Mats Zuccarello might have actually been Glen Sather's biggest off season signing this year. Or at least the biggest "long-term signing" of the year.
Sure, he supposedly threw a two-year $15 million lure to Ilya Kovalchuk this summer. Thankfully Kovalchuk denied, thinking he was worth $100 million, and apparently Lou Lamoriello agreed. So that doesn't count. Derek Stepan and Ryan McDonagh being signed to professional contracts doesn't really count either, since they were New York Rangers property before they went pro.
When it comes to a short-term investment Martin Biron is probably the biggest professional signing Sather made, and if Alexander Frolov were having a better year he would be on the list too. But as far as long-term signings go, Zuccarello was the biggest fish that Sather landed in last years free agent ocean.
Let's get right into it. Mats Zuccarello probably isn't ready for full-time NHL duty. He's already admitted that while he feels more comfortable the game has yet to "slow down for him," and he's still working on dealing with smaller rinks. With that said, his game is miles better than where it was during pre-season, and he looks much more comfortable on the ice. It obviously doesn't hurt that he's been paired with one of the best players in the league, but still, he looks much better out there.
One of the biggest things I noticed about Zuccarello is his decision making on the ice. Remember that when Zuccarello won his MVP of the Swedish Elite League last year, he was playing on a bigger ice surface. The European game is a much slower paced game because of that fact.
Players can wheel back when pressured in the neutral zone, default to their defenseman who can then cycle till they find space or passing lanes.
In the offense zone, players with the puck have much more space to work with. Thus they can endlessly cycle the puck and wait for an offensive opportunity to expose itself. In the NHL players don't have that kind of time. Defenseman are bigger and faster, they force offensive players to make quicker decisions with the puck and there isn't enough room to back off reset.
You could tell during his pre-season stint that Zuccarello wasn't used to the pressure. Often times Zuccarello would hold onto the puck too long waiting for lanes to open up, and end up becoming easy prey for defenseman. Then, in an attempt to rapidly adjust to his lack of time to make decisions, he would become to hasty with the puck, and toss out bad passes leading to turnovers.
Now, however, is a completely different story. Zuccarello has a much better clock in his head about when to dish, when to hold onto the puck and when to attempt to reset. He's shown serious strides in the three games he's played so far in the NHL. It's obviously an incedibly small sample size, but preliminary indications are that this kid is starting to understand the adjustments he's making.
You all know me, I love video evidence. So why don't we take a look at his assist on the Stepan goal against the Islanders on Monday.
His play doesn't seem like much. In reality, it isn't. But notice how quick Zuccarello is to dish the puck to Gaborik there. The puck is in between the legs of an Islanders defenseman, and Zuccarello does have some room behind him. But he spots an open Gaborik just a few feet away, and instead of taking the puck and resetting, he flicks it to Gaborik who takes care of the rest.
It might seem insignificant, but that goal doesn't happen if Zuccarello doesn't make that pass. And Zuccarello wouldn't have made that pass this pre-season.
In this next video I want you to take a look at the play before Gaborik's goal.
Notice Zuccarello behind the net, with a defenseman putting significant pressure on him. Zuccarello calmly turns the other way, notices a second defenseman coming to double team him, and then tosses a brilliant pass to a cutting Chris Drury for the scoring chance.
This is an example of a play where, if we rewind back to the pre-season, Zuccarello probably would have abandoned all offensive instincts when pressured and just tried to move the puck. Instead he hung in with the play, created time for himself and fed a beautiful pass to Drury.
It's plays like that, which show me just how good this kid really can be. The sky is the limit, and so far we've seen some great things.