ST. PAUL -- If veteran winger Mats Zuccarello had any doubts about his hockey worth, they were answered last week when teams from across the NHL started blowing up his phone.
There was widespread interest in his services, and while the 31-year-old from Norway admitted that he wasn’t necessarily a fan of the process, he was immediately drawn to how much the Minnesota Wild wanted him to be a part of their future. He chatted with general manger Paul Fenton and coach Bruce Boudreau on the first day of the interview process, and that stuck with him no matter how many other teams reached out afterward.
“You have so many teams call,” Zuccarello said. “You’re like, ‘Damn, I’m good.’
“I had a good vibe (with the Wild) from Day 1,” Zuccarello added. “They were pushing and really wanted me. I think every human being responds well to when they feel like they’re wanted. That was special for me.”
So much so that Zuccarello agreed to terms with the Wild as soon as free agency officially opened on Monday afternoon, July 1. He will sign a five-year, $30 million contract that will keep him in the Twin Cities through the 2023-24 season.
“It’s a great organization,” said Zuccarello, who grew up idolizing former Wild star Marian Gaborik, who scores 219 goals in eight seasons with Minnesota from 2000-08. “It’s a good chance for me to go there and play, and hopefully be able to contribute and have a big role on the team and help out.
While the signing isn’t the kind of big splash fans were hoping for — veteran center Joe Pavelski was the big fish everyone wanted — Fenton said Monday that Zuccarello was his top priority all along.
“We talked about a couple of players, and at the end of the day, he was the guy we targeted,” Fenton said. “I’ve watched him play for so many years, and he’s always been attractive to me as a guy that can help a team get to another level.”
In that same breath, Fenton referenced how the Wild were shut out in 11 games last season, emphasizing that Zuccarello is “one of the top playmakers in the league” and would have made a difference in that scoring drought. And he plays much bigger than his 5-foot-8, 185-pound frame would suggest, using a longer-than-usual stick to be disruptive up and down the ice.
“I told him when I was talking to him that he’s like a lizard,” Fenton said. “You know the way a lizard takes his tongue and sticks it as far as it does and retrieves what it was trying to. You look at Mats and he uses an incredibly long stick, and he reaches into piles, and he comes out with things. Most of the time, a guy would be awkward with a stick that is as long as he uses. He’s so natural, fluid and smooth.”
The Wild like that Zuccarello is a natural right winger, who should be able to slot into the top six of their lineup as a creative playmaker expected to make the players around him better. He had 12 goals and 28 assists last season, starting with the New York Rangers before being traded to the Dallas Stars. As a trade deadline acquisition, Zuccarello proved his worth for Dallas down the stretch, scoring at a near point-per-game pace in 13 playoff games.
Asked whether there was any concern about giving Zuccarello a long-term contract considering he’s already a decade into his NHL career, Fenton said he is confident that there’s still a lot of tread on those tires.
“He doesn’t have a ton of miles on him if we really look at it,” Fenton said. “He’s been a healthy player, and the way this guy competes is going to be contagious for our team. That’s the most important thing for me.”
It doesn’t sound like Zuccarello has any concerns about his age, insisting that he feels better than he did five years ago. He feels like he can be a bridge or sorts between some of the up-and-comers and some the veterans.
“I feel like I’m getting better and better, to be honest,” Zuccarello said. “I’m a small body. It doesn’t take a lot to keep this body in shape and everything like that. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had some injuries. Nothing really, really serious that kept me out for a long time.”
As for the rest of the offseason, Zuccarello is currently in his hometown of Oslo, Norway, working out and spending time with family, and will come to the Twin Cities in the next couple of months. He already has talked with Mikko Koivu and Eric Staal, and texted with a bunch of other Wild players, including Zach Parise, Matt Dumba and Jared Spurgeon.
“I feel really welcomed already,” Zuccarello said, adding that he’s very impressed with the talent on the roster. “It’s a really good mixture of players, and I think with the pieces we got this summer we can be a contender. Our goal is to get to the playoffs and then go from there. I’m really excited.”