This article would have looked very different at this time last year. Zuccarello spent the majority of the season playing in the KHL, and after coming back to the NHL for the stretch run and playoffs, where he had moderate success, the general attitude towards Zuccarello was lukewarm. He did enough to earn another season to prove himself. Well, prove himself he did. And now the man whose NHL future was hanging by a thread and who has had to accept an underwhelming deal last season just to get one more chance is up for a new contract; one that surely is going to pay him handsomely. What will that contract look like, though, and will the Rangers be the ones signing it? Let’s take a look, though I don’t think there will be too much arguing over what the Rangers should do with the tiny Norwegian.
Age: Turns 27 in September
Previous Contract: One year/$1.15M Cap Hit
Contract Status: Restricted Free Agent
Irrelevant Info Pierre McGuire Would Enjoy: Mats Zuccarello is “the David Beckham of Norway,” according to Mats Zuccarello.
Why You Keep Him
Well let’s see. He led the team in points despite a small stint in Alain Vigneault’s doghouse at the start of the season and breaking his hand at the Olympics. He was third on the team in goals and had a very robust 53.8 Corsi percentage. The most glaring stat is his penalty plus/minus. Zuccarello led the team at +18, meaning that during the entire season he drew 18 more penalties than he took. To put that in context, Rick Nash, at +13, was the only other Ranger above +6. Zuccarello was tied for 8th in the entire NHL in that category. His presence was also felt in the playoffs. He had a few minor stretches where he struggled, but altogether he put up a solid 13 points in 25 games. One of the biggest reasons Zuccarello had such a successful season was because he developed a true North American, north-south game. He no longer plays like it’s a European ice rink, sticking to the perimeter. Now, he forechecks hard. He’s willing to get dirty around the net. He was credited with 28 blocked shots in 25 playoff games this season. For context, he was credited with only 19 blocked shots in the 42 games he played in 2010-2011. Basically, Zuccarello has developed into a gnat. He’s tiny, but he’s tenacious, persistent, and altogether annoying for the opposition to deal with. There’s a reason why he undoubtedly ran away with the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award this season.
The truly scary thing about Zuccarello, though, is that we still might have not seen the best of him. I put together an article in early January – well before anyone could have even imagined the coincidence of Martin St. Louis becoming a Ranger – comparing the career trajectories of the two. Like Zuccarello, St. Louis didn’t really hit his stride until his mid-20s. At 26, St. Louis scored 16 goals and added 19 assists in 53 games, or what extrapolates to roughly 23 goals and 28 assists for 51 points over 77 games. Zuccarello, at 26 this season, produced 19 goals and 40 assists for 59 points in 77 games. We all know what kind of career St. Louis has gone on to have, and it begs the question; how much more can Zuccarello do? Is he capable of consistently putting up 25 goal/65 point seasons? Or 28/70? Or even 30/75? Most players start declining at 31, not hit their prime. But most players aren’t like Martin St. Louis or Mats Zuccarello.
Why You Lose Him
A Martin St. Louis career path is the ideal story. But what’s at the opposite end of the spectrum? Maybe St. Louis is the model for Zuccarello’s future, or maybe the fact that they’re both small and both had similar stats at 26 is a coincidence. And if that’s the case, then you have an undersized winger who will be 27 by opening night and who will have put together one productive season at the NHL level. Maybe Zuccarello overachieved this season and is never going to do it again. He’d be far from the first to do it; just ask Petr Prucha. Is Glen Sather ready to take a leap of faith and commit multiple years to a guy with a short resumé? Maybe Zuccarello’s value will never be higher, and the Rangers capitalize on a fluke season by trading him.
Like Kreider, I did my best to offer up an objective, legitimate argument against keeping Mats Zuccarello. Obviously, though, he’s probably not going anywhere. I do think that Zuccarello only having one year of success will weigh on Sather and Gorton’s minds, but only in terms of figuring out a contract. I don’t think there’s going to be much internal discussion about the idea of getting rid of him. Only an absurd offer sheet from another team would change that.
So let’s talk about that contract, because the Rangers and Zuccarello are both in a weird situation with that. Exactly what point of reference is there for deciding Zuccarello’s worth? How many comparable players have there been; players who went from borderline AHLer to top-six forward overnight at the age of 26, and suddenly were restricted free agents? One guy with some similarities is Montreal’s David Desharnais. Desharnais is also a tiny forward who got his first full NHL seasons in his mid-20s. Desharnais, in his second full (but partially locked out) season, produced 10 goals and 28 total points in 48 games. He signed a four-year, $3.5M AAV contract during the summer as an RFA, but there’s also general consensus that Montreal might have been over zealous in spending that kind of money on him. Desharnais’ contract is a very rudimentary guide which the Rangers can look to for a starting point, but ultimately the they’re going to have to set the standard themselves here. There’s not much in the archives to look at for a measuring stick. For this reason, it’s incredibly hard to predict what the two sides are going to agree upon.
This much can be inferred, though; Mats Zuccarello is going to get paid. For multiple seasons he has ignored the potential massive paycheck he could have received in Europe for the sake of one more shot at the NHL. He took a very cheap (by pro athlete standards) contract and accepted only a one-year deal despite wanting multiple years last summer just to help the Rangers fit everyone under the salary cap. That’s not happening again. He makes it obvious that he loves New York and the Rangers and isn’t looking to play anywhere else, but that will change very quickly if the Rangers lowball him. When all is said and done, Zuccarello is going to walk away with the long-term contract that he’s finally earned himself after so many years of struggling to stick at the NHL level. My guess is three or four years at an annual cap hit between $3.7M and $4.2M. And we’ll all get to shout “ZUUUUUUUUUCC” for the foreseeable future.
Previous “Retain or Release” Articles
Follow Me On Twitter: @Herman_NYRBlog
Email Me: AdamNYRBlog@gmail.com