The 2014-15 season was a pivotal one for Mats Zuccarello well before the puck ever dropped in early October. Zuke was coming off of his best NHL season, a team-leading 59 point effort in 2013-14 that in part earned him the coveted Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award, and was on the last year of his contract. The stars were seemingly aligned for Mats Zuccarello to earn a big contract and prove once and for all that he was worth a serious investment from the New York Rangers. However, things didn't quite work out the way everyone, including Zuccarello, thought that they would.
For a cap hit of $4.5 million? Damn good.
Last season Zuccarello went scoreless in 3 consecutive games 6 separate times. The Norwegian winger saw his point total drop 10 points from his production in 2013-14, including a noteworthy drop from 21 points on the man advantage to 6. That is a pretty dramatic fall in power play production, but there is an explanation for it. Last season Zuccarello was 5th among (regular) Rangers' forwards in PP TOI/G with 1:57. The season before last he saw 2:36 PP TOI/G. Why the difference? Martin St. Louis, Derick Brassard, and Rick Nash all took on a more featured role on the Blueshirts' power play along with puck-moving veteran defenseman Dan Boyle at the expense of Zuccarello. If you want to find the key contributing factor to the drop in Mats Zucarello's production you need look no further than his being on the markedly less productive second power play unit in 2014-15.
When Zuccarello was at his best last season he was making magic on the Rangers' top line with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard with whom Zuke has always had great chemistry. Although there was a drop in his primary assist numbers, Zuccarello still made things happen when he was on the ice and still managed to get his teammates prime scoring chances thanks to his creativity and vision. He also found a way to pot 15 even strength goals despite a 14 game scoring slump that lasted from February 22nd to March 22nd and a stretch of 21 of games from December 14th to January 31st where Zuke scored just one goal against the Anaheim Ducks. That is a lot of hockey games without goals, even for a player who isn't a celebrated goal scorer.
How good was this line last season? Unreal.
Zuccarello's streaky production and up and down season led many fans and analysts to speculate on whether or not he was distracted by his expiring contract. Early in March, in the midst of a maelstrom of rumors and speculation, Zuccarello inked a 4 year, $18 million deal to stay with the Rangers (a huge steal). Ironically, his inconsistent production might have played a part in making him more affordable for the Rangers which in turn might have kept him from being moved on deadline day.
"I am glad that it worked out, he is a young player that is only in his first couple of first years in the NHL... Very competitive player and highly skilled and is only going to get better. Very happy we have him locked up for the next four years." -Vigneault on the Zuccarello signing
In the 18 regular season games after Zuccarello signed his contract extension he scored 12 points despite going pointless in 4 consecutive games in the middle of March. So what can we learn from this post-contract signing bump in Zuccarello's production? Honestly, not very much. The bottom line is that he shot a little bit less than he did last season, his shooting percentage was lower, and he should have been on the Rangers' top power play unit where he is capable of putting up 21 points in 77 games. We should never give such things too much weight or value, but Zuccarello did lead all Rangers' in shootout goals with 3 (matching his total from last season) and was tied with Rick Nash with game-deciding shootout goals with 2.
Filthy halfling hands.
Although his numbers weren't quite what they were when we reviewed his play in the 2014 offseason or when Nick did a great piece about why the Rangers must find a way to re-sign Zuke back in early February, he was still an effective top-six forward for the Rangers last season. Zuccarello's 49 points made him 5th on the Rangers in points last season which is pretty solid for a guy who failed to score a single power play goal in the regular season. It goes without saying that he frequently passed the "eye test" with his play last season even if he wasn't always in the box score. When Zuccarello has the puck or is involved in a rush good things happen for the Rangers and that was just as true last season as it was back in 2013-14. Even when he's streaky and inconsistent, he's still damn good.
You want him on the ice.
Here is a look at one of Zuccarello's 34 assists from last season that puts his vision and ability to create scoring chances on display. It says a lot that we look at a 34 assist season as a disappointment but we've all seen enough magic out of Zuccarello to know that he might one day be a guy who hits 50 or maybe even 60.
He makes it look too easy.
Without taking a deeper look it is all too easy to assume that Zuccarello had a true "down" season, but the metrics tell us that he was still a very effective offensive player. Zuccarello finished above linemate Derick Brassard in 5 v 5 Points/60 and behind only Rick Nash, Kevin Hayes, and Derek Stepan which makes sense considering the drop in his power play ice time and how effective he was at evens on the Rangers' top line.
Given how high expectations were for the Norwegian star heading into last season, I couldn't bring myself to give Zuccarello anything higher than a "B" because of his streaky offense and the noteworthy drop in his overall production. How much of that drop was on Zuccarello and how much of it was on the Rangers' coaching staff for giving him 48:16 less total power play ice time is up for debate, but a 10 point drop from his point total in 2013-14 has a way of resonating when we look back on his season. Most of us understandably expected more out of Zuccarello in his contract year because anyone who has watched him play knows that he is a dangerous player with the puck that makes the players around him better. Hopefully we'll see Zuccarello return to the Rangers' lineup in 2015-16 healthy, happy, confident, and on the ice a heck of a lot more when the Rangers have a man advantage.
As always, thank you all for reading. Let's go Rangers.
So, what grade would you give Zuccarello for his play in the 2014-15 regular season? How many swimming pools will you be able to fill with your tears if he doesn't get more time on the power play next season? Did you know that Zuccarello, Tanner Glass, and Dominic Moore are the only Rangers' forwards who played more than 60 games last season without scoring a power play goal?
Ah screw it, I change my mind, he gets a B+. He's beautiful.