What to do With Mats Zuccarello?

There’s no doubting the talent the little Norwegian winger possesses, but there’s a legitimate question to be asked about Mats Zuccarello’s future with the Rangers. Does he even have one?

Last season Zuccarello made a pretty solid first impression, but the grind of the longest season of his young career clearly showed as the season progressed. He was deservedly sent back down to the Whale towards the end of the season. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a productive rookie season, as he made his presence felt at both the AHL and NHL levels. However, there’s a very good chance that Zuccarello could be one of the forwards lost in the shuffle during training camp and therefore he could find himself starting the season back with the Whale.

One trail of thought is this. Don’t forget hockey these days is not just a sport, but a business and the more effective general managers are in the business of asset management. If Zuccarello is in the AHL beyond October, should Glen Sather look to move the winger? After all, the longer the talented winger remains on the farm the more this particular asset diminishes. Also, Zuccarello is entering the final year of his first Rangers contract. If Zuccarello doesn’t see a legitimate future for himself in New York does he even consider re-upping with the Rangers? Maybe returning to the SEL becomes a realistic scenario?

Zuccarello is kind of in an awkward situation. Within the next 12 months the Rangers have a few very talented young wingers close to being ready. Chris Kreider and Christian Thomas to name just two could be very close to becoming Rangers this year, but they certainly will be close next year. There’s a legitimate risk for Zuccarello that he gets overtaken by the younger and cheaper options. Zuccarello needs to make an impact and stick in the NHL sooner rather than later.

The Zuke scenario is one that divides opinion. Is Zuccarello a better option for the current roster than Wolski, Christensen and/or Avery? Perhaps, but is a suitable spot open for him? Perhaps not. At what stage should/could the Rangers decide to move Zuccarello and can Zuccarello force himself into the Rangers plans permanently? I can’t imagine this situation ends with the Rangers letting the Norwegian simply walk away at the end of the season.

Another option, which The Suit brought up earlier this summer, is to try moving him to left wing. Doing so would likely help him along the boards, since he is currently playing “the off-wing,” which is often considered to be more difficult for undersized players. As Suit explained,

“Zukes is already at a disadvantage coming over from the larger rinks of the Swedish Elite League, where you have a week and a half to decide what to do with the puck. Here on North America rinks, no such luxury exists. So, not only is Zukes getting used to the pacing and physicality of NHL forechecking, but he also has to get used to receiving pucks along the board on his backhand, which is obviously more difficult than receiving pucks on your forehand. Add a 220-lb defensemen pressed up against you, and you’re talking a whole new skill set to learn.”

Interesting plan, but if it doesn’t work or if it’s not being considered, Zukes’ options might become very limited. It seems like it’s either Rangers or a trade for the little winger. We’ll know more in a few short weeks.