NEW YORK NY - JANUARY 05: Mats Zuccarello #36 of the New York Rangers salutes the fans following his game winning overtime goal against the Carolina Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on January 5 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Before you sink your teeth into this article I want it understood that the logic behind this wasn't, "Hey Zuccarello is short... who else is short?" The logic behind this article is looking at what we can reasonably expect from our diminutive Norwegian rookie in the years to come. The NHL is not a league for athletes who are (supposedly) 5'7" it is a league that demands both size and speed. There are a select few players who succeed in the NHL despite their diminutive stature. Perhaps the two best examples are Brian Gionta, captain of the Habs and Martin St. Louis of Tampa, who seems to be getting better with age.
I do not expect Mats Zuccarello to ever perform at the level that St. Louis or Gionta do, but there is no denying that he is very talented and has a promising future. I'll start with some observations and notes about Zuccarello. We all know he was the MVP of the SEL league last year, tallying 64 points in 55 games. We got a taste of Zuke's vision in the preseason; he seemed to be uncomfortable with the physical aspect of the North American game and didn't make the team for the start of the regular season. During his 33 game stint with the Wolfpack/The Whale Zuccarello slowly grew accustomed to the smaller ice surface and the more physical North American game.
He recognized that he wasn't ready for the NHL game right away and needed to adapt. This included Zuccarello shortening his comically long stick by two inches to help him around the boards. During the preseason it was clear that when he was being leaned on along the boards he could be taken out of the play because he couldn't move the puck or get his feet to it. Shortening his stick has made a lot of difference for Zuke, and it was most apparent during November and December in the AHL. When Zuccarello was called up (because of Marian Gaborik's groin injury) he was second on his team and second for all AHL rookies in goals with 13. When he made his debut against Tampa Bay he made an immediate impression with his dazzling shootout goal against Dan Ellis. Although the Rangers lost in the shootout that night, it was clear that this kid was very special. More after the jump...
It is very easy to catch ‘Hobbit Fever' and get excited about what Zuke can do, but it's very important to remember that this is his rookie campaign and that he is still young at 23. There is no denying the potential of Zuke, we have all been mesmerized by his passing ability and vision, his knack for the offensive side of the game, and his great hands. Zuke has also shown that he has a little bit of sandpaper in his game, he isn't shy about taking the body, even against much bigger opponents. In the AHL he wasn't afraid of sticking up for himself, he apparently is a scrappy little guy and has a swagger about him.
Looking at Gionta and St. Louis's careers there is a noticeable increase in point production between the ages of 26 and 27. At this point Gionta and St. Louis were entering the prime of their careers. They had both paid their dues in the AHL and worked hard for their roster spots. St. Louis, like Zuccarello, was undrafted and only emerged as a star at the age of 27, six years into his professional career. Gionta, at 26 years old, had a huge year after the lockout and tallied 48 goals and 41 assists with the Devils. It is not at all unusual for players to play up to their potential when St. Louis and Gionta did, in fact it is when most players play their best hockey or enter their best years. It is also important to note that Zuccarello plays a much different game than Gionta and St. Louis. He has a lot to improve on in terms of rounding out his game and improving his skating. Zuke also seems to prefer playmaking to finishing, though he is rarely caught forcing the ‘pretty play'. His passes are right on the tape, quick, and deceptive. In a word Zuccarello is shifty; he seems to see passes that other players don't. He may have had to develop this aspect of his game to be competitive when he was playing in the GET-ligaen (Norway) and the SEL.
Players like Gionta, St. Louis, and Zuccarello have to make up for their size with skating ability, intelligence on the ice, and work ethic. Common traits between Gionta and St. Louis include their skating ability, two-way games, and intuition. St. Louis is exceptional at reading the play and jumping passing lanes. He is one of the most proficient forecheckers in the NHL. Zuccarello certainly has a great deal of vision on the ice, and therefore I think he has the potential to develop into an exceptional player away from the puck on the forecheck. Neither Gionta or St. Louis are remarkably physical players, but they don't have to be. They battle along the boards relentlessly and simply out-work bigger, stronger players. Also, a low center of gravity doesn't hurt in terms of keeping one's balance when fighting for the puck in the corners. Another crucial similarity between Gionta and St. Louis is their powerplay production. In 2003-04 when St. Louis had 94 points, 30 of them were picked up on the powerplay. In 2006-07 when he picked up 102 points, 30 of them were on the man advantage. Gionta's breakout year saw him pick up 34 of his 89 points on the man advantage. It is clear that the powerplay is a big part of what has made Gionta and St. Louis stars in the NHL. I think we have all witnessed Zuccarello's talent on the powerplay, and we should hope to see his production climb for the rest of the season and for years to come. Players with vision and talent can do a lot with a little bit of space, and on the powerplay there is a great deal more space to be had.
Zuccarello is signed through 2011-12 and will be a RFA after his contract expires. It is safe to say that Zuke will be primed to play some of his best hockey at this time and if the Rangers can sign him for a reasonable cap hit, it will be a real pleasure to watch him two or three years from now. I think it might be in his best interest to add a little bit of muscle to his frame to help him compete more along the boards, though he is already greatly improved from what we saw in the preseason. It is safe to say he has made a lot of progress in terms of adapting to the smaller ice surface and playing the North American game. If Zuke continues to play the way he has been playing he could put together a strong second half to the season and finish in the neighborhood of 30 points. He has been seeing approximately 14 minutes of ice since he has been called up and is being used on the man advantage. It is my firm belief that it won't be long before Zuke emerges as one of the best rookies of this year and perhaps as one of the most important free agent signings of this past offseason. Coach Tortorella keeps giving him more minutes and putting him on the ice in important situations, it is clear that Torts is behind Zuccarello and is impressed with the rookie's game.
I have never been comfortable with the immediate comparison of Zuccarello to St. Louis, they are much different hockey players and share little more than their ability to fit into the overhead compartment on a plane. It is important to be realistic in terms of what we can expect from our young players like Zuke, Stepan, and Anisimov. Two years from now I think Zuccarello will be fully adjusted to the NHL game and may very well be a bonafide star. With talent like his it might very well be sooner than that. One can't help but notice that Zuccarello seems to be playing better each and every night. There is no denying that he is already an impact player for the Rangers and adds some desperately needed secondary scoring and offense. His effort last night against the Flyers last night was exceptional, he picked up two primary assists in the third and, along with Stepan, willed his team back into the game. Though the Rangers didn't get the two points last night, we got another taste of just how special Zuccarello is, one can't help but wonder just how good he will be a few years from now.