core (Donato, Eriksson Ek, Kunin and Greenway) need to take steps forward if the Wild are going to be successful in the long term. So that means giving young players ample playing time and Donato and Eriksson Ek might be the ones to do that.


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