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Zulgad: That’s more like it: Mats Zuccarello proving that he isn’t a free agent flop after all

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Minnesota Wild right wing Mats Zuccarello (36) plays against the Los Angeles Kings during an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

Matt Dumba received the majority of the attention for scoring with less than a full second left Saturday night to give the Wild a 4-3 overtime victory over Los Angeles at Xcel Energy Center. But only focusing on the defenseman’s move that left Kings goalie Calvin Petersen with little hope of stopping the puck would be to sell the play short. Without Mats Zuccarello’s perfect backhand pass — made without clearly seeing the target — Dumba never gets the opportunity to be a hero.

Here’s the play.

There are many reasons why the Wild have won six in a row and lost only once since returning from their COVID-forced break, but among the top reasons is a guy who a year ago looked to be a major free agent bust.

One of Paul Fenton’s final acts as the Wild general manager was signing  Zuccarello to a five-year, $30 million contract as free agency opened in 2019. The then 31-year-old winger was coming off a season in which he had 12 goals and 28 assists in 48 games with the New York Rangers and Dallas Stars. Zuccarello was traded to the Stars at the deadline but suffered a broken right arm blocking a shot in his first game with Dallas.

Zuccarello returned for the playoffs and had four goals and seven assists in 13 games, leading to Fenton’s decision to reward him with a big contract and complete no-move clause for the first three seasons. Shortly after Zuccarello signed, Fenton was fired and new general manager Bill Guerin was left with what looked to be a poor investment.

Zuccarello had 15 goals and 22 assists and was a minus-9 in 65 games last season. A fan favorite in Madison Square Garden, Zuccarello did little to stand out at Xcel Energy Center. He scored his 14th goal of the season in a Feb. 1 loss against Boston. In the final 18 regular-season games, Zuccarello had one goal and seven assists. He added one assist in the Wild’s four-game qualifying round loss to Vancouver in the bubble in Edmonton.

Guerin had a veteran player who had underachieved, was overpaid ($6 million salary cap hit through 2023-24) in a salary-cap league and could not be moved. Zuccarello also must be protected in the July 21 NHL expansion draft, unless he waives that right. So what else could go wrong? That question was answered in December when the Wild announced Zuccarello again had undergone surgery on his right arm in his native Norway. There was no timeline put on his return for a season that had yet to start because of the pandemic.

Zuccarello’s return came on Feb. 16 as the shorthanded Wild resumed play (after much of the roster had to quarantine because of COVID) in a 4-0 shutout loss to the Kings in Los Angeles. Zuccarello had two shots in a loss that dropped Minnesota to 6-6 and was its third loss in five games. The Wild haven’t lost since and Zuccarello has three goals and eight assists in the past six games.

Known for his ability to make plays, Zuccarello’s resurgence has come playing on a line with center Victor Rask and standout rookie winger Kirill Kaprizov. Kaprizov has had an outstanding first 18 games in the NHL — his 17 points (six goals, 11 assists) lead the Wild — but his play has improved with Zuccarello on the other wing.

“It seems like Zuccarello came into the lineup, he brought his swagger in with it and we all kind of followed,” said Wild fourth-liner winger Nick Bjugstad.

Maybe the second surgery fixed a problem we didn’t know about last season. Or maybe Zuccarello is just more comfortable in Minnesota after spending nine seasons with the Rangers.

Zuccarello’s return has had a positive impact on the Wild’s lines. Before the COVID outbreak, coach Dean Evason was searching for combinations that worked and the lack of a No. 1 or 2 center appeared to be a major issue. Newcomer Marcus Johansson wasn’t contributing much, and Kaprizov and winger Kevin Fiala were paying the price for the lack of top-end talent around them.

But Evason now has four solid lines, including Kaprivoz-Rask-Zuccarello; Jordan Greenway-Joel Eriksson Ek-Fiala; Zach Parise-Ryan Hartman (move from winger to center)-Marcus Foligno; and Nico Sturm-Nick Bonino-Bjugstad.

Does this mean the Zuccarello contract was a wise one? Probably not. It should have been shorter and not included a no-move clause. But the complaints about the deal are certainly fewer and what looked to be a massive blunder by Fenton has provided Evason with a guy who has turned into a solid contributor.