I can already hear people slamming at their keyboards because they didn't actually read the article so let's get this out of the way first: No, I don't think Mats Zuccarello is on his way to becoming an Art Ross and Hart Trophy winner. I don't think he's going to be a consistent 40 goal scorer. I don't think he's going to match Martin St. Louis' career to perfection. Is that out of the way now? Can we move on?
Martin St. Louis is the gold standard for undersized wingers and late bloomers. Any time a team picks up a skilled but tiny winger in the later rounds of the NHL draft or via free agency the sentiment that "maybe he can turn into a St. Louis" prevails. Most of the time it's a pipedream.
Mats Zuccarello might just be making his case as one of the few exceptions. Keep reading to see the comparison and how much better Zuccarello might just become.
The early years for Martin St. Louis and Mats Zuccarello were pretty similar. Neither guy was drafted. Both were signed as free agents with the team doing so basically taking a flyer on talent. The Calgary Flames signed St. Louis out of the IHL in 1998 and stuck him in the minors, where he produced at a PPG clip. He then earned a spot on the Flames' roster the next season, only to struggle heavily and produce two points in his 15 games. He was sent back down to the AHL, played well, and earned another call-up the next season with similar results. The team bought out his contract and let him become a free agent.
The Rangers signed Zuccarello out of the Swedish Elite League and started him in the AHL in 2010. After producing close to a PPG statline, he was called up, earning a decent 23 points in 42 games but ultimately not doing enough to keep his roster spot. He was sent back down in April.
The next season he earned a spot on the opening night roster but was sent down soon after. It was more of the same for Zuccarello, producing big numbers at the AHL level but failing to make much of his NHL stints. Like St. Louis, the Rangers ultimately let him become a free agent.
A fresh start for St. Louis proved vital. He signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning and, as a 25-year-old, scored a respectable 18 goals and 40 points in 78 games and his first full NHL season. The next season he did better, earning 16 goals and 35 points in 53 games before injuries ended his campaign.
The Rangers lucked out with Zuccarello in that his "fresh start" meant a vacation in the KHL before coming back to New York. In his short stint at the end of the 2012-2013 season he earned 8 points in 15 games and looked like a much more well-rounded player. He upped the threshold slightly in the playoffs, earning 7 points in 12 games.
Now Zuccarello is in his first full, legitimate NHL season, and he's been arguably the best Rangers forward. Granted, that says as much about the team as it does Zuccarello, but he's been fantastic. Let's compare the 26-year-old to how St. Louis fared at 26. Here are their respective stats extrapolated over a full 82-game season.
Mats Zuccarello: 20 goals, 40 assists, 60 points.
Martin St. Louis: 25 goals, 29 assists, 54 points.
Pretty similar statistics, and let's also note that St. Louis did that with guys such as Lecavalier, Richards, Prospal, and Boyle to work with while Zuccarello has… well what does he have, exactly?
St. Louis exploded the next season, scoring 33 goals and earning 70 points. The season after he scored 38, led the NHL with 94 points, and was an integral part to the Stanley Cup winning Lightning. Ever since he has been a consistent All-Star caliber player. Last season, as a 37 year old, he led the NHL in points. The two highest point totals in St. Louis' career came at 31 and 35. Who knows how much longer he can continue to be a good player.
Now again, I'm not banking on Zuccarello becoming a 35-40 goal scorer who leads the NHL in points. But look at how much better St. Louis got even into his late 20s. Look at how similar Zuccarello's curve has been in comparison to St. Louis'. It begs the question; have we perhaps not even seen the best of Mats Zuccarello yet? The Rangers and its fanbase would be perfectly content with the little guy consistently generating 20 goal, 60 point seasons. Maybe he is capable of even better, though. When looking at St. Louis' career arc, is it really inconceivable that Zuccarello could push himself to 25 goal, 70+ point seasons? It's only a half-season sample size from Zuccarello here, but this isn't exactly a fluke. He's always been a tremendously talented player but hasn't been able to figure it out. Now he has, and just about at the same point in his career that Martin St. Louis did. As great as Mats Zuccarello has been this season, I think the best has yet to come.
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