Mats Zuccarello has yet to net his first goal of the season, but the diminutive Norwegian has already left his mark in six games since returning to the Blueshirts.
Zuccarello has averaged a healthy 16:49 and has earned high praise from coach John Tortorella for his conditioning, quickness and creativity. Zuccarello has had an immediate impact on the power play, where the Rangers are five-of-15 since his arrival. Zuccarello has just one assist on the man advantage, but he’s been very effective in gaining entry into the offensive zone and setting up the attack.
The stats confirm that Zuccarello has also added a bit more jam to his game – he has 13 hits in six matches, a significant increase over the eight hits he had in 10 games last year and the 56 hits Zuccarello recorded in 42 games as a rookie. Perhaps most importantly, Zuccarello has helped jumpstart Brad Richards and the duo has formed an effective line with fellow newcomer Ryane Clowe.
Clowe, Derick Brassard and John Moore may get more of the credit in the long run as they were part of more splashy moves, but it’s not a coincidence that the Rangers have begun playing better with Zuccarello on board.
Yes, it seems that Zuccarello has finally carved out his niche in the NHL after three years, but it’s uncertain whether Zuccarello will remain on Broadway past this season despite showing that he belongs in the league. As has been the problem with many pure offensive forwards – taking nothing away from Zuccarello, who has been surprisingly effective on the backcheck so far – Zuccarello may have difficulty securing a long-term spot in the Rangers lineup. New York already has commitments to several expensive top-six forwards going forward and the organization must make room for highly-touted youngsters J.T. Miller, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast and Oscar Lindberg, all of whom have a serious chance of being with New York full-time beginning next season.
Zuccarello has been instrumental in replenishing some of the depth the Rangers lost in the offseason, but he may end up being a casualty of the numbers game this summer when he becomes a restricted free agent.
Who knows, Zuccarello may choose to return back to Russia next season, but if he wants to remain in North America there won’t be a shortage of suitors for the creative 25-year-old. Don’t be surprised if Zuccarello goes on to have a similar career arc to P.A. Parenteau, another undersized winger that has blossomed into a near point-per-game producer this season with the Avalanche after spending two seasons on John Tavares’ flank with the Islanders.