When everyone is fit should Mats Zuccarello go back to the AHL for more ice time? That’s a key question, in regards to this (good) prospect’s development and one that needs to be answered separate to the Rangers current playoff situation.
With Wojtek Wolski almost 100% and Ruslan Fedotenko not too far away from a return, the diminutive winger may keep finding his ice time decreasing to the point where it may retard his development. My main concern when the little Norwegian was initially called up was that he didn’t get lost in the shuffle when all the injured players returned to the team. It seems, to an extent, this has started to happen. We’ve seen the talented playmaker play on the lower lines in recent games and his production has suffered because of it. Since his 3 assist performance against the Panthers Zuccarello has just 3 more helpers in 6 games and is -4 over that time frame. Since that Panthers game (when the winger played almost 20 minutes) his ice time has indeed been regularly decreasing culminating in playing less than 10 minutes against Atlanta last week. Against Pittsburgh, a game that the Rangers controlled for the most part, he only played 13 minutes. Developing a skilled forward with just 10 minutes here and there isn’t the way to go.
Clearly, when coach Tortorella needs to turn to players for production, right now he isn’t turning to the rookie winger. With his experiment on the power play point largely a failure (not really his fault) Zuccarello has struggled for opportunities to showcase his talents. He only has 6 shots in his last 6 games, 3 of which came in Detroit. Clearly the Norwegian isn’t getting the same opportunities as he was when the roster was less crowded. There are also other factors to consider when deciding what to do with Zuccarello. If the Rangers decide to be buyers at the trade deadline, cap space could be an important aspect and demoting Zuccarello may be beneficial, not just for the individual’s ice time, but because his relatively large rookie salary comes off the books and at this stage, every dollar counts.
Zuccarello can be a great skilled winger for the Rangers in coming seasons. He offers vision that isn’t easily matched and playmaking skills that are better than most rookies, better than a lot of veterans. His start to his NHL career has been a good one but it’s important he doesn’t get lost in the aforementioned shuffle. It may be time to make an unpopular decision. It may be time to send the Hobbit back to the AHL for more seasoning, more ice time and more roster room.