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Canucks reportedly interested in Jason Zucker, but at what cost?

Minnesota Wild have possession-driving winger on the trading block.
Jason Zucker celebrates a goal for the Minnesota Wild.

When it comes to their wings, the Canucks aren’t quite flight ready.

The Canucks have two very good top-six centres in Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat, but they lack wingers to play with them. Aside from Brock Boeser, there are more questions than answers on the wings. Can Sven Baertschi stay healthy? Was Tanner Pearson’s late season run with the Canucks a mirage or a sign of things to come? Can Jake Virtanen or Josh Leivo take a big step forward? Will things click into place for Nikolay Goldobin?

With that much uncertainty and little help expected from their prospect pool next season, the Canucks could look elsewhere for a top-six forward, like free agency or the trade market. In fact, there’s on particular forward that has popped up in rumours: Minnesota Wild winger Jason Zucker.

According to Mike Halford at TSN 1040, the Canucks are very interested in Zucker.

“I won’t say who it is, but it’s a pretty decent source, enough that I trust that I’ll go live on the air with this,” said Halford. “Quote: ‘Mike, I’m hearing that Vancouver is all over Jason Zucker. There are multiple trade offers on the table.’”

Here’s the plus side of the Canucks’ interest in Zucker: he’s a very good top-six winger.

Zucker has scored 76 goals over the past three seasons, with a career high of 33 in 2017-18. For a team as goal-starved as the Canucks, a reliable source of 20+ goals would be a godsend.

In the offensive zone, Zucker has a nose for the net and gets himself into goalscoring areas at the top of the crease. He has great hands in front and does more than just whack at rebounds: he’ll show poise and move the puck around a goaltender or finish with an accurate deflection, wrist shot, or one-timer.

You can see Zucker constantly moving in front of the net, trying to find a more advantageous position to receive a pass. He battles well in front to keep his stick free. At times he reminds me a little of how Alex Burrows would get open in front with the Sedins. A player that can find openings like Zucker can be very valuable to a playmaking centre.

Zucker helps drive puck possession for the Wild, with fantastic zone exit and zone entry numbers: when he gets the puck in the defensive zone, he’s in the 93rd percentile of NHL forwards for his rate of moving the puck out of the zone with possession. His offensive impact at 5-on-5 is significant, because of this combination of transitioning the puck up ice and getting to the front of the net for great scoring chances, as you can see in his heat map from Hockey Viz

Jason Zucker heatmap

Zucker is also one of the best in the NHL when it comes to drawing penalties. Over the last three seasons, Zucker has drawn 71 minor penalties, which is ninth in the league in that time. He’s only taken 35 minor penalties, so he’s given the Wild a lot of power plays.

Add in some solid work on both sides of special teams and you have a seriously impactful player. According to Evolving Hockey’s WAR model, Zucker has been the Wild’s most valuable player over the past three seasons, leading them in overall WAR with 8.7, just ahead of Jared Spurgeon, Nino Niederreiter, and Mikael Granlund.

So, why would the Wild want to trade Zucker? You may as well ask why they wanted to trade Niederreiter. The Wild’s trade of Niederreiter to the Carolina Hurricanes for Victor Rask was widely panned and Niederreiter thrived with the Hurricanes, scoring 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games in the regular season, though he struggled a little in the playoffs.

The Wild are undergoing a roster revamp, which they don’t want to call a rebuild, and Wild GM Paul Fenton evidently doesn’t see Niederreiter and Zucker as part of the picture going forward. Their loss is potentially another team’s gain.

Zucker would be a great addition for the Canucks, immediately upgrading their top-six forward group. He could drive play for Pettersson and Boeser and provide finish in front, or anchor a strong two-way line with Horvat and Pearson. His contract is decent value, as he’s signed for four more years at $5.5 million per year.

The issue is, what will it cost the Canucks to acquire him?

“He’s going to cost a lot,” said Ray Ferraro on TSN 1040. “Minnesota’s not making a trade with him and taking back spare parts. That’s not happening. A deal would be significant, I think, if he’s involved.”

That’s an issue, because the Canucks have plenty of spare parts, but not much else to offer in a trade. Minnesota’s rumoured initial ask for Zucker was Brock Boeser, so that should show just how much they think Zucker could be worth in a potential trade.

The Wild apparently had a deal involving Zucker and Phil Kessel at the trade deadline, but Kessel nixed the deal with his no-trade clause. Now rumours are flying that a Zucker-for-Kessel trade is once again on the table. Kessel is an elite scorer, particularly on the power play, which makes up for his defensive deficiencies, so that provides a little more insight into what the Wild are looking for.

Who can the Canucks move? Benning told Ben Kuzma of The Province that teams always ask about their young core — Horvat, Pettersson, Boeser, and now, Quinn Hughes — but they’re all-but-untouchable for a group trying to transition from a rebuild to contention. Who else is there?

“Thatcher Demko is a part of that [untouchable] group and Olli Juolevi has had injury problems, but has the ability to be a very good player for a long time,” said Benning to Kuzma. “If I have to package guys I will, but I think Jake [Virtanen] is an important player for us. You have to be patient with this type of player and the power forward game he plays.

“You watch the playoffs and you see the size, strength and speed and as he continues to mature, he’s going to be a valuable guy. That’s not saying I wouldn’t move him, but it would have to be a good deal to include him.

“If we could add somebody to play with Pettersson and Boeser or somebody to play with Pearson and Horvat — depending on what it takes — we’ll look at it.”

If the Canucks can acquire Zucker with a package centred around Virtanen, that would be a steal on par with Rask-for-Neiderreiter, but Virtanen is unproven as a scorer in the NHL, particularly in comparison to some of the other players the Wild are rumoured to be pursuing.

Would the modern upgrade of Raymond, Ballard, and a third — Virtanen, Hutton, and a second — be enough to get the job done? Consider me skeptical, but it’s certainly worth exploring for a player of Zucker’s caliber.