NEWARK, NJ - SEPTEMBER 23: Derek Stepan #21 of the New York Rangers celebrates his first period goal against the New Jersey Devils with Mats Zuccarello #36 at the Prudential Center on September 23, 2011 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The New York Rangers are a very interesting team, and with a wealth of talent with the big club and a group of players in the minors who can make an impact on Broadway. I'm not talking about players coming up and scoring a goal-a-game, but players coming up and being able to do their jobs to help the team.
Mats Zuccarello, on the other hand, is one of the few (maybe only) AHL players the Rangers currently have who can make an offensive impact right away. And while he didn't find the scoresheet against the New York Islanders, he definitely opened eyes.
The thing you need to remember, especially for those of you who don't know why Zuccarello hasn't been with the Rangers all year, is that Zuccarello would have been playing his home games at Madison Square Garden if it wasn't for one factor: Carl Hagelin.
Join me after the jump for more.
The Rangers called up Hagelin early in the season, and he played so well that they never looked back. Don't forget that when you're laying awake at night wondering why Zuccarello isn't with the big club. Hagelin got his chance, blew the doors off the coaching staff and stole Zuccarello's spot.
Honestly, who do you sit to give Zuccarello ice time? Let's look through the options (something John Tortorella and co. will certianly do as the season moves closer and closer to the playoffs).
John Scott or Mike Rupp: While I don't disagree that Zuccarello brings more to the table than Scott, I do think that Rupp does a ton of things for this hockey team people overlook. Still, you can't replace Zuccarello with either of these two players. If you do, you have him relegated to the fourth line where he's playing five minutes a night. Trust me, Zuccarello doesn't want that, and neither does the coaching staff.
Brandon Prust, John Mitchell and Brian Boyle: Sure, Zuccarello is the better offensive talent then any of those three players, it's not even a question. But who brings more intangibles? Any of those three by a mile. It's not about the points, the offense he can create or his potency in the shootout (the only place he has an advantage over just about every player on the team), it's about what he would do with their minutes. Prust, Mitchell and Boyle bring different things. Boyle and Mitchell both bring a face off savvy the Rangers need (Mitchell has won 53.7% of his while Boyle has won 51.9%) and both are big bodies that can be used (and have been used on the power play) to screen the goalie and battle in the corners. All three of those players bring a physical aspect to the game Zuccarello could't dream of. Simply put, Tortorella needs and relies on those three in ways Zuccarrello can't live up to.
Carl Hagelin: Here's one of the only logical options in terms of what the players bring to the table sized up against average ice time. Both are similar players, expected to bring some offense to the team and are supposed to use their speed to make their line dangerous. That, and hustle. And while both players do this, Hagelin has flourished under the bright lights of Broadway.
If you count last year, Zuccarello has played in 46 NHL games, while Hagelin has played in 50 (all this season). In those 46 games Zuccarello has posted six goals and 18 assists for 24 points. In 50 games Hagelin has posted 12 goals and 18 assists. I just don't see Zuccarello matching Hagelin's numbers. At least not right now.
Zuccarello has the talent to get there, but as of right now he's not. Hagelin is faster, more comfortable with the big club and has been a primary weapon for Brad Richards (until he moved back onto Marian Gaborik's line).
Which leaves our final two options for Zuccarello:
Injury Replacement: Which is exactly how the Rangers have used him. Ryan Callahan couldn't go agains the Islanders, so Tortorella called up Zuccarello and even then he didn't play big minutes (just 10:40). For full disclosure, by the way, Hagelin played over 18 minutes against the Islanders. Still, it's better to give Zuccarello 10 minutes than Scott another five. But how long does this last? And where does this leave Zuccarello when Callahan returns?
Well it might leave him here:
Fatigue Replacement Guy: Maybe Tortorella rotates Zuccarello into the lineup. One game Scott sits, then maybe another Rupp sits, then Boyle (who is admittedly banged up), so on and so forth. And while no one wants to be this guy, it's better than Zuccarello sitting in the minors. At least in this role he can play relatively consistently, and give the Rangers players who need rest some ... well, rest.
Anyway, it's been just one game thus far. Tonight will be a good chance for Zuccarello to continue to prove he belongs. Zuccarello impressed Tortorella on Sunday, but will it be enough to keep him with the big club?