In case you missed it, Mats Zuccarello is out indefinitely with an upper body injury. Rumors are that this is a mild concussion, but a concussion is a concussion as Zuccarello took a hard slap shot to the head off the stick of Ryan McDonagh. Assuming this is long term, because with concussions that’s the only assumption you can make, then the Rangers are out a top line forward, and there is no one in or out of the lineup that can replace his production.
Instead, the Rangers are going to need produce enough from other parts to make the Zuccarello absence more manageable. You can’t replace a top line forward, but you can –quoting Moneyball– replace him in the aggregate. Zucc hasn’t put up many points in the playoffs, but his value is with his speed and puck possession skill. The Rangers have someone like that readily available in Carl Hagelin.
Hagelin’s overtime winner was the winger’s third straight game with a point (two goals, one assist), as he saw favorable ice time against the Penguins. Zuccarello was playing the off-wing on the top line with Derick Brassard and Rick Nash, but Nash is capable of playing the off-wing, leaving Hagelin able to play the strong side.
But let’s be real, Hagelin isn’t moving to the top line. This is why the Rangers got Martin St. Louis, even if he’s lost a step on his shot and on his skates. The guy still has tremendous vision, he plays a game comparable to Zuccarello, and he also plays RW. In all likelihood, we see St. Louis moving up to the top line with Nash and Brassard, the second line staying the same, and then a tinkering with the bottom-six.
With 3RW open, the logical guess is that Jesper Fast gets the spot, and that James Sheppard gets in the lineup to skate with Tanner Glass and Dominic Moore. Your third line will have Hagelin and Fast flanking Kevin Hayes.
Losing Zuccarello is tough, and on paper the Rangers may be able to manage in the short-term. However, the long-term effect will lie solely on St. Louis, who has seen his on-ice skills diminish, although his hockey IQ is still one of the best in the game. The Washington Capitals are a tough team that will give the Rangers fits, especially without Zuccarello. However, the Rangers will win IF:
- St. Louis can, at a minimum, replace the production and possession rate of Zuccarello.
- Fast can provide some semblance of offensive outburst that helps the third line continue to be an offensive threat.
- Sheppard can effectively replace Fast on the fourth line in a defensive role.
None of these are guarantees, although the last bullet point is the least likely to be a concern. If all three bullets are met, then the Rangers should be able to weather the storm. Those are big IFs though. The Rangers are in for a tough stretch with Zuccarello out.