Rangers Vs. Capitals: Mats Zuccarello Making A Name For Himself

Bruce Bennett

Zuccarello is playing his way into a contract extension, if he hasn't already.

A lot of people (myself included) speculated that the signing of Mats Zuccarello and the waiver wire pickup of Roman Hamrlik was enough to keep Glen Sather away from the trade market in this strange, shortened season. As it turns out, that wasn't true.

Sather made a big splash the day before the deadline by picking up Ryane Clowe from the San Jose Sharks for a second round pick this year (the Rangers were already without their first, remember) and a third round pick this year along with a conditional 2nd round pick next year. Then Sather went even further and moved Marian Gaborik for Derick Brassard, John Moore and Derek Dorsett. I think that trade had far more to do with Sather finding a viable dancing partner for Gaborik, but regardless the move sort of rendered Hamrlik unusable thanks to Moore.

There was some speculation that there wouldn't be space for Zuccarello with all the Rangers forwards. That ended up being untrue. Zuccarello has been a massive (again: massive) different maker for the Rangers since he came back for his second tour of Broadway. He had two beautiful assists in the Rangers Game 3 victory and finished the regular season with eight points in 15 games.

Zuccarello, always touted as a power play specialist, spent most of this season in the KHL when the Rangers made the decision not to sign him at the end of last year. A lot of you guys were furious then and are even more furious now that you've seen him play. But I'm going to make the argument that Zuccarello wouldn't be anywhere near as good this year if he didn't spend that time in the KHL.

What was one of the biggest issues Zuccarello has fought his entire career? His size. And by proxy his ability to go into tough areas of the ice, take hits while holding onto the puck and his ability to make plays in a tougher environment. His time in the KHL helped him learn how to handle all of those things. He might be the nastiest player on the team. He throws his body around like he's Mr. T. He doesn't take crap from ANYONE. He'll go into the corners, he'll sit in front of the net and he'll defend his teammates.

The results have obviously been huge for New York.

To this point, Zuccarello is averaging almost 16 minutes a game in the playoffs. In the regular season he was at 16:25. With a coach that rewards players with ice time based off of their play and his trust, those minutes speak volumes for Zuccarello. He's been one of the Rangers' best power play forwards. He has offensive creativity the Rangers desperately need. And he's actually finding the scoresheet.

It hasn't all been perfect -- Zuccarello still can't seem to find the net -- but he's been so much better since his return. And the goals will come. Last year Zuccarello was finding it hard to find chances. This year he's finding them all the time. That's the difference. The goals will come.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Zuccarello has played his way into a contract extension. But I really do think this year in the KHL -- where he got big minutes and players a major role for a team -- helped shape him into what he is right now.

And what he is right now is a big part of this Rangers' machine.

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