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Jason Zucker is an ideal trade target for the Sabres

Jason Zucker is one of the hottest names on the trade block and the Sabres have reported interest

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

One of the hot names reportedly on the trade block early in the offseason is Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker. New Wild general manager, Paul Fenton, seems to be determined to move the 27-year-old. Among the teams that have inquired about his availability is the Buffalo Sabres according to various reports.

Pierre LeBrun mentioned on TSN’s Insider Trading that the Sabres “kicked tires” on the scoring winger. Also, Michael Russo of The Athletic mentioned they were among a handful of clubs that the Wild have spoken with about a trade.

The situation surrounding Zucker is an odd one. He appeared to have been traded to the Calgary Flames at the trade deadline in a package involving Michael Frolik, but the deal fell through. Then about a month ago it looked like another trade involving Zucker was in the works. This time he was headed to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Phil Kessel. However, Kessel declined to waive his no-move clause and that deal was never completed.

Fenton is in the process of re-making the Wild on the fly and hasn’t come out on the winning end of a few trades during the season. He was smoked in the Nino Niederreiter trade by the Carolina Hurricanes, the Mikael Granlund trade didn’t give them much in Kevin Fiala (so far) and the Charlie Coyle move looks like a push at best right now.

It’s odd that Fenton seems determined to rid the Wild of their prominent offensive talent. In the case of Zucker, he should be in high demand around the league. He’s under contract for the next four years with a cap hit of $5.5 million.

After scoring a career-high 33 goals and 64 points last season, he came back to earth in terms of production with 21 goals and 42 points in 81 games this year. Having said that, when you look at the numbers there are a few signs that point to a rebound season next year for Zucker. This past season he had his second-lowest shooting percentage of 9.8% and at 5 on 5 he scored at 5.3 goals below expected.

Both of those are good indicators of bad shooting luck that is due for a correction next season. When you combine that with the fact that he remained one of the Wild’s most impactful on-ice players; there’s little reason to have a concern about his long-term production.

Zucker was third on the Wild in expected goals per 60 minutes (0.92) and was also third on the team in on-ice xG differential at 5 on 5 according to Moneypuck. His isolated impact chart from Micah McCurdy (below) shows how strong he is as an offensive player.

His impact is 12% greater than the average NHL player offensively. Zucker helps to drive play to the middle of the ice and is another one of those players I’ve talked about lately that has a good penalty differential. He’s similar to Skinner in the sense that he goes to those high-danger areas for his scoring chances at 5 on 5. Potentially giving Jack Eichel two players that can finish in quality scoring areas would be ideal for their top line.

The one downside you’ve probably heard about Zucker’s game is his defense. That concern may a bit overstated. He did have one of his worst defensive seasons’ in term of impact according to Evolving Hockey RAPM model. The two years prior, however, he was the fourth-best and third-best forward respectively in xGA per 60 minutes. You’ll also notice on his isolated impact chart above that his defense is positive as well (negative rating means good).

If the Sabres acquire Zucker, they’ll need to figure out a potential log-jam on the wing. He’s played both wings in his career but primarily has played on the left side. Other left-wingers on the roster currently include Skinner, Victor Olofsson, and Conor Sheary. I’m of the mind that you try to acquire good hockey players and figure out the rest later.

With how much of a wildcard Fenton can be, it’s difficult to get a grasp on what exactly he’s looking for in return. Earlier today in the SB Nation mock draft we revealed we traded Alex Nylander and 31 overall to the Wild for Zucker. Would that type of return interest Fenton in the real world? Rasmus Ristolainen is another piece the Sabres could throw into the mix.

We’ll see how it turns out with Zucker and where he eventually ends up getting traded. Whoever acquires him is going to be pleased to have him on their roster for the next few years.