In the third period of the Anaheim Ducks’ game against the Seattle Kraken on Dec. 23, Trevor Zegras strode down the right wing and started to skate behind the net, when he saw that he had plenty of room to pull off something that he’d already pulled off twice in his NHL career—a lacrosse-style goal. He deftly picked up the puck with the toe of his stick and whipped it around, past the shoulder of goaltender Joey Daccord and into the net.
“In my opinion, it’s not like a crazy play for me to do,” said Zegras after the game. “When that goalie goes post to post, usually you’ve got a little room upstairs. Lucky enough, it went in.”
This latest lacrosse-style goal was arguably Zegras’ cleanest in terms of execution. His previous successful attempts had involved scooping the puck onto the blade of his stick, whereas this one he simply picked the puck up on the toe of his stick and flung it in.
“You kind of read the situation,” said Zegras when he asked about what point he knows that he’s going to attempt a lacrosse-style shot. “I don’t know, maybe bottom of the circle, goal line. Kind of just do it. It’s kind of like a wraparound (goal). Just pick it up on your stick. So I don’t know, I feel like it’s more effective. Kind of just black out for a couple seconds and then the next thing you know, it’s in the net.”
The one they call ‘Z’ has a knack for scoring these types of other-worldly goals. Four lacrosse-style goals (one was waved off due to offside), a between-the-legs goal and the primary assist for Sonny Milano’s “Dishigan” goal all before the age of 23? Not too shabby.
Of course, the former ninth overall pick is capable of more than just flashy plays. He has begun to add a defensive element to his game to help complement his offensive abilities. This is something that Greg Cronin has preached will help take Zegras’ game to the next level.
“Z knows that the next kind of level of hockey he‘s got to play is being responsible away from the puck,” said Cronin. “Some of that’s just going to be with his positioning and with his stick and some of it’s going to be with his body.”
Zegras’ defensive work stood out especially at the beginning of the season, when he struggled to produce offensively out of the gate. Just two points in 12 games before suffering a lower-body injury which kept him out for nearly two months certainly isn’t something you want from a player who recently signed a new contract this past summer, but Cronin wasn’t worried about Zegras’ offensive woes.
“He’s getting unbelievable scoring chances every game. At least one, sometimes two or three.” This came from Cronin the day after Anaheim beat the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 5. “If he’s scoring on half of those, he probably gets seven goals and we’re not talking about this. You dig deeper into his game, he’s making a real conscientious effort to defend well, and analytically, he’s done really well in that department.”
Just one day later, Zegras was on the shelf with a lower-body injury and the improvement was on hold until further notice. It was a tough and frustrating injury for Zegras, who said that there wasn’t a real timeline for his return. “More of a just ‘how are you feeling?’ and if it’s progressing in the right direction,” he said.
“He had a good start (in his return),” said Cronin. “He hadn’t played for two months and I thought he was real visible last game. His game’s going to start on the breakouts. He’s got to make sure he’s underneath pucks, he can’t cheat to get out. And then when we don’t have the puck, he’s got to be a responsible defender. For a guy that hasn’t played for a couple of months and then he gets put in that position, I thought he did a really good job.”
“You try and start with those building blocks, which is defending well and getting in lanes between the attacker and the net and having a good stick. I thought he did an excellent job with that. I brought him in today and showed him some video to reinforce that message. Because he’s going to create and I think the balance with him is going to be when to create and when to put the puck deep, and I think that’s going to be one of those ongoing decisions that he makes that’s going to reflect a mature game.”
Perhaps to the outside viewer, it can be difficult at times to see Zegras as more than just a “flippy puck kid” or an “Instagram sensation”. The NHL has marketed him quite well since he entered the league, posting clips of his highlight-reel plays across all of their social media platforms. The young forward was even on the cover of EA Sports’ NHL 23 alongside Sarah Nurse last year, with players now able to pull off lacrosse-style goals in the video game.
An argument can be made that Zegras wasn’t fully deserving of the honor, especially when you compare his accolades to those of past cover athletes for the NHL video game series. But that’s the direction the league is heading in now. Players are constantly looking to push the boundaries of what they can and can’t do on the ice and Zegras is one of the players who personifies that mentality.
