Close your eyes. Wait. Open them again to read the rest of this. I did this all wrong. Just... picture this as you read it.... There's a 2-on-1 with 10 seconds left on the clock in a tie game and the Rangers have the puck. Which Rangers player do you want carrying the puck in that moment? Your answer is probably Mats Zuccarello, and if it isn't you're probably now thinking, "Yeah I wouldn't mind Zuke having the puck in that situation." That should tell you a lot about Zuccarello's value to this team that has guys like Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, and Martin St. Louis on it. When it matters, when there is time and space, when there is a real scoring chance... you want Zuke to have the puck.
There was a time, not too long ago, when it looked like Zuccarello might not be an NHL player because of the way he was used by the Rangers and John Tortorella. He was too small. The small ice didn't work with his game. His stick was too long. We heard these complaints and worries despite the fact that he showed real flashes of brilliance, especially in the shootout. After trying to make it work in North America and being frustrated with ice time and playing in the AHL for two seasons, Zuke left to play in the KHL with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. After 44 games and 28 points in the KHL he returned to the Rangers to play 15 games in the 2012-2013 season and since then he's been absolutely amazing.
When you look at Mats Zuccarello's stats at the end of the season and at the end of the 2014 Playoffs, especially when compared to his fellow Rangers, it is hard to believe that at one point the Norwegian winger was a healthy scratch. Zuccarello, like every other Ranger that was counted on to contribute offense to the team, had a slow start to the 2013-14 campaign. Zuccarello started the season without a point in his first seven games and was sat by head coach Alain Vigneault for one game on October 24th.
The next time Zuke played as a Ranger he scored a goal against the Red Wings. In the first 10 games after being a healthy scratch Zuke picked up 10 points, including a 3 assist night on November 2nd against the Hurricanes. After being a healthy scratch Zuke found his game and became the Rangers most consistent point scorer. He finished the season with the team lead in points. Not bad for a guy on the "third line" that was making $1.150 million this season.
The Magic on the Third Line
Any Rangers fan will tell you that the most exciting and effective line that the Rangers had was the third line, and most Rangers fans will tell you that the guy that made/makes that line work is the one who is not tall enough to ride on Splash Mountain. After Benoit Pouliot stopped playing on the perimeter, the Brassard line was magic on the ice. The Brassard line seemed to score goals in bunches and they were often highlight reel plays that made you question when the last time you saw a Rangers goal that pretty was. The line had outstanding skill and puck movement and gave the Rangers absolutely invaluable depth scoring, and Mats Zuccarello was the guy pulling all the strings on that line and making the magic happen.
Zuccarello was among the league's elite in primary assists per 60 minutes which is really saying something considering the fact that he didn't get oodles of ice time either at even strength or on the power play (he was 4th among Rangers forwards in PP TOI/G). Zuke managed to pile up 17 points on the power play, which was good for fourth on the team, despite missing 4 games.
Do you remember freaking out when Zuccarello got injured in Sochi? I know I do. Thankfully Zuccarello missed only three regular season games but you could tell from his production after his return that he wasn't quite at 100% after breaking his hand in Sochi. Thankfully, as the season came to a close and the playoffs arrived Zuke found his game again. He finished tied for third on the team in playoff points with 15 in 25 games, behind only Ryan McDonagh, Martin St. Louis, and Derek Stepan. That number might not dazzle and amaze you, but when you consider how hard scoring was for the Rangers in the playoffs (finished 11th out of 16 teams in G/G) and how disappointing the power play was, 15 points is pretty outstanding. Zuke was given the third most amount of ice time among Rangers forwards in the playoffs. Over the course of the 2013-14 season he had earned the trust of the coaching staff. His teammates, coaches, and Rangers fans everywhere learned that when Zuke had the puck good things happened.
Restricted Free Agency
Zuke, 26 years old, is no longer the Rangers best-kept secret. He was a force in the playoffs this year and he is going to get paid like a second liner should get paid for the first time in his NHL career. The number $4 million has been thrown around a lot as a ballpark figure for how much the Norwegian winger should be making per season but I can easily see it going as high as $5 million. The real question will be about the length and terms of the contract. Is Zuke the kind of guy that the Rangers should lock up for five years or so?
To give you an idea of just how important Zuke is to the team I'm at the point where I can't imagine this team being half as successful as it was this past season with him out of the picture. I want him to be a Ranger for a very, very long time. I want to see him take over the first power play unit and make magic happen on the ice. On a team that had Brassard, Richards, and Stepan on it, Zuke was the best playmaker by far. He is the kind of player that makes the players around him play better. He has more heart, vision, and creativity than almost anyone in the league. Mats Zuccarello is going to be getting paid this summer and he definitely deserves to be.