Alex Killorn, who signed with the Ducks this past summer after spending the last 11 seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning, said he didn’t know much about Zegras before becoming his teammate mostly because the two teams played in different conferences. But he still knew that he was a player with plenty of talent.
“The NHL does a good job promoting Trevor and the way he plays is pretty marketable in terms of doing the Michigans and stuff like that,” said Killorn. “Fans love to see that stuff. I think playing with him, you understand that he’s got a lot of talents, not just making plays and doing the Michigans. The way he sees the ice is pretty great. He’s still young, so I think he’s working on a lot of parts of his game. But you can’t replace that talent. That’s something that he has that a lot of players in the league don’t have.”
“He’s one of the most skilled players in the league hands down,” said Jamie Drysdale, who came into the league alongside Zegras. The pair made their NHL debuts together and scored their first NHL goals in that game as well. They also lived together for a couple of years before getting separate places this year.
“Especially this year, I think his game’s gotten a lot more developed. His first game back after a month and a half or however long out he was, (in the) first period, he made a couple of great backchecks and killed off a couple of odd-man rushes. His game has become way more well-rounded. He creates plays and makes things happen. He’s a hell of a player.”
“That’s a great aspect of the game to bring—creativity—because you always need goalscoring,” said Max Jones. “Outside of that, he can see the ice extremely well. I played with him the other night and it’s kind of one of those situations where I’ve just got to get the puck for him, let him do his thing and go to the net. Because Z can do a lot of great things in the offensive zone and find guys that most players wouldn’t be able to see. His passing, his ability there is unbelievable.”
The return of Zegras coincided with the loss of Leo Carlsson, who sprained his right MCL against the Calgary Flames just one game before Zegras was re-inserted into the lineup. When both players were healthy, Zegras had been playing as a winger while Carlsson centered their line. When Carlsson sat out as part of his scheduled development plan, Zegras would shift back to the middle. The two had developed some chemistry as well in the short time that they played together, which makes the untimely injuries they both suffered that much more inopportune.
“I think it was definitely an adjustment for sure moving on the wing,” said Zegras. “You don’t get the puck with as much speed and I haven’t played wing in years––it’s been a while. So some of those spots and positions you’re a little unfamiliar with and when your feet aren’t moving, you tend to look around, watch and that type of stuff.”
“If I’m playing in the middle, usually I feel like I’m moving my feet more through the neutral zone and making more plays happen with my feet; whereas on the wing you try and be more cerebral and use your hands and your knowledge of the game and your spacing. So that was definitely an adjustment, but when you’re playing with Leo Carlsson––he’s so fast through the middle––it opens up a lot of stuff on the wall for you. Wherever they put me, I’ll try and do my best and see how it goes.”
For Zegras, it’s “definitely nice” that his play in his own end has improved, but he also knows it’s not ideal that he hasn’t been able to put up any many points. “Definitely isn’t ideal to not be producing and scoring seeing as that’s one of my main jobs on the team,” he said. “Obviously, that was frustrating.”
What does he think about the naysayers and the online crowd who proclaim him to be just a tricky player and nothing else?
“I don’t really care. Let the people say whatever they want. I just go out there because I love playing hockey. Obviously, I had a lot of fun doing it (scoring the lacrosse-style goal). Whatever they want to say doesn’t really affect me.”
The Ducks are much stronger offensively when Zegras is in the lineup, that much is clear. Some of those warts were fairly obvious during the team’s eight-game losing streak in November, in which they were outscored 16-38 and failed to score more than two goals in six of those games.
“Watching the last 20 (games) and then (finally) playing (against Seattle), it’s just frustrating,” said Zegras. “We’re in all of these games. It sucks that we’re not getting those bounces, but when all the guys are playing that hard, competing the right way within the system, usually makes for a good match.”
With the halfway point of the season nearly here, Zegras is still playing a bit of catch-up after missing most of training camp due to being unsigned and then missing a good chunk of the first half of the season due to his injury. But the signs are there that he is working to turn himself into more of an all-around player.